Good Life / Sporting Life

Twisting Feathers and Fur: A Fly Tying Primer

When I find something interesting, enjoyable, or necessary I sometimes become obsessed. I mine deeper and deeper for the most precious gems. I want to own the things I invest my time in, not rent them. I don’t want to be a tourist.

Like every sport or hobby, fly fishing has a culture, a depth of technique, an endless armamentarium, and a whole lot of extracurricular peripherals. You can collect old rods, reels, and sentimental flies. Collect old stories. Work down a bucket list of destinations. Bucket list of species. Become a master caster. Keep secrets. Share tips. Built rods. Become a habitat expert. Stream reading expert. Have a deep understanding of etymology. Be a gearhead.

Tie flies. . . roll your own.

I am not an expert fisherman, nor I am not an expert fly tier- but I know some. I always work from advice given to me long ago along the way. First of all- seek and you shall find. If you want to do or have something- pursue it and soon it will be yours. Secondly, mentors do not seek you- but if you seek them and ask they are usually happy to share their mastery- if you are willing to be a good student. This has held true for me professionally, personally, and with a whole bunch of hobbies also. By the time I was 22 years old, I had been fishing for about seven years. I was getting pretty good at casting, drifting, selecting flies, and reading the water.

At 22, I met Patrick and Ross, who became my fishing partners for the next four years as we snuck off from the dental school in Chapel Hill a few times a month to the North Carolina Blue-lines and Tennessee Tailwaters. We talked about fishing during late nights in the dental lab where we started tying together. Ross, a Fredricksburg native, grew up on the Rappahannock bass fishing and had similar experience and skill level as me. Ross was eaten alive with the bug to catch trout. Patrick grew up in Flat Rock, North Carolina and worked at the Davidson River Fly Shop as a kid. Albeit younger than me by a few, he was my fishing mentor during these years. Patrick taught Ross and me the basics of tying flies. Patrick was guy that built his own fly rods and reverse engineered a Martin dreadnaught guitar to make his own out of raw wood and hand tools. He is a bright.

Tying flies appealed to me initially because it was a way to extend a passion for fishing away from the stream. I have always lived 1-2 hours from most places I fish, so it is not always an immediately available activity by proximity. Of course, there is the yearning to fish in the cold and dark days of winter. Like a squirrel putting away nuts, I like to come into the spring with a full box of staple flies. Tying appeals to my crafty and creative side. It appeals to my desire to always do something with my hands. Tying appeals to a knowledge of my quarry, the habitat, and a deeper understanding of what trout eat- when why and how. Tying satisfies some primitive hunter-gatherer gene. There is some magical-spiritual feeling about catching fish on your own flies, especially when they are tied from the materials harvested from fowl and mammals I have hunted. And I am a thrifty guy. Once you have tied fifty flies for the cost of one of them at a fly shop, it sort of makes it hard to ever go back. I do have huge respect for master tiers, esp. ones that have created “the one” for a stream you are visiting and kind enough to share their knowledge- these are the ones I pay for.

When Patrick started teaching Ross and me to tie, he was very generous with sharing knowledge- but also generous sharing materials. Perhaps the one thing that makes it hard to get started is amassing all the materials to tie a larger number of patterns. When you are learning basic skills, tying a few patterns is satisfying- but you will want to venture out and fill your boxes with more patterns- and that requires more materials. If you bought them all at once, you would spend a fortune and never know what to do with all the stuff. So you get there in bits and pieces over time. Twenty-five years later- I have drawers, tubs, racks, and bins full of so many materials that I would never use them all. If I had to buy them all at once- I never would or could. I have expensive hackles from special Whiting chickens that were birthday gifts. I have hundreds of salted zip lock bags of tanned fur pelts and cured sides of birds I have shot, and have been given. There were a few “hair-cuts” I have given to friend’s pets- even a few rugs and blankets, even some road kill here and there.

If you are tying on your own, start by procuring the materials for a basic pheasant tail nymph, some dubbing for a hare’s ear, some elk hair for a caddis, and I guess the stuff to tie a wooly bugger. If you are the type of guy that fishes with stuff like mop flies, wiggle worms, SanJuan worms, and eggs (bless your heart), you are in luck- you can now tie these $3 flies for about ten cents a piece in thirty seconds.

As far as equipment goes, you really need a good vice, a good pair of scissors, a good whip finisher, and a few really good bobbins to start off. Everything else can come after that. Like everything in life, it doesn’t have to be the most expensive- but it better be high quality or the experience and the outcome will be unpleasant.

THE VICE: The vice holds your hook as you construct the fly by wrapping thread and material around it. There are a whole bunch of brands and styles of tying vices on the market. Two brands that stand the test of time are Renzetti and Regal. I have had both for over two decades. The decisions to make are whether to purchase one that clamps to a table or a base, what size flies you are going to tie, and if the vice rotates or is static.

THE SCISSORS: The scissors need to be precision made, sharp, and fit your hand well. When I learned the discipline of never removing the scissors from my left hand rather than placing them on the bench between materials, I doubled the speed that I put out flies- they need to fit you well and be compact so they don’t bang into everything. I’ve always been a fan of Dr. Slick brand tools.

WHIP IT: To complete most flies the thread is completed with a tool that makes a knot taken from the textile industry called a whip finish. This is a work horse tool and I suggest getting a durable one that is the appropriate size for the flies you are tying the most.

THE BOBBIN: Another textile term here (coming from the yarn production capital of the world, Gastonia, NC)- the bobbin is a wishbone shaped tool that holds a spool of thread that feeds the thread through a hollow thin pipe. It dangles beneath the fly as you apply materials. As thread can move fast through the pipe and be delicate- it is best to get bobbins that have smooth ceramic interiors as not to shred or break thread. I suggest getting two or three great bobbins right from the start.

OTHER TOOLS: If you start getting proficient and looking for more tools, some are imperative for certain patterns, consider: hair stacker, hackle pliers, bodkins, hackle gauges, UV curing lights.

My advice is that eventually you have a dedicated tying bench. If you pull everything out and tie on the kitchen table, you will be spending more time setting up and cleaning than tying- kind of like the guy that transforms his garage into a woodworking shop on Saturday and spends half the morning pulling out the tools a few hours on the work bench and the next morning cleaning his garage so the wife can get her car back in. I started tying on a counter in my garage, I have graduated to a nice antique secretary with plenty of little drawers and slots. Everything hides away when it is closed.

There are some fundamental skills that you need to develop to tie flies. For each type of bug there is an archetypal pattern. For nymphs if you get the materials and learn the skills to tie pheasant tails and hares ears, you can branch out and tie about any bottom bouncing wet fly. For dry flies, learning to tie a basic mayfly pattern, like an Adams can branch into nearly every dry fly from BWOs to Drakes and everything in between. You have to learn the delicate skill of wrapping hackle, either as a parachute or a palmered around the hook. You can learn to substitute other body materials like turkey and goose biots and other wing materials like feathers and hair- but you start with the basics. If you want to learn how to tie streamers, love or hate them, you ought to learn how to tie a wooly booger- I’d say get the stuff for an olive bead head and then branch out from there into some bunny strip patterns like zonkers.

If you are in the East, maybe saving larger foam bodies, dry stone flies, and terrestrials is a tying skill for phase two- but if you live in the Rockies- these might be a style you dive right into.

The skills of using your hands and fingers come with time. I highly suggest Youtube if you can’t find a mentor or get in a class with a local fly shop.

Most of the stuff I tie is pretty scraggly. If I saw them in a bin in a fly shop I would question buying them because of a few inconsistencies in shape and size. I don’t tie perfectly and find that most fish really do not care. In fact, I find fish love to go after old flies that have the crud knocked into them. I do believe that color, shape, and proportion are something that you must master and get right. I also believe you have to incorporate the physics and design elements that make the fly do what it is supposed to do. If it is design to float, tie it so it floats. If it’s supposed to be an emerger sitting in the water’s film with less surface tension, tie it just right. If it is supposed to sink- weight it appropriately.

If you fish catch and release, do the world a favor and stock your hook collection with barbless hooks.

Keep ’em wet,


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