The Beginning Fly Tier

By Jack McLaughlin | January 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2003

The morning sun rising over the ridge on Huzzah Creek found me fishing just below the old wooden bridge near Davisville. I cast my black marabou near a ledge rock, and a 14-inch smallmouth bass slammed into it and jumped three times before I could strip taut my fly line. After I landed and released the fish, I knew I was hooked on fly tying. That marabou was my first attempt to create a bass fly, and I'll never forget the thrill of catching a fish on a lure that I made myself.

If you are a fly fisher, sooner or later you will entertain the idea of tying your own flies. It's a natural progression. Fly tying appeals to anglers for many reasons. Tying your own flies is economical because most commercial ties can cost $2 or $3, or even more! Fly tying is a fascinating hobby, too, and inspires creativity. In fact, the beauty of a well-tied fly was what first attracted me to the art of fly tying.

You will need some basic tools to begin creating flies. A flytying vise is essential. You can purchase a very serviceable fly tying vise for about $25. A vise should grip both large and small hooks securely. Some vises can be fitted with a smaller jaw for holding small hooks size 18 and smaller.

When selecting a vise, put a large hook in the vise and bend the shank down with your thumb. Do the same with a smaller hook. If the hook does not slip downward under pressure, it will hold hooks well enough to tie flies. A good vise can be adjusted up and down, and rotate in a full circle. It also should allow you to move the jaws to various angles.

The bobbin holds the tying thread under tension and under control while tying the fly. It lets you pause at any point in the fly tying sequence without unraveling what you have already wrapped. I prefer a bobbin with ceramic lining in the tube because it is less likely to develop rough edges that might cut the thread.

Your fly tying scissors should have sharp points and edges. Make sure they fit your fingers. Before buying scissors, test them by cutting some thread with the tip. If the tip severs the thread cleanly, then the tool is serviceable.

Tweezers are useful for picking up small hooks. You can purchase them at most drug stores. Look for some that have flat ends.

A dubbing needle is inexpensive but invaluable. Use it to ruffle fur bodies to make them look more natural. It can also help you apply cement to the fly head or body.

Look for a dubbing needle that has a hook on one end; it works better for spinning fur on a loop.

Hackle pliers make it easier to hold hackle and other materials used in dry flies and wet flies.

Use a whip finisher to wrap fly heads. I prefer the Thompson type, which comes in a large and small size and includes instructions for use. This tool is easy to use with a little practice.

A high-density lamp with a gooseneck will help older flytiers see detail. This isn't a specialty item. You can buy one for about $15 at most department stores. A magnifying lamp lets you see even more detail.

Many threads for fly tying are made of flat nylon and come in various sizes. Threads are designated with a number followed by a zero. The larger the number, the smaller the thread. For example, 8/0 is much smaller than 4/0. The most commonly used thread for small to medium size flies (sizes 16 to 10) is 6/0 because it is fairly strong and does not become bulky under multiple wraps.

Fly tying wax comes in a dispenser tube, and it can be applied to the thread when dubbing fur or other body material. The dispenser helps keep the sticky wax from getting on your fingers.

Use head cement to secure the whip-finished fly head and to secure weighted fly bodies. It comes as a lacquer or as water base cement. I prefer the water-based cement because it does not thicken when exposed to air and is water-soluble. When necessary, it can be thinned with rubbing alcohol.

I recommend that beginners equip themselves with two packs of 3x long, size 8 and 10 streamer hooks and two packs of dry fly hooks in sizes 12 and 14.

People think of fly tying as an expensive hobby, but you usually can purchase all the tools necessary or helpful for tying flies for around $60. Threads, cement hooks, wax and materials may run another $40.

Fly Tying Materials

You can create fishing flies with almost any kind of material, including hair, fur, feathers, yarn and pipe cleaners, but fly shops are your best source of material for specific flies. Many flytiers prefer expensive hackle feathers and other materials for their flies, but the end quality of the fly depends more on technique than the price of materials used.

If you don't have a fly-tying friend or fly shop nearby, consult some of the many catalogs available. They are a good source of ideas and materials for various flies. Many companies have an advisory staff to help you get what you need.

If want to improve your fly tying skills, I suggest getting lessons from a local fly fishing club or fly shop. If these are not available to you, the many videos on fly tying are also very good. Some clubs make videos available to members free. An excellent book is Beginning Fly Tying by Eric Leiser, from Lyons Press.

A Pair of Aces

Two patterns will catch all kinds of freshwater game fish just about anywhere in the world, and they are easy to tie.

Marabou streamer: Place a hook in the vise at the bend and make five thread wraps forward just behind the eye of the hook, then five turns back over the forward wraps. Grasp a bunch of short, black marabou feathers and secure them to the top of the hook with five wraps. Don't let the feather tips extend more than one-third of the length of the hook shank beyond the hook bend. Cut off excess feathers just behind the eye of the hook. Form a head, whip finish and then cement the fly head. This pattern is also effective in white and in white/black, using the white for the bottom layer of feathers.

Le Tort Hopper and Le Tort Cricket variations: These are topwater flies used to catch surface feeders. The two flies are similar, but use black polypropylene body and black deer hair for the cricket.

Apply thread, usually black or yellow, just beyond bend of the hook and tie in a piece of yellow polypropylene yarn. Wrap thread forward just behind the hook eye, leaving space for a small hair head. Wrap forward to the same place and secure with five thread wraps. Apply a small amount of natural white-tailed deer body hair just behind the hook eye and secure with five wraps just behind, and then in front of, the head. Make sure hair does not extend over one-third the length of the hook shank beyond the hook bend. Whip finish and cement. Clip off excess hair at the eye, leaving a small clump for a head. This is the hopper. In a pinch, clamp a split-shot at the hook eye on the leader and fish these flies wet. They work!

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler