Anchor Nymphs: The Meaty, The Mean, and The Evolution of the Jiggy Bug

A juicy cranefly imitation surrounded by eager jiggy nymphs.

“Yo! What are those creepy critters?!”

I remember the first time I plunged my arm into a cold stream to excavate a slimy rock wondering what I’d find – super cool, creepy crawling bugs! Those evil little buggers were scurrying for cover as I tried to nab them from the wet, slick rock. Got one! A mean looking stonefly nymph. So cool!

Mean Stonefly Nymph. Courtesy of Bob Henricks. Taken from Flickr

I’m really not sure which I appreciate more, the beauty of wild trout or the amazing insects – the bait of the stream. Some nymphs, like the stonefly pictured, have perfectly segmented bodies, devilish tails and antenna, and beautifully decorated wing cases; you gotta love them! And, so do the trout! Then there’s the juicy, helpless larvae of the caddis, and craneflies. Trout REALLY love these meaty critters!

They might not have the intricate details and the agility of a stonefly nymph, but these soft, fat grubs look like such an easy, meaty meal for trout – delicious! I don’t know; I could even be tempted to eat a juicy, fat cranefly larva like the one pictured – a perfect riverside snack! If I can be tempted to eat one, I can only imagine how psyched a trout is when a meaty worm wiggles by. These soft, juicy grubs are what I often try to imitate with my anchor flies.

Meaty Cranefly Larva. Courtesy of Lawn Health. Taken from flickr

With high-stick or tight-line nymphing, the anchor fly is the point fly, which is heavily weighted and serves much like split shot, except it looks like a larva and has a hook! Anchor flies are used with the Czech style of nymphing and with the Japanese nymphing technique I use with a 15′ fixed line rod, 16 feet of leader, and no reel or fly line – the ultimate in long-rod, tight-line nymphing!

Meaty Anchor Nymphs. From top: Mop Jig, Silistaz jig, and a green weenie jig.

Since these flies are weighted and fished on the bottom, anchor flies are usually tied so that they ride with the hook point up in order to avoid getting snagged. With most of your high-stick / tight-line methods, the anchor fly is the point fly in a 2, 3, or even 4 fly nymph rig. The point fly not only is intended to catch fish but also serves as the weight – kind of anchoring the rig to the bottom, thus called an anchor fly, and the other flies are tied on short tags above the point fly where they drift higher in the water column and can imitate swimming and/or emerging nymphs. My Japanese, fixed-line  method tends to stick to 1 fly, just the weighted point fly, for simplicity. But, whatever the method of high-stick nymphing you do, the idea is to stay in close contact with your fly as it drifts downstream and to keep your rod high and your line relatively tight. Since the various larvae in the stream live on the bottom, and since they are too juicy for trout to resist, flies imitating meaty larvae & grubs are always productive anchor flies. The big, meaty flies like the ones pictured are perfect for imitating the easy meal of a worm, larva, or grub.

Here in Maryland and Pennsylvania, I have had tremendous success using the green weenie. Notice how chewed up that green squirmy weenie jig is at the bottom of the photo? Those big browns in the Little Juniata couldn’t get enough of that juicy little green grub – a green weenie tied with squirmy wormy material.

Without a doubt, the most popular larvae imitation over the past few years has been the mop fly. People think this fly, as well as the green weenie, is not really a fly – that it doesn’t imitative anything; it just fools fish into biting. So, some anglers turn their noses up and ignore the fish catching potential of these meaty grubs. The truth is, however, that the mop fly is a perfect imitation of the size, shape, and motion of a cranefly larvae, and these morsels are found in just about every trout stream!

There is no doubt that fish love to eat these meaty, easily accessible larvae, probably more so than nymphs. These fat grubs just can’t scurry away like the mean stonefly and mayfly nymphs, making them a slower, softer, easier meal than other bugs. The cranefly larvae, however, does swim a bit, and Tim Flagler has a great imitation of a swimming cranefly!

The grub and worm flies generally represent food that trout are accustomed to eating and that trout really like to eat. The only problem is that these bugs aren’t very interesting. They’re simple to tie, and they don’t offer fly tiers the opportunity to get very creative; they just look boring – meaty but boring. Tying the mean mayfly / stonefly nymphs is much more fun!

Mean lookin’ nymph imitations – clockwise from top left: Soft Hackle Stoned mop Jig, Western Green Drake, Jiggy John, Jiggy Bug.

As delicious as the meaty morsels are to trout, there are times when trout will pass up the meaty in favor of something mean – when trout are fixated on eating the mean looking mayflies and stoneflies lurking and hunting amidst the rocks and debris on the bottom of the stream. Although these devilish bugs usually are hiding and not readily available to fish, sometimes they sneak out to feed, to find new homes, to mate, or to emerge. These moments can draw the undivided attention of hungry trout, and I’m not going to senselessly smack the water with a meaty grub when the trout are gorging on mean mayflies.

So, what do I do? I can keep my meaty grub as my anchor fly and add to my leader a pheasant tail nymph or copper john as a dropper fly to “match the hatch,” but if the fish aren’t eating the larvae, grubs, or worms with any consistency, why use one as an anchor? Instead, I want a nymph as my anchor, especially with Japanese nymphing where I strive to use 1 fly pattern and no split shot.

Pheasant tail patterns are excellent imitations of a variety of different nymphs. It’s pretty amazing, actually, how the feathers from this bird create such nice looking nymphs, but pheasant tail nymphs are rarely weighted enough to get down deep without split shot. A Copper John is a good alternative since it has a lot of weight – the fly pretty much consist of a bead, lead, and copper wire, but Copper Johns snag easily on the bottom, and I’m not a big fan of the stiff, lifeless goose biot tails, the fragile peacock herl thorax, and the fragile hackle used for legs. I need my anchor flies to be heavy, snag resistant, durable, and lively. So, I came up with the Jiggy Bug.

The original Jiggy Bug

First, I needed jig hooks for my mean anchor flies to ride hook point up and not snag. And, I needed heavy tungsten slotted beads. It turns out that not all tungsten beads are equal. After being disappointed by a few different brands, I finally met the good boys at Rip Lips Fishing from Kent, Connecticut. These guys have really nice tungsten slotted beads that fit nice and tight on the jig hooks and are definitely heavier than some of the other brands of beads. Rip Lips also sells quality jig hooks at excellent prices. Big shout out to the boys at Rip Lips Fishing! Rip Lips website.

Next, I needed durable material that would come alive in the water so that it would wiggle and pulse on the bottom of the stream. I really like the way pheasant tail fibers look as nymph tails, but they are far too fragile. I can’t even count the number of times my pheasant tail nymphs have had their tails broken off from hungry fish or from removing flies with forceps. Other feathers are more durable, such as Coq de Leon, but most other feathers are either too stiff, too soft, and/or don’t have the look or the action I want. Luckily, I stumbled on a material called Daddy Long Legs made by Hareline Dubbin. This is very similar to Spanflex made by Wapsi, but Daddy Long Legs material is much thinner and straighter. It really wiggles and is perfectly suited for smaller flies. I love this stuff and think I’ve settled on Daddy Long Legs as the best material for nymph tails and legs. It’s durable, thin, and lively – perfect!

As I said, pheasant tail fibers make really nice, buggy bodies, so I used pheasant tail for the body except I ribbed the body with a micro sparkle braid from Veevus called irredescent thread, which gives the fly more “life” than standard copper wire. The combination of pheasant tail and thin, sparkly ribbing is just what I was looking for in a mean, buggy body.

Now I needed something better than peacock herl for the thorax. Don’t get me wrong, peacock has great color, shine, and movement; I’ve used it a lot, but it is fragile. People have methods for reinforcing peacock herl, but I wanted something more durable and buggier. So, I took different colors of fur dubbing and ice dub to create a flashy, buggy dubbing that looks much like peacock herl only buggier and more durable.

Lastly is the wing case. If I decide to make a wing case, I’ll do it by clipping the fur from the top of the thorax and coating the top of the thorax with UV resin. This step, however, is just for show. After trial and error, I am confident that the fly attracts just as many fish, maybe even more, without a wing case, leaving the thorax furry all over. But, people want to see wing cases on their nymphs, so I often build wing cases on the Jiggy Bugs even though it’s an extra step that might even deter from the fly’s effectiveness. Keep it buggy boys!

In order to make the fly as heavy as possible so that it sinks like an anchor fly should, I wrap lead from just in front of the bend, leaving barley enough room to tie in the tails, all the way up to the bead, then back down half way toward the bend. I get about 20-25 wraps of .010 lead wire on a size 16 hook. All that lead, along with a heavy bead from Rip Lips, gives the fly the weight it needs to plunge to the bottom.

Sometimes, however, I need even more weight, especially with size 18 and 20 Jiggy Bugs where there isn’t enough hook shank to wrap on enough lead. So, instead of the pheasant and sparkle body, I use copper wire. I like copper wire in size medium for sizes 16 and up, which has much better segmentation than the brassie size. Since this makes the fly look very similar to a Copper John, I call this variation a Jiggy John Bug.

Jiggy John – size 18

If I don’t need as much weight but want a nice sparkly segmented body, I will just use the irredescent thread from Veevus as the body, no pheasant tail. This variation is called the Jiggy Sparkle Bug. For size 16 & 14 Jiggy Sparkle Bugs, I twist 2-3 strands of irredescent thread together. For size 18 and 20’s, I just use 1 strand, but I still twist it; twisting is crucial if you want good segmentation!

Jiggy Sparkle Bugs. Check out the sparkly segmentation, nice!

After using my Jiggy Bugs extensively for about a year, I can confidently say that this pattern has exceeded my expectations. I have found my new, go-to anchor fly for times when the meaty grubs aren’t producing. As long as I get the fly on the bottom and have control over my drift, hang on! Trout just can’t resist the buggy, wiggly sparkle of a mean Jiggy Bug.

How to tie the original Jiggy Bug:

6DFB5799-A8B5-4677-BEB6-182697BCD411Step 1: Select a quality jig hook and a quality tungsten slotted bead. I like beads in sizes 7/64 & 1/8 for most of my size 16 hooks. Wrap the lead tightly up to the bead then back down the shank about half way. I use size .010 lead for size 16 and smaller. Start with the thread behind the lead. Build a dam to hold the lead tight to the bead.

68733CE9-A9ED-4047-BDEB-6ED98BA56C66Step 2: Cover the lead with thread, building a tapered body without too much bulk. Coat the body with glue, let dry, flatten the body with pliers to get that flat, clinger nymph shape.

4FA7B200-810F-48F6-810D-0329CA874C30Step 3: Cut 3 strands of Daddy Long Legs and tie them in as the tails at the bend. Cut off the excess material and trim the tails to about the length of the hook shank. If you’re trying to imitate stoneflies over mayflies, just use 2 tails and cut them a little shorter, or not. Longer = more action.

1132A965-D2AE-4DBD-8047-CB3E8000FC01Step 4: Tie about a 6” piece of peacock iridescent thread from Veevus at the bend in front of the tails. This will be the ribbing. Tie in 6 pheasant tail fibers by their tips next to the Veevus ribbing. Use a bodkin to separate the fibers. This will make a much nicer, buggier wrap. Keep the pheasant tail fibers close together as you wrap them all the way to the bend, but DO NOT TWIST THEM! Tie them off and cut off the excess.

0A490413-8F6B-47BA-BE51-36F637800352Step 5: Counter-wrap the Veevus iridescent thread in nice, even segments. You really need to twist this material constantly as you wrap to get a nice, thin, sparkly, buggy wrap. Tie it off and cut off the excess.

F3982EC5-EC4D-4FD8-9A7F-E033BD31DF42Step 6: Wrap your thread back down the shank to where you want your thorax to start – about half way down the shank. Dub the thorax with flashy peacock colored dubbing. I blend my own, but you can buy pre-made peacock dubbing. Make sure it has some flash! End with your thread in the middle of the thorax.

1C61A4EB-27EC-41F9-90E0-A13B25CA83EEStep 7: Attach 2-3 strands of Daddy Long Legs to each side of the thorax. Spin the thread beforehand, making it thin so that the leg material sinks into the dubbing at the tie in point and flares out.

EED18529-CD1E-403D-9FE7-25FCE15A2CA3Step 8: Wrap the tie in point with more dubbing to hide the thread around the legs and bring the thread back to just behind the bead. Trim the legs a bit to make whip finishing easier. Whip finish then whip finish again. With 2 good whip finishes, I’ve never felt the need for head cement.

492B8F62-88E3-4EEB-9B7D-957F52B21A39Step 9: Trim the legs and tails to the final, desired length. Brush out some dubbing to make the bug extra jiggy!

I fish the Jiggy Bug on a tight line using the high-stick, or Czech nymphing, technique or by using an indicator to keep the Jiggy Bug bouncing at the perfect depth. No split shot necessary; these bugs are heavy!