Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

The term “Synthetic” has a broad meaning in the Fly Tying realm.  It is generally accepted that synthetic fly tying materials began to appear post-WWII as the use of acrylics, polyesters, silicones, polyurethanes, commonly known as plastics and other human concoctions made their way into the manufacturing mainstream.  Probably the most widespread application is that of “Mylar” a branded polyester film developed by DuPont in the 1950s.  A definition of the terms “Synthetic”—“ something resulting from synthesis rather than occurring naturally”  and “Synthesis”—“ : the production of a substance by the union of chemical elements, groups, or simpler compounds or by the degradation of a complex compound”  leave no doubt about the type of material we today call “synthetic”.  But what about glass, more particularly glass beads?

Is glass a synthetic or natural material?  The answer is yes to both.  Glass occurs naturally and takes many forms in nature.  Obsidian is a great example.  But humans have manipulated the formula for glass—silica and heat—for centuries to fabricate glass into all manner of forms, colors and uses.  One of those synthetically created uses is the glass bead, by many accounts, a 3500 year old creation.

Today, glass beads suitable for application to fly tying are mainstream in the crafting business.  Often called seed beads, all manner of colors, shapes and sizes are available, some expensively marketed specifically for fly tying while others are an exceptionally inexpensive commodity on the craft materials market.

Fly tiers are a creative bunch and glass beads have found their way into a variety of applications in our flies.  The most common method might be the typical bead at the head of the fly just behind the hook eye on nymphal patterns and midge pupa.  Although glass beads add but a little weight, they do a great job of replicating the air bubble that sometimes forms as nymphs and pupa rise to the surface and emerge.  An excellent tactic for those swinging soft-hackles.

Another common application is the use of multiple beads on caddis larval patterns to replicate a segmented body.  You see a lot of different patterns that use this technique.

Moving rearward, a single glass bead can be tied at the hook bend to replicate an egg sack on any nymphal pattern as well.

Two of the most creative uses of glass beads that I’ve seen are the Bead Butt Ant and as eyes on Damsel nymphs.  On the ant pattern, a single bead is secured at the hook bend while the remainder of the ant fly is tied in the traditional manner—hackle in the middle and a slim head.  Translucent beads in red, black, copper and brown make for a realistic ant abdomen. These might not float as well but do a great job of replicating a drowning ant.  On the Damsel nymph, two glass beads are strung on a piece of monofilament with one end burned to a nub then the other end burned to a nub. The eyes are then tied tight to the hook shank behind the hook eye.

Glass beads are also used on articulated streamers to buffer wire loops against the hook bend.

There are likely other applications I’ve omitted here, but the glass bead definitely is a useful material for the fly tier.  Whether you use inexpensive craft beads or those marketed for fly tying, to bead or not to bead is the glass question you have to answer.

4 Comments

  1. Nice topic Mike, and some interesting patterns there too…some of which seem to use beads in place of round or tubular ribbing, to create an interesting segmented effect.

    I’ve used glass beads a fair amount for the head of a fly, and visually they’re nice, at least to the human eye. But ultimately I migrated away from them for that particular use, because they could be an aggravation to thread on, they enjoyed even odds of ending up under the sofa instead of on the hook, they had to fit over a barb but not “hood” the hook’s eye, they seemed to want a longer hook shank than a wound-thread head usually does, the tinted translucent effect can also be achieved with a bit of UV-curable resin on thread, they’re not as good at weighting a fly as a metal bead is, and most importantly I never saw any indication that a glass bead fly head was more interesting to the fish. So I have many hundreds of small glass beads in a lot of beautiful colors that I almost never use these days.

    But I rarely if ever tried high contrast, and that could possibly change results. And admittedly my use of glass beads was limited to the fly’s head; I should probably play with some of the other interesting use cases you presented. If nothing else it would be fun to see if some new killer fly could come out of it. They do look sharp.

    – Mike

  2. Interesting article, as a 71 year old grandmother fly tier who started out as a jewelry maker many years ago, turned fly tier in 2012, using glass beads was a cheap alternative at the beginning of my fly tying business. I like the Ant body idea, will be trying that use. My question or wish is why is there so many different sizes of hooks within a certain size. Not all metal bead heads fit over the bend the same size and shape of hook. I have 3 different brands of size 12 or 10 wet hooks and the same size tungsten or other metal bead will not work from one brand of hook to another. I have not purchased slotted beads, would that resolve my problem. I like Mustad hooks S70-3399, wet and dry because of the larger eye and at a reasonable price and available before Covid. To bad the Eagle Claw American Made hook company didn’t expand into fly fishing hooks as many fly tiers would love to use and market made in America using American products. I did find years ago a Trout hook made by Eagle Claw, but have since not seen them. Any help on finding the right size bead heads to match hooks would be appreciated. And yes I have tried using the charts but just a slight difference in the bend of the hook from brand to brand leaves me with hooks or beads I can’t use because they are either to large or small for the hook size and brand I have. When in a bind I have used my jewelry tools to alter the bend of a hook or two. Happy tying and fishing the streams and water ways of Northwestern PA.

    1. If you are using barbed hooks you can crimp the barb down and make it barbless. That may help for most of your beads. Yes I had the same issues with beads and later found out that all beads are not created equal.

  3. I’ve found that like Leah mentioned the hook bend is often more of a problem than the barb. Most barbs I use are already micro-barbs (and I already lose more than half the fish I hook), but the troubles I’ve had with glass beads were more in getting them over York bends and other non-circular bends…of #16 and smaller gapes. Bigger glass beads would work but I think they look too huge. Like you say, all beads are not created equal. Beads can protect the final whip-knot from trout teeth, but anymore I just go with a thread head and plenty of hard glossy head cement. I use weight-wire (.010″ or .015″) to get any extra weight I want.

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