To Bobber, or not?   15 comments

I’ve been contemplating my use of a float while nymphing. For those of you who don’t like the cute, snobby vocabulary of fly fishing, a float (or indicator) is nothing more than a friggin’ bobber. When it goes down, you should tug on the line and if you’re lucky, you’ll hook a fish.


1/4" fly fishing float

1/4" fly fishing float


So, I’ve been using a float for a good long while, and while fishing the Brule last November, I watched a large float drift over Steelhead runs many, many times over the course of three days. Steelhead are not spooky, not like spring creek trout. Steelhead come from a big lake (or ocean) and have not learned to be particularly wary of snapping twigs, footsteps, or bobbers. At least that’s what I was told.

On the other hand, spring creek trout (trout that live in the spring-fed creeks of the Driftless Region), are very spooky. An angler needs to use extreme stealth to avoid scaring these fish. A float could be, arguably, enough to spook a Driftless trout. I’ve even heard experienced anglers say fly line landing on the surface of the water could scare away a trout.


Black Earth Creek, Dane County, Wisconsin

Black Earth Creek, Dane County, Wisconsin


But without a float you are left to guess whether or not a fish has taken an interest in your nymph, ticking along the rocks on the streambed. Sometimes conditions are such that you can use your floating fly line as an indicator of a bite. Some say the float makes casting more difficult, acting as a hinge on the line. I’ll agree that a float does make tucking that fly right up against the cut bank a bit more difficult. And it sometimes makes a splash. But, it also gives my eye something to concentrate on as I strip line in, watching that pink ball drift back toward me.

Today my little pink float helped me land this nice male Brown trout…


A 17" Male Brown trout, Black Earth Creek, Dane County, Wisconsin

A 17" Male Brown trout, Black Earth Creek, Dane County, Wisconsin


I was on the tailout of a nice bend in the river, where the water was slightly riffled and about three feet deep. I had cast my bead-headed “Night Light Fly” up into this run about a dozen times, then saw the float dip just slightly. Hook set, fish on! He and I danced for probably five minutes, and he even leapt out of the water a few times. My 6X tippet required finesse, and my first attempt to scoop him into my hand ended with him charging back upstream to the hole he came out of. After a bit more coercing I cradled him and admired the nicest Brown I’ve ever caught.


A 17" Brown Trout, Black Earth Creek, Dane County, Wisconsin

A 17" Brown Trout, Black Earth Creek, Dane County, Wisconsin


I guess for now, I’m going to continue using a float. There are likely situations where the water is too glassy, the target too small, the fly line visibility adequate, where a float is unneccesary, but the advantage a float gives me in detecting a fish sure is appealing.


My 4-wt in Black Earth Creek, Dane County, Wisconsin

My 4-wt in Black Earth Creek, Dane County, Wisconsin



15 responses to “To Bobber, or not?

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  1. That’s a damn fine fish! Nice work.
    I don’t use a float for the reasons you mention, I just watch my fly line. I think trout are spookier than most people give them credit.
    One thing I do that (at least I feel) helps me catch more fish is set the hook on everything.
    Literally anytime my line stops, shifts or does anything I deem “out of the ordinary” I set the hook.
    I’m not waiting for my line to “jump”, in fact, most of the larger fish I’ve landed are real slow takes similar to getting hung up in underwater weeds.
    Two other things I’m always conscious of: Trout are always looking up, so anything that looks out of the ordinary could spook them.
    That, and Trout can drop a nymph as fast as they pick them up…so the window to drive the hook home can be short.
    My 2¢

    • Pat, thanks for your thoughts. I haven’t ruled out pocketing the float. I’ve just had much of my success with it tied on. I’ll have to give your method a try. And yes, those damned trout are spooky. It took me a lot of empty-handed outings to realise just how careful you need to be approaching a stream.


  2. I totally agree with Pat. The struggle is that when you overreact you may be spooking fish and this will bring diminishing returns on the absence of a float.

    I do think that Tom has chosen a nice approach to his fishing season. Staying close to home and growing really familiar with a specific body of water. Knowing where your best opportunities are is probably a huge part of successful fishing on the fly. I’ve fished loads of “fishy” looking spots but come up with bupkus.

    I’ll probably continue to use a float of some kind but I’m planning on experimenting with the smallest and most discrete one for the conditions and eliminating it wherever possible.

    No comments are necessary on a fish like that! What a beauty!

    I really like the macro images you’ve chosen to post as well.


  3. Depending on your life’s philosophy, it is either a float (bobber) or an indicator (visual aid). I am preferable to the Turn-On Strike Indicators, the smallest possible size with two distinct colors so you can tell which way the leader/tipped is pointing. These will also go under the surface if the last foot or so of your fly line gets waterlogged. I also keep my indicators only about 16 inches from the end of my fly line as well. Will sometimes get hits on the indicator if the fish are really in a mood.

    You could also roll on a little piece of Umpqua strike detector tape. It is a little bit of foam, a little bit of tacky, roll it on and you’re set. A lot less float, a lot less splash but still pretty visible in clear water.

    I agree with Pat though, the bigger the fish on a nymph, the more subtle the take.

  4. I gave it a long try without indicators and it wasn’t to productive, so I use them now. In my bag, I have a little plastic compartment box with all sizes and styles of indicators. I use the peel off kind for super clear or small water. I even cut these down to the smallest amount as needed. They work great. For larger water and faster water I have several styles of bigger indicators that are easily changeable for depth and easy to see. I even make my own out of foam that I call squidys. Some people even use a bright dry fly as an indicator.
    We all love to use dry flies, but the truth is that trout feed under the water most of the time. There will always be times when you can get away without an indicator, but there are lots of time that It makes your day way more productive. Just my 2 cents. Hope it helps 🙂

  5. Try some flavor of Euro-nymphing with an indicator section of line. It’s not appropriate for all fish nor all waters, and I’m no expert at it yet, but under the right conditions, it’s an incredibly fruitful method. I use those Thingamabobs when shortline nymphing methods won’t work (e.g., very low flows, shallow water, clear water), but I use a white or off-white indicator. It’s harder to see than a day-glo indicator, but I like the idea of the fish thinking it’s something that belongs in the water. If you’ve seen your indicator spook a few fish, you can bet you’ve spooked dozens more than you didn’t see.

    • What is an indicator line section? Is the line a different color in one section?

      • Yup, it’s often a neon-shaded section of mono — bright enough for you to see but not strange enough to tip your hand. Hard to explain in writing, but in Euro-nymphing you “cast” into deeper water (knee deep-ish?) for fish that are just 10-20 feet from where you’re standing. You’ve got maybe a foot or two of flyline out past the tiptop guide. Rather than mending a drifting line, floating indicator, and trailing flies from 20 or 40 feet away, you’re basically sweeping your weighted flies deep into trout lies and watching your indicator section (also called a “sighter section”) for any check or pause. One terrific thing about Euro-nymphing is that, because there is very little slack between you and the fly, you will feel the take at the same time you see it (provided you do it right). Another positive aspect is that there is no need to adjust tackle in order to vary fly depth. If you want to fish deeper, go ahead and fish deeper. One big drawback is that it takes some getting used to, and you might find your productivity takes a hit at first. It’s like anything — you have to work at it. Oh and by the way — 6X tippet is way too light for nymphing duty. I know the allure of finessing in a fish on the lightest possible tackle, but 4X or even 3X fluoro is probably a better choice for the job. Fluoro is functionally invisible in water, will tangle less, and you will bring the fish to net faster, meaning a happier fish released.

      • Russ,

        Thanks for the info. I’ll definitely look into Euro-nymphing some more. And thanks for the tip on tippet size!


  6. ever try a combo set-up, with a [usually relatively large] dry and then a nypmh tied below? best or both worlds…the dry acts as a float/strike indicator and it gives one more opportunity to hook up if a fish strikes on it…we were taught this set-up in new-mexico and i’ve use it successfully in michigan

    • Schmitty,

      I have used that sort of combo. I had great success with it last fall (, using a Hopper with a Copper John dropper. The only downsides are that often the dry fly sinks because of the weight of the nymph, and that the nymph can’t be tied on a long length of tippet. I like my nymph about eight feet below my indicator.

      But, yep, it certainly works in the right situations!


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