Every once in a while, the mainstay beadhead nymphs in my box see a drop in productivity. Sometimes, it takes hours or even days of denial for me to accept the message. First, I try going smaller, into the #18 and #20 range, focusing on black beads and duller finishes that have mixed, mostly subpar results. Then eventually, I flip over a leaf in my fly box, where, on the backside, I have rows of natural nymphs. They carry no bead and have minimal lead wraps on the shank for weight. These are subtle, unassuming flies, and their main attraction is an inherent motion, providing a lifelike representation of the leggy critters that trout eat.
The flies are fur nymphs. And they’re the perfect change up when trout are tired of your beadheads.
When trout are sick of seeing flashbacks, sparkly dubbing, gaudy colors or rubber legs, feed ‘em fur.
What’s a Fur Nymph?
It’s dubbing on a hook. And truly, nothing more is necessary. Any attempt to improve upon this simplicity . . . well, it complicates things and steals away the fur nymph’s greatest attribute.
I believe that trout are attracted to our flies for one contained element — one trigger. It could be the flash of a bead, the wiggle of rubber legs or the undulation of a soft-hackle wing. But after that initial attraction, trout are looking for reasons not to take our fly.
Wild trout are primarily cautious creatures. Their selectivity is the main reason we chase them. And sure, sometimes building every trigger imaginable into one fly turns the trick. (My friend, Austin, ties a fly we call the Kitchen Sink, and it produces — sometimes.) However, most of my confidence nymphs are tied from just a few materials, so there’s less for a trout to reject on the fly.
READ: Troutbitten | Troutbitten Confidence Flies: Seventeen Nymphs
Fur nymphs take this concept of simplicity a step further.They have just one material. That’s right. — fur. It’s dubbing on a hook.
Don’t put a bead on these nymphs. Fish them with a split shot five inches in front of the fly. Fish them with a tight line or under an indy. Or use a drop shot rig and get after it that way. But trust me — they catch trout.
I’ll also mention this: If you are a dedicated euro nympher who uses beadheads for weight exclusively, you’re missing out on a very productive part of tight line nymphing — because split shot is wonderful. But you need to understand its advantages and acknowledge its limitations. You also need the right shot and a simple method for attaching and removing it. While I prefer to fish with weighted flies, sometimes split shot is the better choice. So learn to love the split shot.
READ: Troutbitten | Split Shot vs Weighted Flies
READ: Troutbitten | No Limits: Fish Every Type of Weight Available
READ: Troutbitten | Stop the Split Shot Slide
My best fur nymphs are the same ones that I used twenty-five years ago: a Sowbug and a Walt’s Worm.
The shop owner at Fly Fisher’s Paradise graciously shared both flies with me. And like any fly tyer, I’ve tinkered with the dubbing blends for these flies over the decades. I’ve added ribs, wing cases and shellbacks in an effort to improve the patterns. But I keep coming back to the originals because they fish better. And if you test these on your own, without bias, you may learn the same thing.
It might be hard to have confidence in the simplicity of dubbing on a hook. We are so conditioned to see nymphs with all the adornments of beads, hot spots and colored UV resins, that putting faith in a fly without even a tail to show for itself seems improbable.
But remember, these flies are part of a system. They are the compliment — the back leaf in a fly box — to a full set of bright beads, legs and attractive elements on the other side of the box. These are the change up to a two-seam fastball.
You can surely choose a favorite dubbing, wind it on a hook in a cigar shape and call it good. I suspect that a talented angler can make almost any fly work. But there’s a reason that the following two patterns have stood the test of time.
If you do choose to tinker, I recommend keeping the changes subtle. Perhaps go with olive rather than grey. Basically, I advise against complicating these flies. They should not be flashy or colorful. We already have enough of that in our fly boxes.
These flies are dubbing on a hook. Never forget that.
- Hook: #12-20, standard length hook. I like a wide gap, barbless hook with a stout wire. My current favorite is a Firehole 317.
- Thread: Dark Olive 8/0 Uni-Thread, or similar
- Weight: 6-8 wraps of lead wire that matches the diameter of the shank. (Covered by 210 denier, dark olive thread.)
- Dubbing: 60% Muskrat fur with the guard hairs removed. 40% SLF Grey Squirrel.
I know that cress bugs have a shellback. And I admit that I carry this fly with a clear shell and a mono rib as well, with the dubbing teased out on the sides. But the truth is, I do just as well with the FFP Sowbug tied in the round — probably better. And trout take this for a lot more than just a cress bug. (More on that below.)
You might be wondering about the lack of a rib. It’s not necessary. And the addition of the rib cuts the bugginess of the dubbing to about half. Sure, you can pick it out with Velcro or a bore brush after you rib it, but you can pick it out even more without the rib.
The fly’s durability is greatly enhanced if you dub in layers. I usually go from front to back and then back to front — two thin layers of dubbing that form a thick oval shape. Whip finish, and you’re done.
- Hook: #10-16, 1X or 2X long hook. I like a wide gap, barbless and stout wire. My current favorite is a Firehole 718 (I like the slight curve), or a Firehole 633
- Thread: Dark Brown 8/0 Uni-Thread, or similar
- Weight: 6-8 wraps of lead wire that matches the diameter of the shank. (Covered by 210 denier, dark olive thread.)
- Dubbing: 60% Hareline Hare's Ear Plus mixed with 40% Hareline Hare’s Ear
Oh, I know. You carry Walt’s Worms with beads and flashy ribs. So do I. In fact, I think we could probably leave the house with a small box of Walt’s variations and catch trout anywhere, anytime.
This fur nymph is Walt Young’s original (so I’m told). His recipe was Hare’s Ear Plus on a hook. I mix in 40 percent regular Hare’s Ear because I find that Hareline adds a lot more antron to the Plus dubbings than they used to, and I think it’s a little much.
Just like the FFP Sowbug, you don’t need a rib. Enough said.
Is Walt’s Worm a cranefly larva? Sure. It’s also a scud, a caddis larvae, a mayfly, stonefly and whatever else a trout wants it to be. It’s yummy and lifelike.
Trout everywhere eat the Walt’s Worm. So don’t ever forget the original pattern.
READ: Troutbitten | What’s the Deal With Hare’s Ear?
When and Where
It happens most summers. Every year, the fur nymphs seem to take over for a period of time. When the water is low and clear, when the sun is high every day, when the warming waters in other regions concentrate most anglers into the remaining cooler rivers, trout start rejecting beadheads.
Have they just seen too many beads? Yes, I think it happens.
These days, with the most popular nymphs carrying a bright metal bead, trout can eventually tire of the look. I often turn to black beads or flat painted beads, and yes, they all produce.
But remember, a fur nymph, with split shot placed five inches in front, just fishes differently than beadheads without shot. Essentially, the shot provides the nymph five inches of grace — freedom to move without the influence of direct contact to the fly. That too, is a change up. And it’s another part of the success of the fur nymphs.
In many eastern waters, the main hatches are finished by mid-June. And in tailwaters and limestone streams, the bulk of what a trout sees are crustaceans — cressbugs and scuds. However, even in freestone streams that produce none of these crustaceans, fur nymphs work wonders — they still turn fish on.
It’s the nondescript nature of these patterns, the movement and the simplicity that does the trick.
Remember, fur nymphs are tied with nothing that can turn a trout off. So keep them that way.
Pure and Simple
I get a kick out of fishing such natural patterns. In a way, catching trout without a flashy bead, opal tinsel or wire rib for attraction feels like a greater accomplishment.
It’s probably not. In the end, it’s our presentation that seals the deal. But it makes me chuckle a bit when I turn to the fur nymphs, and trout start eating in the same places where they were rejecting all of my first choice, beadhead flies.
Simple flies are fun to fish, because we do it without the aid of extra attraction. And a fur nymph is efficiency in form.
It’s dubbing on a hook, and trout eat it. So feed ‘em fur.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
Like you, I frequently find that changing from beachhead nymphs to ones without beads produces fish that I didn’t know where there.
When I fish these simple flies, I frequently drop some small stuff (midge larvae, etc) behind them. Do you do that? In general, could you tell me whether you fish unweighted nymphs five inches behind a split shot alone, or with some kind of dropper?
Thanks for the questions.
Regarding dropping midge larva behind: I don’t, but if you keep it real small, as you describe, then I see how it would work. I most often fish these fairly small anyway, with my favorite sizes 16-20, maybe 14 in the WW.
Regarding the dropper: sometimes I use a tag dropper about 20 inches up — probably about half the time. Often it’s another fur nymph or a real small beadhead.
Both questions kind of lead me to this point: when I turn to the fur nymphs, it’s often because I find trout being selective. And in those moments, I tend to simply the rig in other ways too — so no trailing fly and often no tag fly. Just a fur nymph at the point and a split shot 5 inches up from it.
All that said . . . lots of stuff works and it’s fun to experiment. I’m sure you have your favorites that work just as well as mine.
I watched the guy at a fly shop tie the sowbug version, tied my own and used it successfully on Little Red River the next morning.
This spring I experimented a lot with fur nymphs and I’ve decided I like to dropshot unweighted fur nymphs on a short tag under higher flows…i like to think my strike detection is better than with them trailing 5 inches behind a split shot, although I caught plenty that way as well.
Greg, I’m also always experimenting with a drop shot technique. When I do drop shot, I vacillate between using a sighter and using a bobber (i.e., bounce nymphing). Do you have any thoughts on these variations of the basic drop shot method?
And Dom, I’m not sure about superior strike detection, but I do notice that I foul hook fewer fish when drop shotting. Thoughts?
I was always lazy and avoided shot (usually just fished tungsten beadheads for my anchor) but decided this past winter/early spring I was going to dedicate some time to messing around with shot and avoiding the tungsten beadheads.
I either did an unweighted squirmy 5″ behind a shot or I drop-shotted with unweighted fur nymphs on short (4″) tags above a split shot that would tick bottom. I think the trailing squirmy (or egg) behind a shot is the way to go when you need to go deep (e.g. dead of winter). I liked drop-shotting the way I did when there was more bug life and the fish were more mid-water column oriented. Also it’s nice to avoid losing flies to the bottom – I usually just lose the shot at the end of the rig which is easily replaced. Caught many fish with either approach.
I fished both strategies with a tightline approach with 20lb chameleon w/sighter, etc. This is in small streams, short drifts, so did not spend much time trying suspending strategies. I know people drop shot very long riffles but I don’t have that kind of water where I fish. Not a pro by any means, I still need to play around with it this winter/next spring. In low water conditions (late summer/early fall) almost any “nymphing” I do is dropping a slightly weighted natural looking/small nymph/wet fly off a terrestrial dry fly.
Thanks for sharing Dom.
My issue is I don’t tie and the local shops are happy to only offer bead head varieties. The trout I fish for have seen every one of the beadheads they stock. What is a guy to do…start tying or is there a decent source for drab patterns?
Start tying… just don’t buy anything other than the material listed here or you’ll be out most of your income soon…
Check out the Troutline dubbing line. The most awesome spiky dubbing I’ve ever seen.
They are a European company with reasonable shipping. My apologies if this conflicts with your Troutbitten store items. Feel free to delete.
Thanks Rick. No, that’s no kinds of conflict, but I appreciate it. Cheers. Dom
Sawyer’s Killer Bug is a 90 year old pattern that has earned space in my box.
Fished a local central Pa stream a while back and decided to try something different: drab and splitshot – did well. Never stop learning- Thanks
An unweighted nymph with split shot really is under-rated. I noticed this when my fishing partner landed several nice fish from slow pools one morning while I, equipped with beadheads in every size shape and colour, was unsuccessful. I believe in slower water pools an unweighted fly with shot is the way to go to get a natural presentation meanwhile in small riffles and pocket water I choose beads for their quick descent. Have you noticed this trend in water type when fishing flies without beads and shot?
Wow you just described my most used and successfull nymph I used as a kid and still do today. Yes I have tinkered with it to add a bead and hot spot but I still have ones with no hot spot and non beaded.
Its such a simple fly I wonder why no one else had caught on. I guess its to simple to see in the fly shops.