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Tying and Fishing Saltwater Tube Flies

All you need to tie saltwater tubes is an adapter that fits in any vise, and a set of mandrels to fit the tubes you will use.

Tying and Fishing Saltwater Tube Flies

Tom Rosenbauer with a beautiful dolphin caught on a tube fly.

In the late 1970s I was running the fly and fly materials department at Orvis, and at that time we sold a few tube flies for Atlantic salmon. Tube flies were developed in England in the 1950s and were popular in Europe, but nearly unknown in North America. Orvis sold tube flies mostly to wealthy salmon anglers going to Norway and Scotland, where tubes are practical for creating a large profile without the weight and hooking problems of a very long hook, and were (and are) effective on large salmon in heavy water.

In those days, all of our flies were tied domestically, and it was my job to send materials out to about 20 contract fly tiers around the country. Tubes came from Veniard's in England, and were made from plastic for waking flies, aluminum for subsurface flies, and copper for fast-sinking tubes. The copper tubes looked like a great way to get a steelhead fly down to winter fish without adding lead or using a sinking line, so I tied some steelhead flies on them—mostly simple patterns with orange bucktail, a little tinsel, and a wrap of hackle. I tried the flies for a few hours one winter, didn't hook any fish, and filed them away in the back of my steelhead box.

Just after Flashabou came on the market, at a time when big bluefish were abundant and striped bass were practically mythical, I tied some bluefish flies on long aluminum tubes, just some big hunks of Flashabou tied to a tube. I was hoping the long aluminum tubes would eliminate the need for a bite tippet, but the bluefish cut them off anyway. I also filed these flies away in my junk box. I didn't see the advantage of using a tube when I could do the same thing with a big saltwater hook.

In the late 1990s I was invited to fish for steelhead in Kamchatka, and was advised to use tube flies because the fish there liked big, flashy flies, and tubes eliminated the need for long-shank hooks, with their poor hooking and fish-holding qualities.

The flies I tied were mostly marabou wrapped around a tube, with a little flash added to the dressing. They worked beautifully for steelhead, but the best memory I took back was from a blustery day when I was standing on the bank and my giant pink marabou got away from me and fluttered in the wind 50 feet away. A peregrine falcon stooped on the fly and thankfully pulled away at the last moment.

Imitations of the big squid that attract striped bass to the rips off the coast of New England got me thinking of tubes as a solution to a problem, instead of just as a novelty. My friend Capt. Jeff Walther tied a big orange squid imitation that the fish jumped on every time, so I took one home to copy it. The 6-inch fly was tied on a giant, long-shank 4/0 hook, which was a bear to cast because it was so heavy.

I thought about tying it on a smaller hook with another stinger hook attached to a piece of wire. Then I got the idea to tie it on a long plastic tube, which would eliminate much of the weight because I could just use a size 2 short-shank tarpon hook plenty of strength for the biggest striped bass in the world, but lighter and with much greater hooking efficiency because fine wire penetrates easier than heavy wire. I tied one of those, but then I thought: "Why not tie the squid in two pieces, so that it would be articulated in the middle?" Plus I could vary the size of the fly just by adding shorter or longer tailing tubes.

Lightweight plastic tubes also solved the problem of making 6-inch Gurglers, because tying these on a hook big enough to complete the fly would sink the Gurgler. My next step was to just tie the foam part of a Gurgler to one tube and the tail to another. I could quickly turn a Gurgler with a deer-hair tail into one with a hackle tail or a marabou tail to vary the action of the fly in the water. Or I could add two tails to a Gurgler to make an 8-inch fly that I could cast with a 10-weight rod.

More experiments followed. I made big black eel imitations for stripers by stringing four or five tubes together each wrapped with black crosscut rabbit to make a long, wiggly, articulated fly. I also created stacked tubes wrapped with chartreuse Fishair for barracuda, and Clouser Minnows tied on tubes that could be turned into Half & Halfs by adding tubes dressed with long white saddles.

I've caught snook, redfish, speckled seatrout, striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, bonito, Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, barracuda, jacks, and freshwater bass on this multiple tube system. In any situation where gamefish eat baitfish, length and profile are the most important aspects of fly choice, and by carrying a few tubes with different heads on them, plus a variety of tubes with varying tail materials, you can mix and match to create scores of different patterns with just a few tubes.

Initially I thought I was the only one using a stacked tube fly system in salt water, but after doing some research I discovered that Dave Skok has used stacked tubes for striped bass, and some fly fishers have tried them for pike. [See April Vokey's companion article "Stack it Up" on page 24 for her thoughts on stacked tubes for fresh water. The Editor.]

This stacked technique is not unique to me, but I think the system is so useful, especially for saltwater flies, that it should become more widely accepted. I think it has great potential for creating practical musky flies, and the ability to change hook styles and sizes could be very useful in tarpon fishing but I get so few shots at tarpon, and such poor luck hooking them, that I'll leave those experiments to the experts.


Tying with Tubes

Saltwater tube fly

I was at a fly-fishing show at The Bear's Den in Taunton, Massachusetts, one weekend and there were over a dozen saltwater tiers showing their patterns. When I saw a pattern that might be effective on a tube, I asked them if they've ever tried it. They all mumbled something about it being "too difficult." Tubes are the easiest flies to tie with a few simple tools.

All you need to tie saltwater tubes is an adapter that fits in any vise, and a set of mandrels to fit the tubes you will use. You slide the tubes over the mandrel and secure them up against the adapter and you're off. I like the HMH adapter it's rugged, nicely made, and about 25 bucks. You can also buy special tube vises from most high-end vise manufacturers, but it's not necessary and I've never seen the need for one.

Any stiff plastic tube will work. Again, I like the HMH rigid tubes but any rigid plastic tube works fine. Cut the tube to length and then rotate both ends against a flame to form a small lip on both ends. The front lip keeps your thread from slipping off the front of the fly, and the rear lip helps to hold your hook connector.

You will also need some soft tubing that fits snugly over the tube to make a hook connector. This keeps the hook in place up against the back of the fly until a fish is hooked, then it disconnects and the fly slides up the leader so it doesn't get banged up by the fish and the bare hook holds better. You don't absolutely need this connector many tube fishers just let the hook swing free behind the fly, but flies will foul less if the hook is attached. 

HMH also sells a "Hybrid" tube that is fairly rigid, but still soft enough to jam a hook eye into the rear end. You can also get colored tubes and connectors, and I like to use the green ones for multi-piece barracuda flies.

You don't need, and don't want a connector between stacked tube sections. Let them swing freely by just threading them on your leader, and then attach the hook with your favorite non-loop knot. My favorite for salt water is the Trilene knot.

You can use any hook you want, which is the beauty of this system, but short-shank hooks are better, as they hook securely and foul less. I like the Gamakatsu SC15 for bigger flies and the SL45 bonefish hook for size 4 and smaller. But I usually just dump an assortment of hooks from my fly-tying bench in my fly box before I go fishing.

Tubes aren't the answer for all saltwater fly fishing. I don't see any use for them for bonefish or permit flies, and I'd be nervous about using them for tarpon. But for all other species, where you want to experiment with different baitfish imitations or just lures for catching a fish's attention, tubes are a lot of fun because you can create endless variations. As a fly tier, I hate it when all my nice creations get ruined, and tubes extend the life of your flies far beyond

Tom Rosenbauer is the marketing director of Orvis Rod & Tackle in Manchester, Vermont. He is the author of many important books, including the best-selling The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide. He is also the host of the Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide Podcast.

Tail styles for saltwater tube flies
Tail styles for saltwater tube flies.

Tube Advantages

  • Lighter weight. You can create very long flies that are still relatively easy to cast because you are not constrained to using big, heavy hooks. It allows you to make some very cool 'cuda flies.
  • Better hooking. Smaller-diameter wire hooks and holds fish better, so you can use a much smaller hook on a big fly. You can use a big hook when you want, or you can use a smaller hook for smaller fish.
  • Longer fly without a trailer. Trailing "stinger" hooks are time-consuming to tie, and they often foul, ruining the action of a fly.
  • Your fly box stays nice. Tubes really solve the problem of how to carry saltwater flies. How many times have you struggled to disengage a hook from another fly stuck in a hunk of EP Fiber or Fishair? All the flies stay neatly in a compartment box with long, thin dividers, and they never tangle.
  • Flies not ruined by rust or broken hook. How many flies have you thrown away because of a broken hook? How many flies have you ruined by putting away flies wet, finding them all rusted the next time you fish? I just throw a few hooks of different styles and sizes in my tube fly box and remove them when I get home. The flies stay neat and clean.
  • Use whatever hook style you want. Say you tie all your flies on Gamakatsu hooks, but your guide says he only uses Owner or Mustad hooks. Or perhaps you want to experiment with circle hooks in certain fisheries. Or you come upon a pod of world-record fish that require a heavier hook. You can just change hooks without changing your fly pattern, and now every pattern can use any hook. In addition, short-shank hooks are better for hooking and holding fish, so now you can use them for any fly pattern, no matter what its length or profile.
  • Quick change of style without carrying too many patterns. By carrying a few styles and colors of heads and a variety of tails, you can change the style or the action of a baitfish imitation without the need to carry scores of different fly patterns in different sizes.
  • Ability to change length to whatever you want. To get a longer fly, all you have to do is add a second or third tail tube. I recommend tying most of your tail tubes in 2- to 3-inch lengths so that you can use a short pattern when you need it. You can always add more tails to get a longer fly, and you get the advantage of articulation with its more natural action.
  • Fun to experiment. Did you ever wonder how a Clouser would work with marabou, ostrich herl, or rubber legs for a tail? Now you can without tying up a whole new pattern just switch the tails on a Clouser tube head. 

Weights and Connectors

  • When you buy tubes, you get softer connector tubing, which you cut to length and slip over the rear end of the tube either when you tie the fly or when you assemble the fly with a hook on the water.
  • Some people forgo a soft connector and just leave the hook dangling free behind the fly. Conway Bowman does this when he fishes for mako sharks. Use a connector if the tail materials tend to foul around the hook.
  • There is no need to put a connector between the head tube and the tail tube. You want this joint to move freely, so you get the advantage of an articulated fly. When you use three or more tubes, you get a fly that really dances in the water.
  • I store tungsten cones of different sizes and colors on a thin piece of tubing called micro tubing, which comes with larger tubes. The micro tubing makes an excellent liner for the metal tubes so they don't cut your line. When you want a fly to sink faster, just slip off a cone, and slide it on the piece of micro tubing extending from the front of your fly.


Create our favorite Enrico Puglisi pattern on a plastic or aluminum tube. You can fish it by itself, or add tails of marabou or saddle hackles for adding wiggles.


Create our favorite Enrico Puglisi pattern on a plastic or aluminum tube. You can fish it by itself, or add tails of marabou or saddle hackles for adding wiggles.

Deer Hair

Using a short tube, create a Muddler-style or Dahlberg Diver head. To tie this head, the deer hair won't flare well around the wide diameter of the tube, so you will have to tie the head and collar in two bunches, one on top and one on the bottom.


Just tie an ordinary Deceiver head with eyes, which is just two collars of bucktail — one on top and one on the bottom.


Duplicate the head and body of your favorite squid pattern on a tube. Add tubes dressed with saddle hackles for the trailing tentacles.


Use micro tubing as a liner, and you can easily slide on cones of varying weight and color.


For these, I merely tie a standard Clouser Minnow on a tube, either all white or with a contrasting dorsal color such as olive. These can be fished alone with a hook, or you can add various tails to make a longer, Half & Half-style fly.

Crease Fly

Wrap flat foam over a plastic tube, glue it in place, add sticky-backed reflective lure tape to the outside, and give the outside of the fly a thin coat of epoxy. It's best to use a short tail tube dressed with bucktail on this one, but you can experiment with marabou and fur tails, which pull the back of the fly down, giving it a crippled action. Placing the hook farther from the body on a second tube gives you better hooking ability over normal Crease Flies because the hook is farther away from the wide, rigid body.


Form a large Gummy Minnow body over a thin tube. It can be fished by itself, or you can add tails to make a longer fly with a different profile.


Wrap a Gurgler head over a plastic tube — no need to worry about a body. You can either add bucktail to the main tube, or you can just tie Gurgler heads and match them with bucktail or saddle hackle tails to get a longer, articulated fly that wiggles seductively.

Sand Eel

A plastic tube with just a thin veil of flash makes a great imitation of thin food items such as sand eels and silversides. It's also a great top tube on a long 'cuda fly.

Foam Popper

Drill a hole slightly smaller than your plastic tube through a foam popper head. Glue the tube inside the popper — it's much more secure than gluing foam to a hook, and you're not restricted to those poor-quality kinked popper hooks.

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