Whether you aim to take your fly-fishing to a new level, create
better flies at a lower cost, or take up a rewarding winter hobby,
tying flies will meet your goals and more. For many, tying that
first fly is the beginning of a lifelong pursuit.
I’ll never forget the sense of pride I felt in tying my first
muskrat wet fly. I was a young fly-fishing novice back in the early
1970s. Learning to tie flies was a life-changing experience.
Simply put, fly-tying will make you a better angler. I’ll even
venture that the best fly-fishermen are usually good fly-tiers. Let
me explain why.
The flies available commercially often don’t match the unique
characteristics of the hatches on local waters. They may be close,
but when it comes to finicky trout, close often doesn’t count. Sit
down at the vise with samples of the live bug, however, and with a
little experimentation you’ll have flies that precisely imitate the
natural insects and other food organisms in local waters.
As a fly-tier, you’ll also fish more aggressively, knowing that
a fly lost to a brushy overhang can easily be replaced. You’ll
share the most productive patterns with other tiers who will share
theirs with you. Sound good?
Right now, you may wonder whether you have the dexterity and
patience to tie flies. If you can tie your shoes, you can tie most
fly patterns. Here’s how to start off on the right foot.
There are two ways to acquire fly-tying tools and materials. The
first is to buy a complete kit. These kits include the basic tools,
such as a vise for holding the hook, bobbin and bobbin threader,
hackle pliers, dubbing needle, scissors, and a whip finisher or
half-hitch tool for tying the knots that complete the fly. A kit
also will contain hooks, head cement, a selection of fly-tying
materials for a variety of patterns, and an instructional manual or
Fly-tying kits may be purchased at fly shops or through mail
order companies. Prices range from about $50 to $150, depending on
the quality of the tools and the amount of materials included.
Kits provide an economical route to give fly-tying a try. They
are an excellent way to introduce youths to the hobby.
The second approach is to buy tools separately, or in a
tools-only kit. Then buy or gather the materials needed for the
patterns you want to tie.
If you’re serious about fly-fishing and fairly certain fly-tying
is for you, this may be the best route. As with fly-fishing
equipment, the quality of tools varies considerably. Check out a
few online catalogs and you’ll find vises ranging from $10 to $500.
You don’t have to start out with premium tools, but, as with most
things, you get what you pay for.
The vise is the most important tool. Without question, it’s the
place to spend a little extra if you can. Inexpensive vises may
work well for tying size 12s and larger flies, but often fail to
hold small hooks securely. There’s nothing more frustrating than
having a No. 18 dry fly pop out of the vise as you’re trying to
There are literally thousands of materials that can be used in
tying flies. Everything from duck butt feathers (called cul de
canard) to copper wire to dryer lint has been used by creative
fly-tiers. Entire books have been devoted to the gathering and
processing of fly-tying materials. For the sake of simplicity, we
can divide materials into two primary groups natural and synthetic.
Some materials, such as poly dry fly bubbing, you’ll have to buy,
but many can be gathered from nature or around the house.
Most kits come with a range of natural materials, including
waterfowl and pheasant feathers, rooster and hen hackle, peacock
herl, fur pieces, deer tail and synthetics, like chenille, tinsel,
and foam. Depending on the flies you intend to tie, a quality kit
may provide a useful foundation of tying materials.
Most materials are relatively inexpensive. Yet a few items, like
high-grade rooster hackle, can be frightfully expensive. While it
will provide hackle for dozens of flies and is a pleasure to tie
with, a premium Whiting dry fly cape can run as much as $90, and,
forgive the pun, that ain’t chicken feed. Fortunately, high-grade
hackle can be purchased in half capes or smaller bagged quantities,
and is necessary only on traditional dry flies.
As a hunter, much of my best fly-tying material is gathered from
the game birds and animals I harvest. Duck, upland bird, squirrel,
and rabbit skins are tacked to plywood drying boards and cured with
a 50/50 blend of salt and borax.
I’ve even been known to stop for a road-kill, especially those
heavily-furred winter squirrels. Nothing goes to waste when you’re
Some harvested materials, such as wood duck flank feather, would
be hard to find or prohibitively expensive. Woodie flank is used in
many trout flies and highly prized by tiers. While illegal to sell,
having a extra at a tiers’ swap sure won’t hurt your
In addition to hunting, many materials can be gathered around
the home. Discarded yarn (including old knit sweaters), copper
wire, plastic freezer bags, and those sheets of thin packaging foam
all can be used in tying flies.
Learning to tie
The best news is that it’s never been easier to learn to tie
flies. The resources available to learn the basics range from
beginning fly-tying classes to instructional CDs and printed guides
or magazines to online lessons and chat rooms. The information age
has been a boon to fly-tying.
While there are many good fly-tying manuals, one I recommend is
Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple, by Skip Morris.
Perhaps the best way to learn is to spend some time with an
experienced tier who is willing to demonstrate the basic techniques
and then give you a go at the vise. Once you’ve mastered a few
techniques, you’ll be able to follow standard fly “recipes” to tie
hundreds of patterns. This will add a whole new dimension to
Mentors often can be found by attending meetings of local
fly-fishing clubs or chapters. You also may inquire at area fly
shops or sporting goods stores. Those with tying materials usually
have regular times throughout the winter for tiers to come in, set
up, and tie.
Fly-tiers share a great sense of camaraderie. Brought together
by a common love of fly-fishing and a passion for the art and craft
of tying flies, they are more than willing to share their
experience. Most of them were at one time coached by mentors, and
now take pride in passing on the tradition.
Give fly-tying a try this winter. It’ll help beat cabin fever,
improve your fly-fishing, and, if you’re lucky, provide years of
For more info on fly-tying visit the following web sites:
www.cabelas.com; www.feather-craft.com; www.kman.com; and