Good, Bad, and Ugly
Published Nov 20th 2007
Who said this fly tying stuff was easy?
By Bob Petti
In January 1999, I tried to tie a traditional salmon fly - a Fiery Brown
to be exact. I remember feeling pretty good about that fly up to the point
where it was time to add that first wing ingredient, and then the train
came off the rails. There was an abrupt drop-off at the end of the dubbed
body, so of course the wing resisted laying down low. Not only that, but
every time I tried to tie in the married slips of feathers, the top half
- the mottled feathers - kept coming unmarried and the thread would slip
off. I never finished that one - just whipped a finish and set it aside.
I was not up to the challenge at that time. I still have it somewhere,
I remember exchanging emails with Bryant Freeman about that attempt.
Bryants salmon flies were my inspiration as they are supremely beautiful,
but yet are sleek, sparse, and entirely fishable. I've always been drawn
to flies like his, Bill Hunter's, and Poul Jorgensen's, because you can
see they were tied by tyers who have fished the flies. The idea is not
to have the tiniest head, or to show off the baby smooth floss body. The
idea is to tie a fly that is well proportioned to the hook, will hold
up to casting, and will "swim" well in the water. Much like
I always wanted my salmon hairwings to look like Warren Duncan's, I always
wanted to be able to tie traditional salmon flies like Bryant. He coached
me as best as he could via text emails, but I knew I wasn't ready.
So here we are, almost nine years later, and I'm trying attempt number
two. It certainly is an improvement over the previous attempt. I mean
- heck - I finished it. But it still falls well short of the goal.
Tying flies is a learning process, a series of trials and errors, plenty
of errors if you are like me. We learn from our mistakes, and I thought
maybe someone reading this who is interested in salmon flies might learn
from mine. Lord knows I don't have many solutions to the problems I encountered,
but maybe someone reading who is trying their first fly will have a few
extra things to keep in mind when they start. There might also be someone
reading who wants to chime in with some advice for my next attempt - hopefully
not another nine years in the future.
So with that, here goes the critique.
Totally forgot the head on the Black Doctor is not
a simply black thread head. Duh. No excuse for that. I was working
from Poul's book with the black-and-white photos, but still. Even
a black and white photo has a black head that looks black. It didn't
in the book, and that should have been a clue.
- The side wing components - the married slips of teal and barred woodduck
- seem a bit short. Jorgensen had them ending with the ends above the
butt of the fly, but if I look at some other flies, like Bill Hunter's
in Judith Dunham's book, they extend a bit futher along the wing. Mine
also are not aligned very well with the other wing components. My teal
sides are a little dark, too, not a vivid black and white. I might paw
through my stuff to see if I can find a better pair. These could be
gadwall, as the bag was not labelled. I know I have better feathers
- The head, while not too bulky, is far too long, which of course is
because I ended the body too early on the hook.
- The topping should have hugged the top of the wing a little better.
I didn't take too much time to shape it properly, so I just took what
the feather had to offer. It wasn't the straightest feather in the world,
either, so it's not nearly a good topping for the fly. Not shaping the
crest also yielded that big old ugly blank space between the wing and
- The wing tip extended outside the tail, which certainly wasn't the
plan. The plan was for the upper tip of the wing to just touch the tip
of the tail, like in Poul's fly. This is borderline ugly.
- My florican sub is not good. It doesn't have good color, is a real
bear to marry to other feathers, and is short. If I'm going to do this
again, I need an upgrade. Or I could just leave that part out while
I'm learning to tie these things. No sense wasting good feathers on
Whatever passes for a bronze mallard roof on the fly
is super ugly. What a mess. I tried for a good half hour to get a
real roof over the fly and finally just waved my hands and gave up.
I then tried to tie a thin slip of bronze mallard along the top edge
of the fly, and you can see how well that took. Thus another episode
in a long running troubled relationship with bronze mallard in my
tying career. I can count on one hand (one finger maybe) how many
times I've reached in my baggy of bronze mallard and came away with
a satisfactory fly.
- The body hackle is a too long, and it is not tapered at all. I might
have to try a different hackle next time. To me, the hackle as much
as the bronze roof makes the fly look sloppy and - well - ugly.
- You can see some of the working thread behind the head, where I tied
off the body hackle. Man, that just sticks out in my eye like a sore
thumb. Argh! I ended the body way to far back from the eye.
I took the time to plan ahead the shape of the tail,
which is the most important ingredient of the fly because everything
else has to be tied to fit the tail. A bad tail, and you're dead.
So I took the time to draw out a hook on a piece of paper and draw
in the shape of the tail I wanted to help me select and tie in a crest
tailing. However, I did not take that time to plan out the body the
same way. When you have that many materials to tie into one area,
you have to plan ahead, and I gave myself a bit too much room. Next
time, I'd widen the tinsel wraps just a bit, so the last wrap is a
little closer to the eye. Of course, these steps would be automatic
to someone who has tied these flies for awhile, but for the beginner
it helps to plan these steps out in advance since so much depends
on proper placement of these foundation materials.
- The second early mistake I made was not paying better attention to
the hackle I chose. I just picked up a new claret neck at the IFTS and
was hot to use it. That neck might not be the right choice for this
fly. I have an old chinese neck I might try next time, to see if I can
get more taper to the hackle. The Whiting neck will be better for streamer
wings (which is exactly what I got it for).
- If I am going to do many more of these flies, I need to sit down and
spend a couple afternoons fiddling with bronze mallard. I cannot blame
it on my materials - I have good bronze mallard. It's my technique.
I need to watch some experts handle it, and see if I can mimic that
myself. That is one material I have not come close to mastering.
- You can retie these salmon flies many times. I bet I tied those wing
slips on a dozen different times and they were none the worse for wear
(although maybe they are and I just don't see it). I retied the underwing,
throat, and wing several times trying to get things to sit right. I
envy guys like Bryant who just grab the feathers, hold them to the hook,
and they just magically affix themselves in perfect position. But even
if they don't go on properly the first time, just unwrap and try again.
The wings are surprisingly durable and able to withstand more handling
and re-attaching than I thought.
- Looking at the fly again - I actually like where the wing is positioned.
If I were to do it again, I think I'd make the tail a little flatter
and not cocked up quite as high, which would lead to that long sleek
look I am after. The inner wing components tend to get hidden in that
style of tying, but that's ok. I'd rather have a fishable fly where
some parts are harder to see than a fly where you can see everything
but it would flap and fly apart with a single back cast. I feel the
same about my Rangeley streamers. That beautiful floss body should be
hidden underneath the hackle.
Oh well. Whattyagonnado? This attempt came out much better than the Fiery
Brown way back when. I got off to a good start with the tail assembly,
but the fly was doomed when I wrapped the ribbing too short. I think this
would be a fishable fly - and I might just do that if I ever make it up
to the Salmon River during a run again - but it will not win any beauty
Tying a salmon fly is humbling.
So - any experts out there who want to chime in with a few words of wisdom
- feel free.