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Fly Tying Basics: Part 1 - Tools
written by Steve Galea

Want to tie your own flies? This three-part series intends to get you on the right track, starting with this introduction to the tools of the trade.
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Fly Tying Tools Vise
Vises come in either C-clamp or pedestal-mounted (above) configurations. 

By the way some anglers speak of it, you'd think that fly tying is some mysterious, black art. I've heard more than one angler say that there's no possible way they could tie those little flies because they lack the dexterity, creativity or patience required.

But, the truth is fly tying is actually quite easy if you approach it with common sense. Like any other new endeavour, if you bite off more than you can chew, it's definitely frustrating. But if you keep your goals simple and walk rather than run, you'll find that the learning curve isn't daunting at all.

What follows is a three part series that intends to prove that. Part one will examine the equipment necessary to start tying your own flies. Part two provides insight on materials, and the final instalment offers thoughts on the techniques required to tie those first few flies.

Let's begin with the tools of the trade.

Educational material

I strongly believe that the first thing every new fly tyer should purchase -- before tools or materials -- is a quality book or DVD on basic fly tying. These instructional materials will give you a better idea of what you are getting into in terms of techniques and how a fly is constructed.

Quality fly tying instructional materials also provide a variety of fly patterns suited to beginners. Familiarize yourself with the material before you ever place that first hook in the vise; this will add to your confidence and remove much of the mystery. For that alone, a book or DVD is well worth the money.

Fly Tying Tools: Scissors
Fly tying scissors should be small and easy to handle with a very fine tip. Large finger holes are an important feature.


A fly tying vise is a tyer's most costly and important investment -- but, if you buy with quality in mind, a vise will last a lifetime.

The sole purpose of a vise is to hold a hook firmly so that you can tie materials onto it -- that's why a vise's gripping strength is important. A good model will handle a wide range of hook sizes too -- the wider that range, the better.

Beware of cheap vises. They might seem like a bargain, but, in reality, they make the job more difficult and far less enjoyable. The really bad models will break or release hooks at the most inopportune moments, frustrating you to no end.

A quality vise, on the other hand, makes tying a pleasure. They hold the hook steady and are designed with ergonomic comfort in mind.

Typically, vises come in C-clamp or pedestal-mounted configurations. I've owed both types but prefer the latter as I can set it up anywhere and not worry about marring a tabletop; however, some fly tyers prefer C-clamped vises because they are lighter and easier to transport.

How can you recognize quality in a vise? The best way is to get your hands on one so you can manipulate the jaws and adjustments and get a general feel for it. Pay attention to the workmanship and tolerances too and, if possible, ask for an in-store demonstration of how the vise works, adjusts and holds larger and smaller hooks.

If you're buying sight unseen, do a bit of research and read reviews. And pay attention to brand names -- there's a reason that some vise manufacturers have been around for a long time.

Lastly, you might consider a rotary vise. These are made to spin the hook on a true plane, allowing you to wrap material and inspect your flies from all angles. They are wonderful and nice to have, but not absolutely necessary, especially for the beginner.

In fact, when it comes to purchasing a high-end vise, I'd suggest you tie a lot of flies first. That way you'll have a better idea of what features are important to you before you shell out the money.


A good pair of scissors is indispensable too. They cut thread, wire and tinsel and trim deer hair and foam.

Aside from being sharp, they should be small and easy to handle with a very fine tip. Large finger holes are an important feature. I've had to retire otherwise excellent scissors because their finger holes caused discomfort after prolonged use.

Buy a good set, designed for fly tying, and treat them well. Use the tip when cutting thread; cut wire and other dulling materials at the throat of the scissors and they'll last longer.

Bobbin - Fly Tying Tools
Experienced tyers keep several bobbins handy for convenience and speed.


A bobbin is the tool that holds the spool of thread, floss or wire. You use them to wrap these materials around the hook during the construction of a fly. As such, it is a primary tool -- the one you'll handle on every single fly you tie.

While they're generally quite inexpensive, quality still counts. If you get one that provides too much tension or frays thread or floss, you won't have much fun. In my experience, they, and poor hackle pliers, are the most common causes of aggravation for the newbie.

Most of us start with standard metal-tubed bobbins. These work just fine and, at less than $5 per unit, it's hard to complain about them.

Having said that, if you want to spend just a few more dollars and step up to the next level, consider a bobbin with a ceramic insert or tension adjustment. These are easier on thread and floss and, like all fine tools, make the work just a bit more pleasant. Again, they're not essential, but eventually, if you want to treat yourself, they're a fine investment and still generally under $30.

If you tie flies for any length of time, you'll eventually own several bobbins; this adds convenience and speed to your tying time.

Fly Tying Tools: English Hackle Pliers
Hackle pliers grip hackles and feather tips for tight wraps around the hook shank.

Bobbin threader

A bobbin threader is another inexpensive tool that's handy, especially for those whose eyesight isn't what it used to be. Bobbin threaders are used to make loading your bobbin easier and faster.

Simply push the threader's fine, looped wire through your bobbin's tube. Once fully through, the springy loop opens up, allowing you to run thread, floss or wire through it. Once that's done, pull it back through the tube retrieving the thread, wire or floss, thereby loading the bobbin. They're not essential -- there are other ways to do this -- but, for the price of a coffee, a threader is definitely nice to have.

Hackle pliers

These funny looking tools are another must-have item. Hackle pliers are designed to grip hackles and feather tips in order to wrap them around the hook. Wrapping hackle is an important step in the construction of many patterns.

English-style hackle pliers are standard, but there are other types too. Find the one that's most comfortable in your hand with a fine tip that's easy on the feather.


A bodkin is simply a long needle, but, boy, are they handy. You use these to pick out dubbing, to apply glue to the head of the fly or to clean glue out of hook eyes. Get one with a good handle. That way you won't lose it.

Whip finishing tool

I tied flies for years before I ever owned one of these complex looking units. Now that I've got one, I don't know how I did without it. A whip finisher allows you to tie neater, more durable heads on your flies. While not absolutely required, they are well worth the expense. When you get one, take the time to learn how to use your whip finishing tool so that it becomes second nature. It will make a noticeable difference in the quality of the flies you tie.

Whip Finish Tool
A whip finisher helps you to tie neater, more durable heads on your flies.

Hair stacker

If you plan on tying flies that utilize deer hair or similar materials, a hair stacker is a good tool to have. It allows you to even hair before tying with it, making for a neater job and better-looking fly. You do this placing the cut hair, butt-end down, in the stacker and tapping it on the table a couple of times to even all the fibers.

Hackle gauge

Though not truly required, a hackle gauge is another tool to consider. They help you choose the right hackle for the size of hook, which is something you will eventually be able to do by eye. Beginners, especially, will benefit from a hackle gauge, however, as they help train you to recognize the proper proportions on any hackle-based fly.

Easy on the eyes

One thing I strongly encourage every tyer to have is a good lamp or an illuminated magnifying glass. These help reduce the eye strain that sometimes occurs after a long session at the tying bench. They also promote better and neater fly tying.

These then are the basic tools required to get into fly tying. The next article will deal with the materials that every budding tyer should have.

Shop all Fly Tying Tools

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