Radical Steelhead Indicator Rig
by Ken Collins - April 26, 2000

Steelheading is complicated enough when you have to consider timing of rivers and where and when these migratory fish will be there in areas we can angle for them.  As you know these fish will usually only enter the rivers and streams we fish when the right conditions present themselves. This condition is most of the time a high fluctuation in water levels due to snow melt or heavy fall or springs rains.

So over the years as I first started fly fishing for these migratory beauties my success was limited. I came into this steelheading bliss like most anglers from many years of successful centre pinning, bottom bouncing and lure tossing. I knew how to catch fish and find them – that was not my problem.

The problem was the equipment we back then fly fishers were forced to use. Even the leaders available did not perform right. The thick tapered sections of these leaders had very poor sink rates. To nymph properly - with the fly on the bottom where it has to be -- took way too much weight that made fly casting dangerous.

So luckily one day I ran out of tapered leaders and only had swivels and tippets. The swivels were essential to my problem fixing situation because blood knots and triple surgeons knots would not work on the size of tippets I had. (Known fact these knots require similarly sized tippets to tie properly).  I was trying to attach butt parts of my last leader to my next size of tippet. Imagine this 40lb to 12lb, it is a very big problem for any knot tier. A swivel solved it immediately.

With a bit more experimentation that day I soon discovered I was using far less shot to fish the same water. I could fish shorter lead lengths which allow me to detect more strikes. I landed more fish because the knots tied to these swivels were much better performing than the typical leader to tippets knots. I have never gone back and have made countless successful guiding steelhead days for clients since. 

Radical Steelhead Indicator Rig Steps

Improved Surgeons Loop with Butt Tippet
This sliding section is 3ft to 4 ft in length. Make an Improved Surgeons Loop at one end and make this loop big enough that you could slip your indicator through. This allows easy disconnect and storage of this indicator rig if you have to disassemble rod at end of fishing day. (see knot Improved Surgeons Loop)

Sliding Indicator Rigging
Using the non looped end of the butt tippet place it through hot orange end of the indicator and continue to push it all the way through till it comes out the other end (the green end). Now pull this tippet through enough and now repeat the first step. This makes the friction loop that allows the easy height adjustments that are required to fish steelhead rivers effectively.

Sliding Section Swivel End
Perform a cinch knot to one end of the larger size 12 black swivel.Trim excess tippet off knot when finished. NOTE: because you are tying cinch knot with 40lb test only 3 turns is needed not the normal 5 to 7 turns that is usually desired to tie successful knots on lighter tippets.

Lead length between swivels
Take a desired length of 1x or 2x tippet material (usually will be somewhere between 3ft to 6ft). This length is totally dependent on the water depth you are fishing. Never use a lead length that is over 1.5 times the depth of water you are fishing. The knot used here must be 100 percent knot strength. It is a closed t situation so a Click knot would work best here. Trim excess tippet off knot when finished.

Dropper Swivel rigging
First we have to tie the lead length tippet end to one end of the smaller size 14 swivel. Again a 100 percent knot strength knot is essential. This is an open end knot situation so a Polymer knot can be used. This is great news, because the polymer knot is the only knot that has a usable excess tippet end that can be used that is not integral to the performance of the knot. So on this excess tippet tie a single knot about 1 inch away from the swivel – trim off the excess. This is your dropper for your weights.

Fishing Tippet
Now we add the final stage to the rig. This is our tippet that we attach our flies to. This length of 4x to 6x tippet material should be between 12 inches to 24 inches depending on the current speed and turbidity of the water. (The faster moving dirtier water would use shorter leads). For maximum fishing success another 100 percent strength knot should be used to attach this tippet to the swivel. It is closed knot situation so a click knot must be used.

Tippet to flies
We are ready to fish.... almost. Just decide what fly pattern you want to use and fasten it to tippet. I suggest using only a cinch knot now. When you stick this rig on the bottom (which you will) you want to break off only your fly not all the slit shot and swivel. So my theory is... the weakest will break first. I have saved a lot of time on re tying rigs over the years using this philosophy.

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