Bullet Bugs Trigger Steelhead Strikes

You don't have to be an expert fly-tier to create your own high-caliber steelhead fly.

A couple of years ago, I was tying flies at the Federation of Fly Fishermen's Fly Tiers Expo. During a break in my tying session, I wandered around the hall to see what other tiers were demonstrating to the throngs of fly-fishing enthusiasts.

To get the yarn tight for clipping, use a spent .30-caliber case with its primer removed. Photo by Dean Finnerty.

Another guide was tying a yarn fly that really caught my eye. It was similar to the Glo-Bug-style flies that have been around for years, but his one had a new twist, with these characteristics:

  • Incredibly easy to put together,
  • Super-durable.
  • Had a snelled leader that let gear fishermen add a bait loop, so that the fly could also incorporate a variety of popular baits such as shrimp, prawn meat or roe.

I was hooked and immediately began mentally churning through a number of changes that I thought would make the fly an ideal addition to my fly arsenal for winter steelhead.

Without a doubt, it's the easiest and deadliest yarn fly I know of. Known as a Bullet Bug, its name is derived from the simple tool needed to form the very compact ball of yarn necessary in the fly's construction.

I use the plastic cap of a ballpoint pen with a hole drilled in the end, but others use a spent .30 caliber rifle cartridge with the primer removed.

To form this incredible little egg-imitation style fly, use the McFly Foam yarn, available at most fly shops around the country. McFly Foam comes in 45 shades that range from white to red, to pinks, orange and peach. You name it, they have it.

A package costs around $3 and lets you tie dozens of Bullet Bugs.

Remove the McFly Foam from the package. Separate the individual strands. Place each one through a common beverage straw for ease in handling. To get the strand into a straw, run a monofilament loop through the straw, and then pull the strand of yarn through. Now you can handle the yarn much more easily.

Choose the primary color for your Bullet Bug. I prefer shades of pink, red or orange.

Now choose a contrasting color for the "eye" of the egg. I often use dark red or bright orange. If my primary color is pink, cut nine or 10 strands of pink McFly Foam yarn about 1 to 1 1/2 inches long. Place them next to one another in a small bundle.

Then cut a single strand of yarn of contrasting color and place it in the center of the bundle of primary-colored strands. Set it aside.

Next, take a 36-inch long piece of monofilament leader material. (I prefer 12- to 15-pound Maxima.) Tie a simple slipknot, like a Reel Knot or Arbor Knot, in one end of the leader.

Slip the bundle of yarn inside the slip-knotted loop in the monofilament leader and pull the slipknot up tight. The tighter, the better.

Next, run the leader's other end through the pen cap or de-primed rifle case, and pull the bundle of yarn just inside the opening of the case. The strands of yarn will become tightly compressed. Now, using a sharp pair of scissors, cut across the strands of yarn left sticking up out of the case.

Once you've cut across the strands of yarn, remove the bundle of strands from within the case. Because it's been pulled tightly into the cap and become very compressed, this can sometimes be hard to accomplish.

To get it free, I usually need to pick the cut bundle of yarn out of the cap with the tips of my scissors.

Next, place the bundle of McFly Foam yarn between your palms and roll it around a few times. This forms a perfect little round ball of yarn complete with an "eye," just like a fertilized salmon or steelhead egg.

Attach this little ball to the end of the leader, and it's ready to be snelled onto your favorite steelhead hook. I typically use either Honer or Gamakatsu octopus-style hooks, ranging in size from No. 4 to 1/0.

Attach the yarn fly to your hook of choice with a standard egg loop that leaves the yarn fly attached firmly to the hook, directly above the bend.

That's it! The fly is ready to fish.

Because much of my guiding involves fly-fishing trips, I add some weight to my Bullet Bugs with barbell eyes. I put them on the hooks with fly-tying thread, just ahead of the ball of McFly Foam yarn.

To further increase its resemblance to salmon or steelhead roe, I also add tufts of white marabou or small amounts of light-colored rabbit strips. These refinements make for a more realistic egg fly and let my fly-fishing clients get their offerings down deep to winter steelhead.

If you're not a flyfishermen, use these bugs like any other drift-bait lure. Place a slinky weight on your mainline. Attach a barrel swivel to the end of your mainline. The other end of the barrel swivel receives the end of your leader.

You're ready to fish!

Many Northwest anglers don't fish for winter steelhead with confidence until they've added scent to their offering. Bullet Bugs are perfectly suited for scents. Shrimp oil is probably the favorite of most knowledgeable anglers. But others such as anise, krill paste or Pautzke egg juice-type scents also work extremely well.

Since a Bullet Bug is attached to the hook with an egg loop, you can also add a small cluster of eggs or piece of shrimp or prawn meat to the fly, for devastating results.

You'll find that these Bugs are best fished on a dead drift, either from a stationary position along the bank or side-drifting from a boat. The aim is to get the bug to the bottom and keep it there while as it drifts as drag-free as possible.

I've found that when steelhead pick up a Bug, they'll often keep it in their mouths longer than they do with hard baits such as Corkies or birdie drifters.

Also, unlike any other bait, the McFly Foam has a unique quality that makes it "stick" in the fishes' teeth. This stickiness makes the Bullet Bug an ideal bait for novice drift-fishermen or side-drifters because once the bait is in their mouths, the fish have a hard time expellin

g it. That gives an angler more time to feel the bite and set the hook.

Several times over the past winter steelhead seasons, my clients would be side-drifting Bullet Bugs from my jet boat when a fish would grab the bug and start seriously chewing on the fly. For whatever reason, the fish wouldn't get hooked.

The drift would begin again. Moments later, the bug would be getting mauled again! I could only imagine that several steelhead were fighting to get hold of this fly at the same time!

It's a pretty exciting way to spend a winter's day chasing steelhead.

This season, take some time to add to your yarn-fly collection and re-load your own arsenal of Bullet Bugs.

Whether you fish it on a fly rod or with conventional tackle, you'll find winter steelhead more than willing to bite the Bullet. l

Dean Finnerty is a freelance writer and outdoor photographer who lives in Cottage Grove, Ore. He owns and operates 5 Rivers Guide Service and North Umpqua Fly Fishing Adventures.

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