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Steelhead Indicator Fishing

"Bobber Fishing for Steelhead"

Indicator Fishing

I remember the first time that I put a bobber (indicator) on a client’s fly rod.  He, the gentleman that I was guiding that day, yelled out “What are we fishing for bluegill?”  I smiled, and we both laughed, as I continued to set up the leader for the woody logjam that I wanted to fish on the Pere Marquette.  The gentleman knew very well that we were not fishing for bluegill, but I don’t think he had ever seen an indictor (bobber) used for steelhead.  But, I knew on this February day with water temps somewhere in the 32-34 range that our best chance for success would be to fish small nymphs and egg patterns as close to structure as possible, and suspending them over the many underwater wood structures along the Pere Marquette would lead to success. 

The past five years or so has been an exciting time in Michigan steelhead fishing and it seems as if there has been a big push towards more traditional fly-fishing techniques.  Floating lines and sink tips are slowly replacing running lines and pencil lead to catch our migratory silver friends.  More anglers want to learn how to catch steelhead using techniques, other than chuck ‘and’ duck.  Indicator fishing or bobber fishing is one of those traditional methods, that has quickly changed the “where and how” we fish and ultimately allows the angler access to otherwise un-fishable water.  No matter how you look at it, an indicator is a bobber and just like when we were kids fishing for those bluegills on the farm pond, when the bobber goes down set the hook!

Indicator Water

Whether you’re hunting steelhead in the fall, winter, or early spring, you’re looking for dark water most of the time.  You know that special looking water that just screams out “steelhead water”.   You can almost smell it, when you see it.  Even though you probably can’t see them, but you just know that they are there.   For all practical purposes, you look for steelhead exactly where you would look for resident stream trout.  After steelhead have entered a river they behave very much like a resident stream trout would.  Steelhead will immediately mingle with resident trout and feed on the same food as trout do.  For example, fall steelhead will feed just as resident trout do on the salmon and brown trout eggs. Like resident trout, steelhead will relate to cover by positioning themselves behind logs, boulders, and in feeding lanes.  These logs, boulders and feeding lanes is where we want to float our indicator over, around, and through.

Over the past couple years I have played around with Indicator fishing for steelhead and I have come to realize that the leader set-up is probably the most important aspect of indictor fishing.  You need to set up your leader to match the food source you are fishing.  To keep this simple we will discuss the steelhead’s favorite food “eggs”, and any small movement nymph like caddis larvae, small mayflies, and stoneflies.  When we indicator fish with flies that imitate these food source types, we want very little movement as we fish them far below the surface. 
Indicator Fishing for steelhead


When indictor fishing for steelhead the number one goal is to try and maintain a drag free drift!  I have found that if you put weight in only one location on your leader that two things will occur that will make achieving a drag free drift more difficult.  1) If you have weight in only one location on the leader, every time you move the indicator you will move your fly.  Now you need to take into consideration that we are trying to fish flies that have very little movement naturally to them when they are under the surface.  If you put weight throughout the leader in say 3-4 different spots then every time you mend or feed line for a longer drift your indictor might move a little, but each piece of weight you have placed on the leader will absorb that movement.  Thus patterning your weight will allow your flies to maintain a drag free drift and move at the same speed as the current. 2) The second negative aspect of putting weight in only one spot on the leader is turnover, if you add 3-4 pieces of smaller shot versus one big piece of weight to the leader, it is much easier to roll cast the 3-4 pieces of small shot.  Especially if the small shot is spread throughout the leader, I usually try and place the shot in a 24” area of the bottom part of the leader.

The Not to Do’s
When indictor fishing there are a couple very important “DON’T DO THAT”.  Probably the biggest don’t do that, is don’t cast too far.  It is so hard to maintain line control when nymph fishing with an indicator if you cast too far.  Some of the best times to indictor fish is when the water is low and clear and when, more than one steelhead may be in hole or pool.  Don’t cast to the far bank and spook the entire pool, first work your way through the pool by working close and then far.  If you spook the fish in the pool with your first cast then they will likely shut down and will not have any interest in your fly choice. 

The next big “No No” is don’t set the hook unless the indictor goes down.  I see too many times at the end of someone’s drift where they will just for some unknown reason set the hook.  Let the indicator tell you when you have a bite.  That spashing sound of the indictor ripping through the water is like a fire alarm for those wary steelhead.  Along those same lines, if your not sure how deep the run is that your fishing, when you start fishing that particular run start with your indicator set at a depth that is shallower than the depth of the run.  After a couple casts if the indictor has not gone down then lengthen the leader and try a little deeper.  But be ready on those first couple casts as steelhead are very curious creatures and if it looks like food they will rise up and grab it.  I can’t tell you how many times I have pulled into a run with clients and on the first cast the indicator goes down.  We may or we may not make contact with that aggressive steelhead, but if I know that there is no way that was bottom.  I will have us make another cast in the exact same spot, and more than likely the indicator will go down again resulting in a steelhead.

indicator fishing
One more “Not to Do”!  Don’t be afraid of losing a couple of flies, when steelhead fishing especially during the winter, “If your not fishing in the wood then you’re not going to catch many fish”. Over time while fishing in the log jams, you will learn the depth of each run and your fly loss will become less.  But don’t just fish the same clean spots, everybody fishes the clean areas, learn that spot around the corner where you never see anybody fish.  If it’s dark and woody chances are a steelhead is using that as a home.

As we started to fish our indicator rig that day on the Pere Marquette I wish I could tell you that on our first cast the indicator went down, and their was a steelhead tied to our line.  But, as is the case on most days when you hunt steelhead, you’re going to have to work the water and understand their behavior.  We did manage to hook a couple steelhead that day, and now the gentleman that thought we were fishing for bluegills is an exclusive fat line bobber fisherman for steelhead.  Bobber fishing for steelhead, will expand the water you can fish, and help you to better understand how steelhead like trout use structure!

Tight Lines,

Jon Ray

Indicator Fishing for steelhead

"Jon Ray with a fall Manistee River Steelhead, Jon caught this steelhead indicator fishing with a Drennan float, click here to view these floats"