If you don’t tie your own flies, you’re in good company. Over a third of fly anglers have never tied a fly. Maybe you’ve heard tying is too difficult, expensive or time-consuming?
Well, it’s none of the above. And once you get started, you’ll see how easy, enjoyable and addictive it can be.
Master of your own supply
Fly tying offers so many advantages you’d be crazy not to give it a go. But one of the most compelling is the freedom and versatility it grants you. Tie your own flies and you’ll always be able to match the hatch.
“The fact that I have an open canvas to put whatever I want on a hook draws me to the vice again and again,”
agrees Cheech Pierce on Fly Fish Food blog.
Convinced? You should be. Carry on reading, and we’ll tell you everything you need to get started.
You’ll need some basic tools to get tying. Start with the holy trinity of vice, scissors and bobbin holder.
While it’s possible to tie a fly totally by hand, we wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner. Most fly tyers choose to use a vice, and so should you. There are many types available, so do your research before you buy. As the Fly Dressers’ Guild advises:
“Choosing your first vice and tools is a bit like buying your first car: very exciting, potentially expensive, but easy to end up with something poorly made and not up to the task.”
Pick a vice that’s easy to use, has a good grip and will hold a variety of hook sizes.
Next on your shopping list is a pair of sharp, pointed scissors. Those rusty old scissors in your kitchen drawer literally won’t cut it. Get yourself a dedicated pair of fly-tying scissors.
If you’ve got a couple of hours to spare, Global Fly Fisher has the most comprehensive guide to fly-tying scissors you’ll ever read.
Master fly tyer Barry Ord Clarke recommends two pairs of scissors: “one with extremely fine points for the more intricate work and a pair with larger and serrated blades for deer hair and heavier work.”
Ceramic bobbin holder
Last in the trinity is the bobbin holder – a device that carefully holds your fly-tying thread so you don’t have to. In The Riffle recommends ceramic bobbins – they’re more expensive but worth it:
“The ceramic inserts on the tip of the bobbin will protect the fine fly-tying thread. Without the ceramic, the bobbin will develop burrs and grooves in the metal. This will cause the thread to constantly break during tying, very frustrating!”
Next we move on to less essential, albeit still useful, secondary tools.
Hackle pliers are useful for big fingers that can’t get a good grip on small feathers. But the Fly Dressers’ Guild warns:
“Check that the edges of the jaws are not sharp or they will cut through your materials. A quick rub with emery paper or the addition of a small piece of silicone tubing will cure this problem.”
A dubbing needle performs a variety of roles. It will pick out dubbing (fur), apply varnish, undo knots and separate feather fibres. You don’t necessarily need to buy a dubbing needle if you can find something else that’s long and pointy to use instead – the Fly Dressers’ Guild recommends “Grandma’s hat pins”.
Whip finish tool
Some tyers love ‘em and some tyers hate ‘em. Whip finish tools come in various shapes and sizes and are used to finish off the fly. But they can be a real faff to handle. The alternative is to whip finish by hand.
Tying lamp v natural light
Depending on where your tying table is located you might need to shine some light on your handiwork. There are a number of fly tying lamps that give the magnification and shadow-free light you’ll need for the fiddly stuff.
But in warmer weather, natural light can work just as well, as Hillend Dabbler comments:
“Today I managed to get outdoors into the garden and tie a few patterns on the garden table with a nice cold beer close to hand. It has to be said the light was absolutely tremendous which I believe is a very important factor whilst tying. The natural light really assisted me outdoors today so maybe tying al fresco is something I should consider doing more often.”
Now it’s time to choose the materials you’ll use to create your first flies. Don’t go bonkers and buy every possible variation of anything you could ever need. Take it slowly at first.
Before you choose your hackle – or feathers – consider the type of fly you’re going to make. When it comes to poultry, smaller, softer hen capes work best for wet flies as the fibres move better in the water. While for dry flies, cock capes are better, as the fibres are stiffer and so float better.
Fly Fishing Connection (which provides a good, quick overview of what you need to know about hackle) warns against scrimping on price:
“When choosing hackle, quality counts. You will end up being frustrated if you do not spend the extra money.”
If you have friends who shoot, ask them for game bird feathers. These can come in handy for soft-hackle fly patterns. And start keeping an eye out for anything interesting on your travels. But be warned; David Cammiss says:
“Once you start collecting fly tying materials no walk along the river, or lakeside will ever be the same again. You will find yourself gathering feathers and anything else which ‘just might be useful’. On a recent trip my colleague could not believe I was collecting sheep’s wool off the barbed wire. Now that it has been washed in detergent in boiling water it will be dyed.”
Your choice of hook is also very important, says Al Campbell of Fly Anglers Online:
“If you choose the right hook, your fly will be better proportioned and thus perform better in use. If you choose the wrong hook, you’ll have a flawed fly and your success with that fly will likely be less than the success you would enjoy with a properly tied fly.”
But with so many sizes and types of hook, how do you know where to start? Campbell suggests you first decide which flies you want to make and then buy the hooks you need to make them. Not the other way round.
There are almost as many types of thread as there are types of hook. But Fly on a hook blogger, Bernard Sunderland, advises beginners to start with a ‘standard’ thread – polyester, 70 denier – and not to buy any specialist thread in the early stages.
Once you’ve made your first few flies you’ll soon have a favourite combination of materials that you can draw from.
Rob Waddington’s top six are: “A B175 #10 hook with some white marabou, hare’s ear, peacock feathers, natural cock cape, pheasant tail and a few brass beads. You could tie anything with them.”
For Bob Mayers: “Hook would be Fulling Mill comp heavyweight, materials would be Booby Eyes, Straggle Fritz, Bronze Mallard, Pheasant Tails, cock hackles, Jungle cock Eyes.”
Teaching technique is way beyond the scope of this short guide. But we will point you in the direction of some very useful resources:
1) Reference books
A quick search on Amazon or a question posted on your favourite fishing forum will quickly lead you to the most helpful beginner’s guides to fly tying.
Here are three of the most popular:
Fly Tying for Beginners: How to Tie 50 Failsafe Flies, by Peter Gathercole
The Fly Tier’s Benchside Reference to Techniques and Dressing Styles, by Ted Leeson
Beginners Guide To Fly Tying, by Chris Mann & Terry Griffiths
2) Online tutorials
There are literally thousands of how-to videos on sites like YouTube and Vimeo. Some of the best beginners tutorials include:
If you know a fly tyer, ask them for help. If you don’t, try contacting your local Fly Dressers Guild for details of any fly-tying classes near you.
1) Simply does it
Without doubt, the main piece of advice for the beginner fly tyer is to keep it simple:
“Don’t over complicate, watch YouTube videos, start with easy patterns,” advises Bob Mayers of the Llandegfedd Fly Fishing Association.
“Don’t try to replicate complex patterns when you start, start with easy-to-tie patterns and build up your skills slowly,” agrees McFluffchucker blogger, Dave Lindsay.
2) Less is more
Resist the temptation to overdo your first flies, says Lindsay:
“Don’t use tons of materials when you tie a fly; always remember less is more when it comes to big pike flies, flies become more mobile in the water if you use less material.”
Waddington agrees: “Less is more, don’t ‘over-tie’. Sparse materials look better in the water and have a luminous effect.”
3) Don’t worry about perfection
And last, but not least, don’t worry if your first fly (or even your 101st) isn’t perfect. The fish don’t care. Dave Lindsay tells us:
“Even if you think your first tyes dosnt look professional they will still catch fish”
And take this advice from trout fly fishing maestro Geoffrey Bucknall:
Recently, fly tying has become very sophisticated. And master fly dressers, at the demos have raised the craft to a pinnacle of perfection. It is great to watch… and yet, I wonder, are we not discouraging a handful of would-be beginners who believe their sausage fingers could not manipulate what is needed for a woven body?
True, the fly must be basically right in colour and size, but the trout locks onto the natural fly by the way it behaves in or on the water. In other words, a simple fly presented in the natural way, that does the business. Fly dressing can be raised to a high level of craftsmanship but that has nothing to do with catching fish!
So, my advice to fly dressers is this; write in big letters above your bench: TROUT RECOGNISE THEIR FOOD BY ITS BEHAVIOUR. That will govern the way you make your flies.
And on that encouraging note, here endeth the lesson.
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