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Fly Tying Basics: Part 3 - Techniques and Strategies
written by Steve Galea

Difficult to master at first, fly tying takes time and patience. These few tips will help you get on your way to making your own flies.
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Clouser's Flies

When using patterns, be sure to try mimicking the pattern the best you can and pay attention to proportion.

OK, so you've gathered the tools and materials. You've read a book or two and watched videos that demonstrate the essentials of fly tying. Despite this, the hook that you secured in your vise still sits there, lacking adornment and that honor that comes with being the first fly you ever tied.

This hesitation is only natural — like all new fly tyers, you want to do it right the first time. That's admirable, but it's hardly realistic. Your first fly probably won't turn out like the ones in the pattern books. That takes time and experience.

Still, that's no reason to despair; there are ways to better the odds.

Quality First

The first thing to do is commit to a mindset that makes quality your priority.

It's not magic. It just means that you'll have to be patient and meticulous, whether or not that's in your nature.

This is achieved by ensuring that each step in the fly's construction is correct before moving to the next. If the tail isn't right, take it apart and tie it again — the same goes for the hackles, body and so on. Be mindful of the amount of material used (most new tyers tend to use far more than required) and ensure each new piece of material is secured properly.

Constantly compare the fly you are building to the one in the pattern photo. Do your best to mimic it, and pay special attention to proportion — in fly tying, measurements are compared to parts of the hook. For instance, you should start the thread base one eye-width back so as not to "crowd" the hook's eye by blocking it with material, thread or glue. Similarly, the tail might extend one hook length behind the fly.

Proper proportion is the hallmark of an excellent fly. So pay attention to this and the fly can't help but look better.

A fly tied this carefully will take longer at first, but that's a small price to pay for learning to do things right. Besides, once proper technique becomes ingrained, speed will follow. In the mean time, you'll fill your box slowly but surely with useful, well-constructed flies.

No Substitutions

New tyers have a tendency to substitute material because they don't have a great deal of it yet. Mostly this leads to frustration. It's far better to pick a single pattern and by what is needed. You'll get better results and it will perform in the water as it was meant to. And you won't have to improvise while you are learning.

Go Big

Small flies can present problems. This is especially true for novices. One way to avoid the accompanying frustration is to go big at first.

Tie larger, easy to construct flies such as this wooly bugger when you first start out.

It's easier to tie patterns that are built on larger hooks. So, for your first few flies, choose relatively big patterns such as wooly buggers, bucktails or streamers. Then, tie them in the largest hook sizes that the patterns call for.

Once you've mastered the pattern in the largest size, tie it again in a smaller size. When you are comfortable with that, try it in a smaller size still. In the end, you'll have useful flies in a variety of sizes. Better still, you'll have made the transition to smaller flies less frustrating.

Practice Handling Thread

If you are going to tie flies, you need to know how to handle tying thread — it is the one material used on every fly.

To familiarize yourself with this, load a spool of 6/0 thread in a bobbin. Then start creating a thread base on a bare hook. Tie it so that each new wrap touches the other so that the hook's metal doesn't show beneath the thread base you've created. If you are like most newcomers, you'll break the thread a few times before you get figure out the tension you can exert on it. It won't take long, however, before you get the feel of it and that's half the battle.

Once you've got that down, practice half hitches, either with your fingers or by using the tip of a pen. Repeat until this useful knot becomes second nature; you will rely on it to cinch down material or end a step in a fly's construction.

Similarly, practice until you are proficient with your whip finishing tool. This tool is critical for the creation smaller, neater heads, which are another hallmark of good flies. It also allows you to work comfortably on smaller flies — the kind that your fingers are too big for.

Going Loopy

Fly tiers use three basic loops: soft loops, hard loops and dubbing loops. Each attaches material to the hook.

To create a hard loop, hold the material where you want it with your thumb and forefinger. Then, wrap the thread around it and the hook tightly to secure it in place. Most times, attaching feathers, fur or other materials requires several hard loops followed by a half hitch or whip finish to keep it all in place.

The soft loop is used when you want to attach material to the hook shank but might need to adjust its position it before cinching down. Essentially, you lay the material on the hook and wrap the thread around it once, until it is snug but not too tight. Next, you move the material into the best position and, once there, tighten the tension on the thread so it won't move (making it a hard loop). This loop is commonly used when spinning deer hair.

A dubbing loop is also commonly used to make more durable flies with dubbed bodies. To make one, you allow a loop to hang off the hook shank at the bend. Dubbing is placed within that loop and then the loop is twisted until all the dubbing is trapped within. Once this is done, the whole unit is wrapped forward on a hook shank until a dubbed body is formed.

Half hitches are easy when you use a pen tip.

Wrapping hackles

Hackles of one sort or another are used on the vast majority of dry flies and many important streamers and nymph patterns too. As in all fly tying, you'll get better results if you use the right material for the job. That means use dry fly hackles of the right size for dry fly patterns and the appropriate materials for wet flies, streamers and nymphs too.

Though there are different approaches depending on the pattern, all start with stripping part of the quill and tying it onto the hook. From there, you take hackle pliers and wrap in the direction the pattern calls for. New tyers almost always break a few hackle tips with their pliers before getting a feel for the right pressure to use when wrapping the hackle. So practice this until you are comfortable with it. Also, if the pattern calls for folding the feather, as many wet fly patterns do, give that a try.

Spinning deer hair

Spinning deer hair is a bit of an art. But the basics are easy.

Lay a clump of deer hair (typically the width of a pencil) against the shank of the hook, then secure it in the middle with a soft loop and, finally (when in place), cinch that loop up by exerting more tension. This pressure causes the each end of the deer hair to flare outwards around the hook. Then pack it in tightly against the last clump and tie more on until you've attached as much deer hair as needed.

Once in place, take a blade or scissors and trim it down to create the shape you need.
Of course, there are many more nuances to fly tying than those listed above. But if you master these fundamentals and follow pattern instructions to a tee, while striving to be meticulous and patient, you'll soon be tying flies that you're proud of.


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