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How To Get Started With Fly Tying

Updated: May 2, 2023

All of the activities related to hunting and fishing for kitchen ingredients are satisfying. There is no doubt about that. Here, however, is a relatively simple way to level up that fulfillment even further! Tie your own flies!


Having a fish inhale a fly you tied yourself, and then bringing it to the net is a whole other thing. The feeling of pride, when you accomplish this feat, is very strong. That simple act of crafting a useful tool yourself brings so much pride to any activity, and this is no different. It really is hard to overstate this effect.


The other point I'd like to make within this article is that isn't as difficult as it looks to begin your fly-tying journey. Some basic tying tools and materials are all that it takes. We'll go over all of that here. My friend Melissa, while fly fishing with Kevin and me this summer, was able to tie up a fly right in camp after a quick lesson and demonstration! Here is that episode.

a cutthroat trout lies in a net in shallow water. A hand reaches towards it to remove the hook.
A large Cutthroat caught with an Mule Deer Hair Caddis that John tied himself. Photo by Kevin Kossowan

Luckily, the files that tend to be the most productive in my experience are also the ones that are the easiest to tie! The Elk Hair Caddis and Thread Frenchie are my absolute go-to's when it comes to fishing for trout in western Canada. Once you are proficient at tying these two flies, there are myriad tying recipes that now become available to you. Who knows what other flies may become your favourite in the future? So, let's start with the basics of what you will need to begin the off-season passion of fly-tying. Warning, some folks get to the point with tying that activity becomes more addictive than the fishing itself! It is incredibly fun to start with a hook, thread, feathers, and fur, and then end up with a lure to catch trout.


 


The Vise

This is the most important tool when it comes to fly tying. Almost every other aspect of tying could be accomplished without tools, but you need something to hold the bare hook steady while wrapping it in feathers and fur.


Fly-tying vises can be incredibly expensive. Here, in my opinion, is the consummate definition of you get what you pay for. Precisely engineered and solid CNC machined vises can be many hundreds of dollars. These vises are wonderful to use. They are solid and hold the small bare hook firmly. They have the ability to rotate with the fly in its jaws. This allows the tyer to see what they are accomplishing on the far side, or the underside of the fly as opposed to what is simply visible to them from the chair. I know I would love a vise like this if I owned one.

The old cabelas tying vice with a hook clamped. The forest, and Melissa, in the background
My ancient tying vice. In camp, tying what we need!

But, I don't. Instead, I own a vice that I bought from the Cabela's catalogue thirty years ago. This was a time when the Cabelas store was a distant, unseen monolith somewhere across a border. A shrine to hunting and fishing culture in N. America. It was almost a mythical place to me. A place that I one day hoped to be able to see in person, while on some sort of pilgrimage. Now, of course, these stores are everywhere. Nothing special really. It's too bad that more places like this don't exist anymore. But I digress.


The tying vise I own is a small, table-clamp affair. It operates simply and holds the hooks flimsily. It doesn't rotate. It barely works, but, it has been this way since I bought it, thousands of flies ago! I can't remember what I paid really. I want to say that it was under $100 in 1994 type money. The vise came as part of a kit. Included in the kit were the other tools that are terribly handy when it comes to tying. I see that they still sell this type of kit too. The price is different from under one hundred dollars. But of course, that doesn't surprise me with the price of things lately.


I really am unsure what my advice actually is in regards to a vise included in a kit. I've thought about what I would say to you. Perhaps later in this article, I'll come to a conclusion for you based on my experiences.


There is no question that buying a kit of materials to get started, for around $250 CAD is relatively affordable when someone is getting started. But I am going to warn you that the fit and finish of products made in countries where labour is undervalued and profits are over-valued is going to be suspect. You know this.

Melissa is wrapping dubbing around a hook in a vise. The forest and stream is in the background.
Melissa tying her own flies at Trout Camp!

Here is an option to consider. This "pocket vice" is available for about the same price as the Cabela's kit. I don't own it, nor do I have a vested interest in whether or not you do in the future. But it looks and sounds sturdy. It is made in Italy, for what that is worth to anyone reading this. The thing is though, that it is being sold by someone I trust. Nile Creek Fly Shop, and the owner Courtney. If Courtney is selling it, I believe that the quality is there.


Another source that I trust for fly fishing knowledge and honesty when it comes to products is Reid, the owner of Reid's Fly Shop here in Edmonton. I see that they carry a wide range of tying vises within an equally wide range of prices (and quality I assume). Here would be a good place to start with your research into kits and tying vise. Reid and Courtney both will give you the straight goods on selecting a starter kit for tying.


If I was beginning again? I think I would opt for a quality vise, and then acquire the separate materials and tools as I need them. A more expensive option, but you won't ever regret money spent on tools of quality in my experience.


 

"...you will need something to contain the various soft and fuzzy stuff that goes into tying your own flies"

 

The Rest of the Kit

Thread Bobbin - A simple device that holds a standard spool of thread. The clamp that holds the spool is a simple arrangement of spring-loaded arms.

A bobbin of fly tying thread on a cutting mat.

The thread leaves the spool and exits a tube. This device enables you to wrap the thread around a hook at very precise tensions and positions. I own several of these. They are inexpensive and it beats having to change spools all the time. I keep my most used threads permanently installed on dedicated bobbins.


Related to the bobbin is a bobbin threader. I lost my threader years ago and haven't replaced it. Mostly, I am able to simply thread the tube by hand. Your call here.


Scissors - Self-explanatory. Used for cutting the threads and tying materials at various stages of the fly completion. There are, of course, scissors that are better than others when it comes to this task. Small, precise, sharp. That is what you should be looking for here. They are available anywhere...hobby shops, etc.


Fly tying hair stacker made from stainless steel. The bobbin of thread is behind it on the cutting mat. There are scraps of leather laying about.

Hair Stacker - The magical tube within a tube! This is actually a critical piece of kit when it comes to tying flies. The hair stacker takes a clump of deer hair or elk hair that you've cut and then aligns all of the tips of the hair so that they are level and neat.


Stacking the hairs transforms flies into works of art and effective trout-catching implements. I don't know how you would tie flies without one of these. Luckily, similar to the scissors, it doesn't really matter about the quality of the stacker. I am sure that there are stackers out there that are obnoxiously overpriced. For what we are doing here, any old stacker will work just fine.

a deer hair caddis fly sitting in the tying vise.
Perfectly stacked deer hair on a Caddis imitation.


This is the basic list of items that are absolutely necessary for tying flies. Not too bad, right? There are a few other items that most people will tell you you need. A whip finisher for instance. This tool ties a noose knot around the head of the fly as the fly is finished. Once the knot is tied, the thread can be cut and the fly is complete. I haven't used a whipping tool in years. I simply tie a series of half hitches by hand and then clip the thread. Once the Head Cement has cured, the manner with which the knots have been tied is irrelevant. My flies are as durable, and perhaps even more durable, than most flies I've bought over the years. So, I will put the whip finisher in the category of "optional" when it comes to gear to get started in tying. Another optional, but handy tool is a set of hackle pliers, but again, I do the hackle wrapping by hand with few issues. You'll get to know what hackles are as you progress with the hobby.

 

What Are Fly Recipes?

All flies start out as recipes. Below is the recipe for a version of the famous Thread Frenchie:

  • Hook: Umpqua XC400BL-BN - 16

  • Hook (alt): Hanak H 400 BL Jig Hook - 16

  • Thread: UTC Ultrathread 70 Denier - Olive

  • Bead: Hareline Slotted Tungsten Beads - Gold - 3/32" (2.3mm)

  • Tail: Pheasant tail

  • Ribbing: Semperfli Tying Wire - 0.2 - March Brown

  • Hot Spot: Ice Dub - UV Pink

Now, the recipe doesn't necessarily tell you how exactly to tie the fly. But a picture of the fly along with experience in how to "layer" fly tying materials on a hook, combined with this recipe will let me tie it. Additionally, the recipe will allow me to gather the materials I need to tie this particular fly. This fly by the way is a killer here in the streams of western Canada!


This leads me to another warning about fly tying...materials.


Over time, you will start to collect various materials. I am here to tell you that there are many different types and kinds of feathers, furs, dubbing, threads, beads, rubber tubes and strips, hairs, and fabrics. You only need a bit of anything in particular to tie a handful of flies. The rest of the growing pile of materials will need a place to live. A large suitcase is my suggestion. I absconded with my daughter's zebra pattern makeup case a while ago (with her permission of course). It has served me well. As far as makeup cases go, it is huge. But, it isn't big enough. Do you remember the suitcase that George picked up from the store in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life"? That is the size I am talking about. Unless you have a dedicated 'outdoors cave', you will need something to contain the various soft and fuzzy stuff that goes into tying your own flies.



A woman wearing glasses takes notes on fly tying. A dry fly lays on her notebook.
Friend Melissa after a fly tying lesson at camp during a fly fishing trip! The vise was so worthwhile to bring with me on the motorbike!

 

One last comment about the vise selection.


While it is nice to have a dedicated, heavy vise that sits on your tying bench at home, it is even nicer to have a vise to bring with you on trips. There have been several occasions now that I am grateful that I brought along the zebra-print case filled with materials, hooks, and a small vise. So I think I suggest that you spend some decent money on a well-built mobile vise. Simply having a vise with you streamside creates memories you wouldn't have with the vise sitting on your bench at home.


So there you have it. The very basics for getting your start in the world of fly tying. Once you learn how to tie flies, there will be no going back. It is a wonderful pastime in and of itself and adds completely to the whole experience of fly fishing.


If you ever have any questions about this or anything else I've discussed, please do not hesitate to contact me here. I'll get back to you quickly. Also, shoot me a message if you have ideas for future topics I should cover! Cheers!


If you are in Alberta at some point this summer and you'd like to take our Fly Fishing 101 course, please have a look at the dates for the various courses. Here's the link for our courses and events!


John is holding a cutthroat trout. He is kneeling in the stream and is wearing a blue t-shirt and a red bandana.
John with a Cutthroat Trout caught on a hand-tied fly from a mountain stream. There's some good eating right there! Photo by Kevin Kossowan







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