Bipolar Flats Flies

Want to spend less time changing flies and more time catching fish? Here are three bonefish patterns that work equally well on both light and dark-colored flats.

[ by Dick Brown]

FOR YEARS, conventional wisdom held we should use light-colored flies for fishing light flats, and dark-colored flies on dark flats. The premise was simple: Any prey that survives in a given habitat wouldn’t last long if it failed to blend into its surroundings. This meant you should pick your fly to match the color of the flat you were about to fish. It also meant you needed to change flies when you moved from a light-colored sand flat to a dark-colored mud flat or an intermediate-hued turtle grass flat. Recently, a few savvy anglers and guides have flipped this theory on its head with new flats-agnostic patterns that are at home in any habitat, allowing them to move from one flat to another without changing flies!

These “bipolar” designs, as some call them, are not totally new. Tim Borski created a whole family of iconic, barred-wing craft fur patterns for the Florida Keys in the 1990s: the Bristleworm, the Borski Slider, the No-Name Shrimp, and others. These were pioneering examples of bipolar bonefish flies. Borski’s classics all looked natural and worked superbly well on flats of any color. Notably, they achieved their flats-matching ability using earth-toned hues, and Tim barred the tails or bodies of the flies to set them apart from their surroundings.

Today’s new bipolar patterns build on that basic model and go even further. They employ several innovative tying techniques to create a generic or universal background “look” so they blend into their surroundings, yet each contains one or two prominent features that make them stand out against their surroundings to help fish notice them. Here are four innovative bipolar designs I rely on regularly.


1 – The Big Ugly

The Big Ugly was not designed to be flats agnostic; instead, marine researcher Aaron Adams, of the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, developed it to emulate two of the bonefish’s favorite prey, mantis and ghost shrimp. Although Aaron often selects a color of fly to match flat he is fishing, I use a single color across a large number of dark- and light-colored flats; a gold-amber body with cinnamon-tan bars on a blond wing drives big bonefish crazy. The Big Ugly is a crossover fly, a pattern that is both bipolar and can be fished on all flats, or you can change its colors to better match specific flats. Either way, it is one great fly for big bonefish.

Aaron says he originally tied this pattern in preparation for a trip to the west side of Andros as part of a biological sampling group. He knew there were many mantis and ghost shrimp holes on the sand flats there.

“So,” Aaron says, “I created this fly to imitate the mantis shrimp or ghost shrimp found where I was going. I assumed that they use these holes defensively when the bonefish, permit, or other predators try to eat them. This is probably why, when bonefish eat this fly, they do so very aggressively; they dive on it because they think it is trying to escape down one of those holes. It can be difficult to strip fast enough to come tight on the fish. I typically fish this fly on or near the bottom, and with rapid strips.”

When guide Phillip Rolle, who was working with Aaron on the trip, first saw the fly, his eyes grew wide and he said with a grin, “Mon, that is one big ugly fly.” But Aaron says that by the end of the trip, Phillip was using it, too. He adds, “This is now my number one fly when mantis shrimp holes or ghost shrimp mounds are abundant.”

Big Ugly

HOOK: Mustad 34007, size 2.
THREAD: Fluorescent pink 3/0 (210 denier).
EYES: Medium or large bead chain or medium dumbbell depending upon the desired sink rate.
TAIL: Tan craft fur barred with a black permanent marker.
BODY: Gold or root beer Cactus Chenille.
WING: Tan craft fur.

Tying the Big Ugly

2 – The Bonecrusher

Sometimes a fly pattern just sneaks up on you—like this one.

When I first saw the Bonecrusher, I thought, “Ugh, just another Crazy Charlie with some chenille to cushion the drop and a few legs to kick up the action.”

But, given who sent it to me, I should have known better. I was on deadline in a big project at the time, and I didn’t really pay much attention to the fly until a few weeks later. But when I did, wow!

Rick Simonsen, who originated the Simram, which is one of the greatest bonefish patterns to emerge in the last 10 years, also created the Bonecrusher. When you look at this new pattern closely, it is not only another breakthrough design but is one of the cleverest bipolar flats patterns ever. It has color yet is almost colorless; what color it has, is see-through. It has shape, yet is almost transparent. It has weight, yet has cushioning that quiets its splashdown. It has translucence, but is also opaque. And, its barred legs make it appear to move even when it is stationary. As a bipolar candidate, the Bonecrusher’s odd combination of pale translucent amber-orange, gold, cream, black, and pink looks at home on flats everywhere.

While the Bonecrusher is an outstanding performer on both dark and light flats across the Bahamas, I’ve been particularly impressed by its performance on heavily pressured flats. As a test, I have taken the fly to several flats where I see lots of anglers. One location has become a very special test flat for me; it is fished a lot, and it also has many large bonefish. It is a very light-colored flat, one that by the purist “match the flats” approach should require a white, cream, or pearl fly. At first, the Bonecrusher was only modestly effective, but once the pattern was dialed down by removing two of its legs, it became deadly.


HOOK: Mustad 34007, size 4 or 2.
THREAD: Fine monofi lament and pink 3/0 (210 denier).
EYES: 5 /32-inch brass bead chain.
BODY: Orange/pink V-Rib.
WING: Beige craft fur and four to six white barred Sili Legs.
HEAD: White or cream Crystal Sparkle Chenille.
NOSE: Orange/pink V-Rib.
NOTE: Use as little monofilament thread on the shank as possible to let the silver hook shine through the translucent body

Tying the Bonecrusher

3 – The Simko

This fourth bipolar pattern is my own design. It is an adaptation and marrying of a fly called the Meko Special and Simram; basically, I applied the blended-color approach of the Meko Special to the Simram. The result has been very rewarding: My Simko is a highly reliable attractor fly like the Simram that works on flats of all types.

The Simko leverages the sinking ability of the Simram by positioning the eyes at the bend of the hook. I weight the fly using either bead chain or a lead dumbbell to create a pattern for fishing shallow or deep-water flats. When I was adapting the Meko, I constructed the Simko body using blended SLF Saltwater Dubbing, which widens the range of possible colors and sheen. I also tie both soft- and stiff-hackle versions to control the amount of animation and weed-guard protection. (You can also create a dependable weed guard using two spikes of monofilament.) I borrowed the barring from the Big Ugly, but experimented with the intensity of the contrasting bars on the tail; I dialed down the harsh, dark black to a more subdued medium-tan appearance that is much more effective. Tinkering with the barred tail will give you more control to entice finicky tailing fish.

The resulting pattern works across many different colored flats, but also flats of different depths. The Simko—even with just a single 5 /32-inch bead chain—gets down quickly on both shallow and deep flats.

A friend who visited Abaco said he fished the Marls seven days using only the Simko: it was his personal One Fly contest. He fished dark-, light-, and intermediate-colored flats, and he said he never changed patterns. “It never failed to work on any color of flat in any depth of water,” he said.

There will always be some controversy about the relative merits of selecting flies that match—or do not match—the color of saltwater flats; you will have to decide which method works best for you. But, there are valid differences of opinion, and you have a few options if you wish to explore this new bipolar approach. Fortunately, unlike some areas of fly fishing where discussions become complex and even heated, testing what works is no more complicated than carrying a small box of new patterns. That’s not such a big deal, is it?


HOOK: Mustad 34007 or SL11–3H, sizes 8 to 2.
THREAD: Fluorescent pink 3/0 (210 denier).
WEIGHT: Bead-chain or an extra-small (1 /60 ounce) or small (1 /40 ounce) dumbbell. Select the eyes to achieve the desired sink rate.
TAIL: Polar Fibre and pearl Krystal Flash.
BODY: Amber braid, and blended pink and tan dubbing.
LEGS: Hackle.

Tying the Simko

Dick Brown has chased bonefish and permit on flats around the world. He has written about his adventures and shared his expertise in his books, Bonefish Fly Patterns, 2nd Edition, and Fly Fishing for Bonefish, New and Revised (both by Lyons Press).