Published Feb 17. 2013

My first flies

I honestly don't remember exactly how many years ago I started tying flies, but a rough calculation says about 30 years. A lot has happened since then - luckily!

Yuck! - This is most likely one of the very first flies I ever tied. I have really tried to groom it, but honestly: the hackle is a mess and all too long, there's tying thread on the outside of the body and the head is varnished with silver flake nail varnish. Yuck!
A long, long tail - I don't know what go into me here! The long tail is trouble waiting to happen, and the ribbing is out of this world. And I could have saved half a spool of thread on the head.
A Big Hole Demon, really!? - A classic fly hopelessly executed. Too small a hackle, which should actually cover the front, which is much too thick and round. The tinsel body certainly leaves a bit to desire, and the tail? Don't mention the war!
Red thingy - My materials were generally cheap and much too crude for what I wanted to do. Thick chenille and a thick rib combined with a thin red hackle and some red Arctic fox does not lead to a slim harmonic fly
My first efforts

I tied my first fly before my kids were born, and since the oldest one is turning 28 next time, my guess that it's about 30 years ago - a couple of years before I became a father.
I had started fly fishing after a very short stint of spinning. This was the second fishing period in my life. As many other anglers I had started out as a kid, mainly together with my dad who was an avid fly-fisherman and mostly on family outings with him, my brother, my uncles and cousins. And spin fishing only. Fly-fishing was for grown ups it seemed.

When rock music, school, girls, beer

and whatnot entered my life, fishing was sent into the shadows.
But I started again in connection with traveling in the Arctic during university and not long after having started spin fishing I bought my first fly rod and took up fly fishing. I have a cousin, Erik, who has been fishing as long as I remember, and I went on a night trip to the west coast of the island together with him and a couple of other seasoned fly-anglers.
I took three things back from that trip: a passion night fishing, a passion for muddlers and the spark to start tying. Actually one led to the other, which led to the third.
One of Erik's friends, whose name evades me, looked into my measly flybox to help me select a fly for the evening, but obviously felt nothing but pity, and dug out a couple of really nice muddlers from his own box, which contained endless rows of identical flies. My own box had one of each pattern, lots of variation (in the bad way) and nothing useful for the night.
I tied on one of his muddlers, and even though I didn't catch anything I saw both fish in the surface and fell in love with the small wake made by the floating fly.

Soon after I was in my local flyshop

asking for muddlers.
- Haven't got any, the clerk, Brian, said.
- Tie your own.
- Well, I don't tie...
- Learn it!, he said
He proceeded to the vise set up in the store, dug out some marabou, a patch of deer hair and produced a very decent muddler within a minute or two.
How hard can it be?
I of course left the shop with a bag full of cheap Indian tools, some deer hair and assorted tying materials. Not exactly what I had planned, but then again: that's what skilled salesmen can do to blue eyed customers like I was back then.

How hard can it be?

An early bullet muddler - Early on in my muddler career I started adding cones and bullets to the deer hair flies This later developed in to my Full Metal Jacket Nutria Muddler
A marabou muddler - I slowly got my muddlers under control.
This is a muddler! - Chenille, marabou and a strange construction altogether. I was really struggling with these muddlers
What? - I had no real dubbing, so this body and tail is made from yarn from my wife's knitting stock. And collars on muddlers? Not on my shift!
Getting there - This muddler is obviously tied with much better hair and a much better technique, but still could do with a bit more contriol in the spinning process and some more trimming
A small black muddler - Not bad at all, but more like a big headed, small winged caddis than a saltwater baitfish like a sculpin or goby
My muddlers
Orange rafia thingy - Orange flash chenille, yellow rafia and some GP tippet. Could be an effort to tie a bright shrimp, but I don't remember where the idea came from
Black rafia baitfish - Rafia or Swiss straw is cheap, and I bought several colors in a much too crude quality, and used it generously on many, many flies with varying results.
Brown refia baitfish - Another color of rafia or Swiss straw used for a simple baitfish imitation
Orange thingy - Orange flash chenille and some orange and red hackle. Not really elegant
Crude materials = crude flies

Later I sat down

and tried to tie my first fly. In hindsight a muddler was probably not the best choice for a beginner's fly. And tying it from the dense and hard black deer hair that I had bought didn't make it easier (Brian should have warned me there!), and of course the fly never really happened. You can see a couple of first or second generation muddlers from my hand on this page, and they sure look like something the cat had dragged in after a hefty fight.

I soon realized

that muddlers weren't going to give me any immediate gratification at the vise, so I ventured into something a little less challenging. I had bought Danish Jan Grünwalds book "Sea trout on spin and fly" - "Havørred på spin og flue" a true classic on the subject, but only available in Danish and maybe Swedish and/or Norwegian.
This book also covered a few patterns, and made me start the never ending fly-tying materials arms race, because I soon realized that without an ample stock of basically everything, I'd never be able to produce anything.

I made the same error

as most beginners, and bought the cheapest I could lay my hands on. And of course got the lousiest I could get, making life at the vise a constant struggle. All my materials were generally too bad quality: hackles too soft and long, thread too thick, feathers too fluffy, colors wrong, hair too curly, raffia to thick, tinsel to crude and so on. Altogether a sure way of making it unnecessarily difficult to tie and get some decent results.

I bought the cheapest I could lay my hands on. And of course got the lousiest I could get

Black and orange contraption - I had black flash chenille and orange marabou
Double what? - Yes, that red in the front is supposed to be a hackle. And I had black flash chenille as you can see
What? - I wonder what went through my head here...
Straw Thing 1 - For some reason I started using drinking straws in my flies. I was not afraid of experimenting
Straw Thing 2 - A red shrimpy thing, again using a red straw
Assorted mishaps

Scattered on this page

you see pictures of some of the earliest flies I tied - and fished. Some even still have tippet tied on them, so they have been in the water. I have tried to shine them up a bit with steam and some grooming, because they come from boxes and bags where they have spent 20-25 years.
But I'm glad that I saved them!
They tell me that I have actually progressed a bit since I started. You can also see some later inventions of mine that show a bit of development and not least a never ceasing desire to experiment. I still do that and have in a way done that from the very beginning of my fly-tying career. It has both been a blessing and a curse. In one way it helped me develop as a tyer, but on the other hand it also kept me from tying some decent and useful flies. Had I stuck to tying proven and trusted patterns, I might have had fewer of these hall of shame flies to look at now, and more flies that I had actually fished till they trashed.

...they come from boxes and bags where they have spent 20-25 years.

What can you learn from this?

A very early zonker - Notice how I used the scraps from my muddlers in the body. Still struggling with the heads
Blue streamer - I was slowly getting th idea, and getting more materials. This is blue Arctic fox, mallard and yellow hackle. Apart from the head, it's not a bad fly at all
Squirrel streamer - Another of my second or third generation flies, which came out quite well and which I tied and fished for many years - and caught fish on
Getting better

1) Don't start off with muddlers!

I have friends who have tied for 20 and 30 years, and still don't master the technique not even with the best materials and good guiding.

2) Buy few but decent tools.

A good vise, good scissors, one or two ceramic bobbin holders, a bodkin and maybe a good set of hackle pliers. Save the rest for later. Tools can not make up for lacking skills!

3) Stay off beginner's kits

with "everything" in them - vise, tools, materials. Very few have what you need, and most of it is crap. A few kits have good stuff, but rarely for the flies you want to tie.

Experiments suddenly work - And flies like these very efficient Ronkers suddenly emerge from your vise
More controlled - Suddenly you can control shape and proportions
Flies come out as you want them... - ...and become fishworthy, good looking and durable
Suddenly things work!

4) Don't aim at tying with too many "alternative" materials.

What's sold in craft stores might look like what they have in flyshops and be less expensive, but it's not fly-tying grade, and is often neither durable nor fine enough for flies.

5) Buy few, but good materials.

They might seem expensive when you are starting out, but trust me: you will be buying them later on anyway, so in stead of buying cheap first and expensive later, buy the good stuff right away and save money.

Simple patterns - THis Red Tag uses few materials, which are very useful in many patterns: red wool, copper rib, peacock herl and soft, brown hen hackle
A batch - Tying many similar flies makes you a better tier
Tie in batches

6) Aim at tying few similar patterns

that can share materials. That way you might need just one or two saddles or necks (brown and grizzly will take you very far), a few colors of thread, selected dubbing in selected colors, hooks in one or two sizes etc. Consider omitting exotic details from flies that require special materials.

7) Tie with other and more experienced fly-tyers

that can help you learn, select the right materials and maybe borrow you what you don't have.

8) If the bug bites you, make room!

You can expect this to become an ever lasting building of stock. You will constantly be buying materials, and you might as well start organizing right away. No matter what cabinet or tying bag you buy, it will be too small, so go for a cheap, expandable system, like bed rollers or generic, stackable plastic boxes with lids. ANd buy a ton of Ziploc bags in different sizes. They are the fly-tyer's best friends.

9) Don't start tying flies yourself to save money

on flies! If you want to save money, buy finished flies. No matter how expensive they seem, they are less expensive than tools and materials in the long run.

10) Once you get started

, you will find that tying is a hobby in the hobby, giving you lots satisfaction, producing flies like you want them and filling up the off-season with a fun fishing related activity.

Tying together 3 - On weekend long a fishing, a tying session is always an option. Sharing ideas, inspiring each other
Tying together 1 - It's cozy and lets you learn, borrow materials and find inspiration
Tying together 2 - Experiences are shared. Australian Brendan is sharing with Danish Henning.
Regular gatherings - Many fly-fishing groups meet on a regular basis to tie. Get into such a group or into a club to learn
Tying together

I can still struggle with flies, like I did with this streamer, and I'm not the only one. Even the professionals can produce flies as ugly as my worst contraptions.



LOL. Just came across your site and found my early attempt flies looking back at me. Nice site. You know, I still get good hits on some of the crappiest, no rule flies that I produced a few years ago. I now still make them and use them with whatever I can get my mits on that looks "fishy". Maybe when I turn 70 in another 3 years I'll have some time to sit and make some works of art. Until then, I'll fish my ass off.

Hello Martin,

So recognizable is the story of a beginning fly-tying flyfisherman.
At the moment I have my fifth tying vice after 33 years of fly-tying and are happy with it now! (Stonfo.)
I like this story a lot and have also found a couple of very old flies in my old boxes, flies with a story like yours.
Thanks for telling us,

Best regards,

Tom Biesot.

Adirondackflytyer's picture

Most excellent post sir !!


Not too shabby, Martin. I've been tying for about 40 years and--like you--made every mistake in the book. Worked with crap tools for years. I finally got myself a Renzetti about 10 years ago. I ran across one of my old flyboxes a while back. The little aluminum ones with the coil hook holders. I opened it up and found a couple of dozen bare, rusty hooks and a bunch of dry, mummified moth pupae. :p

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