Swimming with the Fishes

A fly rod lure aficionado shares his diver-building and fishing techniques for catching fish on the strip.

[by Steve Schweitzer]

The diving fly rod lure was a natural evolution from the fishing success anglers enjoyed using the popping plugs and floating “coaxer” trout flies developed in the late 1800s.

B.F. Wilder, who is credited with inventing the Feather Minnow, observed fish taking advantage of wounded baitfish; these injured little fish made easy meals for larger predators. This observation was his inspiration for the Feather Minnow, a pattern that imitates an injured baitfish. By most accounts, the erratically sliding and diving Feather Minnow was the genesis for diving fly rod lures.

Bill Jamison, credited with the first commercially produced fly rod “coaxer,” developed the Jamison Fly Rod Wiggler around 1917. He designed it to wiggle and wobble to a depth of about 12 to 15 inches. The Jamison Fly Rod Wiggler was made of cedar and painted to look like a minnow, complete with hand-painted eyes and gill markings. It was essentially a crossover bait that could just as easily be used as a spin fishing lure.

Diving fly rod and spin fishing lures are closely related kin. The primary difference is the weight of these lures; casting with a fly rod and line requires a lighter lure than what we would use with a spinning rod.

As fly rod enthusiasts, we have much to learn from spin fishing science, things like how lures work and react on the water’s surface, the noise and commotion they make when retrieved, and how they behave when they dive. It’s no wonder that some of the most innovative modern flies emulate what the spin fishing world figured out decades ago. Designs such as articulated bodies, flies that have skitter or diving lips, and patterns that “walk the dog” come to mind. One of the most effective designs is a fly that can dive under the surface to emulate the favorite food of big fish. Let’s explore how to make a diving fly, and how to get it to behave the way you want.


Hook: Mustad CK74S, size 2/0.
Thread: Chartreuse 6/0 (140 denier).
Head: Rainy’s Diver Head.
Head colors: I use the Copic coloring system, which has been featured in this magazine. You may, however, color the head using any method you wish. Select your favorite colors.
Head coating: Flex Coat’s Lure Epoxy Gel Coat with pearl microglitter.
Eyes: Holographic eyes.
Legs: Sili Legs or rubber legs.
Wing: Saddle hackle, marabou, and Flashabou.

How to Build a Fish-Catching Diver

DIY Divers

Making your own divers is easy using Rainy’s foam Diver Heads. These heads are preshaped with diving collars, plus they are hollowed out on the underside so you can slip them over bulky weights and body materials. These foam heads also permit easy testing to achieve the ideal weight.

When fine-tuning a diver, simply wrap the hook shank with wire or slide on a few beads, and then slip on the head for fit. Next, drop the weighted prototype into a bucket of water, bathtub, or fish tank to see if it floats nose down for making a shallow-running diver, suspends or sinks slowly for creating a medium-depth diver, or sinks quickly for tying a deepwater diver. In the accompanying instructional photos, we shall build a fly designed to dive quickly to about two or three feet deep.

Embedding tungsten beads or round fishing weights in
the foam head where you will eventually glue the eyes is a great way to add weight to a shallow-running diver head.

Creativity reigns when tying the wing of your diver. The goal is to create a wing that is light, supple, and adds lifelike swimming action when retrieved through the water. Long synthetics, schlappen feathers, rabbit strips, and marabou are all excellent materials that move well in the water. Deciding on the length of these ingredients is up to you. Just remember that a wing that is longer than four inches may warrant adding a stinger hook; for safety, mark the top of a finished diver that has a stinger hook with a small dot of some bright nail polish. The next time you open your fly box, you’ll quickly notice the dot on that fly, warning you it has that hidden hook.

There’s no secret to fishing a diver. Get the fly down to where the fish are eating, and make it move! Use a sinkingtip line or sinking leader to get your diver even deeper. Strip the fly randomly to make it appear injured or dazed. Really mix up the speed of your retrieve. And I’ll leave you with one of my most effective fishing techniques: allow for long pauses after some violent strips. This sort of erratic action encourages fish to become curious and attack, especially after giving the fly another short twitch.

Steve Schweitzer is the author of A Fly Fishing Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park, and is coauthor of A Fly Fishing Guide to Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. His most recent book is titled Designing Poppers, Sliders & Divers, published by Pixachrome Publishing. To learn more, go to www.pixachrome.com. Steve lives in Colorado.