Fly & Field presents...
How to Tie the Hairbug
by Dave Whitlock
Whether you tie or buy, there are things about proper deer hair lure construction you should know. A properly constructed hairbug will outlast several wooden or plastic-headed bass bugs.
Any fly-rodder who plans to fish for bass should know about deer hair bug design. These buoyant and neutral buoyancy lures not only are lighter, easier to cast and more durable than other bug designs, they'll usually take more fish, too. Whether you're a fly tyer or a fly buyer, I'll guarantee that if you learn all there is to know about this outstanding design you'll have more fun fishing and catch more bass in the years to come.
What is a hairbug?
A hairbug is a fly whose head or body is, for the most part, made from the light, hollow, coarse body hair of such animals as deer, elk, antelope or caribou. Such hair is uniquely constructed and tied so that it provides the fly with bulk, buoyancy, realistic texture, flexibility and action very similar to many natural foods that fish favor.
A wide range of bass foods- including frogs, snakes, spiders, rodents, lizards, birds, crayfish, insects and fish - are easily imitated with the hair head. Not only do hairbug imitations encompass just about all earthly bass foods, they can also be used in attractor-type flies designed to excite bass.
Hairbugs, of course, are not new. In fact they are among the very oldest of fly designs. They were used by Indians and by white settlers to catch various gamefish. Hairbug tying was very nearly perfected by a handful of men in the first half of this century. Sadly though, many of their methods were kept secret and were taken to the grave with them.
Hairbug tying for personal use and for the marketplace almost became extinct from the 1940's through the 1960's. As fly fishing and fly tying experienced a strong renaissance in the 1960's and 1970's, the method and art of tying hairbugs was revived and perfected to the point that they are once again very prominent and popular throughout this country. I have been studying the art of making hairbugs for a little more than two decades, yet I am still learning new and better ways to build them. Some tyers have been lucky enough to inherit or purchase bugs by such original masters as Joe Messenger. They carefully untie them, seeking to discover the secrets hidden in their hair, thread and cementing techniques.
Hollow Hair Flaring
The common denominator of all hairbugs is the hollow stemmed hair (described by Dave Inks elsewhere in this issue). Hairbug heads or bodies are composed of this hollow hair that has been almost magically attached and "flared" to the hook's shank.
Hollow hair flaring can perhaps be best illustrated with a number of flexible, walled tubes (such as three or four-inch pieces of plastic straws), a table knife and some strong twine. First lay one straw on a firm flat surface and press the knife blade edge across its middle. As the blade's pressure collapses the wall, the ends of the tube flare up in response to the wall's distortion. An equally sized, rigid, solid shaft, when equally pressured, will neither distort nor flare. So a solid stiff hair will not work in this hairbug tying method. Next take a small bundle of plastic straws (say eight to 12) and wrap a length of twine very tightly around them. Notice that they flare and radiate in all directions.
When a thread is wrapped tightly around a bunch of hollow hair shafts, each bends and flares up away from the pressure point of the thread, just as the hollow straws did. If the hair is held horizontal to a hook's shank, the wrapping thread flares the hair as it attaches it to the hook. The bug's body is thus made by varying the size of the hair bunch and adding and flaring successive bunches to the hook's shank. The initial result is an irregular length, spiney-like, bristly bunch of hair. This can then be shaped by a razor blade, clippers or scissors into a semi-smooth, desirable contour.
The amount, texture, color and sequence in which this hair is flared on the hook determines the style and pattern of the hairbug. The size and shape of the head trim creates the water action and noise it will have. So learning to flare the hollow hairs gives almost unlimited options in creating suggestive or imitative bass bugs. The same method also is extremely useful in trout and saltwater fly designs.
Anatomy of the Hairbug
The parts of a hairbug may be a bit confusing without ample explanation. I have listed below the basic parts you should know:
- Head or Body- That portion of flared hair over any portion of the hook's shank. This can simulate the creature's head, body or both. Further descriptive parts such as face, eyes, whiskers, belly, neck, side and back are commonly included in more complete tying descriptions and instructions.
- Tail- The materials extending back and past the hook's bend. The tail can simulate an extension of body and tail, tail, or legs of the creature.
- Skirt- The hackle or hair collar between the hairbody and tail.
- Wings- The materials that extend out from the side or back of the head which simulate the wings.
- Legs- The materials that extend out of the body's side to simulate legs.
- Snag Guard- A mono loop or piece of stiff mono or wire that discourages the hook from hanging up on various obstacles and weeds.
A Good Hairbug
A well designed and constructed hairbug consists of the following properties:
- For maximum durability the hair body should be compact and securely attached to the hook shank.
- The hook's bend, full gape and point should be exposed from hair head. If obstructed you will experience difficulty in setting the hook.
- The hook's eye should be visible and open. An eye obstructed by thread, cement or hair is a sign of poor overall construction. You will have difficulty attaching the leader.
- Hook size and head size should be in proportion. The head should be no wider than the hook's gape.
- Tails, wings or leg materials should be soft and flexible and they should not pull out.
- Thread finish wraps at the hook's eye should be neat, not excessive, tight and should be finished with a good varnish or cement coating.
- The bug hair head should be dense, yet squeezable.
- It should feature a flexible loop snag-guard that works well without significantly reducing the hooking potential or encouraging the bug to tangle with the leader tippet.
- A good hairbug should not be bulky or highly wind-resistant. If properly designed, it will not twist the leader or land upside down when it is cast.
Making a Simple Hairbug
By mastering the tools, materials and techniques required to construct this typical hairbug one can easily tie most of the hairbug styles such as moths, mice, poppers, slides, frogs, etc. The single most important step is to learn how to handle, flare, spin and tie hollow hair.
Vise, thread, bobbin, scissors, hackle pliers, small fine-toothed comb, razor blade, needle-nose pliers, diamond nail file, deer hair packer and whip finisher.
Hook- Stinger hairbug hook (super wide gape) size 6 to 1/0, or ringed eye, regular length, round bend hook size 1/0.
Tying Thread- Single-strand nylon floss or a strong size A nylon thread.
Snag Guard- Strand of stiff Mason nylon monofilament (.019 to .022 inch in diameter) or similar hard nylon monofilament.
Cements and Coating- Pilobond, rod varnish, 3M Scotchgard.
Tail- Two pair of grizzly or cree soft, wide, webby, cock-neck hackles.
Skirt- Two hackles similar to tail hackles.
Body- Natural dun grey-brown or coarse mule or Northern whitetail deer body hair.
Face- Coarse white mule or whitetail deer hair, either bleached or natural white.
Eyes (optional)- Two medium-size plastic doll eyes.
- Hook preparation - Place the hook upside down in the tying vise so that the point and barb are clear and above vise jaws. With the pliers carefully press the hook's barb down to half its original angle. With a diamond nail file sharpen the point so that it easily sticks in you fingernail's surface. This double-prep procedure assures that the bug's hook will have fast, deep penetration when in the toughest parts of a bass' mouth.
- Thread and Snag Guard Attachment- Remove the hook and place it back in the vise jaws, shank up. Be careful not to enclose the hook's barb and point in the jaws grip.
A. Attach tying thread one quarter shank length forward of the hook's bend.
B. Cut a six-inch section of Mason nylon monofilament. With pliers flatten the end over a 1/4-inch length.
C. Place the flattened end on top of the hook's shank just forward of the bend. Wrap it tightly with tying thread, keeping it on top of the hook's shank. Wrap thread back over the nylon and hook until nylon is bound on the hook's upper bend. This position ensures proper snag guard angle later. Advance thread back up to the end of the hook's shank. Coat all wraps with thinned Pliobond cement. The snag guard will be completed in Step 8.
- Tying on the Tails -
A. Pick one pair of hackle and hold them so the bright sides are together and the tips turn out in opposite directions. Hold their stems on the right and left sides of the hook shank and allow the tips to extend one to 1 1/2 hook shank lengths back past the hook bend. Make several loose wraps around the hackle pair stems and hook shank where the nylon strand is tied on shank. Shank and nylon provide a side base for the stems to rest. Now make six to 10 even firm thread wraps over the stems to bind them to the hook shank. With scissors cut away excess hackle stems in front of the thread wraps.
B. Repeat the procedure with the second pair of tail hackle except position them one quarter length shorter than the first pair. Make sure that this pair also flares out on each side of the hook and that it sticks straight back in line with the hook shank. The bug will spin if they are angled.
A. Take the two skirt hackles and cut away fuzzy parts at the base of the stems. Attach both to the hook right in front of the tail butts and nylon strand tie-down. The bright sides of each hackle should be facing you.
B. Grasp each individually by the tip with the thumb and index finger or hackle pliers and wrap them around the hook's shank over the tied-down butts. Wrap each in the same direction as you have wrapped your thread. Form a neat hackle fiber skirt with the hackle and tie the tips down to the shank in front of the skirt. Cut away excess hackle tips. The skirt should not extend over more than one quarter of the hook shank. Place a modest drop of Pilobond right at the base of the skirt. (Study angle, proportion and length of skirt in illustrations.)
- The Body
A. Select a piece of deer hair on skin that is at least 1 1/2 to 2 inches in shaft length. With scissors cut off a bunch of hair close to the skin that is approximately the bulk of a fat pen or pencil. Cut about half an inch off the tips so that the total length of the hair bunch is about one to 1 1/2 inches long. Longer hair will give you problems during the flaring and spinning procedure.
B. Grasp the cut bunch firmly by the tips and, with the fine-toothed comb, remove the fuzzy underhair with several strokes through the butt ends. Now take a deep breath and relax! Flaring deer hair is easy and fascinating if you don't get uptight with worry. NOTE: Remember your t ying thread will provide two physical actions: a tightening around hair and hook shank and a torque or rotation. Both these are used to flare and spin the hair properly.
C. Hold the bunch of hair above the bare hook shank, tips to the rear, butts pointing toward the hook's eye. With tying thread encircle the middle of the hair and the bare hook shank twice while holding firmly to the tip end of the bunch.
D. Slowly, carefully and firmly, while still holding the hair in place, tighten the two wraps until the butts begin to flare up and to the sides at nearly right angles to the hook shank. Make one or two more quick, tight wraps in the same middle line with the first two thread wraps and release your finger hold on the tips. This allows the hair to completely flare and move around the hook shank. Now make one or two more tight wraps down through the flared hair to anchor it. Take one more wrap to advance the thread in front of the hair.
E. Wrap the tying thread three to six times tightly around the bare shank as close to the flared hair as possible. Now with your thumb and index finger or a ball point pen handle (hair packer) over the hook's eye and shank, push the bunch of hair back firmly against the skirt base.
F. Advance the thread with one or two wraps forward on the bare hook shank and repeat A through E procedure. Push and pack each bunch of flared hair very firmly against the other bunches with a twisting, pushing pressure. This builds an extremely dense body composed of just flared hair. Stop the body with about one quarter of the shank bare behind the hook's eye to leave room for the face, snag guard and finish. Most bodies of a 1/0 size require four to eight bunches unless extremely large individual bunches are used. I prefer a greater number of small bunches and vigorous packing of the body hair. A good hairbug should have most of the hair spun evenly around the hook shank. Take care in spinning and finger positioning the hair bunches to get as much evenness as possible. You can also make two- or three- colored bodies by using more than one hair color, either by alternating the deer hair bunches or mixing the hair colors for a freckled spectrum effect.
A. Cut a bunch of white or bright yellow deer hair about the size of a pencil's diameter. Remove underfur and size it to a length of one to 1 1/2 inches.
B. Hold it over the hook shank and wrap and flare it, but do not release it to spin completely around the hook shank. Anchor it down and push it back into the body hair. Try to keep most of the face hair on the top and the sides of the bug, as its function is to improve your ability to see the bug when it is in the water. Remember to leave enough room at the eye end of the hook to tie down the mono loop.
- Body Shaping
A. Half-hitch the tying thread twice at the hook's eye and cut the thread. Remove the bug from the tying vise. Relax again, you are about to begin one of the most fascinating parts of bug making, the sculpturing of the body. Take your time and trim just a little hair with each cut.
B. With your fingers adjust and even the body hair as much as possible. Next take a sharp razor blade and cut the hair close under the hook shank and nearly flat back to the skirt. This opens the hook's gape for good hooking and creates a stable bottom on which the bug can float.
C. With sharp scissors or razor blade trim the bug body and face to a desired shape and size. Cut down a little at a time to avoid irreparable mistakes in trimming.Note: A most helpful trimming aid is to lightly spray just the body (not tails and skirt) with Tuffilm. Allow it to dry and then begin trimming. The flexible plastic slightly stiffens and holds the hair, making cutting or trimming much easier. It also adds durability to the hair.
A good trim design rule is not to make the body much thicker than the hook's gape and shape it so the hook is uniformly centered in the body hair. Then it will cast without twisting and land flat on the water. It is at this point that you shape the head to give whatever action and water disturbance you need. You can trim to a popper head, silent slider head, frog head, skipper, darter, etc.
- Snag Guard (Finish)
A. Bend the nylon strand around and under the hook's bend and place the bug back into the vise jaws. Attach the tying thread in front of the face and overwrap the remainder of shank up to the hook eye.
B. Put the nylon strand through the hook's eye to form a loop with it under the bend, point and shank.