Online Fly Tying Course Part #1 Meat & Potatoes
More anglers find that they really haven’t enjoyed their sport to the fullest until they have caught their first fish on a fly of their own tying…It is only fair to warn those who are thinking of embarking on this interesting and enjoyable hobby that, after the bug has once bitten them, they will be hooked-and it is a disease for which there is no cure.” Art Flick from Art Flick’s Master Fly-Tying Guide 1972 Fly Tying”
For many a natural extension (or progression) of fly fishing. It is an activity steeped in tradition, considered an art by some, necessary evil by others. One common opinion that lingers among "non-tiers" is that it is a difficult, expensive, time-consuming hobby that is better left to people that are "good with their hands." There is a bit of truth to some of that, but enough to influence some anglers to never try it? It would be a shame to think that some fly fishers might fish all their lives having never tied a single fly. No, its not for everyone, but its allot easier to tie fish-catching flies than allot of non-tiers may realize. In this series of articles I’m going to provide a sort of entry level fly tying instruction that is designed to get you tying flies that catch fish. Before I begin with the basics, here is what you can expect~and what you should know before you start.
#1.Cost~Q:is tying a cheaper way to get flies? A:Yes, and No. The number of flies you could buy with the money you’ll invest initially might set you up for a season or two (or more) The price per fly will be lower most times.
#2.Advantage~Q. Why would I bother tying my own when I could buy good ones that work just as well? A: Tying flies is rewarding, and can yield as many as you want. You’re not limited to a fly shop’s selection, hours etc. They can be tied to suit the water you’re fishing, the insects that are present and countless other variables that have a bearing on your success onstream.
#3.Time. I commonly hear "I don’t have the time to tie flies." True, some people just don’t. However, tying or buying, there will always be some investment in time. I do the vast majority of my tying during the winter months when surrounding myself in fly boxes and daydreaming about the coming season is good medicine for what (and I like this term) fly fishing writer John Gierach calls the "shack nasties." If I tie at all in during the trout/bass/steelhead season, its usually to re-stock or try a new pattern I’ve dreamed-up, or read about in a book or magazine.
#4.Q:How do I get started, and do I have to get the best gear to start off with? Whenever I get this question, or when someone asks it on hipwader regarding any gear, my response is the same~get the best you can afford, remember that if you try to cut corners too much, you’ll have to fight with the equipment to make it work. You may be put-off what otherwise may have become the most rewarding pastime of you life because you tried to save $50-$100. Investigate, ask other tiers, shop around, and make sure you TRY a vise before you buy it. Put a few hooks in, adjust it for various hook sizes~the fly tying equivalent of kicking the tires.
#5.Q:Is this course going to teach everything I need to know? A:No, I don’t think there is a course that could ever do that, online or otherwise. It will give the basics, and WILL GET YOU TYING FLIES THAT CATCH FISH! What is more important than that? I’ll offer lots of tips, lots of easy ways to get good results, probably some of my bad tying habits, ways to make inexpensive materials work in ways that will allow you to avoid the big $ hackle purchases (…at least for a while) and try to get you results that will stay together for at least a fish or two! Remember, if you’re NOT fishing good spots for fear of losing a $3.00+ fly, you’re losing good shots at nice fish! As my own fishing/tying breaks down something like this~ Trout:85% Bass/Panfish:10% Steelhead/toothy critters like pike and musky:5%~the flies and techniques I’ll attempt to demonstrate will likely reflect the quarry accordingly.
Vise~probably the most expensive tying tool, its the foundation~what holds the hook. There is a huge variety of options available, a quality one WILL cost between $75 to $300. I won’t tell you what to get, but I will tell you what to look for and help you decide what is important, and what is not. Placing a hook in, and securing it must be easy and quick. Adjusting it to accept a much larger, or much smaller hook must also be simple, ideally involving no tools and only one jaw. (the jaw being the actual part of the vise that contacts the hook) Allot of vises offer "midge" jaws for tying extremely small flies, or "saltwater" jaws for very large ones. I’d suggest that the vise you buy should allow you to tie as big as #2-#4, as small as #22-#24. It may not boast a claim to a range that wide, but allot of vises will do it.
Cam operated vises (like Peak, Thompson, HMH etc.) are pretty reliable, long lasting mechanisms, again, you get what you pay for. I tie on a Peak rotary vise and find their mechanism to be the best, but look around.
Regal vises (and all the knock-offs of them) are probably the fastest, no-brainer type of vises and I own a one with the "midge head." The grip they have on a hook seems impossibly strong and there is no adjustment necessary for different hook sizes. However, I’d urge beginners to consider other options. A hook placed too close to the tips can slip out firing it a great distance. That’s only half the problem;the jaws, as a result, slam together and can fracture, potentially rendering the vise useless. There are clear instructions that come with the vise explaining how NOT to have this problem mind you, consider it as your second vise. Vises that use "parallel" jaws (such as Griffin, Abel etc
Rotary function~there is allot of debate about how important this feature is. Some degree of rotation is valuable if you can afford a vise that has this feature. It allows you to see all sides of the fly without removing it from the vise.
This is handy when, among other things, you need to apply head cement upon completion. Whether or not you need "true" rotary is another question. True rotary vises rotate the hook ON it’s axis. There are some tiers (some commercial tiers specifically) who have adapted styles of tying whereby the material going onto the hook is stationary, the vise/hook rotated to apply materials. (picture a wood turner moving a gouge across a spinning pc. of wood, only in slow motion) I’d suggest a rotating vise, but would say that you can VERY easily get away without "True" rotary.
Accessories~Things like hook gauges, bobbin cradles, parachute "gallows" tools are handy, but not needed to start. In fact, I never use any of them. It has more to do with personal style than anything else, I just learned that way. If you have the resources, they can’t hurt unless they get in the way or are a pain to move out of the way when not in use.
Access to hooks. Certain jaw designs/geometry allow for better "access" to the hook when tying. This you have to sort of try to understand. If the head/jaw assembly is too short, your bobbin will always be too close to the main shaft of the vise, sometimes wrapping itself around it. It can be a pain. Some jaws, while able to hold all of your hooks, are too bulky and obscure most of the hook you’re trying to tie on. Its a fine line. Look at as many as you can, ask the shop owners to demonstrate the function and pick the one out that makes the most sense to you within your budget.
C-Clamp/Pedestal~Most vises are available with either a clamp (clamps to the edge of you desk or table) or a heavy pedestal base. This comes down to personal preference. I prefer clamp models, I like to sort of have the bobbin/thread hanging away from the table and not having to worry about keeping the thread tight. A pedestal base also seems to demand that you lean forward to tie, as opposed to the more upright posture I take while tying on a clamp-style vise. Again, a personal choice. In terms of actual benefits to using one or the other~I’ve read that tyers who spin allot of deer hair (bass bugs, muddlers, hoppers etc) prefer the clamp style because of the higher thread tension (and stronger threads) used in this kind of tying.
The other tools and stuff……(in about the order you’ll be using them)
Hooks~Hooks for fly tying are broken down into several criteria including style, size, wire gauge, eye style, finish…and so on.
It can be most confusing to tiers starting out. There are ways to simplify, beyond simply asking the fly shop staff. Most packages of hooks are labeled as to what they’re typically used for. For example, a pack of Tiemco hooks on my desk are clearly labeled TMC 9395. Beneath that, in smaller type, reads; Straight Eye, 3X Heavy, 4X long, Forged. Bronze, Streamers. Size 6. Easy, right? Maybe too much info., most fly "recipes" will refer to a hook like this as either TMC 9395 Size#6 OR (simply) Size 6 streamer hook, 4X Long. So, you know its a streamer hook sized 6 and its a long one! Another box of hooks within easy reach are Mustad Signature hooks, C49S caddis curved standard/1Xshort size #18. From this, you can take that they might well be used for tying caddis pupae or larva. Again, there are comparable hooks to this one made by most of the manufacturers. The "X" designation as I understand it is a sort of +/- of what is considered to be "standard." However,this too is confusing. Mustad, the world’s largest manufacturer of hooks has this to say about hook sizing.
Unfortunately, there is no uniform system of hook measurements. Visual familiarity with the various hook patterns is the only workable gauge for the serious angler. Although attempts have been made to set a standard by measuring the hook in fractions of an inch, the system has never been successful because it merely represents the length of the shank. A hook is really two-dimensional since the gape can vary greatly from one pattern to the next.
So, even for experienced tiers, its still subjective. When starting to tie, a very important thing to know is the "anatomy" of the hook. Terms like gape, shank, eye etc. are all important as they define specific, relevant points of measure on a hook. This illustration from Mustad clearly shows all the parts.
Now, when I tell you to start your thread in the middle of the shank, or to stop your material about 1/8" behind the eye of the hook, you’ll know what I mean!
Scissors~There are many opinions on what are the "best" scissors or worse, what you can "get away with." It comes down to this (again), get the best you can afford, at least for the fine work. I have used Dr. slick products for as long as I can remember but hear that Anvil scissors are good too. What’s important to remember is that they are MADE for fly tying. Yes, sewing scissors can work, buy usually lack the fine tips and serrated edge that make tying scissors so effective. Allot of the materials the scissors will be required to cut will be rigid, slippery or simply be in tight spots. Getting close, doing the job in
one pass is very important to a good fly. Good scissors will cost between $16 and $30. Now, as important as good scissors are, they rely on crappy scissors to stay that way. Why? To keep your good scissors cutting well you ARE NOT going to ever use them for materials like copper wire, lead wire, heavy monofilament and the like. This is where more sturdy, less expensive scissors shine. Medical supply stores (or the kiosks in malls that sell the same first aid-type supplies) are a great source for a $5.00 pair of scissors that can take some punishment. Don’t stray from this advise, most tiers learn this lesson the hard way. Ask me how I know…..
Thread~Color and size. Thread is broken down to size, a measure of its strength/how and when its used and color. Color is subjective, but the size you use is important. The most common are 8/0 and 6/0. (the higher the number, the finer the thread) I used either 6/0 or 3/0 for streamers, 8/0 for trout flies down to size #18 and 12/0 for flies smaller than that.
Most tying thread is pre-waxed.
Bobbin~this is the device that holds the spool of thread. Ceramic bobbins are the best, but cost more. The major advantage
to them is that they are less likely to cut your thread while tying. Yep, that’s important. Do yourself a favor and buy one of these, you’ll suffer allot less….in fact, buy two. Having two colors ready to roll can be a real convenience.
BOBBIN MYSTERY:For some reason, most bobbins you buy are not really effective until they’ve been manipulated a bit.
To be more specific, the arms that hold the thread are often manufactured in a way that makes positioning the spool of thread very difficult. If your bobbin needs some help, use pliers to bend the wire into shape. Its best if you have two pairs~ One to support the area you’re not bending, the other to DO the bending right where you need it. The result should hold the spool of thread tightly, allowing you to squeeze it to apply more tension.
Bodkin~A fly tying word for a long needle. I’ve never met someone who actually bought one of these! A long sewing needle with the dull end jammed into a wine cork works well, a sharpened tooth pick….whatever. For me, the two main uses are applying head cement and for clearing excess cement from the eye of the hook.
Hair stacker~These make no sense when you’re starting out, but get a small one. It will all become clear later on.
Dubbing wax~Low tack is fine, often packaged like chapstick and is used for making your tying thread a little more sticky.
This helps to get stubborn dubbing to stick to it. Good stuff, even the smallest container of the stuff will last you a LONG time.
Head Cement~This is applied to the last thread wraps and knot(s) when the fly is complete. Its added insurance that the knot won’t come undone. Unless you’re tying fancy show piece flies, you want a cement that will penetrate the thread "head" and not just sit on top of it. Most good head cements have thinners available for them, often sold right beside them in the fly shop. If the cement does not look runny, buy a thinner to go with it and be prepared to dilute! I use "Dave’s Flexcement."
Now, there are lots of other little tools that some tiers have come to depend on (and some of them are very effective) but this will get you going.