Mole Fly tied by The Demuths

Mole Fly above was tied by J.Stockard Pros John and Katie Demuth. Pattern originated by Charlie Craven.


Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide (retired), founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

Some fly fishers are fairly casual about color. They will simply buy whatever flies are on offer in the fly shop bins.  Or, if they tie their own flies, they will purchase a packet of tying material labeled as appropriate for the hatch in question.  Other fly fishers can be quite obsessive on this issue.  They have a very definite search image of what the “right” color is for a given purpose.

Getting Choosy About Color in Fly Tying

Borger Color System
Borger Color System image

I find it incredible that there are still some folks fussy enough to dye their own materials.  I used to do some dying, but it’s been many years since I bothered with it. 

Believe it or not, when I was a rookie fly tyer it was often difficult to find any product that would fill a particular need. As the fly fishing and fly tying industry expanded beyond my wildest imagination, I soon chucked my collection of pots and pans and sieves and packets of dye.  I no longer felt a need for them, and I don’t miss them a bit.


I must confess, however, that I often modify commercially-produced dubbing products to suit my own somewhat irrational preferences. I have an extensive collection of both natural and synthetic dubbing, in a wide variety of colors and textures, with or without added flash and other amendments.  I often feel a need to tweak these products to suit myself, adding a dash of this and a dab of that until I like the result.


Even so, I understand that the casual approach to color is the most logical.  Although fish can certainly be selective to color, the color of natural insects and other forage items is often variable to a surprising degree.  Water chemistry and other environmental factors can exert an influence from one stream to another.  Color can vary even among individual specimens from the same location. 


The late fly fishing luminary Dave Whitlock, a man who was a masterful fly fisher, tyer, and artist, understood this well.  In one of his videos, he seines up a collection of stonefly nymphs from a riffle.  He sorts out those of the dominant species present and lays them out side by side from light to dark.  He makes the point that these specimens of the same species, collected at the same time, from the same riffle, show a noticeable range of color value and hue.


There are other variables to consider beyond the actual color of the insect itself.  Do fish see color in the same way as humans?  Are we judging the color of our materials in natural or artificial light?


Humans do not all perceive color in the same way.  What looks right to one person will look entirely wrong to another.  What this means to the practical fly fisher is that when attempting to tie or fish imitative flies, it’s usually sufficient to be “in the ballpark” with color.  That is not to say that color is unimportant, just that it’s not as critical as we sometimes believe it to be.


During my years as a fly shop clerk, we had a regular customer who was very color-blind.  Jimmy was a serious fly fisher and fly tyer, and you can imagine the challenges this deficit posed.  Once he came in and asked me to help him choose dubbing for a Blue-Winged Olive.  When I offered a choice of several different shades of olive, he explained that to him they all looked the same.  “Pick one,” he said.  And so I did. At times Jimmy would show me flies he had tied at home, with materials he had on hand that were not labeled by color. Many of the colors he chose appeared wildly, laughably incorrect to anyone with normal color vision.  I often had no clue what insect they were meant to imitate.  Yet he fished those flies with some success.  It’s up to you how you want to interpret that.  Fortunately Jimmy had a good sense of humor about the entire subject.


All oddities aside, however, most of us want the color of our flies to match what we see on the natural insect.  Even if we understand the uncertain nature of this process, it’s a confidence builder if our flies look right to us.  And there’s nothing at all wrong with pursuing what we see as the perfect color of tying material, if it pleases us to do so.

The Borger Color System

Many years ago, legendary fly fishing author Gary Borger recognized a need for a means of standardizing the colors of fly tying materials. He came up with the Borger Color System (BCS).  I read about this product in his 1991 book Designing Trout Flies


Making an impulse purchase of the BCS at a fly fishing show was an easy decision.  This pocket-sized booklet contains color patches that I immediately recognized as the reference chips used by house painters had carefully chosen the limited number of chips that could be included to cover the most important aquatic insect hatches.  He also provided a pad of “Data Sheets,” enabling those so inclined to record detailed field observations of insect specimens.  This methodical, scientific approach is just what you’d expect from a man who, in addition to his fly fishing career, was a professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin.


As happens with so many good ideas, the Borger Color System has largely faded into obscurity.  In preparing to write this article, I Googled the BCS and found quite a few on-line references.  However, it is not readily available and I have confirmed with Gary Borger that it’s out-of-print.  One website I found offered a used copy for $50.00.  I don’t remember what I paid for mine, new.  But I guarantee you it was a fairly small fraction of that price.


Although I’ve never taken my BCS out streamside, I do use it as a reference when mixing up batches of my home-made dubbing blends. The middling olive-tan color I use for flies to suggest spring hatches of Hydropsyche and Cheumatopsyche caddis, for instance, is BCS 28.  It’s not that I think this is an absolute necessity, but accurately reproducing this favorite color makes me feel better about my flies and that is not an insignificant thing.


The basic premise of the BCS remains very sound. Anyone can curate their own personal collection of color references.  You can find paint color sample cards at almost any hardware or home improvement store, free for the taking.  Pick out a few color chips that look like a good match for the flies or materials you most frequently buy.  You can then cross-reference the cards to natural insects, artificial flies, and tying materials at home or while fishing.  This can be a powerful tool that frees you from depending solely on your memory of color, which can be unreliable.

I hope you find this concept helpful.  Tight lines and tight threads!



Annabelle McMillan

Annabelle McMillan

I have a large tote —about 300 packages—of Scintilla dubbing that seems to use the Borger Color System. Each package is numbered. For example there is an olive .63 & a dark yellow .46. They are from the Ernest Schwiebert Signature Series. I think Mr. Schwiebert also designed the art on the package.



“And there’s nothing at all wrong with pursuing what we see as the perfect color of tying material, if it pleases us to do so.”

Well said and what I love most about tying. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for Borger’s books from now on as well.



“And there’s nothing at all wrong with pursuing what we see as the perfect color of tying material, if it pleases us to do so.”

Well said and what I love most about tying. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for Borger’s books from now on as well.

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