A Touch of Midas

By Jim Auckley | December 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 1996

Fly fishing is an old hobby. Catching fish on a "feathered hook" has been traced to the early 1200s in Europe. Nowadays, estimates of the number of people in the United States who fly fish range upwards of 10 million, and as many as one-fourth of them probably tie their own flies.

The craft of fly tying still uses natural materials that are gathered from the wild - fibers and fur that connect us to nature as surely as the tug of a fish on our line.

One reason to tie flies yourself is to save money. Fishing flies are big business; one U.S. wholesaler recently estimated they would produce one million dozen flies in a year. Simple but well-made flies sell for about $1.50 to $2.00 each, so tying flies for your own use is a worthwhile pursuit.

More at the heart of the matter, though, is that it is a thrill to catch a fish on a fly you created yourself. Want to learn how? You can teach yourself out of books and videos, but taking lessons can save you frustration and time.

Fishing clubs, like Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers, conservation organizations and parks and recreation departments often have fly tying lessons for beginners. If you live in a city big enough to support a fly shop, they also probably offer fly tying lessons.

Fly tying is not hard to learn, and it doesn't require any special skills other than the ability to handle small items and thread with some deftness. You don't have to be an expert to produce flies that will catch fish, either. Some tiers ultimately take the hobby to the level of an art form, but plenty of flies tied by beginning and average tiers are readily accepted by hungry fish. Make no mistake, though, that some flies are more complicated to construct than others, and it takes some skill to do them well.

I started out as a 13-year-old with a Boy Scout fly tying kit and instruction books gleaned from the public library. Similar kits are available today from tackle stores and almost all of the mail order fly shops, some of them quite expensive, with high quality tools and materials.

A kit is not a bad way to get started, but you can also buy fly tying tools separately, then buy just the materials you need to tie about a half-dozen of the fly patterns you most commonly fish with. Write down your list of flies, then look up the patterns or "dressings" in a fly tying book to see what material you need to purchase.

Start with an inexpensive vise and tools; if you really get hooked by this hobby you can upgrade your tools later. Many experienced fly tiers have taken the Swiss watch approach to the tools they use - they buy high quality instruments just for the pleasure of working with them. This is not necessary, however. I have a simple but sturdy vise I bought 30 years ago and it works just as well today as it did then. I still use it on some occasions to hold small (#18 - #22) hooks.

Other tools you must have include a hackle plier, a bobbin and bobbin threader, a bodkin or needle, a hair stacker, scissors and a whip finisher. You may want two pair of scissors, one to cut heavy things like copper wire, tinsel and deer hair, the other to cut thread and other fine items. A whip finish is the final knot used when a fly is completed; you can learn to tie this by hand, but a tool makes it quick and easy.

Later you may want to add a dubbing twister, another bobbin or two and a hackle gauge. You may also want some kind of tool caddy to keep all this stuff in and a desk lamp to help you see what you're doing. A box of some kind to organize your hooks in is helpful. If you are fortunate you will find a permanent home for your tying material in a desk of some kind.

What flies to begin tying? Woolly Worms and Woolly Buggers are a good place to start. The Hare's Ear, Pheasant Tail and Red Squirrel nymphs are terrific flies, and any book should include a list of the materials you need for them. Good Midwestern dry flies include the Adams and Elk Hair Caddis. Chuck and Sharon Tryon, in their book Fly Fishing for Trout in Missouri, include the Hare's Ear and Squirrel nymph, but also add the freshwater shrimp (scud), yellow and grizzly Woolly Worm, Zug Bug, a dark stonefly, flies called soft hackles, the Thunder Creek streamers, and the Renegade and Griffith's Gnat, plus some others, for Missouri fishing.

Small black wet flies work great for bluegills. I wouldn't be caught dead without some ginger woolly worms, a few Royal Wulffs, and Prince and Pheasant Tail nymphs tied with small brass bead heads. Brown, olive and black leeches are also good Missouri flies, as are bead head woolly buggers in the same colors. If you reach the advanced stages of fly tying, you will probably want to add trico and rusty spinners on little #24 hooks.

Fly tying has changed in a couple of ways over the years. One of my early reference books was filled with pictures of brightly colored flies, patterns like the Professor and Parmachene Belle. I tied a lot of wet flies then, largely with duck quill wings and bodies of colorful silk floss. These were the flies that were traditional for Eastern brook trout fishing, and anglers in the Midwest and West used them too.

Now a fly tier is much more likely to be fashioning nymph imitations in the somber hues of nature, flies like the gold ribbed hare's ear, pheasant tail nymph or stonefly. The emphasis is on flies that imitate real aquatic insects, rather than the gaudy brook trout flies that were once so popular with anglers.

Fly tying, when compared to collecting antiques, is probably not a large hobby, but it does have some impact. According to the Fly Tackle Dealer, producers are nearing over 200,000 chickens in the United States solely for the production of feathers for fly tying. Colorado, Montana and Pennsylvania are the leading states in the hackle industry.

One producer is working on a bird with three times as many feathers on its back, saddles that will produce up to 500 12-inch long hackle feathers. Another chicken rancher is breeding birds for feathers with small round stems ... "so the tier can maximize the number of wraps he puts on the hook." Other breeders are trying to produce large feathers for big saltwater fly patterns.

Two areas that can trip up beginners are deer hair and dubbing. Deer hair is used to make several kinds of flies - streamers, bass bugs and some dry flies. It is slippery stuff and will want to spin around the shank of the hook as you tie it on. Covering the hook with thread before applying the deer hair will help, but you may want to build your thread handling skills before you tackle deer hair flies.

Dubbing is spinning animal fur on thread to make fly bodies. The thread is heavily waxed, then small amounts of fur are pinched on the thread and spun between the thumb and finger. Most tiers make the mistake of trying to apply too much fur to the thread at one time. Practice dubbing when you are tying nymphs on large hooks; don't wait until the session where you want to produce some tiny dry flies on impossibly small hooks.

One of the pleasures of fly tying is gathering a collection of materials, everything from feathers, fur and hides to new synthetics. Most fly tying materials are inexpensive; high quality rooster necks and saddles for tying dry flies are the exception. Searching through the catalogs and fly shops for a certain type and size of feathers, or just that particular shade of fur you need, is as much fun as hunting for collectibles, but cheaper.

My collection includes some strange items - ostrich herl and Australian opossum fur. I have quail wings and squirrel fur I collected myself with a gun, and I have grouse wings, duck feathers and turkey feathers that other hunters have given me.

I've bought, or collected, over the years, three kinds of deer hair, plus elk hair and deer tails. I have muskrat fur and beaver fur, pheasant tails, rabbit and deer masks and mink. I have thread, chenille and floss in a rainbow of colors. Synthetic material I use includes wing material, synthetic yarn, synthetic sparkle material and kevlar thread. My hook cache includes hooks made in the U.S.A, Japan and England. I have saddle hackles (soft feathers for wet flies) and rooster necks (stiff hackles for dry flies) that I protect with the perseverance of a bank guard.

In his book American Fly Fishing, Paul Schullery wrote, "Most fly tiers have some touch of Midas in their soul - they hoard materials, they look for new ones, they listen eagerly to new applications for old ones. They may be interested in synthetic materials, but the advent of synthetics proved that even fly tying materials generate loyalty in fly fishers, who show every sign of increased enthusiasm for chicken necks, duck flank and wing feathers, deer hair, and dozens of other organic materials, an enthusiasm supported by such impressive advances in fly-tying materials as the stunning 'genetic' hackles ..."

As a beginning fly tier you will be tempted to try your hand at creating new flies. As Schullery writes, "There are only so many ways to tie materials on a hook, and though they have not all been exhaustively explored, many thousands of reasonably intelligent fishermen before you have thought hard about them."

Someday you will find yourself weeding these creations out of your fly boxes, but that doesn't mean they weren't fun to create. New or old, fly tying is a connection to nature, and a pleasing one at that.

Hook: #12 wet fly hook

  • Thread: Black
  • Tail: Two brown goose biots
  • Rib: Gold tinsel
  • *Body: Peacock herl
  • Hackle: Dark brown saddle feather or brown hen saddle feather
  • Wing: Two white goose biots
  • Fish the Prince nymph with a strike indicator in medium or deep water, or, in swift, shallow water, use short-line nymphing technique with no strike indicator.
  • Fly is also effective in sizes 10 and 14.

Chuck Tryon demonstrates tying a Prince Nymph: Flatten the barb on the hook with a small plier and insert hook in vise. (If you are going to use a brass bead with this fly, slide it over bend of hook and push it against the eye of the hook before inserting in vise).

Attach thread to hook, then wind to rear of hook. Tie on brown goose biots one at a time for tail - biots should be slightly forked and extend beyond the hook bend about the same length as the gap in your hook. Butting the biots against a few turns of peacock herl will make it easier to position them.

Secure thread with half-hitch. Tie on gold rib and three strands of peacock herl. Wind herl forward and tie off with half-hitch about 1/8-inch behind hook eye. Wind rib forward and tie off with half-hitch.

Attach white goose biots for wings. These should flare slightly, and are easiest to attach by pinching both between thumb and forefinger while circling with three wraps of thread before pulling thread tight. Wings should extend to bend of hook.

Tie in hackle by tip and wind toward hook eye three turns. If you elect to use a hen saddle feather, strip the fibers off of one side of the feather and tie it in by the tip. Feather barbs should flow toward back of the hook, and you may need to pinch them back between your thumb and forefinger, and then put a couple of thread wraps around them to hold them in that position. Whip finish and cement.


Ask how to contact a local chapter near you:

Trout Unlimited
1500 Wilson Blvd.
Ste. 310
Arlington VA 22209
Federation of Flyfishers
PO Box 1595
Bozeman MT 59771

or contact your local Parks and Recreation Department.

Fly-Tying Video

The Conservation Department is selling a new video titled Beginning Fly Tying. This video shows you how to tie a common trout fly and adds a whole new dimension to fishing. The cost of the video is $9 plus tax and $2 shipping. Missouri residents please add 6.225 percent sales tax. Total your order and mail it to Fly-Tying Video, Missouri Department of Conservation, PO Box 180, Jefferson City, Missouri 65102-0180.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Patrick Kipp
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Block
Circulation - Laura Scheuler