Fancy Bobbers and Free Hook Sets: How to Choose the Right Indicator

Fly Fishing expert Andy Sparhawk breaks down the most popular types of indicators and explains why you might choose each one—from a thingamabobber to yarn.

A man in a blue shirt and blue baseball cap casts a bright green line.

Photo by Zach Reiner

Published on

Catching trout is hard.

There’s just a lot to be paying attention to.

You have to locate fish and make decent casts with a properly rigged line—complete with an imitation of something a trout would actually choose to eat!

On top of that, you have to mind your line constantly, willing your flies to drift with a moving river in a way that isn’t obvious that they are tethered to the line.

Not to mention, you have to wake up at an ungodly hour to battle the crowds and look the part with all of the correct fly fishing insignia and bumper stickers to prove you belong.

Okay, that’s not true. But the rest is!

The point is that fly fishing demands the attempted control of countless variables just to have the chance to play a trout on the end of your line. Luckily, fishing under an indicator has become the standard nymph rig for trout fishing. Not only does it help anglers identify strikes, it ultimately enables you to become a better fly fisherman/woman overall. But with all of the shapes and materials offered for strike indicators today, which version is suitable for the situation you’re fishing?

Have no fear. I’ve broken down the most popular types of indicators and describe how a thingamabobber might be a better choice than a yarn indicator when on the water.

Fancy Bobbers

They come in all sorts of shapes and materials, but all strike indicators aim to do the same thing: identify strikes. They are not too different from the brightly-colored floats in conventional fishing. It’s difficult to see the fish underwater in a river—let alone see underwater at all. When fishing a nymph rig, you attach a strike indicator one and a half to two times the length above the nymphs. As the rig drifts down the stream, the indicator should float along the surface. The highly visible indicator will bob along the surface and identify that your rig is at a proper depth by slightly twitching as split shot weights “tick” the bottom. If the fancy bobber drops below the surface, set the hook.

Hook Sets are Free

It would be great if every time a trout took your fly, the indicator plunged. But remember, fly fishing is hard. Trout can be very subtle, especially in the winter when the fish are trying not to expend energy. This makes identifying a take with your indicator more challenging. Instead, set the hook when you visually detect a minute quiver or slight pause. Remember, hook sets are free. It is better to set it and not hook up than to miss a take.

Mind Your Mend

A strike indicator also can aid in helping new fly fishers learn to mend their line. It can be a challenge to understand when and how to control the fly line to achieve a proper drift. An indicator can act as a visual cue to show beginners where to mend your line and encourage them to practice not disturbing the indicator when mended.

Some guides rely so heavily on using an indicator to teach fishing that a few utilize two thingamabobber style indicators.

Indicators Offer Many Advantages:

  • Indicate a strike
  • Indicate ticking the bottom
  • Depth control
  • Line control
  • Help teach/practice mending

Strike Indicator Options

Plastic

The plastic bubble-style thingamabobber, or airlock strike indicators, are highly visible, and come in a variety of bright colors and are highly buoyant. The thingamabobber is added to the butt section of the leader by inserting a loop into the grommet and wrapping the loop over the bubble. Despite its popularity, the thingamabobber does have drawbacks.

Product image of brightly-colored thingamabobbers.

Attaching it to a leader can cause kinks or damage to the line, make casting difficult, and can create their fair share of drag. They are also not as sensitive as other strike indicators in detecting takes. Despite it being easy to add them to line, they are not as adjustable as some would hope.

For these reasons, many anglers who like the thingamabobber-style often prefer the airlock indicators because of their screw-cap nut and slot. The system allows the line to run through the center and it doesn’t kink. Another option for thingamabobbers is to use indicator retainers. These rubber band-like retainers act as small stoppers on the line. They can be positioned to hold a thingamabobber in place without the risk of kinking the leader.

I prefer the thingamabobber despite its cons. The indicator comes in a variety of sizes and colors, and a medium-sized thingamabobber in white or clear on most occasions, but it can be particularly helpful in crystal-clear water.

Foam

A product image of packets of orange and green foam indicators.

Foam strike indicators come in many types, from football shapes to tiny dots reminiscent of those easter candies stuck on paper. Remember those? Since they’re foam, they also float well. Drawbacks can be durability, though the way many are made won’t damage line.

A variation of the foam football worth noting is the tapered slip indicator for stillwater fishing. These indicators also come in bright colors. The advantage is the spile or dowel inserted into the foam indicator jams the line at a specific spot. When fishing a static rig on stillwater, the depth of the water often exceeds the length of your leader. A 10 to 15ft leader makes it very difficult to net a fish from a boat. The slip indicator will separate when the dowel runs into the tip of your line, allowing you to reel the fish closer to the net.

Cork

Like plastic and foam, cork indicators float great. Many anglers prefer them for their sensitivity. Compared to the brightly colored plastic balloons, cork indicators tend to be subdued. The muted colors can be a good choice when stealth is needed, but those of us with bad or failing eyes may find the cork indicators challenging to spot.

Yarn

A product image of Orvis New Zealand yarn strike indicators.

Wool or poly yarn indicators offer a new level of sensitivity than cork. Yarn strike indicators are highly visible, though the wisp of material seems less intrusive to spooky fish. Yarn is an excellent option in the winter months when trout conserve energy, and their takes are even more subtle.

Slinky and Two-Toned Line Indicators

Sometimes the best indicator is no indicator at all. But just because there isn’t an indicator in the line doesn’t mean you need to fish blind. An example of what I mean is Rio’s two-toned indicator tippet. The product is colored leader material which alternates between bright colors. An improved approach, says Rio, is adding a floatant to the line allowing the two-toned tippet to float on the surface. By doing so, the tippet now is a highly sensitive floating indicator. You can go a step further by making a French-style slinky indicator by wrapping the material around a large nail and boiling it. Once created, the slinky floats on top of the surface and is incredibly sensitive to strikes. Watch Rio’s video addressing both methods here.

Fly

Suppose the idea of indicator fishing without an indicator is up your alley. In that case, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention using a fly as your indicator. Yes, a dry fly, one of the most exciting types of fly fishing, can work as an indicator. Not only does a dry fly offer most of the benefits of an indicator (visibility, buoyancy, sensitivity, etc.), it has the very epic benefit of catching fish.

No matter which fancy bobber you prefer, they all can help you identify the most important part of fly fishing, the strike. Just remember that hook sets are free.

After all, fly fishing is hard. Don’t make it harder. If you have any questions on finding the right gear for your next fly fishing adventure, reach out to me or one of my fellow Fly Fishing experts here on Curated for free advice and recommendations.

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Written By
I'm a Colorado kid and lifelong angler. From bluegills in area ponds to high alpine lakes of the Rocky Mountains, I've fished it all. The only thing I love more than fly fishing is exposing others to fly fishing. Let me help you find the right gear for a memorable experience on the water.

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