By: Andy Marks
I bought a Hareline Beginner Fly Tying kit when I started fly fishing in March 2020. The pandemic was new and strange. I bought a sewing machine and made double layer masks for my family using instructions published by a group in northern Europe: How to sew the masks was demonstrated in a YouTube video.. That’s often how fly tying works. Someone, somewhere, comes up with an idea for a fly, ties it, tests it, passes out copies to friends, and eventually publishes instructions allowing everyone to tie, or try to tie, their own copies. My fly tying stuff has cost much more than my beginner sewing machine.
There are two kinds of fly tying stuff, capital equipment (vise, tools, lit viewer, storage boxes and drawers) and materials (hooks, thread, feathers in skin, fur, wire, metal and glass beads, dubbing). A beginner kit will introduce you to most of this, but it hides the recurring problem of not having material(s) called out for the flies you want to tie. Both kinds of stuff often come from the same places. You either find it at a unique local store, that though small has some of everything, or at one of the many well stocked and advised online venders such as AvidMax. The local place provides immediate gratification or, if not, has two or three enthusiastic individuals who can put you on to a just-as-good substitute. Some things you’ll ask for (maybe from a book published in the 80s (18 or 19-80s) will surface their most senior member who will say, “When I heard Mustad I knew I would be talking to someone with gray hair.”
I started with the least expensive tying vise I could find and bought it because of its price and because it had the image of an oldie salmon fly on the box. I could tie everything I do today with that vise that I now tie with my Renzetti Traveler, but it wasn’t as easy to use, and I was too ham handed for its smaller base. My Brightech Lightview Magnifying Lamp is my second most expensive ($100) and essential piece of equipment. You will eventually tie things too small to see with my old eyes, and this magnifies them, and provides uniform and consistent lighting. It’s also great for taking photos of things you’ve tied to share with people who couldn’t care less. Imagine getting this in your messaging app (TenkaraGuides Grave Digger). I’ll use this as an example of the types of materials you’ll need to find, buy, use, and store for the next opportunity that comes along. That’s a size 4 Gamakatsu Octopus hook in there, wrapped with Jamieson’s Shetland Spindrift Purple Haze wool yarn, with a “magical cat underhair” collar, natural partridge hackle feather, with an underlying threadbase of UV chartreuse 70D Uni (or maybe Ultra) thread.
Its creators, citing “remember that hole, on the Provo, yeah, that one” said they fished it at a depth of 4-7 feet and caught their biggest brown ever with it. I’m no good at dredging like that, especially with a wet fly, but I tied four like this to try when I find a 4-7 foot deep hole or run holding huge browns. There’s that, and I just like things like this. The fellows that created this used “magical dog underhair” combed from the family dog, but lacking access to their pet, I furminated one of our cats and used that mix of under and guard hairs. Be flexible. Some very professional tiers will send you out for paint brush bristles (Charlie Craven) or Tyvec (Pat Dorsey). A fellow named Tristan, proprietor of FlyTyingYarn.com, ties many very useful flies using multihued wool yarns like the Purple Haze above. While waiting for my 1” x 1” yarn packet to arrive I tied one of his flies using a synthetic Shrimp Pink dub that fooled a few local trout: they didn’t know it wasn’t Gucci yarn.
Briefly, the steps to tying a Grave Digger like that are:
1.Attach the tying thread behind the eye, wrap it on the hook until beyond the bend, then back ¼ way.
2.Tie on the purple haze yarn, and wrap back over it to the bend, then forward to a bit behind the eye.
3.Twist the yarn, cording it up, then wrap it forward to where the hair collar goes.
4.Make 2 or 3 tight wraps over the end of the yarn and clip off the excess.
5.Select a partridge hackle feather, tie it spoon forward on the hook, & wrap it around the hook once.
6.Expose 3” of thread, wet or wax your index and thumb tips, and wrap pet hair around the thread.
7.Wrap the pet hair dubbing around the hook behind the partridge hackle, forming a fuzzy collar.
8.Magically work the thread up to the hook eye.
9.Make several wraps around the hook, forming a small but visible chartreuse head.
10Make three or four wraps with the whip finishing tool, and clip your line close to the head.
You will never have enough materials on hand until one day, magically, you will. It’s either that your cabinets, boxes and desk piles are eventually full or tall enough, or you start to mature and realize you can get by with what you have, or not. You will need two or three drawers, Home Depot plastic boxes with dividers, the box your beginner fly tying kit came in, plus three or four boxes for hooks of many shapes and sizes, and yeah, maybe three boxes for tying thread. Then, tools.
You’ll need bobbins (they hold a thread spool between two prongs and route the thread through a tiny tube where you’ll steer it around and around). Two should be sufficient. I’ve come to use only short bobbins. Try several hackle pliers until you find one you like: they hold feather tips as you wrap the feather around the hook. You’ll need a bobbin threader (or you’ll have to use suction you provide to pull the thread through the bobbin). A pair of small, very sharp scissors, a pair of tweezers, nail clippers, a whip finisher (which might make you feel like a renaissance wizard), and other cool and useful items that you’ll see in fly tying books and videos. I made a small (8×10) shallow box to hold my tools and stuff, and I use a separate thing to hold my most used tools. Here’s my tidy tying area. The shallow tray is to the right. My most used tools are in the multi colored ceramic gizmo in the center. My Renzetti vise with cool blue base is at the left. My short bobbin is in front at the bottom. The large cup with a T-Rex tail holds waste bits: use a big cup, small ones tip over when you don’t want it the most. Wait until you use UV resin! I try it on everything I think might benefit from it: I glued parts of my net together with it. The Nissin level line is new and gets that front and center real estate. Firehole hooks are stacked three deep at the bottom right. Thirty six hooks per cell I think.
There are MANY pros who have published book(s) and recorded videos on fly tying. Here’s my short list:
- Charlie Craven, the pro behind CharliesFlyBox.com, who ties 50,000 dozen flies / year and has been doing so since he was 8, something like that. A perfectionist artist magician with very clear photos.
- Pat Dorsey, a CO guide with practical fly designs that catch fish. I did well with his suggested midge flies last winter.
- John Barr, author of Barr Flies, a book about his legendary fly designs and how to use and tie them. It’s said he only fishes the flies he designed. That’s huge.
- Dave Hughes, from the Pacific Northwest, authored Fifty Essential Flies and a dozen or two other terrific books. Fifty Essential Flies shows 6 or 8 variations of each essential fly to bring you, well, lots of productive fly patterns.
- TenkaraGuides, three or four 30-somethings who know lots about Tenkara gear, fishing, and fly designing. They brought us the Grave Digger, Red A** Monkey, and use Tristan’s yarns. Rob Whiting has two videos on YouTube about Advanced Tenkara casting. Must view those if you’re getting into Tenkara’s elegant simplicity.
- There are others, but these will set you down a righteous path. They name other masters, follow their leads.
Fly tying fills in part of the days when you’re recovering from an arduous fishing adventure, or too much sun, too little warmth, or a nice mix of all the above. It’s best kept fresh in muscle memory: try to tie several times a week. There should be a project book in your fly tying kit that will introduce you to the tools, vocabulary, and tricky techniques you’ll have to perfect to really enjoy this fly fishing tributary. I think it’s worth the time. If I see a fly in a book or video, I can usually make a half dozen of them before lunch on the next wretched blue sky sunny hot day. Thanks for reading.
Andy Marks: I’m 65, I live in UT, fish in UT, in WY, Yellowstone, and ID. I’ve been fly fishing for 2 ½ years, I have 15 fly rods and 3 Tenkara rods and since I’ve used the latter I haven’t touched the former.