A Serial Killer in Disguise

Frank Sawyer’s nondescript Killer Bug is a merciless trout catcher
By Morgan Lyle
First published in The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y., 6/23/11
The decades-old Killer Bug, not much more than yarn wrapped around a hook, becomes an effective fly when the yarn gets wet and changes color.
After all these years of learning to attach tails, wings, legs, antennae and whatnot to flies in order to make them appetizing to fish, I’m always surprised when I catch fish on a fly that has none of these things.

Most recently, it was the Killer Bug, a little number invented before World War II by Frank Sawyer, the same British river keeper who invented the indispensable Pheasant Tail nymph.

The Pheasant Tail has been “improved” over the years by adding parts, but the original consisted of two materials, wire and pheasant tail barbs. The wire served as the tying thread, and one clump of barbs made the tail, abdomen, thorax and wing case.

The Killer Bug is even simpler: yarn bound to a hook with wire, wrapped onto the shank and tied off.

With this little nothing-of-a-fly, I caught a half-dozen trout Sunday — plump, feisty browns and rainbows, larger and more richly colored than this year’s batch of stockies, on a shady stream in the Hudson Valley.

The guy I was fishing with, who was also using a Killer Bug, caught three (which I secretly enjoyed because he’s an excellent fisherman and usually out-catches me three to one.) And this was hardly the first time I’ve caught nice trout on a Killer Bug.

Whether Sawyer spent long hours designing his little fly, or whether he simply found a card of his wife’s knitting yarn one day and wrapped a little onto a hook to see what would happen, I don’t know. But it does seem to be the case that the yarn he selected has some almost magical quality, some kind of fish-attracting mojo.

In fact, the yarn even has an intriguing back story. Sawyer used a yarn called Chadwicks 477. It’s no longer available — something about the recipe being lost in a fire — and people will pay over $100 for a card of it on eBay.

Sawyer said the secret to the Killer Bug’s success was the color this yarn turned when wet. I’ve never seen a real one made with Chadwick’s 477, but I’ve seen the modern substitute devised by my friend, Chris Stewart, a tenkara fishing enthusiast and fly seller who has really studied this bug, and the color change really is surprising. A bland tan when dry in the box, the Killer Bug turns a translucent tannish-pink in the water. To me, it looks like a little hunk of raw flesh, faintly gruesome — just the kind of thing fish like to eat.

Sawyer meant the killer bug to imitate the little freshwater shrimp that fattened the brown trout in the River Avon. In fact, the story has it that he really meant the fly to appeal to the river’s grayling, which as river keeper he was duty-bound to remove so they wouldn’t interfere with the paying guests’ trout fishing.

Sawyer’s grandson, Nick Sawyer, reports old Frank also thought his bug resembled a caddis pupa on its way to the surface.

Whatever it’s supposed to look like, the Killer Bug works exceptionally well. If you’d like to try one, I heartily recommend you visit Stewart’s site, www.TenkaraBum.com, where he both sells them and gives instructions for making your own. Stewart uses them on his tenkara rod, but, of course, they work just fine on conventional fly rods, too.

And if you can’t bring yourself to fish with nothing more than yarn on a hook, consider Stewart’s Killer Kebari — a Killer Bug with a soft hackle of hen pheasant. It’s a great-looking wet fly that will put fish on your line. Whether you kill any is up to you.


5 responses to “A Serial Killer in Disguise

  1. Lyle,
    I holeheartedly agree, I have been fishing with the killer bug/killer kebari only this year and it is already of my top producers. Trout love it, East or West.

  2. I am an idiot, I meant “Morgan, not Lyle”. This keeps happening, sorry!

  3. Nice one! Have you ever seen Walt’s Worm? Walt Young came up with it to match the Cranefly Larva in the central PA streams. Dubbing, lead, hook and DONE. Here is an old video I did w/Eric Stroup tying it http://www.riseformstudio.tv/fly_tying_video_walts_worm.html
    and it kills in your neck of the woods also…

    • Michael, I have seen this vid and Walt’s Worm definitely reminds me of the Killer Bug. TenkaraBum did say the Killer Bug might look like a cranefly larva, like Walt’s. Cool fly. Does it mean anything that so many one-material flies work better than some complicated ones? I like the Copper John as much as the next guy, but these simple patterns do catch fish.

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