Skip to content

The Guide to Choosing The Right Bead Colour, Weight And Size

Fly selection is a much-discussed topic amongst flyfishers. As a beginner, fly choice seems like everything and, ‘What did you get it on?’ is probably still the most asked question in fly fishing. Yet as you progress, the discussion moves away from fly choice and centres more on presentation. These days, I sit about 80/20 in favour of the presentation camp. However, it’s very easy to discount the importance of good flies when you’re only casting good flies! Further to this, you don’t see the presentation-centred fishers throwing just any old fly. While trout will often give more leeway to incorrect fly choice than incorrect presentation, there are still many occasions where fly choice plays a large part. One aspect of a fly that can affect both presentation and the fly’s appearance, is a bead head. In fact, the top flyfishers in the world will fish a run multiple times with the exact same fly pattern but change the bead colour. Additionally, these anglers will often ask about the bead colour of a successful fly and nothing about the actual pattern! So, there is definitely something going on with beads. There are flyfishers I know in Tasmania who’ve fished with just beads tied onto a hook and still caught good numbers of trout. 

Bead Variables

The key factors to consider in a bead are colour, weight and size (and more recently, texture – more about this later). As weight generally increases with bead size, these terms are almost interchangeable – you’ll hear anglers discussing bead size in millimetres and what they’re effectively doing is describing the weight of the bead. 

What beads variation should I consider?

Of bead variations, colour obviously only affects a fly’s appearance, while bead weight/size predominantly affects presentation; however fly appearance can also be affected as beads get larger. The effect of bead size on appearance is colour dependent, with neutral colours like copper and black not inclined to change fly appearance too much with size, whereas garish colours like fluoro orange can dramatically change a fly’s look when going from a small bead to big. Acknowledging this, the largest fluoro orange bead I use is 3mm, while I have no issue using 4mm beads that are copper, black or silver. I only use tungsten beads for both my river nymphs and my lake flies. By using the same metal for all beads, I know exactly how the fly will behave – it’s one less variable to consider. And as a rule, it makes sense to use a bead as small as possible for the desired weight, so tungsten fits as the heaviest option. 

Does (Bead) Size Matter? 

On rivers, you want the smallest bead to achieve the desired outcome – in other words, the weight needed to get the fly quickly to the required depth and no more. Smaller (and therefore lighter) beads also tend to result in better hook-ups and fewer missed fish. The possible combinations of river conditions are too many to provide a tidy chart of required bead size for every eventuality. However, there are a few basics to help you make the right decisions. For example, when indicator nymphing, you want the indicator to be bobbing as the fly hits the occasional rock; although if your fly is regularly getting caught under rocks, your bead is probably too heavy. Similar advice applies to ‘high stick’ nymphing, although instead of seeing the indicator bounce, you feel the fly ticking along the rocks. When European nymphing though, this ticking or ‘grabbing’ feeling usually means you are slightly overweight. Be aware that to optimise your bead size, you will need to change flies for each different piece of water you fish. When working out the correct bead size, start with larger beads and go smaller. This will give you feedback, allowing you to continually decrease bead size until you are just off or occasionally hitting the bottom. You will quickly become familiar with the correct bead size for a given piece of water based on the depth and water speed. If fishing with a bead that’s too small, the fly will be above the strike zone for a large part of the drift while it sinks; or worse, it may not make it there at all. Conversely, a bead that’s too heavy will sink the indicator or continually snag the bottom. The issue of sink rate is perhaps most important when using European nymphing techniques, when you need the flies to plummet to the bottom very quickly. I can remember numerous occasions fishing a run which didn’t produce a fish, but then a change to a heavier fly made an immediate difference.


Beads and Animating the Nymph 

Fishing heavy beads also offers unique presentation methods when European nymphing. Fishing this way, there’s a lot of artificial movement intentionally imparted to the flies and bead weight plays a significant role in allowing us to do this successfully. We’re always taught that drag is a sin, however with European nymphing techniques, drag can be essential. With a normal indicator nymph setup, an indicator travelling at a different speed to the current can pull the fly up and away from the strike zone – or even prevent the fly sinking into the zone in the first place. However, the very heavy nymphs used in European setups allow you to swing the fly or flies around while keeping them deep. This is particularly deadly in deep, slow water or when fish become difficult. When learning European nymphing, I fished a good section of water for nothing, before finally hooking a trout which took me 30m downstream before I could land it. While wading back up to where the fish was hooked, I quickly flicked the flies into good-looking pockets on the way. Dragging the flies back out of each pocket, I ended up with five trout out of the same 30m section that had yielded nothing just minutes earlier. This was a great example of an effective ‘drag’ presentation, made possible by bead weight. 

Beads and Nymph Proportions 

One very important point about bead size, is that the bead doesn’t need to be an aesthetically-pleasing ‘fit’ with the nymph size you are fishing. We have this classic idea of a carrot-shaped nymph which seamlessly joins the bead diameter at the head. However, this doesn’t need to be the case. At first a 4mm bead on a size 14 hook and small nymph looks like it would never work, but I promise you it can work well. You do not need to be casting size 8 nymphs simply because you want to fish a 4mm bead. In fact, the 4mm bead on a size 14 hook will sink faster than the size 8 due to less drag from the materials in the fly. 

Bead Size and Lakes 

When fishing a lake, you can use both nymphs and wet flies with beads. When lake nymphing, bead size is only important for depth control – for more information, see my article ‘Nymphing Tassie Lakes’ in issue 11. When pulling wet flies, bead size will obviously affect depth but it will also affect the fly’s action. Adding tungsten beads creates a more up-and-down movement when fishing a pull-pause or roly-poly retrieve, and the trout often respond well. This is such a big factor when pulling wets, I will almost always fish one fly with a beadhead and one without on the same leader, as the trout usually take one over the other on any given day. The size of the bead will obviously have some effect on the depth you fish, although the fly line is more important for overall depth control. My beadhead wet flies come in two bead sizes, 2.5mm and 4mm. I use the 4mm bead on the point fly when fishing deeper, because although the fly line will determine general depth of the fly team, the heavier fly sinks much faster, which means you’re presenting the flies at different depths, even when retrieving fast. As a little bonus, having the heaviest fly on the point helps the leader lay out straight, reducing tangles when fishing two or three flies. River or lake, we can see there are many ways in which bead size/ weight affects fly presentation, from getting the fly to the fish, to changing the action of the fly in the water. So, bead size not only matters, it can also affect how you fish your flies. 

Bead colour – 45 Colours to Try! 

Bead colour selection seems like a never-ending realm of unknowns, with an endless number of colours to try. It’s no wonder this is a daunting proposition. One way I simplify this is to categorise bead colours into two groups; attractors and naturals. Natural colours are those that are unlikely to scare fish off. These are ‘safe’ colours – they may help attract fish, but I feel safe putting them through a run and then re-fishing it with attractor colours afterwards. Attractor colours are colours trout can really key into when they feel aggressive and are willing to move further to eat. However, as already hinted at, attractor colours have the potential to spook fish or at least make them wary. Trout tend to fit into two feeding categories: aggressive feeders that will move greater distances for a fly, and cautious feeders that won’t move as far and will avoid more garish bead colours. Therefore, you’re targeting the aggressive feeders with both natural and attractor colours; but the cautious feeders with the natural colours only. While I certainly haven’t tried all the colours, I’ll describe what I use regularly and have had success with. Important natural colours include copper and matt black. Matt black is the most natural of the blacks with its dull finish. Important attractor col - ours include fluoro orange, metallic pink, and red, silver and gold. Silver and gold are the least aggressive attractor colours and as such tend to spook fish less than the other colours mentioned – I consider these two more of a midway between natural and attractor. There are other col - ours that usually don’t provide much difference to the colours mentioned, such as nickel black, rose gold and fluoro pink. There are also colours that, in my experience, don’t seem to work very well on Australian trout, including metallic orange, fluoro chartreuse, and yellow. The usual exceptions apply though. For ex - ample, I know one angler who loves chartreuse beads! So, take my advice as general, not gospel! 

The Right Order

In rivers, I usually fish the European nymphing style with two nymphs 55-60cm apart. This is similar to my indicator nymphing approach as well. Typically, I’m using two flies of different weight, and I’ll have the heaviest on the bottom as it will sit deeper and anchor the rig. What’s important here colour-wise, is the bottom fly should always be the more natural of the two bead colours. This is because aggressive fish that are likely to eat attractor colours, are happy to move up in the water column to eat the at - tractor bead. Meanwhile the natural bead is right in their face on the bot - tom, so they are also happy to eat. With cautious fish, this setup keeps the attractor bead further away from the fish, but delivers the natural bead right to them where they are happy to eat it. 

Making Changes

Silver and gold beads are the only attractor colours I will fish on the point fly. I’ll usually start a day with a copper bead on the point and silver bead on the dropper as an attractor. As the fish show you what they want to eat, or if you aren’t catching what you expect, then make changes accordingly. If the trout are picking out the natural only, change the attractor continually. If they continue to pick just the natural, you should consider two naturals only. There are days when fish are willing to move but just don’t want to eat attractor colours. If the fish pick out the silver or gold attractor, I will gladly put it on point and vary the attractor pattern on the dropper. The best bead colour does vary season to season and even within the season. However, you should know that a silver bead on a black nymph works very well when mayfly spinners are around, and gold beads are at their best early season. And If I was only allowed one bead colour for my nymphs, it would be copper. By the way, the colours that look like the next big thing include metallic blue and magenta. 

Lakes and Bead Colours 

When fishing wet flies in lakes, bead colour seems less important than on rivers. This may partly be due to the bead ‘competing’ with a lot more material on a typical wet fly compared to a nymph. However, bead colour still plays a part. More so than with nymphs, I think about a wet fly’s overall appearance in terms of the materials it’s tied with as well as bead colour, although attractor beads certainly have a greater bearing on the look of the fly. For example, I think of a Shrek or Magoo as olive flies, despite them having a gold and copper bead respectively. However, I consider an orange-beaded Magoo or black Woolly Bugger to be orange-beaded flies more than olive or black flies. I usually fish lake wets 5-6 feet apart, and our lakes often carry some discolouration, so the interplay between flies of different colours has less impact than in a typical team of river nymphs; unless using very bright flies such as coral or pink Woolly Buggers. As aIready touched on, I consider the attractor-coloured beads to have a greater impact on a fly’s overall appearance, so when pulling lake wets, I don’t like using more than one of each attractor bead colour at a given time. (This is more about variety than the spooking fish issues I discussed when river nymphing.) I like to think lake trout get to see each of our flies when pulling teams of wets, so it’s important to show them as many different options as possible. 

Change (Again) 

Wet fly choice in lakes is a case of finding what colours the fish are eating, and this is simply a process of trying your favourite patterns and rotating them through until you work out what the trout want. It is difficult to predict in advance what is going to work, so the best advice is to keep changing. Carry a range of flies with different coloured beads and different coloured materials and be willing to change regularly. If you’re not having success, consider changing the most aggressively coloured fly in your team first: you can be confident this fly has been seen by more fish than the more natural coloured fly(s), and therefore refused more. Good bead colours for lake wets are gold, copper, fluoro orange and metallic red. All these colours can work on any pattern with success. However, there are some classic combinations you should be aware of. These include the Shrek and gold Humongous with a gold bead, the Bitch and JD (Josh’s Damsel) with red metallic bead, and the Magoo with a copper or fluoro orange bead. 

What’s next in beads? 

There have been many trends in beads, including crazy new colours and different shapes such as nymph head, cone head, and diamond-cut beads. One of the next developments appears to be ‘sunny’ beads, which I can best describe as having the texture of scrunched-up aluminium foil. I don’t know if these are available in Australia yet but you should be able to request them through your local fly shop. One advantage of this bead style is the colour chips off less than on anodised metallic beads (which chip easily despite claiming not to). These beads also have a unique look – valuable perhaps on heavily fished water where the trout may have seen lots of ‘regular’ beads? Speaking of chipping, one final point: make sure you dress your anodised and painted beads in a coat of Sally Hanson’s clear nail polish or another clear, hard glue. You’ll will get much greater longevity from the paint job.