Updated: Mar 26, 2020
I first laid eyes on beadhead flies in the mid-1990s and life changed forever. I’d read about them in a Fly Fisherman magazine article and soon began tying every nymph and streamer with gold beads. I caught fish, sometimes lots of fish, and I never looked at those traditional, bead-less flies the same again after that. For years, when I reached into my box for a pattern, I always chose one with a bead.
Advantages of Beadheads
Beadhead flies have several distinct advantages over traditional patterns. First of all, the bead adds weight that gets the fly to the bottom faster, which is where you want to fish nymphs. Most of the time, except for in very swift water, the bead alone is enough to get the fly down quickly. Also, when fishing nymphs in conjunction with an indicator, beads supply just enough weight that they don’t hinder the float of the indicator. You get a very natural drift while still bouncing the bottom.
And then there’s the flash of the bead, of course. Perhaps this harkens back to my spinner-using days, but very rarely is flash a bad thing. Observe a school of minnows in shallow water on a sunny day. Spook them and they’ll often appear as flickering little sparks. Even tiny, hard-bodied nymphs reflect light.
Trout are odd fish, too. They’ll often move from side to side in the current “sampling” matter that drifts toward them. I’ve seen them suck in and spit out bits of leaves, perhaps to extract potential food that might be clinging to the leaf, but also, I believe, because they’re curious. They feel textures with their mouths. Sometimes I believe they pick up a beadhead fly, especially one that doesn’t resemble any particular insect, for the same reason, because it’s there and it could be a potential food source.
The third advantage of a beaded nymph has to do with nature itself. As live nymphs on the stream bottom prepare to emerge, a small gas bubble forms around their thorax. During their final ascent, this bubble bursts (“Like a fart,” a fly fishing guide once explained to me) as the nymph makes its way to the surface. The bead imitates this bubble of gas.
A fourth advantage of a beaded fly is the extra action a bead imparts on the fly. Beads make the fly front-heavy, so when they’re stripped, such as with streamers, the fly has a greater tendency to dip and dive like live baitfish.
Beads can be found in many variations. Gold, silver, brass, glass, round, cone-shaped, the list goes on. In some instances, they’re an essential part of the pattern, such as with the Slumpbuster, and to remove the bead is to strip the identity of the fly. In many other instances, beads are simply an addition to a pre-existing pattern with the intention of improving that pattern’s effectiveness.
When beadheads first appeared on Montana waters in the 1980s, they took the fly fishing world by storm. Huge catches were reported as the success of the fly spread worldwide. A faction of fly fishermen today, though, claim that beadhead flies don’t work as well as they used to, suggesting that trout in some heavily-fished rivers have become “immune” to their magic. They might have a point, but only to a certain extent.
I believe any fish that has fallen to a specific pattern, or style of pattern such as beadheads, is less susceptible to that pattern in the future. And that goes for any fly be it Woolly Bugger, Mickey Finn, or whatever. But the fact is that trout cannot survive without feeding constantly on aquatic insects, and perhaps a trout’s rejection has more to do with how that fly is presented rather than the imitation itself. More than once I’ve worked over a stretch with an olive Woolly Bugger without turning a single nose only to have another angler pass through behind me and land fish on the same exact pattern, and vice versa.
When Not to Use Beads
There are, however, three occasions when a beadhead fly isn’t my first choice. First, when water conditions are low and clear later in the season. The flash can be too much and cautious fish will shy away from it. Second, on waters that receive heavy fishing pressure where trout can be skittish. And third, when fishing lakes and very slow-moving water because trout have too much time to study the fly.
The History of Beads
Details are a little murky as to who gets credit for “inventing” beadhead flies. Some sources say it began in the late 1800s/early 1900s in the alpine region of northern Italy where spin-fishermen used silk-bodied flies with glass pearl heads. Fishermen actually attached a cone-shaped piece of weighted wood with a metal ring to their nylon line, and then attached four or five more sections of line to the wood, tying a pearl head fly on the end of each section. They cast the apparatus upstream and reeled up the slack as the rig drifted back down to them.
This later became the inspiration for the Austrian fly fisherman Roman Moser for his Gold Head and Pearl Head patterns. From what I gather, the first beads were constructed of plastic, and Moser weighted the nymphs during the tying process with lead wire. He later started using the gold and brass beads that were originally sold as parts to make spinner bodies for the heads of his flies. He wrote about this process in a 1985 article for a German fly fishing magazine. From there, beadhead flies made their way to America, were popularized on western rivers, and then spread around the globe.
Even before Moser, though, rod maker and fly tyer Ed Sisty published the book “New Professional Methods in Tying the Nymph” in 1972. One of the patterns profiled in the work, complete with photographs, is The Beaded Nymph.
Regardless of who’s responsible for introducing beads to fly fishing, one thing is certain: we owe them a debt of gratitude. Beadhead flies are effective, and I wouldn’t dare head to my favorite trout stream without an assortment of them in my fly box.