Mastering the Art of Fly Tying: A Guide to Curating Fly Tying Materials

Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

Introduction: The Fly Tyer's Journey

In the beginning, a new fly tyer typically finds a recipe for a pattern he or she wishes to tie and follows it to the letter. During the years I spent clerking in a fly shop, and later running the fly tying department, customers would often come in with a very specific shopping list of materials needed for the fly they wished to tie.

The Challenge of Material Selection in Fly Tying

Of course no retailer of fly tying materials can possibly carry every product available, and if we did not have the particular item they wanted I would suggest a substitute that I thought would serve. Our regular patrons who knew me well would usually trust my advice, but others would have none of it.

Synthetic vs. Natural Materials: What’s Best for Your Fly?

Synthetic tying materials sold under a brand name are the ones most likely to trigger a “Nothing else will do!” response. Synthetic materials are generally far more consistent than natural materials, since they are produced by machinery rather than by nature. However, they can vary in some way or other from batch to batch. It’s not wise to fall in love with any product. A synthetic material can be changed or discontinued, and you will have to find a substitute anyway. Historically most natural materials have not been marketed by brand name, although that is changing to some extent. Branded genetic hackle is a common example.

Learning Through Experience: The Importance of Material Experimentation

The ability to assess the properties of various fly tying materials by sight is a valuable skill, but is based mostly on experience and intuition and is never perfect. You can’t be certain how a material will behave on a hook, or in the water, until you put it there. I have a large accumulation of items I purchased over the years that did not perform as expected. I store them by type and intended function, however, and every so often I am lucky enough to find exactly what I need when I go rummaging through my inventory.

Case Study: Finding the Perfect Yarn for Grannom Caddis Patterns

Recently a friend came to my house to tie up some flies for an upcoming trip she was planning-. She had asked me about Grannom caddis patterns. Although I don’t have a lot of experience with this hatch, I did a bit of research and found a dry fly pattern we both liked. It called for a particular brand of synthetic yarn as the wing material. My friend has a retirement job clerking in a nearby fly shop, and had hoped to find the material in question. She could not, and so she purchased a few likely substitutes. I dug through my supply of similar stuff, and got out several candidates. When we started tying, only one of the many products we tried had the correct texture and was close enough in color. In order to perform properly in this application the yarn had to be fairly coarse with a bit of kink in the fibers. And I could never have judged those properties by sight, since the 4-ply yarn I ultimately chose was twisted and wrapped on a card. I had to cut a length of it, separate out an individual ply and comb it out to guess what it would do when tied in.

Cream Variant dry fly

Evaluating Natural Materials: A Rookie’s Tale

Natural materials can be particularly difficult to judge by sight. Many years ago, when I was a rookie fly tyer, I ordered a cream-colored dry fly neck from the then-famous Herter’s mail-order company in Waseca, Minnesota. This was long before the advent of genetic hackle. I had been reading up on dry fly hackle, and knew that a good neck was supposed be shiny and have stiff fibers with little or no web. When my neck arrived I was thrilled to see that it had all of those qualities. I was so excited to sit down at my vise and tie a Cream Variant dry fly. I carefully chose a hackle with the proper fiber length and plucked it from the neck. But bitter disappointment awaited me. When I tried to wind the hackle it flopped over sideways with each turn, instead of wrapping cleanly with the fibers at 90-degrees to the hook shank. I got the same result with every feather I tried from this neck. Eventually I found out why. The feather stems of older roosters tend to become triangular in cross-section, so that as the hackle is wrapped around the hook the flat sides of the stem settle against the hook shank and the fibers splay out sideways. Modern genetic hackle has almost entirely eliminated this problem. But back then, for me, it was a valuable lesson hard-learned. The larger feathers on the neck did provide very nice dry fly tailing, so it was not a total loss.

Caddis Pupa

Thinking Outside the Box: Creative Material Choices

It’s very helpful to think creatively when choosing materials for a specific purpose you have in mind. Knowing the conventional wisdom is a fine thing. However, it’s also wise to be able to think outside of that box. A gentleman who was a member of my Trout Unlimited chapter once shared with me a caddis pupa pattern he had developed. This fly is a masterpiece of elegant simplicity. The rear portion of the body was olive dubbing to suggest the abdomen, with the front quarter of brown dubbing as a thorax. Some fibers were added on the underside of the hook to suggest legs. These fibers were a mottled brown shade, and they were exactly the right thickness. They also had a bit of stiffness so that they would not collapse against the body when fished in a current. I could not identify the material, so I asked Phil what it was. “Deer body hair,” he replied. It would never have occurred to me to use that material in that way. But when the tips were evened and tied in at the correct length they were not hollow and so did not flare to excess under thread pressure, nor were they buoyant. Perfect.

The Rarity of Suitable Deer and Elk Hair

Deer and elk hair that will be used for wings are among the trickiest materials to select. Once I find a patch of hair that works well for a particular application I store it a labeled bag and use it only for that purpose. It’s a sad day when it’s used up and I have to start the search for a replacement. It’s really not practical to use these hairs on hooks smaller than size 16. When properly proportioned to the hook most of the wing will consist of only the non-hollow tips of the hair and won’t float worth a darn. In this situation the hair tips that work so well as legs in the above-mentioned caddis pupa pattern become a liability.

Neversink Caddis

The Evolution of Fly Tying Materials

Recent decades have seen a vast expansion in the number of fly tying materials from which to choose. Fishing pressure has steadily increased too, and fish have generally become harder to fool. I believe that is what drives a lot of the innovation we are now seeing. Threads, hooks, and hackle have all been improved to a remarkable extent that no one who started tying in the late-1960’s, as I did, could have possibly imagined.

Embracing Minimalism in Fly Tying

I have a book written by a British gentleman and published just a year or so before genetic hackle first hit the market. He lamented that those darned Americans were snapping up so many of the best Indian capes that the quantity and quality of dry fly hackle reaching the UK had been greatly diminished. I wonder what he had to say about those pesky Yanks once he saw dry fly necks from Metz or Hoffman. Even their first-generation necks were an amazing improvement in quality.

Conclusion: The Endless Quest for the Perfect Material

After more than five decades of non-stop, avid fly fishing and tying I have accumulated a massive inventory of tying materials--which does not keep me from buying more. Ironically, my personal philosophy of tying is becoming more and more minimalist. But although I may put less on the hook I continue to engage in an admittedly compulsive, perpetual search for the ideal. For me, finding the perfect material for the task at hand is the true art of curating fly tying materials.

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