Spring Creeks and Strike Indicators

Written by: Mike Heck

Mike Heck

The author with a nice rainbow from a Pennsylvania spring creek.

photo courtesy Mike Heck

I guide a lot of fly-fishing trips every year.  But until a couple weeks ago, I’d never had clients ask the same question four times in three trips. Our Eastern Pennsylvania spring creeks can be some of the most difficult to fly fish, and they have a reputation for extra-wary trout. So, as we were gearing up, several different anglers asked trepidatiously, “Can I use strike indicators”? They seemed surprised when I replied, “Yes.”

Let me explain in a little more detail. Most of our spring creeks consist of long glassy flats, some nice riffles, and even some deep pockets. (The last are found mostly on the larger spring creeks.) So if I’m working heavier riffles, an indicator can help me detect a gentle strike. But an indicator can also allow an angler to notice the sometimes unseen micro-eddies that might be affecting your drift. These eddies can move the line and leader to reposition the fly just a little, and the end result is often a refusal. If I notice such an eddy, I’ll make a few more casts into that area until I’m sure I’ve achieved the drift I want.  

Now, there are times when indicators are a bad idea, as well. When I’m approaching glassy flats, I cast a bare leader because an indicator will usually spook the trout as it falls to the water. In these cases, you can use a dry-and-dropper setup instead, and the dry will act as an indicator. Another situation where the dry-and-dropper setup works is in shallow riffles where you can clearly see the stream bottom. I will also sometimes sneak-up on a trout and use a tight-line nymphing technique with an indicator—making sure the indicator doesn’t splash down on the water.

One point on the size of your indicator: Keep it small. I like indicators no larger than ½ an inch long or round and as small as you wish. You just need something on the surface to offer a visual aid, and the smaller the better.

Mike Heck is an Orvis-endorsed guide and the author of Spring Creek Strategies: Hatches, Patterns, and Techniques (Headwater Books).

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