DIY

How to Tie Flies for Fly Fishing

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Photo by Adobestock/Shaiith
The best way to learn to tie flies is to have a master of the craft teach you. Such people flourish wherever trout or salmon are caught.

I first learned to tie flies when I was a boy of 13. After
watching a man up the street create beauties with such
magical names as Parmachene Belle, Silver Doctor,
Cowdung, Rio Grande King, March Brown
and Black
Ghost,
I couldn’t wait to make my own attempt at this
old craft. Every Sunday afternoon for several weeks I
carefully observed by mentor in action, then finally took
the plunge and invested $5.00 in a fly-tying kit.

The quality of those original supplies was poor, but I
didn’t care . . . I only wanted to get my hands on the fur,
bright feathers, and glittering tinsels and combine them
into enticements for trout and salmon. When I wasn’t
actually in the process of tying a fly or fishing, I would
often sit mesmerized just admiring the raw materials:
raffia grass from Africa, silver and gold tinsels from
France, rabbit skins and glossy rooster plumage, to name a
few.

My initial efforts were very sloppily executed, but the
fish didn’t seem to notice. With just a little practice I
was soon able to make a few of the simpler trout baits
quite proficiently (and to sell them to local fishermen).

At present I tie flies only for myself and for friends who
go trout and salmon fishing here in Maine but, in the near
future, I plan to start selling my creations once again to
earn some extra money. It’s an absorbing and profitable
craft at which you might like to try your hand.

What is Fly-Tying?

Fly-tying is basically a method of securing various
materials such as furs feathers and tinsels to a fishhook.
The resulting fly may or may not imitate an aquatic
creature which fish feed upon: A Royal Coachman doesn’t
look like anything you’ll ever see swimming in the water,
whereas Roche’s Dragonfly does . . . and they both catch
fish.   

The Skills You’ll Need

Although a hand-tied fly looks like a complicated creation,
it’s actually put together in an orderly, step-by-step
process that can be mastered by anyone able to form a knot
in a piece of thread. You needn’t even be a fly fisherman,
though it certainly helps.

The best fly-tier I know–and one of the most
outstanding in the United States–is Lou Stanford of
New Haven, Connecticut. Lou is a massive, 300-pound
construction worker with fingers as thick as the pipes he
welds on the job . . . but he can produce the most
delicate, aesthetically pleasing baits any fisherman could
hope to own.

How to Learn

The best way to learn to tie flies is to have a master of
the craft teach you. Such people flourish wherever trout or
salmon are caught, and can be found even in cities like
Chicago, San Francisco, and New York . . . so ask around and
you’ll find someone to start you off. If you live near West
Forks, Maine, stop in and see me. I’ll be glad to give you
some lessons.

If you can’t find an instructor, the other possibility is
to get a manual and follow the directions. In
fact–though I can hardly recommend the use of a book
alone–you’ll need such a guide even when you have
someone to help you.

A few of the texts I use include: Professional
Fly-Tying, Spinning and Tackle-Making Manual and
Manufacturer’s Guide
by George Herter.
This guide is very complete, even a little overdone. The
condensed version is more to the point and less
confusing for the beginner. Flies by J. Edson
Leonard, published by A.S. Barnes, New York. A
complete manual with a list of 2,200 patterns.
NollGuideto Trout Flies and How to
Tie Them,
published by Davis-Delaney-Arrow, Inc., New
York. Beautiful color plates of flies and
materials, but not very much how-to information.
Nevertheless, because of the illustrations and the low
price, every fly-tier should have a copy.

Fly-Tying Materials

Here are the basic supplies you’ll need when you begin to
practice your new craft:

VISE. Not the heavy workshop variety but a most handy tool
that clamps securely to a table and holds a hook firmly in
place while a fly is being formed around it. Buy the best
you can find . . . the Thompson vise is of excellent
quality.

SCISSORS. Purchase two pair of good steel scissors that
taper to a fine point. One should be very small and the
other have blades about 3 1/2″ long.

DUBBING NEEDLE. This small tool is used for numerous
precision jobs such as removing cement from the eye of a
hook or releasing feathers that may have been tied down by
mistake. You might try a hatpin, or make a substitute by
embedding a needle in a wooden dowel.

BOBBIN. A little gadget that conveniently holds down your
tying silk as you work on a fly. Some craftsmen don’t use a
bobbin, but it might make matters a bit easier for a
beginner.

HACKLE PLIERS are a type of small, spring-action forceps
which are used to turn hackle feathers around a hook. Not
all fly-tiers use this tool but the majority who do
wouldn’t be without it.

FLY-TYING CEMENT comes in small jars and helps hold bits of
material together.

FLY-TYING WAX. Unless your tying silk is prewaxed, you
should coat it with this substance to add strength and
adhesion.

ASSORTED FEATHERS, FURS, SILKS, TINSELS AND HOOKS. Caution:
never purchase any feather or fur which comes from
an endangered species, even though such materials may be
for sale. Unfortunately, many fly patterns call for
supplies like condor quills and polar bear hair and other
substances which are now definitely “off limits” . . .
you’ll see what I mean when you look through the catalogs.
Although it’s currently illegal to sell many of these
products, some may still be offered, and I urge you to be
very careful when making purchases. Always use substitutes
if buying the real thing may jeopardize the future of a
species.

Where to Obtain Materials

The largest mail-order supplier of fly-tying equipment
is–once again–Herter’s. Their prices are low
and the quality of their material is about average.
(You should also know that Herter’s was recently fined
for importing feathers from nearly extinct
birds.–MOTHER EARTH NEWS.)
Request a catalog, and–if
you can find a fly-tier to get you started–have him
or her help you put in an order.

Herter’s will supply you with a complete kit which includes
manual, tools, materials, hooks . . . in fact, everything
you need to tie a lot of flies (over 1,000, the company
claims). Get their
Model 9 vise–which comes in most of Herter’s
kits–and buy a bobbin separately if one isn’t
included.

Try to avoid purchasing material in small quantities from
retail fishing tackle stores . . . often the quality is
poor and the prices high. Don’t buy a cheap kit, either:
Such an inferior package deal usually contains a clumsy
(and therefore worthless) vise.

No matter how you choose to purchase your supplies, the
initial investment–the price of finding out whether
fly-tying will be profitable for you–should be under
$20.00. Compared to other crafts, the cost of getting
started is extremely low. (Consider doubling or tripling the amount to account for Inflation – MOTHER EARTH NEWS)

Recycled Materials

Make every effort to use recycled materials. A furrier will
probably give you all the fur scraps you can possibly use
in a thousand years and the rooster, duck, or goose feathers
called for in many patterns may be available from fowl
you’ve slaughtered on your own homestead. You might
experiment with fibers from reeds found growing locally.
Broken rubber bands make excellent bodies for certain
flies, old tinfoil can be useful, and even the red strip of
cellophane from some cigarette packs may come in handy.

Once you start tying, in fact, everything–even living
creatures–seems to become a potential source of
material for your craft. A snip or two of hair from your
cat or dog is most useful and will hardly be missed by the
pet, but you may have to chase your lady around the barn to
get one of her curly locks to complete a fly that just has
to be tied.

Patterns and Patterns

As a learner you’ll be tying the most simple patterns, but
in a very short period your skill will progress to the
point at which you’ll be able to construct practically all
the known flies. You’ll probably start creating your own
varieties, too, but I’d advise you to master the
traditional designs first because fishermen usually prefer
to buy flies that have established a name for themselves
over the years.

Although the great majority of these lures are tied for the
purpose of catching trout and salmon, some patterns are
used almost exclusively for bass. Saltwater fishermen, too,
have favorites of their own. Inquire locally to find out
what flies sportsmen are using in your waters.

How to Sell Your Work

Some fishermen, of course, tie their own flies, but many
don’t . . . they don’t want to take the time, or just don’t
feel competent to do the job, or believe that a device they
purchase is better at catching fish than one they could
make themselves. At any rate, you should be able to locate
buyers for your products without much trouble.

To find a market, go to a sporting goods store or other
business that sells fishing tackle and study the
workmanship and prices of the flies offered for sale.
You’ll probably find cheap Japanese import monstrosities, some finely tied works of art . . . and other lures that fall somewhere in between.

When you have an idea of the going rates, approach the
shop’s proprietor and ask him if he’d be interested in buying flies from you outright…or you might work out a
consignment arrangement with him. You may wish to package
your work attractively for sale through the store, or you
may leave the flies loose in small containers. (I’ve even
wrapped my products in cellophane envelopes and stapled the
packets to a piece of cardboard, which I then placed in a
restaurant frequented by fishermen.)

Instead of dealing with a business, some craftsmen hang up
signs and sell their products direct from home. You might
even try showing samples at sportsmen’s meeting places such
as boat rental docks and landings. Then if the flies you
tie are beautifully handcrafted–as they should
be—you’ll probably get some custom orders from
fishermen who want favorite patterns tied to their own
particular specifications. You might also place ads for
custom work in Outdoor Life, SportsAfield,
Field and Stream
, or Fly Fisherman.

Another selling possibility is to prepare custom-tied flies
for decorative purposes. You can make tiepins of the lures,
for instance, or embed them in clear molded plastic for tie
clasps, cuff links, paperweights or whatever. You can also
create handsome wall plaques (by mounting 12 different
landlocked salmon flies in an interesting pattern, to cite
just one example). Fine stores such as Orvis, in Vermont,
or Abercrombie and Fitch–in New York, Vermont and
other locations–might be interested in carrying these
ornaments . . but only if your work is absolutely top
quality.

What to Charge

Depending on the pattern, a fly will take you anywhere from
three to ten minutes to tie once you become fairly
proficient. The cost of the supplies that go into its
making will vary from a penny (the cost of the hook plus
free recycled materials) to 15¢ (if you use
store-bought goods like floss silk and chenille). Naturally
you’ll keep these facts in mind when you set your prices.

The quality of your work, however, is the most important
factor in determining what you can charge. Fine
craftsmanship commands a high price, and fishermen will pay
you a fair rate for good products . . . say 50¢ for a very
simple pattern and well over $1.00 for an exotic salmon fly.
Experience will soon teach you how much to ask.

If you maintain a high standard and sell only perfect
flies, you’ll find that your creations attract not just
trout and salmon, but customers! . . . and what began as an
absorbing pastime may turn out to be a very pleasant way of
picking up a few extra dollars in your spare time. Good luck,
and I hope you enjoy fly-tying as much as I have over the years.