Nymphing for Steelhead with an Indicator

By Scott Richmond

Making an Steelhead Nymphing Rig

A traditional wet-fly swing is a very productive steelheading tactic under many conditions. But there are situations when you need to do something different:
  1. When the water is cold and steelhead are hugging the bottom and will not move far for a fly.
  2. Small streams
  3. Rivers where the fish prefer to lie alongside boulders and ledges or up against the bank
  4. When fish are resting in narrow troughs or depressions

Under these conditions, a fly that is dead-drifted near the bottom can be the best approach.

A typical rig consists of a floating indicator 6-10 feet from the fly, depending on the depth of the water. The fly may be weighted or not. If the fly is not weighted, you need a split shot or two on the leader; some anglers add the shot close to the fly, while others will tie a blood knot about half way between the fly and the leader and attach the shot to the tag end of the blood knot.

Another approach uses a right-angle indicator system. This rig can be fashinioned as follows: Start with braided macrame cord (available in craft shops); cut off 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches of material, with the length depends on the weight of your fly (use just enough to support the fly without sinking the indicator); separate the braided strands and tie them to a 3-5 foot leader (0X or heavier) with a clinch knot around the middle; just above the indicator, tie a length of 1X or 2X tippet directly to the heavy leader with a clinch knot. The right angle joint between the two leader sections helps the fly sink more quickly and drift more naturally. The thin tippet helps the fly sink faster.



Cast upstream of where you think the steelhead are. After your cast, stack-mend line behind the indicator; this reduces drag and lets the fly sink faster. Treat the indicator like a dry fly, mending line so it has a natural drift. Manage your loose line so you can strike quickly when the indicator goes under; try to keep your flyline upstream from the indicator.

This tactic works well when you're fishing from a drifting boat; you just cast to the side and downstream from the boat, then let both fly and boat drift naturally in the current. Of course, you need someone to handle the oars who isn't fishing.

An indicator rig requires a slower, open-loop casting stroke. And you'll need to lower your expectations about distance casting because the indicator has a lot of wind resistance. Also, this style of fishing is more intense because you spend all day staring at the stupid indicator instead of looking around at the birds and trees. That's the price you pay for catching more steelhead.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).