old timey fly tying

Rotten winter weather and long hours of darkness spell one thing for me. I do my serious fly tying in winter, saving precious summer daylight hours for fishing.

I can hear your reaction now. Yawn!

Sure, fly tying has been made to sound like a mysterious undertaking by skilled artists. And at their best, flies tied by gifted tyers verge well into the realm of art.

But in truth there are two broad types of flies. Those that catch fishermen, and those that catch fish.

The flies you see in stores and especially those in collections and museums fall into the former category. They’re designed and created to catch the eyes of fishermen and inspire them to dig for their wallet. And they’ll certainly catch fish.

But here’s the biggest secret of all in the world of fly tying. The fish mostly don’t care about refined technique and all that art stuff!

In fact, ragged and scruffy flies often produce better than those that are neat, tidy and “professional.”

Once upon a time I tied flies for sale and had to live up to the higher artistic standards. I tied a whole lot of flies, and most of them were very good. But I also had my duds and flops that would never sell.

The flies that weren’t good enough to sell went into my fly boxes for fishing. They weren’t works of art and they certainly weren’t pretty, but the fish loved them just as much as my artistic flies.

To help emphasize that point, here’s an experiment to try next time you meet a commercial fly tyer or fly tying artist.

Ask them if you can look in their fishing boxes.

At the very least you’ll embarrass them, and if they’re in a bad mood they’ll refuse and stomp away in a huff. They sell all their flies that will sell, but the scruffy mistakes go into their own fly boxes.

Said another way, you don’t have to be a great fly tyer to produce flies that catch fish as reliably as those you see in stores. To repeat myself, the fish don’t care about all that fancy stuff. If a fly is the right size and color for the moment, it’s going to catch fish as well as the flies you buy. In fact, your own might work better because they are scruffy rather than neat and tidy.

Special skills and coordination?


If you can knot a hook to the end of your line, you have enough skill and coordination to tie your own flies.

Sure, you need to know a few basic techniques for lashing various materials to the hook and making them stay there, but it’s not hard to manage.

The biggest change in all our lives, and especially the lives of fly fishers and fly tyers, is the evolution of the internet as we know it today.

It’s very easy for fly tyers to produce detailed instruction guides and videos showing how to tie flies. And lots of talented fly tyers are doing it today.

Google one of your favorite fly patterns, just to test the options. I’ll be very surprised if the list of links to instructional articles and videos for that one fly pattern doesn’t run on for pages and pages.

Click on one of the links and sit back for the show. 

Many will be almost identical and a few will be different, either more or less complicated. If you decide to try tying the pattern, pick one of the methods that looks simple and give it a try.

If the method used in the instructions doesn’t work for you, click on one of the others and try that method.

I’m willing to bet that by the second or third version of the pattern you try, you’ll be wondering why you never tried it before. It really is easy.

Of course, that’s assuming you have the basic tools and the right materials on hand for the trial.

In that regard, fly tying is a whole lot like ammunition reloading. You’re going to have to spend a little money for tools and materials, but cost per fly is going to be greatly reduced below “factory load” prices.

I won’t claim that you’ll save money, though. In another parallel with ammunition reloading, you won’t be saving any money in the long run, because you’ll be turning out lots more flies (or ammo).

One more comparison with reloading, and I’ll move on.

Just as with reloading components, you’ll be overwhelmed with the vast array of fly tying materials available. You can’t buy one of everything, so how do you decide what to buy in the first place?

Start with the basic tools. You need a vise to hold the hook, a bobbin to hold the thread, a pair of scissors for trimming and a needle of some sort. As with reloading tools, you can spend as much or as little as you want.

I certainly suggest you start on the less expensive end of the tool options for your early learning, even if you upgrade later if you’re seriously bitten by the fly-tying bug.

Heck, if you don’t want to spend any money at all, you can tie a few trial flies with tools you already have in the house.

Wander out into the garage and retrieve your vise grips. Clamp the fly in those and press the vise grips between your knees or stand them upright in your workshop bench vise. Rather than a bobbin, wrap a rubber band around a spool of thread to keep it from unspooling while you tie. Then grab a small pair of scissors, the only provision being that they should be sharp.

That’s plenty to let you try your hand at tying a fly or two before spending money on specialized tools.

When it comes to that bewildering array of fly tying materials, follow the same principle. Simplify.

Go to the web instructions and get a list of materials you need for that one fly pattern, then take the list to the store and buy only that short list of materials. I’m betting for half the price of a dozen flies you’ll have enough materials to tie several dozen flies.

I’m going to recommend that your first fly be a Woolly Bugger. Make it a purple size No. 4 for silver salmon. You’ll need hooks, purple marabou for the tail, purple chenille for the body and purple saddle hackle for the fuzz sticking out from the body. Use a spool of thread from home or buy one, and hold it altogether with the super glue you already own.

That’s it for tying Woolly Buggers. If you spent as much as $20 for all that I’ll be surprised. If you want to spend a tiny bit more, get a card of pink chenille so you can turn some of your Woolly Buggers into purple Egg Sucking Leeches.

Why Woolly Buggers? Because they’re very simple to tie.

And salmon love them.

I tie Woolly Buggers in every color of the rainbow and carry a fly box full of them all the time. I call them my “searching” flies. By changing from one color to the next, I can usually zero in on what color the fish want on a particular day.

And best of all, my searching box of Woolly Buggers has led me to fly colors you’d never think of using for salmon. You won’t find olive, brown, white or Kelly green Woolly Buggers in the salmon fly selection at most sporting goods stores, but in fact those oddball colors are my best silver salmon producers on sunny days when everyone else thinks the silvers have lockjaw.

And there you have the best reason of all for tying your own flies.

Often the fish want flies that you can’t buy. You have to make them yourself.

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