Why tying weighted nymphs with bead heads—and avoiding weighting with lead wire—makes fly tying and fishing simpler

When I was growing up, I remember Levi’s having only one choice when it came to jeans. We went in, found the correct size, paid for them, and were done.

Then Levi’s came out with all those different numbers and fits. Suddenly overwhelmed with choice, what were we supposed to buy? You could spend hours trying on all the different versions. I didn’t like spending hours confused by so many choices.

So, I simplified jeans shopping by buying only one style and fit, and have kept it the same for the past twelve years. It makes shopping for jeans faster and easier, plus choosing my jeans wardrobe in the morning is faster and easier.

Fly tying can be a lot like shopping for jeans

There are so many choices of materials and patterns that a fly tyer can easily get overwhelmed. Just think of all the types of dubbing, the wing materials, the hook choices. And that’s only the beginning.

One easy place I’ve simplified fly tying is in how I weight wet flies and nymphs. Instead of having to choose between lead wire and bead heads, I now almost always only use bead heads. But that hasn’t always been the case.

For most of my years tying flies, I actively avoided bead heads

Why? Because I thought they detracted from the beauty of the fly. They didn’t have that that traditional, lovely whip finished head. Instead of a beautiful head, they had a big, bulbous, round bowling ball that seemed to always be larger than the fly body itself. 

But as I get older, my memory starts to sag, and I try to find ways to simplify my life. To help simplify fly tying, I’ve embraced the bead head over wrapping the hook with lead for weighting most flies. What do I have against tying with lead?

Lead is hidden under the fly body

That should be a good thing. But it complicates life. To get a consistent weight, we have to remember what diameter lead and how many wraps were used fly-to-fly. During one tying session, that’s no problem. But between tying sessions, that becomes a problem.

We could write the weighting information down, but that would complicate life by giving paper to keep up with. There’s already enough paper with bills and sundry other things that need to be signed, filed, or referenced. So, paper is out.

We could just decide to use the same number of wraps and diameters for all flies, but in fast water we need a fast-sinking heavy fly, and in slow pools we need a slow sinking lighter fly. One size doesn’t fit all. Uniformity is out.

That’s why I made the decision to dump the lead for most things and use bead heads instead. Here’s why you should consider it, too.

The beads give quick-glance assessment while tying

Instead of having to try to remember the number of wraps and diameter while tying, you can grab a bead with the weight you want, quick and easy. 

Not only are they quick to grab, but beads are quicker to put on the fly than lead. With lead you have to wrap the lead, pinch off the ends, then wrap with thread to keep it in place, then maybe even go as far to soak the lead and thread with head cement. That’s a lot of work when tying many flies.

With beads, you just slip them on and you’re done

You can prepare several hooks with beads all in one go, speeding up the tying process once the hook in the vise. Plus, with no effort you have more consistency between flies and tying sessions. Just make sure to use the same size bead.

And the vise isn’t the only place you benefit.

The beads give quick-glance assessment while fishing, too!

I suppose if you are well-organized you can keep track of how heavy different flies are. I wouldn’t know because I tend to not be well-organized. 

But with bead heads there’s no need to be so well-organized. If you want a really heave Prince Nymph, you can quickly glance at my fly box and find the two parameters that meet the criteria: Prince Nymph pattern, large bead. By making looking for the combination of pattern and bead size to find the right fly, we’ve greatly simplified the need to organize flies. 

But are you limiting yourself by making an arbitrary rule of only doing things one way?

Absolutely! Cutting down on the number of choices let’s you focus on doing a lot with fewer parameters and decisions. That means less thinking and more enjoying

Plus, sticking to bead heads simplifies tying. That simplification increases speed and proficiency as you do the same thing over and over until you don’t even have to think about it. 

So, just like I’ve speeded up jeans shopping and morning dressing by sticking to one choice of jeans, I’ve speeded up both tying and choosing a fly on the stream by limiting myself to bead heads. It’s worth the trade-off to me. You should consider if it’s worth it for you, too.


  • Fly tying is full of choices and decisions. If you use lead wire to weight your flies, you need to remember the wire diameter and number of wraps to keep your flies consistent.
  • When you’re on the stream, lead weight becomes a problem because you can’t tell how heavy a fly is just by looking at it.
  • An easy way to reduce the number of choices during tying is to weight flies with only bead heads.
  • The bead heads make choosing flies while fishing simpler, too. You can look for the desired pattern with the desired bead size and quickly get exactly what you want. 

© Philip Riggs 2014