Hyperclomplete guide to fly tying
There are many intended uses for this guide, namely as reference to ensure you have a fairly complete compendium as to what you will need to get started in flytying or to use when dropping the perfect holiday gift hint. But more importantly, it is meant for the budding fly tyer, in hopes that the years of wisdom gained through trial and error from myself and my tying buddies will steer the newcomer down the right path
There are many intended uses for this guide, namely as reference to ensure you have a fairly complete compendium as to what you will need to get started in flytying or to use when dropping the perfect holiday gift hint. But more importantly, it is meant for the budding fly tyer, in hopes that the years of wisdom gained through trial and error from myself and my tying buddies will steer the newcomer down the right path.
Please note: This guide is not intended to indicate one vendor is superior over another, nor one retailer has better prices over another. For the most part, all tools and materials mentioned can be found at most any finer shop that specializes in flytying tools and materials. The best way to obtain a list of shops in your area and shops that do business via mail-order or over the Internet is to grab a copy of one of the leading magazines in the industry such as "American Angler", "Fly Fisherman", "Fly, Rod & Reel" or "Fly Tyer" or visit http://www.flyfish.com (so dead now!). They maintain a fairly complete list of flyfishing magazines.
For the price-watchers: this article isn't for the faint of heart. I'm an advocate of quality tools and materials and the guidelines below follow that thinking. Don't expect to pay $19.95, or $39.95, $99.95, or even $129.95 and get into a total-quality flytying package. It pays big dividends to buy pieces and parts individually, meeting your specific needs. For example, are you left-handed then be sure to buy a vise that is designed for left handed users. Some vises are universal, but others are intended for the vise jaw to accommodate right-handed tyers more comfortably.
Assessing Your Interest Level and Your Tying Needs
ASK YOURSELF: Are you interested in tying?
Take a continuing education or life-long learning class at the local high-school or college or take flytying lessons at a local fly-fishing shop. Learn the tying basics and learn from someone who has made the expensive mistakes of buying the wrong vise or tool from time-to-time. And most importantly, learn about yourself, whether you want to continue learning the art of fly tying. It doesn't make sense to purchase hundreds of dollars of tools and materials just to leave them sit in a drawer. I'm sure you can find better uses for your money.
ASSESS YOURSELF: You've tied a few flies and you really want to dig in.
OK, you've taken a class and you've casted a flyrod, maybe you've even caught a fish on a fly of your own creation. Now you've caught the fever and you need more. Take it from one who has spent literally thousands of dollars on materials, tools, furniture, etc , start slowly, building your collection of materials and tools over time and work your way into the hobby, asking questions of the more experienced ones along the way. Don't over-do it. You may decide at a later date that you don't care to continue your once-fevered passion for fly-tying. Just remember, if you decide to liquidate your materials and tools, people like me would jump at the chance to get them at a fraction of the cost of what you paid for them! An option to consider is to borrow the necessary tools and materials for awhile, just to test the waters, so to speak.
ARE YOU ADDICTED? You've tied for awhile and you've decided to take it one step further.
You're now inducted into the fraternal rank-and-file of fly-tyers! The rest of this article is for you!
Best Purchasing Methodology
Know your material before you jump in and buy! A few years back, I had no idea how to select golden pheasant crests for proper shape and color for use in salmonfly veilings. It took several (frustrating) sessions at the bench, lots of wasted money on trash crests and time sitting around with more experienced tyers to actually see what qualities make for a good crest. Now I can confidently select and buy a
golden-pheasant crest without wasting my money. I wish someone had told me these silly little clues along time ago. I thought all material was the same. The same should apply to you. When you buy a good neck for dry fly hackle for example, ask questions, understand what's good and what isn't. Many times, a #3 $40 neck has better quality feathers for your needs than an #1 $80 neck. Its all how the chicken necks are batched together and graded. Just like fine wine, there are bumper crop seasons where batches of necks will be better than others. It certainly pays to know a little bit about the material you want to buy. Plus, if you team up with buddy, you can evenly split the cost of materials, sharing the quality and the expense. Ask questions before you buy!
Discussion of Quality
First and foremost, youll find a gamut of quality in flytying tools and materials. As with any sport or hobby, the range of quality is from "unacceptably poor" to "over-priced for what you get". With any luck, this discussion will lead you down the straight and narrow. In no way, shape or form can this article begin to train you on how to look for quality material, youll just have to go to a store and learn by looking. However, there are some good tips in the materials section to help you get started in selecting quality material. Get the best you can afford.
Keep this in mind: Don't let your equipment hinder your performance. A friend of mine who is an avid bicyclist and racer lives by this motto. But it didn't come without the enduring training and quest for knowledge of his sport. The lesson to be learned is in his years of experience with his equipment. It is his experience that formed his life-long belief that inferior equipment leads to inferior results. How true, especially in the micro-fine art of flytying.
Quality of the Vise
Specifically, when it comes to vises, don't skimp I said DONT SKIMP! Other than possibly the quality of the hook, a vise is the critical tool which holds the hook securely without marring the finish, allowing the flytyer to maneuver around the fly effortlessly. Invest in an above-average vise and the frustrations experienced by a new flytyer will be minimized. There have been many articles written about vises and this expose' isn't intended to out-do or even duplicate them, it is meant to merely co-emphasize the importance of purchasing a quality vise. Some considerations when looking for a quality vise are:
- Will the finish of the vise resist rust, corrosion and the occasional flytying glue spots that otherwise could seize the working movements?
- Does the vise come with the option of either a weighted pedestal or C-clamp base?
- Does the vise have true 360deg rotation, meaning the hook shank stays in the center of the rotating vise jaw and hook?
- Does the vise jaw accept a wide range of hooks sizes, say 1/0 to size 22?
- Does the construction of the vise jaw limit the tyer's mobility around the hook?
- Can you get replacement parts?
- Is there at least a 1-year warranty?
- Can you attach accessories to the vise, such as a bobbin
holder or a tyer's waste trap?
Although there are many fine, museum quality vises on the market, some of the all-around time-tested vises on the market are made by Renzetti, Dyna-King, Norlander, Regal, Thompson, Orvis, and A.K. Best. Look to spend from $60 to over $250 with $125 getting you into a nice quality keep-sake tying tool.
Quality of the Materials
Again, the quality and choice of materials is of utmost importance. Buy a cheap $8 hen's neck for dry flies and the webby feathers will absorb water, sinking your dry fly. On the other-hand, that same neck may make for great streamer feathers. All materials are useful to the fly-tyer, but each are best suited for specific situations. Again, get to understand the material you want to buy and get the best you can afford.What do I mean by "understanding and knowing" the types of materials you need for tying? For example, if you want to tie a few nymphs, the material quality is less important than materials for a few dry flies. The nymphs should be buggy looking and absorb water nicely. Fortunately, most inexpensive materials are great for nymphs. On the other hand, when tying dry flies, the neck hackle should have good stiff fibre density and be free of webby material. Additionally, the body dubbing on a dry fly should contain naturally water-resistant tendencies, like that of muskrat or beaver fur.
Ask questions of an experienced tyer when buying materials to add to your collection. That discussion may save you hundreds of dollars down the road, plus, some materials are easier to get and to work with than others. Thats getting to know your materials.
Once you get adept at deciphering quality materials vs. junk scraps, you'll enter into the genre of material collectors like a friend of mine, Bob D., who collects rare and exotic fur & feathers just for his "viewing collection". He also has a duplicate set of materials he ties with. He is one of the more knowledgeable folks around on the tying qualities of most any material. It's good to find a gent like Bob to ask questions of from time to time.
The Basic & Required Tools
- hackle pliers
- hair stacker
Weve already discussed some of the qualities to look for when selecting a vise and the same apply when looking for tools. Your tying bobbin should allow for tension adjustment. Some incorporate fancy torque devices and others simply bend in and out of shape, allowing the tension on the spool of thread to be adjusted. The tube on the bobbin is another critical area to consider. Some lesser quality bobbins have metal tubes with sharp openings which tend to sever the thread more easily. Others have ceramic, Teflon, plastic or ruby inserts to prevent from shearing the thread at the tubes tip. These are the ones to seek. Additionally, consider the length and thickness of the tube. If you will mostly be tying saltwater flies, a larger and longer tube will accommodate the larger thread sizes you will tie with. On the other hand, a small thin tube is great for tying midges and small size 22 flies.
A quality bodkin will have a sturdy needle firmly attached into the handle and the handle should not be cylindrical in shape. That would allow the tool to roll right off your tying table. Get tools where the handles are notched or octagonal in shape, preventing them from rolling away. Scissors will most likely be your second largest investment. Dull scissors make for dull flies. Look for these qualities:
- Micro-serrated blades are nice, but not necessary. It sure helps to have those little micro-serrated edges grasp the materials as one cuts, however.
- The finger loops should be large enough to accommodate your thumb and finger.
- The points should be sharp and not rounded. The sharp points allow you to get into tight places to cut away excess material.
Hackle pliers come in many shapes, many innovative designs and many sizes. But over the years Ive stuck with the tried and true $3 kind. I look for a large loop to allow rotating the pliers around the vise on a finger and strong, sturdy jaws that will clamp the material without breaking it. Some pliers tips are rubber coated to assist in grasping the materials. A hair stacker comes in handy to align ends of deer hair and other long hair fibres like moose, elk, bucktail, etc. The stacker should have an opening to accommodate a pencil-thick stack of hair and the inner tube should move freely inside the outer tube. Some stackers are a work of art in themselves and are prettier to look at than to use. Stackers come in a wide variety of sizes, some big enough to hold all your tools! A $5-$10 stacker generally does the trick.
There are other tools that are worth mentioning, such as a dubbing twister, a whip-finish tool, a bodkin threader and others. These tools arent necessary, but sure make tying easier. (Learn how to tie a whip finish knot by hand and you wont need the whip finish tool.) Buy these tools at a later date, they arent needed in a start-up kit. Save your money for tying materials!
The Basic Materials
Ill stick to the basic materials needed to outfit a starter flytying kit. The materials listed below have been selected to provide the beginning flytyer a wide range of materials to tie the largest selection of common patterns which are accepted and useful worldwide. For certain, I have listed quite a few items, not all is needed right away. Pick a few patterns that youll want to tie and buy the materials to get you going. I suggest patterns like a woolly bugger, hares ear nymph, pheasant tail nymph, anAdams dry fly and a Royal Wulff. I have listed the flies, for the most part, in a "tying ease" order, easiest first. Well refer to them as the "Basic 5" and reference the materials needed to tie just those. (The materials needed for the Basic 5 are bolded) This will help you buy the bare minimum materials to get started and yet have materials to tie quite a few patterns. Now, on with the complete beginners list.
- A Section of Hares Mask
- Squirrel Tail
- White Calf Tail
- Zonker Strips (center cut rabbit strips: black, brown,natural, olive, rust)
- Natural Deer Hair - Long for spinning and short for hairwings like a caddis or compara-dun.
- Natural and Bleached Elk Hair
- Fine Quality Necks, or a selection of different sized feathers plucked & matched according to size (These are the most popular variants: grizzly, furnace, black, white, dun) Dont buy whole necks until you are comfortable in knowing what to look for. Necks are expensive.
- Pheasant Tail Feathers
- Partridge or Quail back feathers
- Marabou (black, brown, olive, white)
- Peacock Herl
- Turkey Tail Feathers
- Goose Biots (black, brown, olive, rust)
Miscellaneous craft materials
- Chenille (black, brown, olive, & white to start with)
- Gold Tinsel (oval, flat, twisted rope)
- Brass & Copper Beadheads, & lead dumb-bell eyes, varied sizes
- Red yarn
- Krystal Flash (pearlesent)
- Brass & Copper Wire, a few different sizes
- Antron yarn (cream, brown, tan, rust, olive)
- Pearlesent mylar
- Egg glo-bug yarn (red, yellow, pink, etc.)
- Floss (red, yellow, green, orange, white, purple)
Free stuff from around the house
- Plastic shopping bags (white, clear, tan)
- Colored rubber bands
- use your imagination!!!!
- Larvae Lace (black, brown, clear)
- Rainys Float foam or the craft foam mention above
- Wood Duck or substitute
- Guinea feathers
- Turkey Flats
- A whole pheasant skin
Consider colored mixtures including rabbit fur, muskrat or beaver fur, and squirrel fur dubbing. Rabbit, beaver, muskrat and squirrel are too hard to beat when it comes to natural fur dubbings. Some new synthetic blends on the market are wonderful supplements to your kit, but can be expensive. SLF is an example. I prefer SLF as a replacement for seals fur for salmon flies and steelhead flies, but the cost is prohibitive of buying every shade made! Dubbing also can be found in the form of shredded yarn or your (gasp!) dog or cat. Be creative!
As mentioned above, beaver and muskrat fur make great dryfly bodies due to the furs ultra-fine consistency and of its natural water-repellent nature. Rabbit fur makes for great underwater water flies such as nymphs and leeches. It absorbs water quickly and has a seductive undulating motion when underwater. Other under-furs such as fox, coyote, weasel, and mink all are good substitutes. Even the fine wool-like fibres under the rich coat of a winter deer-hide makes for good dubbing blends. Try to build your collection of dubbing furs around the colors below, starting with the natural colors first.
With the above colors of dubbing, you can custom blend almost any shade or variant needed. Combining the above dubbing colors and furs with synthetics such as krystal flash can make for some very interesting and attractive
dubbings as well.
Tying thread colors
Generally, spools of size 6 & 8 will do the trick. Dont use sewing thread. It isnt manufactured to be underwater for any duration and it isnt manufactured to withstand the tension stress when tying on materials to a hook.
Common Tying Thread Colors
Stick with tried and true name brands. A quality hook is going to be expensive. Thats not to say that you cant find a deal and get hooks in packs of 100 on the cheap. Generally, a quality fly-fishing hook will cost $0.05 to $0.15 a piece, depending on the quantity at which you buy. Quality brands to choose from are Daiichi, Gamakatsu, Mustad, Partridge, and Tiemco. A good selection in sizes 8-16 will get you comfortably started. Buy a selection of dry fly, nymphs and streamer hooks. (To tie the Basic 5, stick with dry fly hooks size 12, nymph hooks size 12, and streamer hooks size 8 3xl. As you want to tie smaller or larger flies,
you can add the hook sizes accordingly at a later date.)
One of the most popular hook manufacturers in the U.S. is Eagle Claw. I generally dont recommend Eagle Claw hooks for fly tying, I feel their hooks suit the spin fishing genre more aptly. The hooks are designed to hold plastics and live bait, and are generally tempered with a softer consistency than fly-tying hooks. You tend to break more at the vise. I do like their larger size hooks for bass bug tying and deerhair spinning, however.
Your Tying Bench & Storage
This area is as private and personal as it gets. Each tyer has his or her own tying tendencies and storage nuances. I started out with a paper bag from a local grocery store. Everything I owned fit nicely in that bag. I could tie anywhere. But soon, I started collecting more and more materials. I then migrated towards a large fly
tackle box. Still, I could go anywhere. Now I have over 30 large plastic sweater storage boxes full of all types of material, neatly organized and labeled, and more material hiding in all kinds of cracks and crevices of my house. I picked up an old dentists stand at an antique auction (the beautiful piece was built around 1908) as the place where I store all my tools and accessories. I fitted a piece of white DuPont Corian countertop on the top of the dentists stand and now I have a repairable tying surface. It all takes imagination. Most any antique desk makes for a great tying desk and is nostalgic as well. There are several manufacturers of flytying desks and storage units, all which are beautifully crafted. The costs range from $500 or so to well into the thousands. Youre investing in fine furniture at this point. If I had the extra money, Id probably look into getting one of those desks, but for right now, Im completely satisfied with my dentists stand. People ask what it is and why I have it thats one of the neatest things about owning it.Youll devise your own way of storing and organizing your "things", you dont need an article to tell you that. Maybe Ive just put a spark into your own creativity, if so, thats the intended purpose.
Ive Got all These Materials, Now Where Do I Find Patterns To Tie?
There are literally hundreds of pattern books on the market, but only a few stand out as being a continual reference to have.
- The Orvis Fly Pattern Index
- Randy Stetzers "The Best 1000"
- "Flies for [Trout/Salmon/Bass/Saltwater]" series
by Dick Stewart and Farrow Allen
- Fly Patterns of Umpqua Feather Merchants
How to Find Tying Material Values
I have many friends who wont hesitate to take some fur or feathers from animals and birds who fell victim to a car. While this is OK, and nothing is wrong with it, I have experienced otherwise. I once witnessed a mallard hit by a truck. The poor thing went to waterfowl heaven that instant, and I, well, decided to reap the rewards of some of natures most beautiful feathers. I forgot to take the bird out of my trunk that day.
What a surprise I found the next day. I have taken fur and feathers from other poor roadside victims, but let me warn you, dont put those materials next to any of your "good" stuff until you know the new-found material is free of those little, nasty, reproductive insects. I found out the hard way, loosing a good bunch of fur to a minuscule colony of fur dwellers. For the trouble it takes to thoroughly pick through a roadside victim and clean the material properly, Id rather buy it. You be the judge.
Its All Around You
Flytying materials are all around you. Look around you right now I bet there are at least three materials you could use to tie a fly with. Thats not to say that they are readily accessible, however! For example, I am writing this piece on a commuter train from work. I see naugahide covered seats. Naugahide makes for great nymph backs and crayfish claws. I see a piece of clear-plastic shopping bag I could use for scud backs and mysis shrimp imitations. I see a womans fur collar. Wait, Ill stop there, I definitely could get in trouble with that one! But you get the point.
For other tying values, try going to the same place many smaller tying material firms get there stuff. I get all my tying fur from a northwoods furrier and tanner. He sends me scraps at pennies per pound. I get bird feathers from local hunters (all legal, by the way). And I get craft materials at a local craft store, many times at a fraction of the cost of the marked-up price of "flytying" materials.
Join a flytying club.
Most all clubs sponsor a bulk flytying material order at least once per year at wholesaler prices. This is your chance to get materials you would otherwise not buy.
Start a flytying club. When you get a bunch of tyers collecting together, its amazing what people find that you can swap and trade for.
Search the web. Its about the best world-wide resource for connecting flytyers together. Post questions and requests on flytying sites. Leave e-mails for the "webmasters" of your favorite flyfishing or flytying sites. They most certainly answer your question or can get you to the right people.
Some other ideas:
I find Christmas to be one of the best times to get all the sparkly and pearlesent material I could ever want. And dont forget the after Christmas decoration firesales. You can pick up various colored/sized beads and tinsel to last you a lifetime.
Salvage and second-hand stores have old furs and feather hats.
Overstock Liquidators often have hardware-type items like colored copper wire and various types of glues, not to mention corks for popper bodies and storage bins for materials.
Cigar stores have great mahogany boxes for storing materials.
What Will a Quality Tying Kit Cost Me?
I wont get into this trap! Quality means different things to different people. But, to answer the question directly, Ill break up the estimate the following way. I stress to the beginner not to buy everything on the lists above, but to add to his/her collection over time. Buying the basics, with the help of a flyshop professional or friend will cost you the following for a beginning kit. Consider sticking to buying tools and materials for the Basic 5.
Quality vise = approximately $100-$130
Quality tools = approximately $20-$50
Small selection of furs = approximately $20
Quality Feathers (not whole necks) = approximately $25
Selection of dubbing = approximately $30
Modest selection of hooks = approximately $50
Miscellaneous materials = approximately $15
Total estimated range: $250 - $350!! Sticker-shock?! Now heres some real advice. It doesnt have to cost that much! Ask your local flyshop what kind of package discount you could receive if you custom-designed a kit with their assistance. I once worked at a flyshop where we custom designed tying packages, giving pleasing discounts off the materials and a modest 5-10% of off tools. This brings the price down to a palatable sum. For $200, you can get into a quality-laden outfit, complete with most all materials you will need for months to come. That still may seem like a lot as compared to the "kit" pre-packaged fly tying kit seen in mass
catalog merchandisers. (psssst .stay away from the kits! The more costly ones may lean on the side of being marginally OK, but for the most part, you get what you pay for)
Like I said, work into it, buy only quality materials and tools, a little at a time.
How to Expand Your Tying Skills
As mentioned earlier, join a club. Its the best way to increase your knowledge and skills, bar none. But first, flytying classes are a great way to start. Especially when learning how to use the tools, understand the basics such as tying a whip-finish knot. Other ways to expand your skills is to rent videos from your local library, school, tying club or flyfishing store. Some are even worth buying as life-long references. The tying club I belong to has a library of over 50 titles to check out at no cost. Al I have to be is an active member of the club.
Certainly there are classic books that will always stand the test of time. Many of them have been re-printed and updated to include modern day photographs, making them an invaluable resource for the flytyer. I have found that over time, Ive amassed a fine collection of flytying and flyfishing books, many of them signed by the author. Its another one of those "habits" that has spawned from my hobby of flytying. Classic salmon fly books from late authors Kelsen and Tannent-Pryce are must haves for the salmonfly tyer and modern day authors such as Rick Hafele, Skip Morris, Eric Leiser, Gary LaFontaine, Dick Stewart, A.K. Best, Lefty Kreh, Dave Whitlock offer a wide variety of collective tying knowledge. If I were to choose two books I would buy for the starting tying kit, I would choose a tying methods book and a tying patterns book. I chose "The Art of Fly Tying" by John Van Vliet, published by Time-Life books and Randy Stetzers book, "Flies The Best One-Thousand". Im a "pictures" type of person where I learn better by viewing. Both of these books incorporate hundreds of full-color photos. They have to be a couple of my all-time favorites. There are other fine quality books out there; be sure to ask your local fly tackle dealer for recommendations.
Tying Flies For Profit
Be warned, don't think tying flies is going to save you money, and don't think that you can make any money tying flies. Basically, if you have money, you don't tie, and if you tie, you don't have money. I'm not here to say that you won't (or aren't) good enough to tie flies and make some money at it. I'm here to say that just like pro sports, only 1 in a 10,000 have the time, are good enough, are consistent enough, and are fast enough to tie flies for profit. The key word here is profit. (A simplistic approach to the profit model: Revenue - costs = profit) If you've sold any flies, I bet your revenue never exceeds your costs! Sure, I sell a few flies now and again where the revenue I gained from the sale exceeds the cost of materials for manufacturing the flies I sold, but what about the cost of my time and the cost of all the excess materials I didnt use? I would have to sell a gadzillion flies to recoup the cost of my time, materials and accessories.
Lets treat this idea like a start-up business seeking venture capital. The average cost for materials of a production fly is between $0.07 and $0.16. (Don't ask me where I got those numbers, I just remember them from some article I read a few years back.) Let's split it right down the middle and say the cost per fly is $0.11. Let's also assume I want to make a modest living my first year of tying and clear $25,000 in the bank, net of the cost of materials but before taxes, healthcare costs, rent or mortgage, food, transportation, flyrods, more materials, etc. I can sell flies to shops and retailers for around $0.50 to $0.65 each. So let's assume I get agenerous average of $0.60 per fly. The net profit of each fly is then calculated to be $0.49. Now, divide .49 into $25,000 to see how many flies you need to tie per year to make a go of it. Just so you don't have to break out your calculator, that's 51,020 flies per year, or 4,250 per month, or 981 per week, or 140 per day, or 17 per hour on an 8-hour day, 7 days per week. (Twelve flies per hour is considered good production for the hobby flytyer). Working only 5 days per week, 8 hours per day, you would have to tie 24 flies per hour. But, to be realistic, jump your income expectation to $50,000 to help support yourself and a family...now your bogey numbers have doubled! Could you tie 102,040 flies per year? If I were a venture capitalist, I probably wouldn't invest in a flytying business! Most professional tyers have other interests that feed them money and they only tie part-time, to supplement their existing income.