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Tying Mr. Sowbug's
Dead-Drifter Sowbug

Also see
How To Tie Fox's Arkansas Scud
How to Tie Fox's Worm Scud

Charlie Brooks stated in his book, "Nymphing For Larger Trout", that if sowbugs and scuds are in the stream, they can make up as much as seventy-five percent of the trout's diet.   I read this book three times because of one sentence.  Mr. Brooks described how to fish every bug in his book - except sowbugs and scuds.  On fishing them he simply stated, "You are on your own".  That statement was quite a disappointment thirty years ago.  I thought I might gain an important tip on how to fish the two dominant aquatic insects in the White River system.  After more research, I found that Mr. Brooks didn't occupy his time with small Isopods and Amphipods.  Brooks was a large nymph fisherman.  Now believe it or not, Charlie Brooks had the most profound influence on my sowbug patterns but not from his book, instead, a small tidbit that was written about how he tied his patterns in a flyfishing magazine.  A very small point that the author had forgotten and added in the last paragraph of his article.  One small sentence changed sowbugs forever and sent me, a middle-aged man, on a life long quest. The sentence simply stated that Mr. Brooks always tied his flies "in the round" because a swimming nymph always righted itself before it swam away.  Tying in the round meant that regardless of the position of his fly, it appeared upright.  This meant, if the bug had a wing case he tied his fly with a wing case on all sides.  My sowbugs were just the opposite.  They couldn't swim.  They possessed not a swimming appendage.  They were and are crawlers.  Every sowbug that I had fished to that point was one color with a clear plastic latex back.  The greatest improvement I made on the sowbug was making it two colors. 

 Over thirty years ago, the White River system had but just a dab of Mother Nature's aquatic and pseudo aquatic insects.  There were no stoneflies, a couple crane flies, and occasionally a mayfly and caddis hatch.  The bulk of the trout's diet were sowbugs with a few scuds for variety.  Sowbugs were so thick that at times you couldn't find the toes of your waders, because they were literally covered them up.  I can remember thinking, "How do you catch a fish when there is so much food available".  However inventing the "Wheel" was fun and I would love to do it again on another river.

Sowbug have probably caught more trophy trout than any other pattern.  Large Browns, Rainbows, Cutthroats, and Brookies have all succumbed to its deception.  Sowbugs are fished from the Big Horn River to the small no-named spring fed streams of New England.  Sowbugs have several names: crest bugs, roly-polys, pill bugs, and so on.  But if you see a horizontally flattened insect with seven pairs of legs, two antennae, two tails, seven body segments plus the head and tail segments - you have just found yourself a sowbug. 

Sowbugs are considered one of the lowliest of flyfishing's bugs by most anglers - only superseded by snails, leeches and planarians.   And the method of presentation - the using of an indicator, bobber, or float is lower than a "snake in a wagon rut" - totally not flyfishing.  It is the closest thing to bait fishing that you can do.   You cannot imagine the thousands of times I have heard comments of this sort.  Early on, I found the best way to squelch remarks of this kind was to follow the guy around and catch fifty fish while he caught five.  Then upon my leaving I would say something like, "I hope they are biting better tomorrow", "sure was a slow day wasn't it", "I only caught five over four pounds and one over six".  If this didn't generate the response I wanted,  I would find the guy and fish beside him the next day.  I never knew that flyfishing had a violent side to it.  I mean - I have heard of golfers throwing temper tantrums, but fly fisherman?  Flyfishing is to be pleasant,  soothing, relaxing, bonding one with nature, a metaphysical cosmic experience, and things like that.  It's not to end with the snapping of ones rod over the knee, wildly flinging your entire rig into the river by the tip section, breaking your foot upon drop-kicking a solid piece of Ozark bedrock as you leave cursing loudly about some guy in a homemade fishing vest that uses a bobber.   This is how I became a guide, some would say it was not the right approach.  But I figured what the heck.  Isaac Walton in his book, "The Compleat Angler", mentioned using an indicator even if he did call it "An Over Bug".

It's really too bad that a lot of fly fisherman don't see the beauty of the sowbug.  I mean think about it.  The sowbug doesn't sprout wings and fly away.  It's in the stream every day, maybe a little bigger or smaller, but it is always there.  In July and August, you might have to add some white dubbing to the head portion of your sowbug pattern to imitate the egg sac that sowbugs carry with their front pair of legs.  Or when you visit  a different part of the river or another river, its color may vary some.  And just think about how many of these bugs it takes to fill up a fish - hundreds.  That is a lot better than ten minnows eaten early in the morning because - you have hundreds of opportunities to catch the fish all day long instead of just ten in the morning.  If they occupy seventy-five percent of a fish's diet, that's seventy-five days out of a hundred that the sowbug is what they are feeding on.  What other food item, other than scuds, can offer as much consistency throughout the year?  All in all, every day of the entire year the sowbug is a valuable, easily accessible food item.  I have often remarked that Mother Nature gave the Ozarks just a smidgen and not much diversity in its cold water streams,  but what she gave them was the best part.

I am planning to make a DVD on the tying and the dead-drift fishing techniques of nymphs.  I started this project once but it got lost in the making, so we will attempt it again.  In fact I have planned several DVD's on my patterns and fishing methods.

Tying the Dead-Drifter Sowbug

The sowbug, along with several other nymphs, are very easy to tie.  It takes me less than two minutes to tie one.  This is also true of several other common nymphs.  Here are the steps of the sowbug in a nutshell: hook, lead, thread, back, dub, flatten, segment, finish, and coat.  Did you notice I didn't say tail?  I don't put tails on my sowbugs but I do on some of my other nymphs.  We will expand each of these steps and include some pictures as we go.

Hook:  Place the hook in your vise.  I always use dry fly hooks for my nymphs.  I prefer "Straight-Eyed" hooks to any other style. Why?  Dry fly hooks are fine wire and penetrate the flesh and bone of the fish's mouth with less force.  This is especially advantageous when using 6X and smaller tippets.  Straight-Eyed hook have more useful hook gape for the fisherman than Turned-Down-Eyed hooks.  My favorite hooks are Dai Riki 310 in #16 and smaller and Dai Riki 305 in #14 and larger.  Dai Riki does not make the 310 in sizes larger than #16.  TMC 103BL are okay.  They are not straight-eyed but they have a superior point and come in the odd sizes which I like because of their proportions of the finished bug.

Lead:  Match the lead to the size of the hook shank and place ten wraps in the middle of the hook shank.  I use 0.010" lead for #18-#19 hooks, 0.015" for #16-#17, 0.020" for #14-#15.  I rarely use sowbugs larger than #14 but if you do jump up the next size of lead for the next size of hook (0.025" for #12, and so on).

Thread:  Start the thread at the eye of the hook and wrap back until the lead is in the center of the hook shank.  Reach behind the lead and put five or six wraps of thread.  Then put several wrappings (3-4) of thread over the lead and end up with the thread in front of the lead.  I prefer 8/0 Uni-Thread in tan or light gray.

If you are going to put on the tails or antennae now is the time to do it.

Back:  When it comes to my Swiss Straw color for the back, I am very particular.  I dye my own.  I use Silver Gray Swiss Straw and dye it with Khaki Green Rit Dye.  You can't buy Khaki Green Rit Dye any more but if you go to the Rit Dye website there is a formula for making it.  Use you a pint glass jar, fill it with water and add enough dye that you barely can see through it.  Place it in the microwave and get it hot.  Take the Swiss Straw off of the card and put it in the hot dye.  Stir.  Check frequently until the Swiss Straw is the color of your sowbugs back.  Rinse immediately.  Take it outside and drape it over anything ( chairs, bushes, what ever) and let it dry.  After drying put it back on the card.  Cut off about a four inch piece.  Open the straw up and lay it flat on a cutting board.  Split the straw lengthwise into 1/4 inch strips for #19-#16 sized sowbugs, 5/16 inch for #14-#12 bugs, and 3/16 " for bug less than #19.  Place the strip of straw over the lead and hanging off the rear of the hook.  Wrap it down.  End with the thread in front of the lead.

Dub:  I am just as particular about the color, length, and texture of my dubbing as I am about the color of my backing.  I blend my own dubbing because I want it the right color, length, and a leg material blended in.   I start with Wapsi's Dark Sowbug Antron dubbing chopping it to about 1/4 inch lengths, then add gray Xylon Doll hair chopped to about 1/4 inch.  Blend these two together and check your color.  It is usually too dark and a poor match of the real bug.  Add Wapsi's Light Sowbug Antron dubbing chopped to 1/4" length to lighten it and a small amount of olive dubbing material also chopped.  Continue to add the light dubbing until you get the desired color.  Once you have attained the desired color chop all of the material one more time, blend together and now you are ready.  Wax about 3 inches of your thread with a high tack dubbing wax.  Take a wad of dubbing and touch it to the waxed portion of the thread.  The dubbing should not be too thick and evenly covering the thread.  Wrap the thread, covering the lead from the front of the lead to the back of the lead.  I do not pick out or fuzz my dubbing after it is on the lead.  Sowbugs have seven pairs of legs not a hundred and seven.

Flatten:  Take a pair of square nosed pliers and flatten the dubbing and the lead.  Don't flatten it too much or it will ruin the bug's durability, but flatten it firmly.

Segment:  Bring the strip of straw over the dubbing from the rear of the fly to the eye.  Begin to segment the straw about a 1/16 inch apart working your way to the front of the pattern.  As you are segmenting the straw keep tension on the straw so it will remain open and kind of cup around the bug's body.

Finish:  At the head of the fly place a couple wraps, trim off the straw and whip finish.

Coat:  I usually tie 10 to 25 sowbugs and stick them in a piece of foam tape or styrofoam  before coating the backs of the bug with a thinned down head cement or Hard-As-Nails clear fingernail polish.  I thin both of these to about 1/3 strength by mixing with a thinner like acetone.  Why?  Because I don't want the glue to build a thick coat on the back of the straw but to be absorbed into the materials and glue the thread to the straw back and the straw back to the dubbing and the dubbing to the lead.  This makes the bug a very strong durable unit.


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