Fly Tying With Foam: The Foam Beetle

Fly Fishing Expert Robert Levin explains how to use foam for fly tying so you can create a foam beetle sure to perform well on the water.

An image of the author's foam fly.

Photo by Robert Levin 

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Back in the ‘80’s, the craft store business took off. One of the items they all carry is thin sheet foam material in a vast array of colors. It is easy to cut, paste, and is relatively inexpensive. It wasn’t long before these attributes caught the attention of fly tiers in droves.

The best characteristic is that it floats like nothing else we had used prior. A number of patterns particularly that of terrestrials like ants, hoppers, and beetles were flying out of the tying vises of tiers worldwide. By now, these classic patterns have established themselves as reliable fish catching standards deserving of a placement in everyone’s fly boxes.

Colorful sheets of foam are stacked up.

Various pieces of foam for fly tying. Photo by Robert Levin

Tying with foam has a few unique prerequisites to be accommodated but other than that, it is an easy material to work with. The first is that tying with fine diameter strong threads should be avoided. Putting a lot of tension on these threads can cause the thread to cut through the foam like the wire on a cheese slicer. Using the next denier size up of your thread will avoid this. The other characteristic is that you are using this material for floatation because of the air trapped in the closed cells. If you collapse the material down with continuous wraps of the thread, like when creating a body on a fly, it will lose its buoyancy.

Creating a Foam Beetle Fly

Follow along with the video below or read on to be walked through each step!

Step One

Let’s get started with one of the basic foam patterns: the beetle fly. Your first step will be to prepare the foam material. Foam comes in different thicknesses. Depending on the hook size and the creature you are imitating, you want to keep the thickness of the foam in scale with the actual final product. The 2mm foam is about right for common beetles on a #10 - #12 hook. This is also the most common size stocked in craft shops. The sheets in craft stores are about the size of greeting cards up to notebook size. The foam is also available from fly shops in smaller packages.

Many folks start their beetles by cutting strips of the foam about the width of the hook gap using a metal straight edge and a hobby knife. They then cut the strip into pieces about 1.5 times the length of the hook. You may also want to cut the sharp corners off the back end as shown in the very first image.

Although the foam is easy to cut with sharp scissors, following shapes can be tedious. There is a firm in Montana, River Road Creations, that manufactures foam cutters in a multitude of sizes and shapes that take this tedium away. They are not inexpensive but are wonderful tools, well made, and durable. I purchased a few sets some years ago. This was one of the better purchasing decisions I have made and I have enjoyed using them.

The River Road Creations kit.

River Road Creations sells through dealers. Photo by Robert Levin

One of the characteristics of this sheet foam material that helps lend it to our fly tying use is that it accepts cyanoacrylate glues easily. Although it is a closed cell matrix, there are myriad spaces unseen to the naked eye for the glue to work into and anchor in. You can tie with foam without using this glue and is probably what most people do. I like to use it because it allows fewer wraps of the thread on the foam which helps keep the floatation at maximum.

Step Two

Green silicone legs.

Silicone material is preferred to rubber since it will not disintegrate over time as rubber will. Photo by Robert Levin

The next material to prepare is the legs. There are almost endless varieties of leg material in the current marketplace. The most important aspect for me is to keep the scale of the material in mind when choosing which ones to use on a particular fly. What the fish will see most often is the profile outline against the light of the sky and I believe staying in scale helps convince the fish the imitation is real. The sample shown below is used for the Chernobyl Ant Fly but this material comes in many sizes and colors.

Step Three

An image of the hook in a grip.

Photo by Robert Levin

Grab your hook with your tool.

Step Four

Chenille is tied around the hook with thread.

Photo by Robert Levin

Attach your thread to the hook, and tie a length of chenille along the hook shank. This will help bond the hook when the fly is finished.

Step Five

A piece of foam is now tied to the hook.

Photo by Robert Levin

After fastening the foam to the hook shank, you will place an underbody on the hook.

Step Six

Feathers are tied into the hook atop the chenille and foam.

Photo by Robert Levin

Continue adding to your hook materials that will catch a fish’s attention and help imitate the fly/bug you’re going for. This can be dubbing, fuzzy chenille, or what I like for a beetle in this instance, peacock hurl. Then wrap the materials tightly around the hook.

Step Seven

A bit of shiny material is wrapped around the fly body.

Photo by Robert Levin

Leave a small space behind the hook eye.

Step Eight

The foam is folded over and the fly has started to look like a real fly.

Photo by Robert Levin

Next, you will fold over the foam body and fasten it with several wraps forming a head on the beetle.

Step Nine

The fly now has four long legs sticking out of it.

Photo by Robert Levin

You can fasten the legs as then whip finish the fly. Cut off the thread, turn the fly over in the vise, and place a drop of head cement on the whip finish. Do not saturate the peacock herl with head cement. Trim the legs to the proper length if necessary.

Step Ten

The completed fly has shortened legs and a yellow spot on its head.

Photo by Robert Levin

Place a sighting marker on the beetle’s back. I place a small drop of cyanoacrylate on the beetle and place a bright yellow disk cut with a paper punch on the drop. A quick puff of Insta-Set cures the glue. This can be done with UV glue or head cement but it will not be instantaneous.

Note: Cyanoacrylate glue use requires care. Confining it to tight spaces sets it off. If you get some on a finger and pinch something with that finger you glue your skin to the object. There is only one solvent I am aware of that can un-cure this glue if that should happen: Un-Cure Adhesive Debonder. Being careful when you use glue is a better option. To decide where to get this, Google it and you will see a number of outlets that offer it. It is common in the model airplane hobby industry.

How to Use

This is a great fly to use if fishing for panfish during the summer months, particularly if you are taking a youngster to get started in fly fishing. Remember, crush down the barbs on your hooks when fishing with a newcomer to the sport.

If you have any questions or want to get started with a fly tying kit of your own, reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated. We'd be happy to get you set up!

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Written By
Robert Levin
Robert Levin
Fly Fishing Expert
I have been an avid fisherperson since my teenage years. Caught the bug from my dad who fished exclusively with a fly rod. Not that he ever fished with a fly on that rod, he trusted the weight of the fly line as it would not break when he pulled a five foot Chain Pickerel out of the lily pads in the...
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