Fly Tying Do’s and Don’ts for Newbies

Guest Blogger: Jeremy Anderson is an amateur fly tyer and professional Creative Director at an advertising agency in Nashville, Tennessee. He lives with his wife and two boys in a log cabin by the Harpeth River. You can find Jeremy @hacklejob

Getting into fly fishing and tying my own flies may just be the only New Year’s resolution that I’ve actually stuck out. I currently have 25,674 unread emails and a dad bod and I’m okay with that. I’ve found something that brings me more life than clearing out my inbox or working on the elusive six pack.

There’s nothing like catching a gorgeous fish on a fly that you tied. That said, there are a few things I learned as a newcomer to tying, so if I can spare you any moments of frustration, buyer’s remorse or feelings of futility by sharing them with you, I’m all for it.

Don’t breeze past the basics.

I wish I had practiced the heck out of doing proper pinch wraps, making tight dubbing noodles and tapered abdomens, winding hackle correctly, getting the right amount thread tension and wraps, not crowding the eye and other essential fly tying techniques before I started tackling so many different fly patterns. Until I got the basics down, my flies stayed in the “nice try” category. Once I started analyzing what didn’t look or feel quite right about my flies or how I tied them compared to the book or tutorial video I was following, I made notes on what to do better the next time—and each subsequent fly improved.

Accept the fact that unless you are an exception, your early flies and first tries at new patterns are going to leave something to be desired. Stay with it, knowing you WILL get better!

Don’t be cheap.

The EZ Rotary Vise is a quality affordable option.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being frugal, but the old adage, “If you buy cheap, you buy twice” certainly applies. It may sound wise to start with a cheap vise and materials to “try it out,” but here’s the thing: you’re more likely to get frustrated and quit if your materials and tools are subpar. Also, you will outgrow anything in the “starter” category a LOT faster than you’d think. Your first vise doesn’t need to be a Regal or a Stonfo, but definitely go for a solid rotary vise, preferably with a heavy base unless you are okay with clamping one onto your tying desk. Also, quality tools make tying more enjoyable. Sharp, fine tip tying scissors are a must, and I can’t recommend bobbins with adjustable tension enough—they will help you avoid losing your mind from breaking your 12/0 thread for the fourth time on the same fly. I’m a huge fan of the Stonfo Elite disk drag bobbin.

Do yourself a favor and just go straight to Whiting Farms Hackle.

I’ve tried to pinch pennies and have bought other brands and types of hackle like cheaper Indian capes, and trust me—Whiting capes are the way to go. Nothing else compares to their quality. It’s especially important when you’re new to tying to have quality hackle with long quills and stiff barbs so you can master wrapping hackle properly. I wish I had started with Whiting. And by all means, get yourself a hackle gauge—nothing ruins an otherwise good fly faster than wrong-sized hackle.

The Whiting Introductory Hackle Pack is a huge money saver, giving you feathers in the most common colors and a wide range of sizes. They come in 4 half rooster capes for dry flies and wooly buggers or 4 half hen capes for soft hackle and wet flies (and sometimes you can get 2 rooster / 2 hen packs).

Treat fly tying as a hobby in its own right.

There is nothing utilitarian about fly fishing or tying flies. You’re not going to save money, time, space in your closet or anything else by taking this up. I originally thought, “I’m just going to stick to a few tried-and-true patterns and only tie what I need for my fly box.” Nope. You are going to become completely and utterly obsessed with learning about different hatches, tying new patterns, perfecting techniques, trying out new materials and tools and sharing it all on Instagram.

Be sure to keep it fun. Don’t tie tired, angry or bored—it’s going to show up in your flies or worse, burn you out. I’ve had times when I’ve sat down perfectly happy at the vise, but broke off repeatedly or sent deer hair flying around the room so many times that I just had to walk away and try again another day. It’s also a good idea to have a plan before you start a tying session. At least for me, if I don’t, I end up either staring blankly at my materials or searching for inspiration the whole time.

My tying desk is still my happy place. Here’s a photo from the early days. It’s a bit fuller now. 😉

Join the tying community.

Speaking of inspiration, be sure to follow the J. Stockard Pro Tyers on Instagram and YouTube. I constantly learn so much from their tutorials and amazing work. Also, glean from the how-to videos of legends like Davie McPhail, Barry Ord Clarke and Tim Flagler. Tom Rosenbauer and Mike Mercer have also written some fantastic tying guides. As wonderful as a virtual tying community can be, see if there are any fly tying clubs or workshops in your area as well to help you pick up new ideas and techniques.

I hope you enjoy tying and fishing your own flies as much as I do and get encouraged by every step you take toward producing flies you’re proud of. Even if it takes a while, remember this: fish aren’t nearly as critical as we are.

7 thoughts on “Fly Tying Do’s and Don’ts for Newbies

  1. Jerry Caraviotis

    All great comments Jeremy. I have been tying for over a decade, mostly for the salt on the Texas Coast.
    For me, fly tying your own flies is a blast, and really a big part of the fly fishing experience.
    Keep on tying!

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Anderson

      Thanks, Jerry. Man, I love saltwater fly fishing! Only done it once, but fighting snook in the surf was a lot of fun! Reds are tarpon are next on my list. I wholeheartedly agree–tying is such a huge part of the experience. Thanks for reading and adding your thoughts!

      Reply
  2. Michael J Vorhis

    I appreciate the spirit of the points you make Jeremy. Myself, I also really enjoy seeing what can be done with lesser (even “found”) materials–the creativity muscle tones up nicely when one lets one’s mind consider those options. And I notice that while one kind of hackle has significant uniformity and significant strengths, there are still definitely things other hackle does better–for example hackle that has barbs which are less stiff, or hackle with a thicker stem, or even small bargain “Indian” necks. Also some hackle suppliers are better at adhering to the true universal meaning of a color than others (“Cree” vs. “Barred Ginger” vs. “Grizzly” vs. variants vs. whatever), which can be really important when ordering necks sight-unseen online. In my mind, every feather-hawker brings something excellent to the party.

    There’s one more aspect to tying that thrills me, although this is a personality thing and many will consider it heresy (although just as many will swear by it), and that is: The practice of making up patterns as one goes. If fooling a beautiful wild fish on a fly we tied is a big thrill, then fooling the same fish on a fly we not only tied but dreamed up out of our heads is double that. Yes, there’s plenty of hit-and-miss with this practice, but nothing ventured….

    I’m a thousand percent with you on the obsessive aspect and the “tying is a hobby unto itself” thing. And also I think tying *IS* fishing; while I’m winding that hackle or that tiny wire, my mind is actively drifting it at that very moment in the stream.

    Tie one on! Thanks for a good article.

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Anderson

      Absolutely, Mike. I agree with you 100%. Love that visual of your mind drifting in the stream while you’re tying. Great addition on the different types of hackle–I have a Metz cape in dark barred olive that I absolutely love for buggers and streamers, and Indian capes and others certainly have their place. And catching fish on your own heretical pattern really is a thrill. 😉 I’d love to see some of your foraged material flies!

      Reply
      1. Michael Vorhis

        Hi Jeremy, most of my “finds” are different kinds of fuzz suitable for dubbing in some shade or other that I don’t have in the kit…but now and then I’ll come upon something intended for an entirely different purpose and use it to represent scaley skin or antennae or ribbing or a bulbous head. A small bit of very thin drinking straw on part of a long-shank hook can make a real nice “case” of a cased caddis worm, for example, if you then oil-paint it to look like a bit of stick. Or an obvious one is glass beads for a lighter-than-brass head–they come in unusual translucent colors (although you have to get them over the barb and then NOT over the hook eye, so sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, depending on the hook). Long guard hairs from a big neighbor’s dog makes beautiful streamer hair. Cream-colored foam from a foam kitchen-cleaning brush for an extended body (since cream-colored foam is so hard to find). Stuff like that.

        Once or twice I even saved a pinch or two of clippings from my own haircuts to mix into dubbing for a spikey nymph look, but that got less and less “frequent” around the same era my hair got less and less “frequent.”

        The experimentation doubles the tying fun for me, not to mention if one of the results happens to fool trout. But yes, on the other side of that coin, long ago I spent a couple years using materials I’d probably not use now. I guess that effort wasn’t wasted because I can look at something now and know whether it’s likely to work or not…but of those flies, there’s only one left that I’d tie on.

        A great topic! Thanks.

        – Mike

        Reply
  3. Paul

    Nice post. I’m just beginning but I have always want to learn. Only recently learned to fly fish so I understand persistence with a healthy dose of patience. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Anderson

      Thanks, Paul! Yes, patience is a pre-requisite, but the rewards far outweigh the effort. Good luck with your tying and holler with any questions.

      Reply

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