WHOEER INVENTED or first described using foam for tying files is owed a tremendous debt by the fly-tying community, particularly those of us who like to the terrestrial patterns.
Most of us started tying terrestrials with deer hair, dubbing, feathers, and other natural materials. Such materials did the job rather well. Then along came foam, and I, like many other tiers, embraced it with open arms.
Foam was the answer to our prayers. No longer did our bettles explode after a few fish (think of what a deer-hair Crowe Beetle looks like after being eaten by few saw-toothed browns). We could tie ants in a flash and create realistic bees, wasps, leafhoppers, cicadas, and files (Dipterans) of all types. You name it, someone tied it with foam.
It wasn't just foam's arrival that excited us, but also the introduction of other synthetics like rubber legs, ribbons, braids, ploymers, and fibers, to name a few. It was a veritable feast, and the banquet is still going on. Foam has been around for decades, but its use (and the use of synthetics) has skyrocketed in the last ten or so years.
FOAM COMES IN TWO main types: open-cell and closed-cell (Evazote). Most tiers use the closed-cell foam. What makes this foam so great for trying terrestrials? Is it the fact that it come in all sorts of sizes--from thick to thin sheets to cylinders of different dimensions, and in different degrees of density, softness, and pliability?
Is it because you can find foam in nearly every color imaginable or color it with Pantone (waterproof) makers to match natural insects? Is it because it can be cut to any shape, any size, or any dimension? Is it because it's tough, durable, and floats like a cork? Is it because it's really cheap? Is it because you can whip out flies in a fraction of the time it takes to do the same patterns in natural materials? Is it because you can add just a little to your favorite traditional patterns to make them float better? It's all of these things and much more.
Since I discovered foam, it has replaced most of my bench's classic tying materials. Sure, I still use natural materials like peacock herl and turkey quills, but the bulk of most of my terrestrials, and sometimes the entire fly, is comprised of foam and other synthetics.
Kinds of Foam
I USE A GREAT DEAL of flat foam that comes in different colors and thickness (3/64", 1/16", 1/8", and 3/16"). Flat foam typically comes in 5" x 8" or 6" x 6" sheets. It can be cut into strips of any width to form bodies. It can be cut into triangles, circles, ovals, teardrops, or whatever shape you need. It can be purchased in precut strips, but I like to cut it myself because the suppliers' ideas are not necessarily consistent with my own.
A steel straightedge, a sharp razor blade, and a cutting board are all that's necessary to cut foam strips. Circles can be punched out with leather or foam punches, or any other circular tube that can be sharpened (like empty rifle cartridge cases).
Triangles are easy to cut using an adjustable template made from a couple of leaves of a feeler gauge, available for a few bucks from automotive stores. Just take the gauge apart, grab two of the heavier leaves, and use a thumbscrew and bolt with a couple of flat washers and a lock washer to set the position of the leaves. Teardrop and oval shapes are a bit more difficult to come by, but we're working on that.
When you first start working with flat foam strips, tying it in properly so that it doesn't roll out of position seems difficult. The trick is to place the foam slightly out of position on the side of the hook shank facing you so that it rolls into the right position when you apply thread tension. When you begin to tie the foam down, the natural tension and rotation of the thread will cause it to roll over into the correct position on top of the shank. Make a few wraps to position the foam and then tie it down tightly. Bear down on the thread and make no more than six or eight final wraps.
Another trick is to trim the end of the foam to a thin taper before you tie it to the hook shank. This reduces the bulk under the thread wraps, which is especially helpful on small flies.
These tricks also work with foam cylinders, discs, and triangles. Just a little practice is all that's necessary; you'll soon find that tying a Disc Head Hopper or a foams-trip cricket is easier than tying a deer-hair bullet-head hopper pattern.
Many fly shops and fly-tying catalogs carry a wide selection of foam. If your shop doesn't have what you need, try a craft shop, Wal-Mart, or Ben Franklin. Most shops carry 1/16" foam, which is the best size to get, although the 1/8" foam is more widely available. For $10 you can get enough foam to keep yourself occupied for months.
The thicker 1/8" foam and various other foam products are available from Umpqua, (800) 322-3218; Spirit River, (800) 444-6919; Rainy's Supplies, (435) 753-6766; Kreinik, (800) 624-1928; Orvis, (800) 548-9548; Kaufmann's Streamborn, (800) 442-4359; Dale Clemens Custom Tackle, (610) 395-5119; Hook & Hackle Company, (800) 552-8342; Hunters Angling Supplies, (800) 487-3388; Larva Lace, (800) 347-3432; and others. The 1/8" and 3/16" foams are not available in the array of colors seen in the 1/16" foam, although the Larva Lace product has a nice selection.
Live Body foam (shown on ant at left) is a cylindrical foam that comes in many different diameters (down to 1/32") and colors. Cut it to the length you want. The smallest diameter Live Body foam makes good ant and extended-body fly imitations.
To develop your foam-tying skills, start by tying simple beetles and ants with cylindrical foam. You'll find that it's easy, and with a little practice, you 11 tie a dozen foam beetles in no time. Two dozen foam ants an hour is a cinch when you get going. Live Body foam is a dream for this. You end up with what looks a lot like a traditional McMurray Ant, but it will last about ten times longer.
Most of the "complicated' foam patterns, like hoppers and spiders, are actually simple, so don't be intimidated. Shoot for the moon. Add natural or synthetic materials like rubber legs, wing materials, and yarns to increase visibility, and you'll be tying new patterns in no time. Tying with foam is about as easy as it gets, and I think you'll agree with me when I say that tying with foam will open up a new dimension for you.
HARRISON STEEVES III, a retired biology professor, is working with Ed Koch on a revision of their book Terrestrials (Stackpole, 1990). He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.
HOOK: Tiemco 2487, #12#16.
THREAD: 6/0, color of choice.
BODY: Foam disc of appropriate size to match hook size.
UNDERBODY: Peacock herl.
WINGS: Kreinik, 1/8" flat ribbon, mallard #850.
HOOK: Tiemco 5212 (2XL dry-fly hook), #14.
THREAD: 6/0, black.
BODY: 1/8" thick black closed-cell foam cut into 1/8" to 3/16" wide strips.
UNDERBODY: Two to four strands of peacock herl.
BUTT: Kreinik fluorescent medium round braid, yellow, #054.
WINGS: Kreinik 1/8" flat ribbon or heavy round braid, 6" piece, mallard #850.
WINGCASE: Kreinik beetle black, 1/8" wide flat ribbon, #005HL.
STEVES DISC O' BEETLE TYING STEPS
1. Wrap the hook shank with thread back to a point even with the barb. Tie in 2 to 4 peacock herl fibers, depending on the size of the fly. First wrap the thread forward to the hook eye, then wrap the peacock her! to the eye. Tie off the herl and trim the excess (below). Wrap the thread back through the peacock and then forward to the point at which the head will be formed.
2. Place a foam disk on top of the book shank with the front of the disc extending just over the hook eye. One-quarter to 1/3 of the disk should extend forward of the thread's position. The forward portion of the foam will form the head and the remainder, extending toward the rear, will form the beetle body.
3. Fold the foam disk evenly over the hook shank and tie it down, This forms a good head and body. Make 10 to 12 more tight wraps of thread so the body will not turn on the hook shank.
4. Wings or legs can then be lied in on the sides of the body. For wings, I use the kreinik 1/8" flat ribbon in Mallard color. For legs, I use either fine or medium round rubber leg material in colors to either match or contrast with the body color. Once the wings or legs are tied in, whip-finish and detach the thread.
5. Use scissors to trim the wings and legs to the appropriate length. I usually tie this beetle with wings about the length of the beetle's body.
6. Optional Step. Apply a small amount of super glue to the underside of the body to keep it from turning on the hook shank.