A BEETLE (R)EVOLUTION

Years ago I was watching Joe Humphreys’ Dry Fly Strategy video and watched as he stalked a brown trout in thin water next to the streamside vegetation. The only cast Joe could make was about a foot and a half behind the trout because it was holding under some overhanging branches. He opted to use a #20 beetle dry fly pattern. I was sceptical but watched as the beetle landed.  A second later the trout turned around, swam lazily downstream and sipped the beetle off the surface. It was pure deception and I was a convert!

My understanding of why the beetle was his choice in that situation is that beetles are hard and when they fall on the surface they send ripples and a vibration that radiate from the beetle’s point of entry. Trout are ever watchful of shadows on the streambed and being sensitive to vibrations would most certainly sense within a few seconds that a prey item had fallen into the water behind them. The vibration of the beetle hitting the surface is the first key and the trout will instantly turn to scan the substrate for shadows and after the first ripple shadow is seen it will turn and inspect what had caused the impact.

   Above: The shadow of a Bushwhack Beetle on the streambed

Beetles, together with other terrestrial insects like ants and hoppers form a large portion of a trout’s diet. Terrestrials feature high on the menu of trout in streams and rivers in other countries that experience formidable aquatic hatches. This factor is even more significant on our South African streams that are not exposed to aquatic hatches as impressive as those experienced elsewhere. For more information on the insects found on streams that flow from the kloofs in the fynbos region of the Western Cape se Ed Herbst’ article, Trout Diet in the Fynbos Biome in the blog section of the Cape Piscatorial Society website and his article Why fish hoppers in Autumn? on Tom Sutcliffe’s website)

The evolution of beetle patterns has gone through stages of simplicity to intricately designed patterns, with fly tyers always pushing the envelope on designs. The most simplistic and effective beetle pattern I have seen is literally a hook with a shell back of deer hair - that’s all. Durability is a problem with this pattern – the Crowe Beetle -  because deer hair is fragile when used in this manner and will often be damaged after just one fish. I have also seen overdressed patterns with painted shellbacks and layers of epoxy and resin which, from a durability point of view is fantastic but the trout sees a floating pattern from below and won’t see the painted shellback in any way.

 Above: A large rainbow from a cape stream that was deceived using a Bushwhack Beetle

My beetle designs have always fallen somewhere between the borders of simplicity, durability and a fly that looks nice - after all most of us want to fish with a fly that looks appealing to us, as much as it does to the trout. With so many new fly tying materials and concepts available to modern fly tyers it can get quite confusing to choose materials to tie beetles with. As a professional fly tyer, I needed to make my beetle patterns simple and quick to tie in large numbers and also to be effective as a fish catcher.

My friend Ed Herbst and I are collaborating in the design of small stream flies.  One of them is a beetle pattern named after the Cape Piscatorial Society’s new beat on the upper Smalblaar – the Bushwhack Beat. The Bushwhack Beetle imitates the various monkey beetle species found along the banks of our Cape streams.  According to the SANBI website, 65% of the world’s Monkey Beetles are found in South Africa and their main role is as pollinators.

Ed is a legendary small stream fanatic who has spent countless hours of hunting trout on the Cape streams. His fly designs are an inspiration to many and some of nicest and buggiest fish catching patterns have come from his vice.

He has a wealth of information on insects and fly designs, so when we designed the Bushwhack Beetle we studied things like photos of monkey beetles from below the surface to see how they are positioned in the surface film and if they trap air between the body hairs. These observations are important contributions to any fly’s design. On the monkey beetles of the fynbos region we noticed that their large hind legs, which they use to dig their bodies into flower discs, are a prominent feature in the water, as they keep them fully stretched and pointing behind them when trapped in the surface film. Another key feature was the fact that most of the beetles have their transparent flying wings extended to stick out from under the hard elytra. The iridescence of the flying wing transmits and refracts light coming from above the water surface.

The Bushwhack Beetle is simple in design and has become my number one, go-to fly on the streams near Cape Town and some memorable trout have been taken with it. It has also proven to be effective for yellowfish, and on a recent trip Chris Bellingham took this lovely yellow fish on the Bokong River in Lesotho with a Bushwhack Beetle. 

 Above: Chris Bellingham with his Bushwhack caught yellowfish

My list of materials is minimalistic, but achieves the necessary qualities of a good beetle pattern.

Foam is number one on my list; it is durable and versatile, providing good floatation and can be cut to shape and is easily manipulated on the hook to create a shellback. Larva Lace foam has become my favoured foam for beetles. It is soft and stretches easily and is more durable than denser foams that tend to easily get damaged by the sharp, pin-like teeth of trout.

Rubber legs are another favoured material. They are more durable than feather fibre legs and are easy and quick to work with. I use rubber legs to imitate the prominent rear legs of the monkey beetle family. 

Monkey beetles have a fine coating of hair over their bodies to facilitate the transfer of pollen from one flower to another. These hairs trap air when they are in the water and this makes CDC dubbing my third material of choice. I use it below the foam shellback. The fact that it traps tiny, light-reflecting bubbles and adds buoyancy is a bonus. For other beetles that are smooth and hairless, such as ladybirds, I stick to foam for an underbody.

Most beetles tend to extend their transparent underwing when they have fallen on the water in order to help themselves float. My fourth material of choice here is plastic from the bags that bread rolls are packed in at bakery counters in grocery stores. This plastic can be stretched and crumpled to create a veined surface and it is pretty durable.

So I have narrowed it down to four simple materials that are readily available. The addition of a sighter for black or dark beetle patterns is obvious and for this I use antron in Hi-vis pink or orange and Ice Dub Shimmer Fringe in chartreuse for micro beetles. The Ice Dub is ultrafine and has a reflective quality that is easily picked up by one’s eye in adverse light conditions.

The hook I use for the Bushwhack Beetle is the Hanak H500BL all round hook, which has a straight eye, wide gape and long point. It’s a solid hook that keeps the beetle stable on the water.

I tie the Bushwhack Beetle to order and have it available in black and light brown.

It can be seen on my products page on this site and orders can be directed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .