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Which Strike Indicator Should I Use?

by Philip Monahan

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Question: How do you know what kind of strike indicators to use in a given situation?

Steve B., Telluride, CO

Floating Putty

Floating putty indicators like Orvis’s Strike Putty (top) and Loon’s Biostrike (bottom) are popular with anglers who like the size of their indicators to match conditions. Photos courtesy of Orvis and Loon Outdoors.

Answer: In most angling situations, a strike indicator has three main duties: 1. stay afloat, 2. be visible, and 3. not spook the fish. You also want it to be sensitive to subtle takes, if you’re working slow water or wary fish.

The first time I went out West and saw guys using giant yarn indicators to suspend stonefly nymphs, I was amazed. In most of the places I had fished back east, trout would flee from such a monstrosity floating toward them. But in heavy current, with a heavy fly, you need something of that bulk to stay on the surface. And, of course, Western trout are usually less wary than their Eastern counterparts. Conversely, guys drifting tiny pheasant tails on flatwater sections of spring creeks generally use very small indicators or none at all.

So, when choosing the right indicator, there are many factors to consider:

  1. The kind of water you’re fishing (the heavier the water, the bigger the indicator)
  2. The weight of the flies (the heavier the flies, the larger the indicator)
  3. The wariness of the fish (the warier the fish, the smaller the indicator)
  4. The amount of depth adjusting you’ll do (some kinds of indicators are easier to move up and down the leader than others)
  5. Castability (the larger the indicator, the tougher it is to cast)
Thingamabobber Fly Fishing Indicator

Indicators like the Thingamabobber are impossible to sink and easy to attach and remove. Photo courtesy of Westwater Products.

Of course, there’s a lot of personal preference involved, as well. For most angling situations that don’t require a large indicator, I am a fan of floating putty (such as Loon Biostrike or Orvis Strike Putty) because it allows you to tailor the size of the indicator to your needs. Putty comes in several different fluorescent colors, which makes it easy to see in low light, and can be reused. The downside is that it can leave a sticky residue on your line when you remove it. You could also use twist-on or small pegged indicators in most similar situations, if you like.

When I’m suspending flies, fishing heavy riffles, or using heavy nymphs, I prefer a fluorescent yarn indicator, and I try to use the smallest one I can get away with. I slather it with floatant to ensure that it stays on the surface and floats straight upright. One of the big advantages of the yarn indicator is that, when it is floating upright, it is extremely sensitive. Before the indicator actually stops, it will tip to one side, giving you a split-second advantage and the ability to detect subtle takes.

Again, these are personal preferences. As long as you take into consideration the five factors above when choosing an indicator, the style you choose is up to you.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at You can email your fly fishing questions to us at
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  • Steve Zakur

    I like the strike putty though it is very frustrating when the trout strike the putty instead of my fly. I suppose that’s just part of the joy of fishing for Brook Trout.

  • Everett Hall

    strike indicators were supposedly invented by a guide who was tired of seeing his clients miss fish from a drift boat.since then they have become standard fare for the majority of fly fisherman resulting in exceptionally ugly casting, erronious bite indications and a style of fishing that can be only described as flogging. In drift boat fishing you are working for the guide until your arm becomes inoperable.indicators should only be used in still water applications and if your eyesight is poor.

    • dan

      lol shut up

  • Flying Finn

    Thingamabobbers are good indicators, but attaching one with a loop to the leader will eventually cut the leader. This is what happened to me while I was tugging a fly from a tree and even worse; it lost me a 5 kg salmon that I accidentally hooked on a nymph.

  • Southern Alps

    You might try the New Zealand strike indicator tool. The indicators meet all of Phil’s requirements, and are adjustable and removable. No residue and no break offs due to knots.

  • zachmatthews

    Underinflated water balloons in orange are the simplest, cheapest, and most durable indicators I’ve found. They don’t have hard seams like the Thingamabobbers so they tend to pirouette far less when being cast, and they survive Spey casts, which are incredibly useful when nymphing whether using single-hand or double-hand rigs.

  • bbluhm

    If we use an indicator(bobber) whats the difference between fly fishing and spin fishing ? Personally I prefer to keep my line as taut as possible between my finger and the bottom…there is a thrill to feeling the ‘take’ and a lot of satisfaction to seeing the trout on the end of the line. I can stand to miss a few takes without the embarassment of using a bobber, ah, indicator to tell me if I had a strike or not.

    • James

      lol… such pretentiousness.

  • Henry K

    I use strike putty when fishing flies that are hard to see. For example, a spinner pattern or any small dark fly at dusk. The strike putty allows you to track the approximate position of your fly so you can detect rises to the nearly invisible fly.