10 Things No One Will Tell You When You Start Tying Flies

Guest Blogger: John Satkowski, Toledo, OH, fly tying demonstrator and instructor, you can find him @ River Raisin Fly Company on Facebook

1. Everyone you talk to about tying is an expert and you should do things the way they tell you. Now granted, there are some people you should listen to. The hot guys in the tying game now like Mike Schmidt, Greg Senyo, Blane Chocklett, and Charlie Craven are people you should be listening to. They will give you good advice that a beginner to seasoned tyer can use to increase their skill. Uncle Bob’s buddy who tied a handful of flies in 1976 is not always an accurate point of view for you to learn from. Over the years, I have heard my fair share of questions such as,”Why don’t you do it this way” or “Why don’t you use this material?” Sometimes sharing ideas is good and gives you a fresh point of view but you should take suggestions with a grain of salt.
2. You always have to use the newest and coolest materials in your flies. There have been a huge surge of really awesome materials that have come out in the past five years alone. Lots of new lighter synthetic materials that don’t hold water and make casting much easier, new adhesive and UV resins, and a lot of body materials that just keep getting more realistic all can make tying much faster and easier. Ripple Ice Fiber and the Loon Outdoors D-Loop tweezers are among my personal favorite things to use since they came out. Every tyer has their favorite materials and this is usually evident by looking at a large sample of their flies. My flies usually incorporate some barred marabou, ripple ice fiber, angora goat, and the long cut fiber ice dub. Many different patterns can be constructed using different variations of the same materials. Use the materials that you are comfortable with and have had success with in the past. You can always try some new materials and see which ones you like to work with and work for you.


3. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but its freedom also allows anybody to make a tying video. This kind of goes along with number one but it’s slightly different with the Internet and various social media sites. Social media apps like Facebook and Instagram allow people to share whatever they feel like, sometimes the information is less than accurate. For the most part, people are just trying to get their stuff out there or promote their tying but there are quite a few people posing as professionals that you have to watch out for. It’s sometimes best to do a little investigation before you take anyone’s advice and see what their credentials tell you. You must spray all your materials with some sort of Static Guard or wipe materials down with fabric softener sheets before you tie and you can only tie well on a balanced rotary vise are some of the more absurd things that I have seen driving down the information highway.
4. Tying your own flies will save you money…….NOT!!! If you do some fly fishing and tying and generally only use a handful of patterns, you might actually save money. For the rest of us who do a lot of tying, we are a lost cause and will never save money tying flies. As a commercial tyer, I have to present patterns in multiple sizes and multiple color schemes. That means I have to have a lot of different colors of materials and a lot of different hooks and hook sizes on hand. Lots of prototypes are tied and then retied to reflect changes to make the pattern better, so I go through a fair amount of materials. If you just want to go down to the local river with a handful of flies and catch some fish, it could be worth your while to get some basic materials and tie up some flies. Let’s say you want to tie some crystal buggers, which catches about anything, and you go to your local tying supply store and pick up some materials to tie with. I calculated about $26.00 worth of materials to tie 25-30 buggers which is cheaper than the $2.00 a piece for a commercially sold fly were you to buy that many. I did not factor the vise or tools in for the price, I figured those were a given in this case. The part where your budget gets blown up is articulated flies with some premium materials and hardware. Synthetic materials can be pricey depending on the material and if you are tying with certain feathers or premium materials you get into big bucks. Even though most of us have way too many fly tying stuff packed into every crevice of a room in our house, time spent on the vise is relaxing and peaceful. You just have to watch you’re spending on tying materials before you turn your kid’s college fund into schlappen and polar chenille.
5. You have to spend big money on a full rotary vise with all the bells and whistles. There are a lot of different kinds of vises and generally you do get what you pay for. It also depends on how and what you are tying. I am notorious for doing demonstrations and talks with a cheap $20.00 vise that I have had for years. I don’t really care what people think because I still have to buy my own vises and I use what works for me. The jaws hold really well and it still works well after eight years. I honestly don’t even use the rotary function anyway because I feel like I have more control with my hands and can get better wraps of materials that way. I do have a couple really nice Wolff Vises that I use as well for certain flies and sizes of hooks. A good vise should incorporate several things: be able to tie a wide range of hooks, hold hooks securely, and is very durable. I also tend to use a cheaper vise for tying realistic flies because I am not heartbroken when I get some varnish, etc. on the jaws. There certainly are many brands and kinds of vises around, just use what is most comfortable to you and works best for your needs.
6. Modern streamer flies have to have tons of different materials and multiple hooks. A lot of the flies I tie are articulated and some of them have more than three or four materials on them. These are the flies I am used to tying and the species I target generally require larger flies and a little more movement than traditional streamers. So-called “meat” flies have become especially popular for predatory fish such as brown and rainbow trout, northern pike, and muskies. My point of view is that more than a couple materials are okay as long as they each serve a purpose. Packing a ton of materials on a hook doesn’t really make sense unless they each serve some sort of purpose. I often employ a method of making collars and bodies using a technique I call “sandwich loop” dubbing. The idea is that the first layer and last layer of the dubbing loop is the same material, and then it is filled in with the “meat” materials sandwiched in the middle. The top and bottom later act almost like Velcro and stick to each other making the dubbing loop much more manageable. It is very similar to a composite loop but with different materials. The “sandwich loop” may have a number of materials in it, but once spun in a loop and laid sparse enough they are able to breath and move as one. This is much different than three materials for the wing or tail on a streamer. Also, a heavily-dressed streamer fly has more materials to be caught by the water which can yield great movement on the fly. It can also make the fly stay up in the water column and not able to get down to where the big boys live as quickly. Sometimes sparser tied flies don’t catch as much current and can slip down in the bottom third of the water column and be noticed quicker by the fish. I started tying my Sex Dungeons slimmer and slimmer and was able to pick up more hits by tying them a touch different. The number of hooks is up to the tier and what they want to imitate or achieve. Materials and number of hooks will dictate how the fly swims and at what depth. Sometimes a big, active fly is what the fish want, sometimes not. The Clouser streamer is a perfect case study to look at, it is generally tied very sparse and with very few materials but it consistently produces. It would be in an angler’s best interest to have some big boy streamers in their box, but some smaller or sparser flies as well.
7. The truth about what thread to use with what fly. I still get a lot of questions about what thread weight to use with what kind of fly. There is no absolute answer but these general guidelines are pretty good to follow and will help you along. Thread is weighted by two standards, the “aught” and “denier” systems. These 2 systems are usually separated by brand of thread. The chart below can be used to get a good idea of what thread to use with what kinds of flies. Most of the time I use 6/0 or 140 denier, if I am using dubbing loops with some stiffer materials I will double the thread in the loop. I don’t tie a whole bunch of deer hair bugs exclusively, but I will tie streamers with deer hair heads. There are a lot of threads for spinning deer hair, I tend to use gel spun thread over Kevlar because the gel spun will not cut the hair. The slipperier the thread, the more the hair will spin for you. As I stated earlier, these are more rules of thumb rather than fact. I tend to use 140 denier or 6/0 thread for just about everything since I don’t tie many dry flies, it’s a good utility thread for all sorts of flies.

Thread Size

Kind of Flies/Technique

14/0 or 32 denier

Midges, emergers, sz. 18-30 hooks

8/0 or 70 denier

Nymphs, dry flies sz. 10-16

6/0 or 140 denier

Large nymphs, large dry flies, streamers

3/0 or 210 denier

Pike, Bass, Deer hair bugs, saltwater

280 denier

Anything else

 

8. You will tie lots of ugly flies, Lots of Them!! I still remember when I was young and got my first fly tying kit that came with an instruction book with ten flies to learn from. The first pattern in the book I attempted was a black ant. I did what every new tyer does and put way too much dub on the thread and it turned out to be a bulky mess hackled with an oversized saddle hackle. I have never seen anyone just jump on a vise for the first time and tie a fly that looks decent. It really is something you have to work at and never stop learning about. You will tie probably close to 100 flies before they start to have the right shape, proportion, and amount of materials. The biggest thing is you can’t get frustrated, you just have to keep at it. If you just can’t get the hang of it, stop by your local fly shop and ask or watch some how-to videos. Jack Dennis has a bunch of great videos on how to tie many different patterns, as well as, Chris Helm. Keep at it and I promise you will start to see success eventually.
9. There are no magical fly patterns….. I think at some point every commercial tyer thinks they have just tied the one fly that will work everywhere and anytime, I know I did. The problem with that is it just does not exist. I’ve had days where I come up with a streamer fly that I think will match the conditions fairly well and I will absolutely smash the fish on it one day and go back the next day with similar conditions and catch one fish on it. Streamers are a percentage game in my mind, if a particular pattern works 75% of the time I am pretty happy with it. You may even get a higher percentage than that and that is a special pattern. I also observe how the fish reacts to the fly. Sometimes that tells you more than if they hit it. If you are getting a lot of follows but not hits, there may be an element on the fly that is not sealing the deal or your retrieve may need to be altered. Once you tie a fly and watch how it swims, that’s step one. You have to then let the fish tell you how they like it. A fish inhaling the fly whole or just nipping at the tail should tell you something.
10. Know your feathers and know your bugs. Entomology certainly is a big part of fly fishing but you don’t need to know every Latin word for every part of the insect. Knowing the pronotum is the top segment of a grasshopper will not help you catch more fish or look cooler in the river. Kidding aside, knowing some information about the insects and hatches will make you a better and more knowledgeable fisherman. Knowing hatching times, how certain insects behave, and the appearance/size of aquatic insects will make you more efficient and productive on the water. Knowing the difference between a Drunella flavilinea and Ephemerella subvaria could save the day from a visit from the skunk fairy. The same thing can be said of all the glorious feathers we lash onto hooks. I was doing a demo and I had a guy come up to me and say with a very stern, serious face, “What in the hell is a filoplume?” I had a pheasant skin in my bag so I showed him what they were and where to find them but I had to chuckle at the situation. We use all these fancy words to describe a weird fluffy down feather on the base of the calamus. See what I did there, all those fun words to describe a feather. We have grizzly, furnace, cree, badger, covert, secondary, olive variant, cream, and tippets. I am almost certain Cul de Canard means “fluffy duck butt” in French. Knowing these will help you decipher recipes that you may have found for patterns or just figuring out what the old guys in the fly shop are talking about.

Hopefully, these rules help you out in your tying. There are many more things that you will pick up along your journey of fly tying. The Romans were the first people to lash feathers onto a hook to attract fish which makes me wonder, were they also the first people to curse and throw their bobbin across the room after breaking their thread?

9 thoughts on “10 Things No One Will Tell You When You Start Tying Flies

  1. Gary Moss

    Books! Don’t forget the books. I have been tying for 50 years and have collected more than a book a year, plus more books on fly fishing that include patterns. A lot of words I might never read. Even an encyclopedia of everything fly tying – but I love it all. Now there are YouTube videos that require even more materials.
    You have described the illness and the cure. And part of the cure is the enjoyment of a wonderful craft.

    Reply
  2. Michael Vorhis

    The main point of tying flies is catching fish ONLY if you want it to be the main point. In truth, fly tying stands tall as a hobby all its own. It feeds a related hobby of catching fish. It’s great to do both but neither one requires the other. it’s the same as rod-building in that respect.

    If the point of tying flies to you is the fun of tying flies, however slowly or uniquely or inefficiently or individually you may do it, then that’s the point. We are each the final judge of how we do it and whether we’re good at it. The real key is just to love it.

    – Mike

    Reply
  3. John Satkowski

    So so true, it’s an art, an expression, a tool, and most of all the most self-satisfying activity you can do, we’ll I mean besides catching fish lol yeah I agree with the books, I feel like a young child only looking at the photos and ignoring the words…..thank you Jim, and tight lines to all, the world is a crazy place right now, get in a comfy chair and tie up some beauties to go fish with…….your soul needs it….

    Reply
  4. Robert Nelson

    For me one of the great things about fly tying is that I can still do it after my fishing has become limited. At 75, I don’t wade as deep as I used to, and I don’t hike as far as I once did, but I tie better than I ever did. I tie for Casting for Recovery, for family and friends and I still have a few “secret spots” I can manage. Fly tying has brought me over 65 years of enjoyment.

    Reply

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