One of the newest trends in fly tying is the use of beads, cones, and eyeballs to add enough weight to the fly to reduce or eliminate the need for split shot on the leader. For many years most of us have encouraged our flies to sink by wrapping soft lead of various weights around the shank of the hook before constructing the pattern. Together with that trick, we’ve now learned the value of adding additional weight to the front end of the fly by making a bright and shiny add-on an integral part of the finished product.
Beads, cones and eyeballs can all be used to achieve additional weight while at the same time giving our flies a very realistic look and differing sink rates. Beads and cones slide right onto the hook, while eyeballs are tied on top of the hook. For that reason, I’m going to discuss then separately.
Beads & Cones
Beads or cones can be gold, silver, brass, tungsten, plastic, glass, aluminum, or baked-on enamel, sized to fit different hooks. All of them come with holes drilled into them so that they slide onto the hook. To prepare the hook, however, the barb must be flattened to make insert easier.
There are two major considerations when using beads or cones. First, the holes must be drilled specifically for fly tying so that the bead or cone slides easily around the bend of the hook. It’s important for tiers that are just starting out with beads to understand which way the bead or cone fits onto the hook. A close look at the bead will reveal that one of the holes in it is smaller than the other. Typically the point of the hook will be inserted into the smaller of the two holes. Inserting the hook-point into the larger hole will result in the bead or cone sliding down over the hook-eye when it is shoved forward.
The second consideration with using beads has to do with different types or sizes of wire, and different hook-eyes. The smart fly tier takes the hook she or he wants to use for the fly into the store with them when they buy the beads or cones. That way they can try out different sizes of beads or cones to make sure that the ones they buy will slide around the bend of the hook they plan to use for the fly. Remember, when using an up-eye or bend-back hook, the hole in the bead will also have to be wide enough to slide over the double wire just before the hook-eye. Many up-eye or bend-back hooks now have tapered wire next to the eye to help facilitate the use of beads and cones. One brand that I like is made by Daiichi.
Beads and cones are of variable weight, so it’s important to consider how much weight you want to add to the fly before selecting one or the other. Generally, the plastic and brass beads and cones provide a nice “look” to the fly, but weigh very little. These add-ons will provide a slow sink-rate for the fly. Lead or tungsten cones and beads provide much more weight for a faster sink.
Tying with Beads and Cones
Here’s a few general tips to help you get started. Always be sure to place the bead or cone on the hook, and then begin to tie the fly. If you’re also going to wrap lead on the hook shank, be sure to put the bead or cone on first. Often, the bead or cone slides around up at the hook-eye while the tier works. If this becomes a problem, just position the hook in the vice with a bit of a down angle to make the bead or cone stay up against the eye.
As the fly is tied, work the body material up into the space under the cone or eyeball as far as possible to help fill up the gap that will exist there and help stop the cone or bead from sliding around. Generally, cones present more of this problem than beads do. Depending on the design of the fly, consider finishing the fly by adding a hackle collar or a maribou wing to help disguise the “gap” that appears between the finished fly and the edges of the cone or bead. Instructions for adding a hackle collar are included with the pattern for the Starlight Leech below.
A Cone-Head Woolly Bugger
Hook: Daiichi #2441 #2 or #1
Tail: Maribou feather (white, black, brown, purple, white, olive, etc.)
Crystal Flash: a few strands of pearl or multi-color Flashabou;
Hackle: Webby white saddle hackle feather
Body: White Chenille
Wing: A few strands of pearl or multi-color Flashabou or a tuft of maribou (optional)
- Insert the point of the hook into the cone and shove the cone up against the hook-eye. Lead the hook (optional);
- Select a fluffy white maribou feather and tie it in behind the lead to form a tail that is no longer than the shank of the hook;
- Tie in the Flashabou at the tail;
- Prepare a webby, white saddle hackle feather by stroking down a few of the fibers on the tip of the feather and then tying it in by the tip right in front of the maribou tail with the right side of the feather facing the tier (The right side of the feather is the side where the spine of the feather is least prominent. )
- Tie in the white chenille and move the thread up to the front of the hook;
- Wrap the chenille up to the front of the hook and tie off right behind the cone;
- Palmer the saddle hackle up to the front of the hook and tie off right behind the cone being careful not to let it twist as you wrap;
- Add the wing of Flashabou or maribou if you wish.
Eyeballs may be bead-chain, lead, tungsten, plastic or aluminum to add both weight and visual simulation to the fly. There are, of course, also paste-on eyes that are used primarily in salt-water fly tying, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time. Besides providing more weight, many tiers also believe that eyeballs also add more realism to the fly and prefer to use them for that reason.
The original eyeballs that most tiers learned to use were the bead-chain variety. While they did indeed add lifelikeness to various patterns, they provided minimal weight. More recently, the lead eyes of different styles have become available to give more weight to the fly. Lead eyes have another advantage in that they are made with a greater distance between the two eyeballs providing extra space that enables the tier to add a chenille egg-head to the fly with those kinds of eyes. (See below.) With the wide variety of eyeballs now on the market, the tier can select one or the other based on both the amount of weight and the “look” that he or she wants on the finished fly.
Tying with Eyeballs
Beads and cones just slide onto the hook. But, because they are placed on top of the hook, eyeballs must be tied on. Many people report that they can never get their eyeballs tied on securely and say that the eyeballs always seems to rotate around the hook. So, here are some tips to help you master this essential skill.
- Use eyeballs that are in proportion to the hook.
- Be aware that the heavier and larger the eyeballs are, the longer it will take to tie them in securely.
- Tie on the eyeballs before tying any other part of the fly so that you can position them just where you want them instead of trying to leave the right amount of space and tie them in later as you finish the fly.
Now, here are the instructions for tying on eyeballs:
- Lay down a thread base for the eyeballs up close to the hook-eye and position them on the hook. (If using an up-eye or bend-back hook, lay the thread base on top of the double wire.)
- Holding the eyeball which is farthest away from you as it lays on the hook shank in the fingernails of your non-dominant thumb & index finger, make ten or twelve thread wraps only over the eyeball that is closest to you and under the hook, binding down that eyeball.
- Then, hold the eyeball closest to you in the fingernails of your non-dominant thumb & index finger and wrap thread over the eyeball farthest away from you and under the hook ten or twelve times to get it bound down as well.
- Once the eyeballs are set, begin to make figure-eight wraps over one eyeball and back under the hook and then over the other eyeball and back under the hook.
- Make about fifteen or twenty figure-eight wraps. Then make several wraps over each individual eyeball again.
- Now make six or eight wraps in front of the pair of eyeballs and six or eight wraps in back of the pair of eyeballs. (This helps take care of the eyeballs’ tendency to move back and forth sideways as well as around the hook.)
- Continue to intersperse the figure-eight wraps and the wraps over the individual eyeballs and those in front and back of them until the eyeballs do not slide around on the hook.
- Whip finish behind the eyeballs to secure them while the rest of the fly is tied.
People often ask if a fly with eyeballs will ride with the eyeballs on the underside of the hook instead of the top of the hook when the fly is fished. Generally that will not occur unless the fly is fished dead drift. Most of the time stripping the fly in the water takes care of the problem and keeps the eyes on top of the fly. You’ll notice that for the flies where the tier wants the hook to ride up instead of down, the eyes are actually tied on the hook with the point turned up instead of turned down.
Tying the fly onto a hook that already has eyeballs attached is not difficult. Just plan to work the materials of the fly up as close behind the eyeballs as possible to help avoid the “gap” that often appears there just as it does when tying with beads and cones. If you want to also lead the hook shank, you can do that before or after tying on the eyeballs. Adding a hackle collar or a maribou wing will also help to give the fly a more “finished” look and will help fill up the “gap,” as will wrapping chenille or other material around the eyes as I do on the fly below.
Always finish a fly that has eyeballs behind the eyeballs rather in front of them. Generally there will not be sufficient room to finish ahead of the eyes. Even when there seems to be, doing so will often cover up the hook-eye preventing you from later inserting the leader.
Now, here’s a fly to illustrate tying with eyeballs.
The Starlight Leech
Hook: Mustad 36890- #4-1/0—or Daiichi 2441 #2 or #1 (leaded shank is optional)
Eyes: Lead eyes set back from the hook-eye (bead chain eyes aren’t large enough to give
this fly the correct look, and they don’t have enough distance between the eyeballs to tie in the chenille head)
Head: Red, orange, fuscia or chartreuse chenille
Tail: Tip of a black of purple bunny strip
Body: Black or purple Cactus Chenille
Wing: Remainder of bunny strip folded forward
Collar: Black or purple saddle hackle
- Lead the hook and tie in the eyes. (Set the eyes on the hook just at the end of the bend-back rather than on top of it to leave room for the wrapped chenille head);
- Tie in the chenille right behind the eyeballs. Then wrap it around the eyes several times and tie off behind the eyes. Move the thread to the back of the hook behind the lead.
- Tie in the tip of a bunny strip to create a one-inch tail and cut off the remainder of the strip;
- Tie in the Cactus Chenille at just the same spot where you tied in the tail. Wrap the thread up to behind the eyeballs. Now wrap the Cactus Chenille forward to right up behind the eyeballs. Be careful to pull the spikes of the material back each time you wrap to avoid flattening them with the subsequent wrap;
- Make a hackle collar by selecting a wide, webby saddle hackle feather. Strip off the fuzz and tie it in from the butt right behind the eyeballs with the right side of the feather facing the tier. Make three or four side-by-side wraps of the feather right up behind the eyeballs, stroking the fibers back with each wrap so that they sweep back along the hook shank.
- Tie off and whip finish behind the eyeballs.
Casting Flies with Beads, Cones and Eyeballs
Besides varying the sink rate, heavier or lighter cones, beads, or eyeballs will also affect the way that the fly casts. The general rule is that the heavier the bead or cone or eyeball, the harder the fly will be to cast. Casting heavy flies requires a somewhat slower casting rhythm and a more open loop. (Getting hit in the back of the head with one of these leaded eyeball flies is not fun.) Since the extra weight on the fly can also un-balance the casting stroke, it’s also important to make firm, deliberate stops on both the front and back casts when casting large, weighted flies. A time-honored recommendation when casting flies with beads, cones, or eyeballs (or with the split shot you may have been using to get your fly down) is to “wait for the bounce” before beginning each forward or back cast.
There you have it. You’ll quickly learn that tying with beads, cones, and eyeballs adds a completely different dimension to your flies and to your fishing. Just the chance to eliminate the use of split shot on the leader makes them worth trying.
(Originally published in August / September 2007 issue of Fish Alaska Magazine)