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THE Best Bighorn Fly

A Bighorn River fly-fishing guide's secret weapon: The Crusader sow bug.

THE Best Bighorn Fly

On the first cast, the two-fly rig floated only about 5 feet through the riffle before the leader straightened out and the line began screaming across the river... 

Through my decades of guiding Montana's Bighorn River, I witnessed the irreversible trend of fly tiers sticking a metal bead onto the head of every fly coming off the vise. Early in this trend, I was annoyed with every #18 Pheasant Tail I saw with a big gold bead on its head. Why were they doing that?

I learned to tie flies around 1970 from George Anderson, and then later from John Barr. Those guys were inspired by such classic fly tiers as Montana's George Grant, and Oregon's E. H. "Polly" Rosborough. Rosborough's 1960s Black Drake Nymph inspired Barr's now popular Barr Emerger series. The essence of classic patterns from Rosborough and Grant was premised upon a fly pattern's suggestive silhouette. I've always appreciated the subtle artistry of their work, and at first I struggled to picture what silhouette could be suggested to the trout from a giant gold tumor growing from the top of a Pheasant-tail Nymph? Strangely, the beadhead craze also spawned the common use of bright wire on the abdomens of many nymphs, seemingly inspired by Barr's Copper John pattern.

Nevertheless, the popularity of beadhead nymphs grew because they worked and I kept asking, "Why?" A bead on a big stonefly nymph is one thing, but a gold bead on a tiny dark nymph must be triggering some other involuntary response from a trout's brain. I finally decided to stick my toe in the water with some beadhead sow bugs.

Sow bugs are gray crustaceans in the Bighorn and many other fertile tailwaters and spring creeks they look very similar to the pill bugs you find crawling around the foundation of your home. There is nothing bright about the naturals, so a sow bug pattern with a bright bead and body would test my belief that bright beads don't follow classic fly imitation theory. I decided to take this whole trend way overboard and see what happens.

The currently most popular and effective sow bug imitations are the Ray Charles sow bug created by Harold Jenkins of Gillette, Wyoming, and the tan or pink Soft Hackle Sow Bug by Sheridan, Wyoming tier Frank Johnson. Both of these are subtle, suggestive imitations, and neither has a bead head. My new fly, I decided, was going to be a sow bug on steroids in comparison.

Angler fly fishing a Bighorn River riffle in a t-shirt and shorts
Sow bugs thrive in the gravel of fertile, weedy streams where they graze on leafy debris. They are important to trout on tailwaters in both the East and the West. (Cathy & Barry Beck photo)

I went with a pink braided tinsel body, a fuzzy rabbit fur dubbed collar, and a fluorescent pink thread to finish the head (until I found some bright pink beads). It worked well the first day I tried it, but I wasn't satisfied it didn't seem to work any better than the standby patterns, so why bother?

I'd been simultaneously working with Frank Johnson to learn the old woven-hair-hackle patterns of the 1940s by Franz Pott, and was fascinated by these old flies. The only thing I didn't like was the stiffness of the hair hackles. I wanted a cross between those stiff hackles and the limp hen fibers of a typical soft-hackle pattern.

I spent the next four hours going back and forth from my vise to my dubbing blender before I finally created "dackle," a blend of rooster neck hackle fibers and rabbit fur guard hairs applied with a standard dubbing loop. This blend is perfect for a wet-fly look that's not too stiff, not too soft, and thin enough to trim and shape.

I added this new dackle to my pink tinsel braid body, and finished the fly off with a fluorescent pink metallic tungsten bead. This would test my theory that trout will inexplicably grab for that bright bead, regardless of its actual imitative qualities. The final fly had more flash than a flashbulb, with just a touch of natural shading in the dubbed hackle.

brownish gray sow bug on a rock
Sow bugs are drab, compact crustaceans that look much like pill bugs. (Paul Weamer photo)

I had an outing scheduled on the Bighorn with a couple of disabled military veterans from my local Project Healing Waters group. If those beginners could score with my new fly, then I'd be off to the races. The vets hammered fish all day with the fly I decided to call the Crusader in their honor.

A month later I gave a handful of flies to one of my buddies, Carl Newell, a guide from the Kingfisher Lodge, in hopes that he'd order a bunch from me for professional use. He called me the next week and asked me how much I'd charge. When I told him, he responded, "I'll pay you 25 percent more than your asking price, and order 100 dozen a year, but only on condition that you don't ever sell them to another guide on the Bighorn!"

Three years later Newell was telling me stories of competing guides following his clients from the boat ramps into the parking lots trying to get a glimpse what was tied to the end of their leaders that's how well this pattern works.


I remember another day when I had a military vet out during a September tan caddis hatch. We were using the Crusader as a weighted dropper with a tan caddis pupa on top. On his first cast, the vet's rig floated only about 5 feet through the riffle before the leader straightened out and the line began screaming across the river. We expected the fish had taken the caddis, but to our astonishment, when we landed it, the 21-inch 'bow had taken the Crusader.

How satisfying the past few seasons have become due in part to the Crusader. After 30 years of commercial fly tying, I inadvertently came up with a technique that combines Pott's woven hackles of the 40s with Grant's hairy bodies of the 70s, and tops it off with a modern tungsten bead. Give the Crusader a try on any tailwater where sow bugs and scuds are prevalent. It works!

Step-by-Step Instructions for Tying the Crusader Sow Bug Fly

Step 1

Tie in the Midge Diamond Braid behind the bead. Overwrap the braid with tying thread all the way back to the hook bend.

Step 2

Wrap the thread and then the braid forward, with each wrap snugged up tightly against the previous one. Tie off and clip the braid behind the bead, leaving a short gap directly behind the bead.

Step 3

Form a loop with your thread, about 4 inches long. Coat about 3 of inches of the loop with a light layer of head cement. This helps evenly disperse the dubbing and add durability to the finished fly.

Step 4

Before the cement dries, spread dun rabbit fur guard hairs and dun dry-fly hackle barbs along the length of the thread loop to create 'dackle. '

Step 5

Pinch the loop together and attach your favorite dubbing loop tool to the loop end. Spin the loop until all the thread gaps close. Wrap the noodle over the end of the braided body leaving a slim gap directly behind the bead.

Step 6

Use your hand to stroke and fold everything toward the hook bend and at the same time, fill the space directly behind the bead. Tie off the dubbing noodle while continuing to sweep the fibers towards the rear, and then whip-finish.

Step 7

Use the rule of thirds when trimming the final fly: 1„3 of the fibers should be 1„3 of the body length, 1„3 should be 2„3 of the body length, and 1„3 should extend just past the hook bend.

Step 8

Make the final trim holding the fly in your fingers to clip the longest fibers so they extend just past the hook bend. Put a drop of cement on the thread wraps behind the bead.

Gordon Rose is a guide on Montana's Bighorn River. In the winter he writes for the Sheridan Press, and runs a fly-tying operation from his home in Sheridan, Wyoming (

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