Figure 1-1__Right-Angle_Path_of_Line

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

The breeze is very light, with hardly a ripple on the surface; the high cloud cover comes and goes. Right now, somewhere between my rod tip and the fly that’s down there bumping along near the bottom of the hole or pin-balling from rock to smooth round rock, a rainbow trout has taken an interest. It’s not an admirer of fine art (I know that because I’m the one who tied this fly). It sees the soft hackle wave gently and does a quick mental comparison against its inborn list of colors, sizes, shapes and memories. It makes a decision, since in another moment the subject of its attention will sweep silently by.

What does it decide? If it passes on the offering, the path by which the fly is connected back to me makes little difference (unless something about my leader is what convinces it to ignore).

But if it chooses to grab, then either it can do so aggressively to ensure another nearby fish doesn’t beat it to the prize, or it can just delicately inhale the lump of feathers and fur. The choice is up to the individual fish.

Fish will strike depending on their species personality, availability of food, degree of competition for it, apprehension about lurking dangers, and attitude of the day…the last of which we can only guess at until it reveals itself to us. I’ve always loved the aggressive take; it sends the electric charge through my heart and soul that I came hoping to feel. But there’s a subtle joy in capitalizing on the soft or stealthy take, too, and it’s only experienced by those who have meticulously tuned themselves to it.

I don’t use strike indicators. I can’t say for sure why, although I can babble out lots of reasons. I know that the indicator technique has resulted in probably 10x the number of trout taken annually by average-joe anglers like myself…yes I do know that. I know that avoiding indicators may have ensured that more strikes go unseen by me than the strikes I’ve noticed, across the years. I know that indicators are cheap and come in a wide array of types and are easy to attach…and I know that large dry flies serve as indicators (and on some waters can also realistically serve as a fly offering too). I know all that.

I just can’t use them. I would first of all have to heave an unwieldy string of objects out there, all hinging and plopping…and my casting isn’t that good to begin with. I HATE ugly casts…and I make enough of them as it is. And then I’d have to watch a little round floating thingie, which by its very digital nature does one of two things: Disappear, or not disappear. Oh, I guess maybe it can sometimes also slide slightly in a direction while it disappears.

Myself, I want a little more information than that.

They say that if an indicator does anything at all, we should instantly set the hook. It’s good advice if you’re using one, but part of the reason for needing that advice is because there’s a huge 90-degree path discontinuity in the line between the rod tip and the fly. See Figure 1-1. That path anomaly is, not to put too harsh a word on it, slack. An angler has to overcome all of it before any hook set will show up at the fish’s lip. So you see anything at all, and you rip for all you’re worth. Not too much grace in the rip part, and it’s also hard to keep from overdoing the disturbance applied to the fly and water. In calm water in particular, that move can shut down the feeding of wary trout for quite some time. I don’t love that.

Figure 1-1.  Right Angle Path of Line

Another thing about calm water and huge ripping hook-set motions is that calm or slow-moving water will quite often hold snags including downed soggy tree branches or pieces of rotting log. Swifter chutes tend to sweep that stuff out, but slow water leaves it there to get hooks caught on. The more abrupt the hook-set, the deeper the hook point goes into wood.

Yet another nagging thought that would go through my mind if I was using an indicator would be whether it’s set for the right depth. The surface is roughly a straight “level” line, but in most decent water the bottom is not. There are hills and depressions, up, down, up, down. Indexing the fly’s depth by some indicator-established distance X from the surface doesn’t seem like the best way to hug the bottom. So the indicator attach point must be changed, higher, lower, until action is found…and then at the next hole the depth-probing must happen all over again. I admit to very little experience with it all, but it is said to be an aggravation by friends of mine, and these nagging fears are among the reasons why I never try to acquire any of said experience.

There’s the “bounce rig” (I wrote an article about it a few years back) that seeks to index the fly’s depth off the bottom instead of with respect to the surface, by dispensing with floating indicators and instead tying a split shot or heavily weighted hookless fly at the end of the tippet and then attaching the fly being fished some inches above that. See Figure 1-2. But it too has its weaknesses, among them the need to carefully choose the point weight so that it ticks the bottom without becoming an anchor…which means different weight for different current speeds…and the fact that casting is still clumsy and tangle-prone…and bounce rigs are said to be illegal on some waters (I guess that means they do work pretty well)…and the fact that there’s no longer much in the way of visual strike detection.

Figure 1-2.  Bounce Rig

Yet another aggravation, as long as I’m being a complainer: I hate it when something attached high on a long leader prevents me from stripping in enough line to bring a fish to net. That includes split shot and that includes indicators. My rod arm is only so long, and no amount of pumping iron or juicing or calcium supplements is likely to change that.

Figure 1-3.  Why Long Net Handles Were Invented

Using soft hackle wet flies as I so often do, I want to be able to “work” a fly up-current, cross-current, down-current, and back toward me in slow water and eddies. A huge percentage of takes come as a result of actively fishing the fly — almost as though it’s a mini-streamer. I don’t want the fly to be suspended head-up all the time, looking dead, giving fish no urgency to make up their minds. And if it seems like a fish *might* have taken that fly, I want to choose how aggressively I set the hook, so that I don’t needlessly spoil the water. All of that is best if there’s nothing on the leader above the fly — nothing to float or drag.

And finally, watching something float…or stop floating…is not going to teach me as much as I’d like about the “attitudes” of the fish on that day. Was the fly delicately mouthed, or was it seized in a quick flash?  If I knew, I’d know more about how much urgency that fish felt…maybe there’s competition down there…I’d know more about what kind of action I should apply while working my next cast in.

So while I heartily salute the strike indicator’s inventors and designers and practitioners for their genius and their excellent results, while I see that many situations such as subsurface lake fishing benefit greatly from the technique, while I know dry-dropper rigs can work wonders, while I hope to never come close to insulting the many indicator-using friends out there, and while I’ve often gotten skunked doing things “my way,” I’m still a stubborn fool. I persist in my signature pig-headedness, and am not likely to be cured of it.

What is “my way”?  I like to watch the line. For want of a better word for it, in this discussion I’ll call it the “Line of Sight” approach. I’ll describe in Part II the ways I personally execute on this idea.


  1. Hey Mike,
    Nice job! Excellent illustrations – did you do them. All these methods have pro’s and cons. I also have found that the split shot on the bottom tangle and require changing the amount of weight. I am sure there are others out there who disagree. It comes down to developing a “style” that you are comfortable with and works for you.

  2. Hi Joe, thanks for reading. Yes the illustrations are my own; a picture of mine paints a hundred words.

    The bounce rig has its issues, I agree. While it works well (as does the indicator approach), I’ve personally found it to be a little tangle-prone, especially with a tag-line like I drew it. I like a fly to wiggle a bit, hence that tag-line; dropping a split shot off the hook bend would reduce the tangling but then it nails down the fly’s wiggle too. And again there’s the need to change weight as different currents are fished.

    As you say, it does come down to developing & becoming comfortable with a style. I know you’re personally a big fan of dry-dropper rigs and you do quite well with them — I’ve seen the photos of your catches. No small number of anglers use the dry-dropper approach. Likewise a huge number of anglers use dedicated indicators attached to their leaders. It gets to where people think that’s “the way”…and yet, while it has been many years since I’ve heard any evangelizing of the age-old line-watching method, be it an article or video or conversation in a fly shop or even out on the water, that age-old method is as effective as it ever was, and has benefits all its own. I’ve found that it just takes time with it, and the more I persist, the more I learn about the fish I’m stalking. It develops me, rather than the other way around.

    And so this 3-part article is my attempt to bring back into the daylight some very old techniques that have fallen out of style but never out of value…to the incomplete degree I understand them so far. The approach isn’t easy or foolproof…but it avoids some inherent issues other approaches have. I believe that more modern trends were developed to make “success” easier, but I don’t think better, just easier.

    Anyway that’s my goal here — to pay some righteous tribute to an older way, one that’s all but ignored anymore in printed lore. I find that being a practitioner…make that a student…of the method has made me a far better angler. So I’m sharing what I’ve learned up to now.

    – Mike

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