The Eyes Have It

The Eyes Have It
Fabric paint eyes
For the past few years I have been trying to figure out if eyes really make flies more attractive to fish. My experience has been that sometimes eyes help and sometimes they don’t. But one thing I have learned for certain – fishermen will pick a fly with eyes over one without nearly every time. The lifelike appearance of eyes builds confidence in fishermen, and confidence helps them catch fish. So I suppose, even if only indirectly, eyes do make a difference. This month we’ll review the selection of eyes available to fly tyers and take a look at how/when they can be used on fly patterns.

Stick-on eyes

Probably the first type of manufactured eyes were the “sticker” type developed for spoons and plugs. These peel-and-stick eyes were applied to the heads of conventional lures to enhance their appearance and to provide a bulls-eye for predators. Fly tyers soon caught on and began sticking them on large streamer patterns. Stick-on eyes are now available in many different colors and sizes, and are the most inexpensive of all. They are commonly used in applications where a highly visible eye with a thin profile is needed. Surf Candy flies, spoons, and poppers are fitted with stick-on eyes. The adhesive on stick-on eyes is fairly weak and is used only to position the eyes until they can be coated with epoxy, clear polyurethane, or UV-activated resin. Once coated, these eyes are bold and durable.

3D eyes

Three dimensional eyes are basically stick-on eyes that have a clear plastic lens permanently molded over them. These eyes are highly lifelike and range from slightly flexible to rigid. They are available in a wide range of sizes, colors, and pearlescent sheens. Typically, 3D eyes are used on large baitfish patterns and they are not coated with epoxy or other hard resins. Like the stick-on eyes, the adhesive on the back of 3D eyes is not adequate to permanently secure them. They are traditionally glued to flies with a small drop of epoxy, super glue, polyurethane gel, or dimensional fabric paint.

Plastic Molded eyes

Plastic molded eyes are extremely lifelike hard plastic eyes with a short stem molded to the back of the eye. They have no adhesive backing. The stem on the back of the eye provides a “root” for the eye and extra surface area for gluing. It is generally trimmed down to an appropriate length, coated with adhesive, and poked into the head fibers on a wide-bodied fly like a deer hair diver, soft popper, or EP baitfish pattern. Plastic molded eyes look great, but their small size and slippery nature make them difficult to work with.

Barbell/dumbbell eyes
Barbell and dumbbell eyes are designed to add weight to flies. Dumbbell eyes have an hourglass shape and are available in aluminum, brass, nickel-plated steel, stainless steel, tungsten, and lead. Sometimes these eyes are painted to make them look more lifelike. Dumbbell eyes are lashed to the hook shank with thread wraps and coated with cement or adhesive. They are the classic eyes for Clouser Deep Minnows, assorted crab patterns, and shrimp patterns, where their key feature is to invert and sink the fly. They are moderately durable, but tend to deform and break if they impact a solid object like a rock or a boat. They also can break a fly rod (and your skull) if they hit it at high speed!

Bead Chain eyes

Bead chain eyes are similar in form and function to dumbbell eyes, but they are lighter and more durable. Bead chain was originally used to attach stoppers to sinks and bathtubs, and as pull cords on light fixtures. A crafty fly tyer discovered its use as a tying material and the rest is history. Bead chain is available in nickel plated steel, painted steel, brass, stainless steel, and strung plastic. Bead chain is highly durable, inexpensive, and very useful in fly tying. Fly tyers simply clip pairs of eyes from the chain using wire snips and tie them to the hook shank with thread wraps. Bead chain eyes are less dense than solid barbell eyes and provide a slower sink rate to flies. They are commonly used on Clouser Minnows, shrimp and crab patterns, and assorted baitfish flies.

Mono eyes

Mono eyes are formed from short strands of monofilament that have rounded bulbs (pupils) formed on the ends. There are essentially 3 types of mono eyes- molded, burned, and strung. Molded mono eyes are manufactured from plastic with small pupils heat-formed into the ends. They are usually black and come in several sizes. Burned mono eyes are similar, and are created by burning the ends of a short piece of monofilament line (from 12 to 60 lb test) to form a small ball on the end. The ball is then usually colored with a black permanent marker, paint, or quick-melt powder. Strung mono eyes are most realistic of the three. They are formed by stringing small glass or plastic beads onto a piece of monofilament and dipping the ends in clear epoxy or adhesive. Mono eyes are used almost exclusively on crustacean patterns. They are attached to the fly with thread wraps which are then coated with cement. Mono eyes are lightweight, lifelike, and durable.

Paint eyes

There are two types of fly eyes made from paint. The first type of paint eyes are made by literally painting the eyes directly on to the fly, usually on the thread wraps at the head of streamer patterns, or on the cork/foam body of popping bugs. Once applied the paint is coated with a clear lacquer to improve durability. This is the way fly tyers originally put eyes on poppers, Bendbacks, Deceivers and tarpon flies. Painted eyes give these flies a classic nostalgic look. The second way to create eyes from paint is to use Tulip Slick Fabric paint. Small dollops of paint are placed on a smooth plastic surface (butter tub lid is perfect). Slightly smaller drops of black paint are then dropped on the center of the background color. The lid is then tapped from the bottom causing the pointed shaped eyes to flatten and round out. Once dry the eyes can be removed with a needle and glued onto the fly with more fabric paint or any waterproof adhesive.