Closeup of brown trout being caught by fly fisherman.
Tying your own flies means you’ll have many selections to choose from when fishing.
Brown trout are not only delicious but they respond well to homemade flies.
Fly tying is a great way to recycle common home and farm materials ranging from turkey and chicken feathers to deer or elk hair, as well as yarn, threads and other materials. Nearly any material can be manipulated, reduced, ground, combed and twisted onto a wire fishing hook to become a fly that tempts trout, panfish, bass or other fishes. The key in creating a great fly is making that twisted material resemble something fish are currently feeding on, or matching the hatch.
Tying a fly is a simple matter of twisting materials, feathers and thread onto a bare hook in a specific sequence. Once you learn the basics and a few simple knots, you can quickly expand your portfolio of fly patterns. The most critical elements for any beginner are learning the knots and keeping the fly’s parts—tail, body, wings, shell, legs and hackle—in proportion and secured on the hook.
An artificial fly is made by winding one material after another in a sequence or combination onto a selected hook. Most flies are constructed from the tail—normally placed at the bend of the hook—forward to the head segment. This is normally located just behind the hook’s eye. After you select a pattern, you then secure the required materials and prepare and organize these components. This process could involve cutting a section from a large feather, measuring a segment of yarn, applying a coat of flexible cement or simply pulling a wad of fur from a plastic bag. Much of the preparation is dependent upon the pattern that you plan to tie.
Organizing your materials can make fly construction go smoother and quicker. Also, it is much easier to tie a dozen, or half dozen, and then switch patterns than it is to tie one fly and then another type. Consider it mass assembly!
Select a hook that works proportionally with the pattern you plan to build. Dry flies—the most popular—use lightweight hooks so the finished fly will float on the water’s surface. Nymphs, wet flies and streamers use heavier hooks to slide underwater and withstand the wear and tear of bumping into rocks, logs and other obstructions. Some fly types include attractors, imitators and search patterns. Most fly patterns represent a stage of insect life. Some flies can also imitate frogs, crayfish, minnows or even mice.
There are thousands of hook styles and sizes to select from. Fortunately, most written fly patterns provide specific details about which hook works best. When tying take note that the larger the hook’s number, the smaller the hook’s size. A #24 is nearly microscopic while a #10 is large. Most dry flies for trout fishing are tied on the #12 to #16 size hooks. Bigger streamers and buggers are often tied on size #10 or #8 hooks.
What You’ll Need
To begin tying, you will need a tying vise, hooks, scissors, a bobbin and a good pattern book. Today you can go to YouTube and watch others tie flies to see the process. Some fly shops also offer tying classes. If you must cut corners and want to save costs, forgo the large bundle packages of materials and get enough items to only tie the top-five patterns in your region. You can find this popular or productive pattern information by searching hatch charts and fishing reports from local fly shops and outfitters, or through online searches.
When it comes to the basics of tying flies, do not skimp costs on the vise you select. A flimsy and flexible vise will lead to frustration. A quality and functional vise should be solid and sturdy. You’ll need to apply pressure to the hook and all knots to build a durable fly. Also, the tighter that you can make a whip finish or knot on your fly, the longer it will stay together. Flies take a lot of abuse from sharp fish teeth and while bumping through gravel and into boulders. They need to be durable.
Searching For Patterns
For beginners and advanced anglers alike, the question arises: Which fly should I use? Or which flies should I pack along for the fishing trip? The top-five list of all around flies includes: The Adams, with classic upright wings (dry). The Blue-Winged Olive (dry). The Elk Hair Caddis (dry). The Gold-Ribbed Hares Ear (nymph). The Prince (nymph).
If you want to tie these patterns on your own, consider looking look for the complete kits that some fly shops offer. These mini kits often have the hooks, materials, thread and a pattern guide in one ready-to-purchase bag. There are also several websites, such as orvis.com, that can show you great details for fly patterns.
You can vary the pattern and still create a fly that will catch fish. Some fly patterns call for a certain hook from a manufacturer (Umpqua, Orvis and Mustad are the big ones) and specific items like rabbit or muskrat fur. You can move up or down the scale in the hook size recommended, substitute other similar hooks and substitute synthetic furs or yarns for the more expensive natural fur. As long as you stay reasonably close to the intended design, the fish often cannot detect the difference. Remember that a fish has less than a second of time to determine if it will bite or pass in steady river currents.
The size of the hook you use to tie a fly will determine how the fly lands and sits on the water, and how a fish sees it. Most beginning tiers and anglers use #12 hooks to tie wet and dry flies. Properly proportioned flies tied on this size hook can accurately imitate many insects in many areas. Once you tie a few simple fly patterns, however, consider moving down to #14 or #16 hooks.
For a beginner, the woolly worm (or woolly bugger) pattern—a caterpillar-like fly—is easy to tie. The standard hook sizes for this pattern are #6 to #10. This woolly worm pattern uses a large, heavy-wire hook that provides more weight to help the fly sink underwater. Standard body colors include yellow, black, brown and olive. A full-length wrap of a small feather with the barbs projecting out is added to the outside (this imitates legs), plus a small tail that offers some motion.
Before you begin twisting your thread around a hook, take the time to select a well-lit and quiet tying area. This process requires concentration. You need to be able to see small materials well. Make sure that the area, such as a tabletop, has ample work space and that there are no breezes. You don’t want to have to chase down a feather or catch a section of yarn.
The second most important material after selecting the hook for any fly is the thread. Pre-waxed, nylon, black, size 6/0 thread works well for most applications. Applying the thread with a bobbin will help you better manage the thread. If you do not have a bobbin, cut about 12 to 20 inches of thread to complete most fly patterns. If you come up short, you can tie in new thread and continue building the fly.
The woolly worm pattern uses chenille or yarn for its main body. It runs the length of the hook from the bend to just behind the eye. Before starting the body, tie a small piece of red yarn or clump of reddish feather barbs atop the hook’s bend for the tail. Some anglers believe that fish are attracted to red, and this color tail seems to be tops in this pattern. The woolly worm also uses a single brown or grizzly feather (or hackle) wrapped around the fly’s body. The feather should not appear too bushy. The barbs—individual strands—of the feather will simulate insect legs. This will make the fly appear to be crawling when underwater. Again, this is tied in at the hook’s bend before you begin construction. Think ahead in the fly construction process.
Fly Tying Time
After you select a single hook, place it in the vise—normally with the edge of the tip of the vise’s jaws holding the hook by the bottom of its bend—and tighten the vise’s jaws. Apply enough grip force to keep the hook from moving when moderate pressure is applied on the hook’s eye. Next, you’ll wrap the thread over the hook’s shank Wrap from the bend forward to just behind the eye and back. Tie it off with a couple of overhand loops. Remember to keep all of the materials tight and uniform during the construction process.
- Tie on a section of red yarn or feather for the tail with approximately a quarter-inch extending behind the hooks’ bend. Use approximately six tight wraps of thread to hold the tail in place. Then tie an overhand loop over the wraps to secure. Trim off any excess material.
- If you find that any material shifts to one side as you are tying, try placing the material on the side of the hook and it will normally ride up and into place on top of the hook as you tighten the thread.
- Tie on a palmered, or fuzzed, feather with wraps of thread and secure in place. Running your fingertips down the feather from tip to base will cause the feather barbs to protrude outward.
- Tie on the yellow chenille or body yarn and secure in place.
- Wrap the tying thread forward over the hook’s shank. Secure it behind the hook’s eye with several overhand loops. Next, tightly twist the chenille body material around the hook’s shank and continue forward to the eye. Leave about 1/16 inches of open space behind the hook’s eye to tie the head. Be sure to wrap the body material evenly and in tight circles so that it covers the shank and builds up a body about half the diameter of a pencil.
- Secure the body material behind the eye with the tying thread. Now wrap the hackle forward on top of the body material with evenly spaced wraps to give the fly a segmented appearance. Hackle pliers will help you control the feather and apply pressure. Secure the hackle behind the hook’s eye with the tying thread.
- Make a finishing knot to build up a slight head behind the eye. A finishing knot is an overhand loop with multiple loops of thread upon previous loops. This is the stage where most beginning tiers get into trouble. They tie too close to the eye and then wrap thread over the eye and have little or no space to pass the tippet through the eye when fishing. If you are crowding the eye, pinch the fly body at the front and slide it back slightly on the hook shank to increase the room that you have to tie the head.
- Apply a coat of tier’s cement to bond the thread into place and to give the fly a solid, insect-like head appearance
If you decide to tie a more complex pattern with upright wings, remember that most wings are small and equal in size. A wrap of thread at the base, and wrapping the feather tightly in front and behind the wings, will help keep them in their proper position.
In addition to the cost savings and education you’ll gain from tying your own flies, the best thrill is seeing a rising trout—or any fish—make a wild dash for your fly and then explode through the water’s surface as it realizes it’s hooked. Patience is a trademark of good fly tiers. Try tying flies and you’ll be hooked, too!
This article is from the summer 2017 issue of American Frontiersman Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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