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Try something new for steelhead: indicator fishing

March 25, 2011 by Eirik Vitso

Mike Schultz with a Michigan steelhead.Ice on the guides, cold feet, winter hats, rain gear and weather that would keep most people at home. These are all the reasons most of us love -- or hate -- steelhead fishing. With the warmer weather coming our way and the days growing longer, the steelhead run is fast approaching its peak. The fish are more active, the water is warming up and love is in the air.

Many anglers don't fish the Michigan rivers until the steelhead are on the redds. There's a big misconception that if you can't see them, they're not there. Not true. Some of the most productive fishing and hardest-fighting fish are in the holes, pocket water and runs behind the redds.

When steelhead enter the river systems, they instinctively act like the resident trout do. They feed on salmon and brown trout eggs and nymphs, and you can occasionally catch them on the surface. They also position themselves near or behind structure, such as logs, rocks and in the feeding lanes. There really isn't a better way to present these egg and nymph offerings than with an indicator rig.

The rod
There are many options for fly rods out there but there are two that serve indicator fishing for steelhead the best. A 10-foot 7-weight single hand rod is the perfect nymphing or indicator rod. The extra foot of rod gives you much more line control and makes mending much easier. A tip-flex rod in this category is ideal for roll-casting. For a more advanced approach to this method, an 11-foot 8-weight switch rod is always a good option. These rods can be cast as a single-handed or two-handed rod. They also boast the same benefits for mending and roll-casting but also allow for a better hook set on the longer drifts and allow longer roll casts with less effort.

The line
There are hordes of line options out there but only a few work best for this application. Because the indicator rig is much heavier than other rigs (long leader, indicator, split shots and two flies) it is important to up-line your rod. A 10-foot 7-weight rod should be fished with an 8 or even 9 weight line. Ideally you want a line that has a heavy rear-taper for roll casting and can carry the rig throughout the cast, much like the RIO Atlantic Salmon/Steelhead line. The 11-foot 8-weight switch rods use a similar approach and are best fished with a 10-weight line.

The leader
Technology has been great for the fly fishing industry. You can now buy pre-tapered leaders in any size. But for the indicator rig, I still like to tie my own. It's simple, effective and will save you a lot of headaches on the river. The butt-section is 18-24 inches of 35-pound monofilament with a perfection loop on each end. One perfection loop connects to the fly line, while the other connects to the mid-section. The mid section is about 5-6 feet of 15-20 pound mono with a perfection loop connecting to the butt-section. Next you attach a 12-18 inch piece of 12-15 pound fluorocarbon to the mid-section with a blood knot.

Up to this point we have built a majority of the leader and tapered it down nicely. Now attach a two-way swivel and leave a long tag piece at the first swivel connection. This is where you will attach your split shots. Tie a knot at the end of the tag so your split shots don't slide off while casting. From this point on, you will attach your tippet and flies. Usually a 6- or 8-pound fluorocarbon tippet is used on the line-shy and spooky fish. Depending on the water conditions, you could also find yourself in the 10-12 pound range in murky or muddy water. The first fly is normally run about 15-24 inches from the swivel. The second fly is tied to the hook bend of the first fly and run at least 24 inches below it. If you do break off your flies, they will break at the swivel, relieving you of tying a completely new leader.

The indicator
The type of indicator to use all depends on the depth of the water and flow. But one thing is certain, the indicator is always placed on the mid-section of the leader. In the fall and spring, it is better to run either yarn or a commercial indicator like a Thill, a Thingamabobber or  a Float Master indicator. These are used for fishing pocket water, runs and smaller holes since these are the normal areas where steelhead are found that time of year.

In the winter, when the water gets cold and the fish get sluggish, they will sit in the deep, slow holes. For this situation, use a Blackbird or Sheffield float. These are used because you need to get your flies deep and get them there quickly. The flows are normally down this time of year, making the standard yarn indicator less effective at such depths and flows.

The weight factor
The biggest issue most anglers have is using the appropriate amount of weight. For the spring and fall rigs, you can get away with smaller split shots run down the line, while keeping your heaviest split shot at the bottom.

The winter rig is the most confusing. It's best to run a #7 split shot as your anchor weight on the tag piece of mono. This will get your flies down quickly. It's also important to run a #3 split shot 6-12 inches below the indicator. This split shot below is simply there to get the indicator to stand up straight.

How to fish the indicator rig
The biggest mistake you can make when indicator fishing is cast all the way across the hole or run on your first cast. Don't do that. Start close and work your way out. You don't want to blow the entire hole by casting all the way across it.

When fishing an indicator rig, you're able to cover a lot of different water. Not only can you cover many situations, you can also get your flies close to structure, like log jams and rocks that you would otherwise be unable to do. This is especially important in the winter months when the steelhead hold close to these areas.

The most important factor of indicator fishing is the drag-free drift. Line control and mending will allow this. I haven't met a steelhead that has gone after the "70 mile an hour" egg. Ideally you want those eggs or nymphs to flow with the river as naturally as possible.

This form of fly fishing for steelhead has grown dramatically in the last couple of years as more and more anglers stray away from the old ways of using running line and pencil lead. More anglers want to learn other techniques than the old standard ‘chuck and duck.' By switching to the indicator rig, anglers are able fish more water and even waters that were once unfishable with their old methods. And don't forget, when the indicator drops, set the hook!

Eirik Vitso guides for Colton Bay Outfitters, and Schultz Outfitters in southeast Michigan, and ties flies for Steelhead Alley Outfitters. He can be reached at (734) 222-9776.


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