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  • Writer's pictureCooper Zikan

Traditional Indicator Nymphing: How to Tie and Recommendations




When most people think of using indicators, the rig usually consists of having the fly or flies tied to the end of the tippet, with a split-shot set 24 inches or so above the top fly. This setup is considered a traditional indicator rig. While numerous other methods are now used in nymph fishing, traditional nymph rigs still have a place in the fly fishing world. I will explain how to tie the traditional indicator rig and its practical applications, along with some tips and tricks.


How to tie:



I recommend starting with a 7.5-9-foot leader system. From there, I would use either a Palomar or clinch knot. These two knots work well, but any strong knot would do the trick.

While some people only fish one nymph, I typically recommend fishing with two flies. For one, you cover two different parts of the river, and two you can easily find what the fish

want to eat.

To tie on your second fly, you will want to tie a piece of tippet about 24 inches to the bend of the hook of the first fly. Now you are good to tie on your second fly. You should have two flies about 18-24 inches apart from one another. I would recommend running a larger, heavier fly as your top fly and a smaller imitation on the bottom.

Now all you need to do is add weight and an indicator. I like to use small split shots for this technique. The smaller weights allow me to dial in my presentation for the spot I'm fishing. I add all of my weights between 24-36 inches above the top fly. I also really like to run lighter weight overall so my presentation doesn't snag on the bottom. Then I add the indicator about a foot below the fly-line/butt section connection knot.


When to use this rig:

Slow or Shallow Water

I like to use this rig when I'm fishing in slower water, where my flies have plenty of time to sink into the strike zone. Other methods don’t work as well in this water type. Drop-shot nymphing requires a steady amount of current so that method isn’t the most effective. The key is to be patient and let those flies sink.

I also will use this rig when the fish are close to me in shallow water.  When I say shallow, I'm talking 3 feet or shallower. With a small white indicator and lightweight, you can make a stealthy presentation on spooky trout. A long leader also helps with this presentation.




  Stillwater Fishing

I also will use this rig when I am fishing in Stillwater lakes and ponds for trout. In lakes, I will typically suspend my presentation about the middle of the water column. Trout in lakes will swim around and cover different parts of the water column. Sometimes it's better to suspend just under the bottom or close to it, but that all depends on the situation. Lake fishing is the only time I will occasionally fish just one fly. I still recommend using two flies to maximize your chances. In a similar fashion to fishing rivers, my top fly is always larger or heavier than my bottom fly. Leechs, chironomids, and worms, are all good top flies for lakes while mayflies, scuds, and smaller bugs are great bottom bugs.


Any Time of Situation

You can realistically use this rig in any water type. For most of my life, I only used this method for fishing nymphs for trout. As long as I dialed in my weight, I would catch plenty of fish. This is the simplest nymph rig to tie and fish, which is perfect for anyone from beginner to advanced. A rig that's quicker to tie in the field helps you get more casts in and turn can help you catch more fish.

Tips and Tricks:

1.       I highly recommend using a white-colored indicator whenever possible.  A white indicator imitates the foam bubbles that will often float down the river or float on a lake. When fishing over highly pressured fish or fish in shallow water, this will help you be stealthier and catch more fish.

2.       Use lightweight initially when starting to fish a run. I recommend using as little weight as you can get away with. This is because you want to keep your drift as natural as possible. If you have too much weight, your flies will sink at a rate that looks unnatural to the trout.

3.       Don’t be afraid of long leaders. Some of my leaders will be 10-12 feet long. This sounds long, but it isn’t too long unless you’re not able to cast it properly. As long as you can cast it, a longer leader will help catch fish in many circumstances.

4.       I wouldn’t recommend using this rig when fishing in a river that has a lot of moss on the river bottom. Your flies when they get close to the bottom will get moss on them and will ruin your drift in a heartbeat.



This technique will work in nearly every river, stream, and lake in the world. Its versatility and ease of tying make it a popular technique for good reason. I would recommend learning this rig first if you are new to fishing subsurface flies. I will use this technique for as long as I am able to go fishing.



Tight Lines and Heavy Nets,

Cooper Zikan




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1 Comment

Destry Toney
Destry Toney
Dec 08, 2023

Excellent presentation and blog, Cooper! Looking forward to reading more in the coming months. It's been a pleasure watching your development into a premier fly fisherman and a fine young man over the years. Best wishes in this and all your future endeavors!

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