The Global FlyFisher
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I'm not sure how floating bass flies got the name "bug", but it certainly has stuck. Whether constructed of wood, plastic, foam, or hair, they all seem to be lumped into the generic category of "bass bug".
I'm not sure how floating bass flies got the name "bug", but it certainly has stuck. Whether constructed of wood, plastic, foam, or hair, they all seem to be lumped into the generic category of "bass bug". Although a few are tied to imitate specific food forms, usually mice or frogs, most are very surreal, offering the impression of something living and outrageous.
Since bass are opportunistic feeders and keen predators, anything that looks edible is fair game, and those flies that attract attention and appear to be a vulnerable food source are the most successful. Bass bugs are without peer when it comes to attracting a bass's attention while suggesting a living creature struggling at the water's surface.
Hard head bugs
By far, the most common bug is a hard foam popper. It seems that every mail order catalog sells these popper bodies and the kinked shank popper hooks to use with them. Making one is pretty simple.
You just glue it onto the hook, paint it, coat it, then tie some stuff behind it. Except for a few details, that's about all there is to it.
There are typically two kinds of hard foam popper heads - pencil poppers and the more traditional "cupped face" poppers. Pencil poppers, as the name suggests, are long and thin and have a flat face. These are usually fished in the "walk the dog" manner and represent a struggling baitfish (if they really represent anything at all). Cupped face poppers are used to kick up water and make a ton of noise to attract fish in rough, deep, or discolored water.
Whenever you want to make a big commotion on the surface, the cupped face popper is the fly of choice as it will "bloop" it's way across the water's surface. Pencil poppers are better suited for calmer and clearer waters were the loud sounds of a cupped face can spook the fish. You can also turn the cupped face popper around so that the "point" is in the front and you'll have a slider, another good design for calm water conditions. Sliders are particularly effective on smallmouth bass.
Hard foam isn't the only kind of hard headed popper. Cork and Balsa wood are also commonly used. Although you can find some cork shaped to the typical cupped popper shape, more often than not you will have to shape the raw material yourself. Cork floats and casts well, but it's sort of a pain to work with.
It tends to break apart if you're not careful when shaping it, and you really need to treat it prior to painting if you don't want your paint to soak in and look dull (who wants dull bass bugs). If you want a smooth surface, you need to fill in the pits in the cork with some sort of putty or homemade filler (cork dust and wood glue work well). On the whole, I've found that cork usually isn't worth the aggrevation that comes with it.
Balsa is a fantastic material in that it is quite easy to shape and will take paint much better than cork. All you need is a fine toothed saw and a few different grits of sandpaper and you can make a popper head to any shape you want. A primer coat of white paint is always a good idea, especially if you're striving for bright colors.
I attach hard popper bodies to the hook with a slow curing epoxy like Devcon. After wrapping the hook shank with thread, coat both the hook shank and the slot in the body with epoxy, then slide the body into place and hold it until the epoxy begins to set. Let the bug sit overnight to make sure the epoxy is fully cured. For the hard foam bugs, I dribble a little extra epoxy along the slot so that there's a slight ridge of epoxy raised above the body (I let it cure upside down). Once fully hardened, I sand this ridge flat, thus hiding the slot in the body completely. For balsa or cork bodies, I leave the slot "open", filling it later with a wood filler which I let harden before sanding it flat.
You can brush paint poppers using lacquers or acrylic paints, you can use canned spray paint, or you can even use an air brush if you really want to be fancy. You can use old pieces of "overhead projector plastic" to make cutouts to spray shapes on your bugs, like stripes and spots, and you can use a variety of lace and netting to offer the impression of scales. This is where you can have all sorts of fun. It is much like model building. One word of caution - you need to be careful about the paints you select to paint the hard foam popper bodies. Many lacquers and enamels will cause the foam to "melt" and will destory the popper body. When working with the hard foam (the white stuff), stick with paints made for plastics (like model building paints) or acryclics. Neither will damage the hard foam.
Once the bug has been glued onto the hook and painted, it should be given a final coat of something thick and glossy to protect it as it is being fished. Not all "gloss coats" are compatible with all paints, so be careful here. Lately, I've been using a few coats of a spray polyurethane to coat my bugs. It is compatible with all of the paints I have used and provides a smooth, glossy, durable coat with a minimum of fuss.
Once the head is complete, all you need to do is add the tail and a weedguard if you want, and the fly is ready to be fished.
Deer hair bugs
Deer hair bugs are an artform in and of themselves. Guys like Chris Helm, Dave Whitlock, Jim Stewart and others have taken deer hair bugs to a whole new level. They can pack and shape deer hair such that it looks and performs like a hard headed popper, yet they are barely a fraction of the weight. Stewart takes it one step further and makes deer hair bugs that mimic casting lures.
I get great satisfaction out of spinning and stacking deer hair. It's hard work, and messy, but the end results are just fantastic. As bass bugging has become so popular, we're starting to see more and more suppliers appearing that sell "deer" hair processed and dyed specifically for bass bugs. I put deer in quotes because it is often used in a generic sense to include hair from deer, elk, caribou, and the like - hairs that are hollow and flare well. As with most fly tying, it pays to seek out high quality materials.
For deer hair, I suggest contacting one of the specialty shops, or stick with a reputable brand name like RMD (Rocky Mountain Dubbing). Make sure you specify hair for making bass bugs when ordering. Using hair that is not appropriate for spinning or stacking will give you nothing but grief. If you can't find a supply, give Chris Helms a call. He advertises in most flyfishing magazines and can send you the exact type of hair for any bass bug you are tying.
The two basic operations with deer hair are spinning and stacking. Spinning takes a clump of deer hair and "spins" it around the hook so that it flares out and completely encircles the hook shank. When you stack deer hair, you still flare it, but you do not allow it to spin around the hook. The best way to learn how to work with deer hair is to get live instruction. If that's not available, get one of the many videotapes available. Chris Helms, Dave Whitlock, and Jimmy Nix all have excellent videos that illustrate the various techniques used in creating deer hair bass bugs. It certainly does take some practice to become proficient with deer hair, but it's not as hard as it looks at first glance.
Once you get the hair spun or stacked along the hook shank, you need to trim it. This is where people get really inventive. Take Larry Dahlberg's diver, for example, trimmed to a point in front with a high "collar" of hair resulting in a fly will dive into the water when the line is stripped. A stroke of genious, if you ask me. I usually "rough cut" the body with scissors and then do the final shaping with a double edged razor blade (split in half lengthwise). The razor blade cuts very cleanly and smoothly, as long as you use a fresh one with each bug.
You can also tie a flat faced popper that is meant to "pop" and "bloop" along the surface much like a cupped face hard foam popper. I learned a trick from Carl Bradley at a flyfishing show once that helped me create nice flat faces on my deer hair poppers. What you need is a piece of flat metal with a small hole drilled in the middle. Carl used a half dollar, but any sturdy flat metal will do. After you've rough trimmed the body, dribble some Dave's Flexament in the hairs behind the "face". Cut your thread and push the piece of metal over the eye of the hook (the hook eye goes through the hole in the metal) and clamp it in place with a pair of hemostats. Set it aside for a few hours so the flexament has a chance to dry. When you come back to the fly, take off the clamp and you'll see that the face of the popper is perfectly flat and quite stiff. You can finish your trimming, confident that your fly will "bloop" quite well.
One advantage deer hair bugs have over hard bugs is their weight. When dry, they are virtually weightless. Thus, they are good to use in situations where you want the fly to land softly, like shallow and clear water. A good design in this case is a fly that has a rounded face so that when it's pulled through the water, it doesn't make much noise but rather leaves a wake behind it like a small boat. This style of fly, called a "slider", is especially useful for skitterish smallmouth bass in clear streams and rivers.
The drawback to deer hair bugs is that they inevitably soak up water. There are methods to delay the process, but you really can not eliminate it alltogether. The best solution I've found is to have a few duplicate flies on hand. As one gets wet, clip it off and tie on it's twin, with yet another fresh one waiting on deck.
By rotating flies, I've found that it's possible to keep fishing with a good floating deer hair bug all day long. Even so, I do treat my deer hair flies with a waterproofing spray. I cut a notch in a piece of cardboard or paper plate and stick the notch between the tail of the fly and the body, as I want the spray to be on the deer hair only. It's a messy and smelly process, but it does seem to double or triple the amount of time I can fish the fly before it needs to be swapped out for a fresh one. Any silicone based waterproofing spray will work well. I like Scotchguard. I also like to do the spraying before I install the eyes and rubber legs. I only want the spray to interact with the deer hair - nothing else. Normal dry fly floatant pastes and "gels" will also help.
Choosing a thread is important when tying deer hair bugs. If you use your normal 6/0 or 8/0 thread, you're either going to break the thread or cut through the deer hair. Although you might get by with 3/0 monocord, something like either "Flymaster +", a heavy waxed thread with a bit of twist, or "Flat Waxed Nylon" is much more suited to spinning and stacking deer hair. When I tie a bug, I usually start the weedguard and finish the tail and skirt with 6/0, to make the tying a bit easier and less bulky. When it's time to do the hair work, I switch to the heavier thread.
It is worth your while to learn how to work with deer hair. They are harder to tie than other bass bugs, but they fish equally as well or better than their hard headed cousins.
Soft foam bugs
Soft foam bugs are new to me. The first one I ever saw was tied by my friend Gary Stevens. He used a section of cylindrical foam insulation to create a popper head, adding a tail of bucktail and a hackle skirt. He fished it with great success for smallmouth bass on some of our home waters. Being so bouyant and so light, it lands softly and doesn't kick up much water when "popped", so it's perfect for those little smallmouth streams we love so much. One disadvantage of the stuff is that it's not all that great to paint, and it only comes in "insulation" colors - shades of grey.
A recent article by Martin Jorgensen caused me to run out to my local craft store and hunt up a supply of closed cell foam sheets so that I could tie up some Morrisfoam divers. I was lucky that I found a good supply on sale for 25 cents a sheet, so for a couple bucks I have a lifetime's supply of assorted colors.
Other types of foam bug bodies are available. "Edgewater" is a company that distributes many different styles of pre-formed soft foam bodies and most of the big mail order supply houses carry an assortment.
They are a bit pricey, but virtually indestructible and are available in a variety of colors.
Certainly soft foam bass bugs have their time and place. Some say the texture and "give" to the body will result in the fish chewing on it a bit longer, giving you a precious few extra moments to drive the hook home. They float well (indefinitely), and might be a bit lighter than hard bugs. The drawback to soft foam is the limitation on what you can do with colors. Some foams accept waterpoof markers, others don't (as well). None really accept paint very well, so you're pretty much limited with what you can do.
Once you start making your own bass bugs, you're free to experiment with all sorts of shapes and styles to match specific fishing situations. That's the beauty of tying your own flies. Some people prefer bugs that are a bit drab and "natural" in their color scheme, with lots of olives and browns in their makeup. Others use materials as bright as they can find, with flourescent colors being preferred. There really is no hard and fast rule. What pleases you at the vise and what pleases the fish in lake or stream should be your guide. If you like wiggle legs, fine. If you don't feel the need for google eyes, fine. You can make your bugs as simple or as complex as you like.
Although bass bugs do require a bit of time to make, and some practice with new techniques, we are lucky in that the materials are not terribly expensive. For the price of one high quality genetic dry fly cape, you can by the threads, hooks, and materials to make a large variety of bass bugs.