A Little History of the Girdle Bug First...
Before going any further, a little history on the girdle bug is in order. It is believed Frank McGinnis of Anaconda, Montana created the fly in the 1930’s or 40’s. He developed it to mimic the stoneflies on the Big Hole River. The fly was originally dubbed the ‘McGinnis rubber legs;’ its current name is in honor of the rubber legs that were originally taken from a girdle (or at least that’s the folklore).
It is easy to tie and durable as long as you fortify the thread on the head with a lot of head cement, or, my favorite UV Knot Sense by Loon (this is cured in 5-10 seconds with a UV flashlight). Trout love to chomp on this fly and will cut the head thread in short order. The original fly was tied by wrapping lead wire down the entire shank of the hook. That version of the fly sinks like a rock. However, if you are not fishing on a large western river with lots of current, you will spend most of your time trying to unsnag your fly or tying on a new fly every other cast as you had to break off another snag. The fly is versatile in that it works well as the original version, with no weight at all, and everything in between (more on that later).
Last year I hired a guide to learn more about night fishing. According to the fly shop, this guy catches more fish over 20” in a year than many catch in their life. During the course of our outing he asked me what was my favorite fly.
With no hesitation I replied, “A girdle bug”.
He laughed and said, “You’ve got to be kidding, right?”
I replied, “Nope, seriously it is one of the most versatile flies I know of.”
Here's how I came to that conclusion...
Fishing the Girdle Bug
It started innocently enough. A friend of mine and I went trout fishing in Montana for a week. We were catching fish erratically and the fish were of modest size. It was time to start experimenting so I started digging through my fly box. It was midday so I knew I needed something that would get down quickly in the deeper holes. I came to three beadhead black girdle bugs and thought, “Hmm, these should get down alright.”
For no good reason I had never used these on the rivers around my house, and I have no idea how I ended up with three of them in my fly box, but this decision was the beginning of my love affair with girdle bugs. I lost count of how many fish I caught that day and eventually I lost all three flies. But I was convinced this was the fly of choice.
The next morning we went to the local hardware store that doubled as a fly shop and bought all of their size 8 beadhead girdle bugs. For the remainder of the trip we used the girdle bugs almost non-stop. It turned a not-quite-average trip into a fantastic one.
Anyone who has trout fished knows that it is fairly common for a fly to work on one river but not on others. When I got back home, I still had four girdle bugs left and about two more weeks of the trout season. So, I tied on a girdle bug on my next outing to my favorite river and voilà, it worked like magic again. That’s when I started thinking this might be the next closest thing to a magic bullet fly.
Just to be clear, there is no such thing as a magic bullet fly that works every time. There are times when it doesn’t work. Usually, when this happens the fish aren’t biting and almost nothing works (except dynamite, which always works, but it is unfortunately illegal and not very sporting).
A few years later I was back in Montana with a friend in April for an early season trip. Our guide talked us into coming in mid-April with the hopes of catching the Skwala hatch. We missed the full-fledged hatch but saw some sporadic flies on one of the three days with our guide. It was the last couple of hours of the last day and not much was happening. The guide decided we should start experimenting as he knew we were in good water. While he was tying on a couple of flies for my friend, I asked what he thought I should use (I wanted to tie on the flies so I could get back to fishing). He told me to pick out a couple flies; so, you guessed it, I tied on a beadhead girdle bug with a beadhead nymph dropper and put on a float indicator.
I was just about to cast when the guide asked to see my flies. He laughed when he saw my girdle bug and said, “Well, if you don’t get anything in a few minutes, I’ll pick out a couple of flies for you.” Fifteen minutes and four fish later the guide asked if I had any more so he could tie one on for my friend. We both caught fish regularly until we arrived at the take out spot.
These are just a few of the many stories I could tell of how a girdle bug fly saved the day for me and my fishing partners.
My Go-To Girdle Bug Recipe
I have been testing different body and leg materials, weights, and colors ever since. If I could only have one style of a girdle bug, I would choose a black body with yellow silicone legs and no weight (you can always add a couple of split shot if need be, but it is really difficult to take off a bead or lead wire underneath the body on a finished fly). It seems crazy but my experience is that size #10 works well almost all day whereas the larger ones tend to work better in low or no light conditions.
Observations on various types of tying materials.
What follows are some generalizations for materials I use. At the end I will provide some specific combinations of materials that have proven to be especially productive for me.
I like to use Daiichi #1530 hooks. They use 2X-heavy hooks and have a 1X-short length. This short heavy hook serves as a built in weight. You may be surprised how deep these will go with the correct leg and body material. I carry #10, #6, and #4 size flies. I also carry flies tied on a size #4 Daiichi #1720 hook since it has a 3X-long shank. This is reserved for dark and low light fishing to entice the big boys to eat!
First and foremost are how the chosen leg material influences the drop rate of the fly. I have found round rubber legs retard the drop rate. So if you want to use them, be sure to add more weight to achieve the desired drop rate. My preferred legs are thin and extremely supple (they are still surprisingly durable). I cut pieces that are about two-times longer than the hook shank I am using. Spirit River Flex-Floss, Sili Legs, and Hareline Dubbin Life Flex are my preferred leg materials. My experience is that these have a minimal effect on the drop rate. Sometimes these can be hard to find, so be flexible and use what you can find as long as it is very supple and thin.
>Point in case on how the leg material influences the drop rate: I accidentally used the small round rubber legs from Rainy’s for a few #10 flies. I generally like to use these as a dropper off an attractor fly. With thin and supple materials and a heavy hook the #10 fly can get to three feet in slower water. I cast the round legs fly out and happened to see the fly before I picked up for the next cast and it was only two to three inches below the surface. I kept watching as I recast the fly several times and it always came back at that depth. If you need to get the fly down to the fish, it will require some split shot. However, if the fish are hanging near the shore (as they often do), using round legs will keep your fly high in the water column and avoid snags. In that situation, round legs have the advantage.
As far as color goes, I have not been able to convince myself that one color is superior to another. I tend to use legs that contrast with the body color. Feel free to experiment. Here’s what I use for the three basic colors I carry (My fly tying cabinet is fairly small, so, I try to find something that looks good and works. Then I stick with it. This table does not mean other combinations will not work.):
Body & Leg Color Combinations
|Green/Olive||Brown (with or without speckles), Black|
A final point: I stopped tying the rubber legs at the front of the fly which are supposed to imitate the antennae. I can’t tell a discernible difference in catch rate with or without the front legs. Besides, they make it a pain to tie on or cut off a fly.
For years I used the standard chenille with excellent success. A couple years ago I started experimenting with various Mylar chenille products. For the #10 and #6 flies I prefer the Mylar chenille; my favorite one is the one on sale – I can’t see any advantages to one over another (yet!). Mylar has some advantages over standard rayon chenille, it adds flash, is lighter, and sheds water more quickly which makes casting them easier. For the larger flies, the larger diameter of the Mylar chenille looks great when you finish tying them. However, after a couple of fish the Mylar collapses and the fly looks emaciated and is barely thicker than the shank diameter. I use standard rayon chenille for these currently; but I am experimenting with other materials still.
Weighting the Fly
I use numerous ways to weight the fly. It all depends on how deep and fast the water that you are fishing is. The table below gives you some ideas on how to weight the fly depending on the intended use.
|Weighting Method||Types of Water|
|None, heavy hook||Slow (up to ~3 feet) and/or shallow|
|Regular beadhead||Slow (~3-4 feet), 1-2 feet of faster current|
|Tungsten beadhead||Slow (4-6 feet), 2-3 feet of faster current)|
|lead wrapped shank||Slow (more than 6 feet), 3-5 feet of faster current|
Here is a picture of my unweighted Girdle Bugs. The far right column is the #10s, the center is the #6s, the bottom center is a traditional Girdle Bug, and the far left column are the #4s. You will note that I only use two sets of legs in the body of the #10s and #6s; there just isn’t enough space to get three sets of legs in. Besides, they work just fine. Also, I do not put in the antennae at the head of the fly; they seem to work just fine, are easier to tie, and easier to tie on and cut off the leader.
I put together a table describing how I use the different sized flies depending on conditions. These are not rules, but more of guidelines for what has worked for me. If you are not getting results doing these, start experimenting with different retrieves until you find something that works.
When the fish are aggressive your attractor fly/float indicator can move six or more inches (I laugh every time I see this). If the fish are neutral or inactive, the takes can be a barely noticeable pause. When this is the situation you have to watch very carefully otherwise, you will miss the take. When the fish are lethargic, it is not unusual to see the fish’s head turn when you try to set the hook. Most of the time I fail to hook these fish. This is a frustrating situation as you will see plenty of turned heads yet you don’t get many hookups. Experiment with your hook set timing until you start getting more consistent hookups – this is a trial-and-error process.
My Preferred Fly Size and Weight for Different Conditions
These are the basics for this amazingly versatile fly that produces a lot of fish for me every year. Hope this helps you get started and let me know if you find something else that works well for you with these basic set-ups.