Underbody Beautiful

Whether on stillwater or river, the depth that you fish your fly is often critical to success. There are thousands of dry fly and emerger patterns to cope with fish focusing their attention on the surface film, and if the angler can see his pattern floating inert in the film, then he is fairly certain that he is presenting the fly correctly. But what if a fly is fished sub-surface? It seems that when the angler’s fly disappears into the depths, his mind tends to click into neutral; the fly is no longer visible, so he assumes it is fishing at the correct depth, in the correct posture with the correct movement. I have witnessed many, many instances of anglers adopting this attitude, and in most cases their assumptions have been hopelessly wrong. Often I have seen anglers using long leaders in a fruitless attempt to fish their flies on the bottom because a powerful cross-wind is pulling their floating line around so fast that even the point fly will not be within feet of the lake bed. On rivers, too, it is surprising how few anglers realize the presentation skills involved in getting a Cased Caddis to counter the effects of depth and flow, enabling it to fish along the river bed. Time and time again I have seen perfect imitations being fished way above the heads of bottom feeding trout.


There are a number of factors which govern the depth and movement of a deeply fished fly, and although there are various presentational aids to assist the fly fisher such as sinking leaders, full sinking lines or even adding weight to the tippet, leading the fly often gains favor. The purpose of this article is to show that adding weight to a fly is not simply a task of wrapping sufficient lead wire around the shank to make the fly sink quickly, and I will also show how the thinking fly dresser can use leading techniques to vary his presentation of the fly, the depth it fishes, and the way it moves in the water – all of which may be significant in inducing a take – and that careful choice of hook, weighting material and the manner in which it is used can ensure the look of the dressing is enhanced rather than to making it look cumbersome and bulky.

Firstly, let’s take a look at the weighting factors at the fly dresser’s disposal, taking into consideration the objectives of the completed pattern in terms of sink-rate, posture and movement in the water, at the same time bearing in mind the shape of the completed fly.

Factors which can be used to affect weight and sink-rate of the fly:

  1. Choice of hook pattern;
  2. Gold and silver wire and tinsels used for ribbings can vary, not only in width but also in material and, therefore, density;
  3. Copper wire can be used as a ribbing and also as an underwind for a less dense underbody;
  4. Lead wire, solder wire, of different diameters;
  5. Flat lead foil, in strips or in pre-cut form;
  6. Pre-formed lead underbodies;
  7. Lead (non-toxic) pinch on shot;
  8. Gold, silver and copper heads;
  9. Lead dumbbell eyes;
  10. Malleable weight materials;
  11. Epoxies and varnish;
  12. Bead chain eyes;
  13. Type of materials used in the fly’s construction (degree of absorbency)


We must also take into consideration what I call the influencing factors. Given the same weighted pattern of the fly, the way it behaves in a fishing situation would vary considerably dependent on the prevailing conditions at the time. You should always pay close attention to these factors before you begin to fish.

There are thirteen possible influences which will affect the behavior of your fly:

  1. The pattern of hook used;
  2. The construction of the dressing and pattern;
  3. The materials used in that dressing;
  4. The amount of weight;
  5. The position of that weight on the hook shank;
  6. The form of the weight factor;
  7. The presentation. That is the angle of cast made, the tippet length, the amount of control exerted, direction of cast (up or downstream, or down, against or across the wind and wave movement);
  8. The water movement (still, moving, turbulent and drag that may result);
  9. The attitude of the fly (hook point up or down);
  10. The pattern of the fly;
  11. The leader set up (leader systems, or weight additions to the tippet etc.);
  12. The method of retrieve;
  13. The method of attachment from tippet to fly.


This may be a lot to take in, but the factors are all related in you think about it.

Naturally, the choice of hook pattern is a priority. In general, longshank hooks are used to tie representations of bottom-dwelling organisms, standard lures and fry and baitfish patterns.

There are a number of options available for you to weight the hook, but you must also take into account the proposed profile of the fly, and its proposed fishing method.

Here are some options for weighting:
N.B. The most useful lead wire diameter is 0.35-0.37 mm diameter.

  1. A level wind of lead wire along the length of the shank will provide a medium weight factor (hook 1). Ideal for slow retrieves along the stillwater bed, or in slow-moving rivers.
  2. A level wind of lead along the hookshank length, then additional layers may also be wound around the first layer at various positions (hook 2). This method is ideal for slim profiles e.g. Caddis Larva (Stick Fly) which can be fished in stillwater or slow-moving rivers.
  3. Short length of wound lead wire,either one or two layers (hook 3). This provides a small amount of weight at the head and is a good choice for patterns such as the Damselfly Nymph when it is tied with a dubbed body. It is very useful in weedy areas, possessing sufficient weight to get it down, but not too much to cause it to consistently hang up on the bottom. I fish this style a great deal when fishing in between weed pockets in shallow water.
  4. Profile shapes: three strands of lead wire are twisted tightly together then tied along the side of the shank (hook 4). In my view this is the best method to adopt for the Alder and Dragonfly Nymph patterns creating a wide platform for the fly body and a fair amount of weight. it is also the method I use for my woven Corixa and other beetle type patterns.
  5. Twisted or solid lead profiles may also be formed by binding the lengths above and below the shank (hook 5). This method works well for fry and minnow lures which are to be tied with Mylar overbodies, and it can also be used for Caddis patterns. You can make some very heavyweight patterns using this technique.
  6. Flat lead profiles. Lead foil, or the lead from quality wine bottle tops can be cut into tapered lengths and reducing widths and built up in layers to form a nice shallow, domed underbody. it can be tied in above (hook 6) or below the shank, which influences whether the fly will swim hook-point up or down. This method will also allow for extra-heavyweight nymphs to be tied whilst retaining an overall natural profile. It is ideal for Mayfly and Stonefly nymph patterns, and imitating the free-swimming caddis of running water.
  7. The use of a profiled hook, such as the Partridge Draper H3ST will also allow for medium weight factors to be built into patterns. Lead wire can be used for lower weights, (hook 7) or flat lead may be cut to profile and build up in layers above and below the shank (hook 8). This forms an ideal base for Dragonfly Nymphs.
  8. The Van Klinken method: a great method for moving water situations. A lead (non-toxic) shot is pinched onto a length of nylon, which is then tied onto the hookshank at the eye (hook 9). It will generally cause the fly to fish hookpoint uppermost, although this cannot be guaranteed in fast-moving waters. It is also a good method to use on stillwaters when you need to get the fly on the deck without the continued aggravation of hang-ups.
  9. Lead dumbbell eyes: These will create a very heavy front end to the fly and are available in different weight categories (hook 10). They can be painted with eyes if desired. Has a great influence on the action of the fly in the water.
  10. Bead-chain eyes: will create a medium weight factor at the hook eye (hook 11). Useful for representing eyes, or as added flash to a fly. Plastic chain eyes are also available. These may be painted and add very little weight. both (9) and (10) may influence the fly to fish point uppermost or down, this would depend on the tying used.
  11. Lead or tin heads: provide a very heavy front end to the fly, producing an exaggerated action (hook 12). Heads may be painted to suit. Used mostly for lure-type patterns, usually with a marabou wing. Look out! Can be dangerous to the user!!
  12. Gold/silver/copper beads: have become extremely popular. Feed onto hook and secure at the eye, the body of the fly is then made accordingly (hook 13). Beads are available in various sizes. Provides both additional weight and added attraction. Useful for both still and running water.
  13. Once again, the plated beads may be used.
  14. All previous methods may be used.
  15. Wound and flattened: This is the method I use for hook sizes of size 12 and smaller to create weight and profile, particularly for those nymphs found in moving water (hook 14). First a level wind is made, then the lead is flattened either by compressing it with a flat-sided tool or in a pair of flat-jawed pliers. Well varnished, the underbody should not move. Use various gauges of wire to suit (hook 15), I use 0.01 gauge.
  16. Ultra-fine lead foil: Cut into a strip and wound along the hook shank, it provides a very small weight factor (hook 16). Ideal for shallow water feeding fish on both still and running water. Also useful for getting a small nymph just under the surface when using upstream nymphing techniques. Also food for caddis and midge imitations when they are required to fish just sub-surface on stillwaters.
  17. Double-strand strip: Two short lengths of wire are tied above or below the shank (hook 17). This is an ideal method for smaller hooks, say 16-18. It provides a small amount of weight without altering the profile too much. One of my personal favorites.
  18. Solid or twisted lead above (hook 18) or below the shank. A popular method for adding weight and underbody profile for patterns such as shrimp and louse.


In all cases of wound or stacked lead it is good policy to varnish the lead underbody before you begin to tie the actual fly.

The addition of weight to a fly can really make a difference between success and failure; I try and tie most of my nymphs in a variety of weights and styles so I can fish them according to the conditions.

In rough conditions on stillwater the addition of weight to your fly will allow it to fish well down in an easily controlled manner, particularly when a floating line is used. Leader length may be shortened to contend with the conditions, while a slow (if any) recovery is employed. Often as not, the surface movement of the wind and waves will cause the floating fly line to drift with sufficient movement to animate the artificial. This can be a deadly method along dam walls and deep water ledges where the action of the buffeting wind washes food organisms out into open water and concentrates them there. I frequently use both leaded Midge Pupa and Caddis patterns in such a situation.

Another rough water situation which lends itself to the leaded fly, is when either caddis or midges are emerging. The extra weight of the patterns helps to get them fishing just a fraction deeper, and this can sometimes make all the difference. The foraging trout may just have a little more time to view your fly below the wave troughs, when an unweighted pattern is constantly topping the surface waves.

You may also find that on those dead calms, a weighted Pupa gets through the surface tension that bit quicker. Often the surface tension can be quite powerful in these situations and the film becomes scummy. The leaded fly will help to avoid surface drag and line wake on the retrieve.

In next months article I will look at the way fly presentation is affected by various styles of dressing and other, external influencing factors.