Fly Tying Room

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

Maybe you’re one of those hard-core types who fly fishes all winter. Or perhaps you have the means and opportunity to travel, and pursue your fishing in warmer climes. If not, by the time December rolls around you have most likely packed up your gear until spring. 


If you’re a fly tyer, however, you have a delightful alternative focus to see you through the bleak winter months. I tie according to need the year around, but once the winter holidays have come and gone serious fly tying season gets under way. I enjoy the process of going over my tools and materials, putting them in order and re-stocking essential items I’ve run short of. A visit to my local fly shop is a fine way to spend some time on a cold winter afternoon. Fly tying catalogs and websites also offer a delightful combination of inspiration and temptation. So I usually indulge myself and choose some tantalizing new materials, hooks, or tools. 

Fly Tying Room
Fly tying room of Robert Littlejohn

Fly Tying Through the Winter

With my purchases in hand, it’s play time.  I can’t wait to start exploring the exciting possibilities these new acquisitions present. I’m always hoping to strike gold and come up with a great new pattern that’s destined to work wonderfully well.  That’s the holy grail of fly tying, and it does happen occasionally. But honestly, most of these flights of fancy wind up merely taking up space in my fly boxes. They become “desperation flies,” only to see the water after all the more likely choices have come up short.


Occasionally one of these flies redeems itself by being the only thing that works on a given day. That doesn’t mean that this performance will be repeated often or ever. So no matter how spectacular the results, I try to resist the impulse to immediately tie up scads of them.  Everything works sometimes, nothing works all the time. And you do get one-hit-wonders. 


I have several large stock boxes of various flies that didn’t make the cut for a spot in my working boxes. I should ruthlessly take a window scraper blade to these rejects so that the hooks can be recycled, but I never seem to get around to doing it. I’m too cheap to throw the hooks away and too lazy to do what’s necessary to recycle them. It’s so much easier to just get out a new one.


Getting Productive at the Bench

Once I’ve satisfied my desire to play, it’s time to settle down and get to work on stocking my fly boxes with the reliable workhorse patterns I depend on year in and out. Not that this list is set in stone.  New patterns regularly make their way into my working fly boxes, displacing former occupants that have fallen out of favor.  But I have to start somewhere. The empty spots in my working boxes remind me what I should tie first. Hopefully I’ve not been careless enough to let the supply of anything important go to zero. In that case, I’m in for some head-scratching.  What was in this empty spot?


I try to spend my bench time wisely, and to be somewhat disciplined about the process of restocking my fly boxes. Some useful lessons can be learned from the world of commercial fly tying. I’ve had just enough exposure to that world to know that it’s not for me. I feel that it makes drudgery of a pursuit that should be relaxing and fun. Yet the limited amount of commercial tying I’ve done has taught me a few tricks that make it easier and more efficient to produce the flies I need for my own use and to share with friends.


The first step in the process is to make a prioritized list of the patterns and sizes I want to tie. The flies I know I’m likely to use often get tied in batches of at least a dozen at a time. It takes a fair amount of time and effort to gather all of the materials necessary for a particular pattern, and once that’s done it pays to tie enough of them to make it worthwhile.  I also find that I don’t really get the cobwebs dusted off technique and proportions for a given pattern and size until I’ve tied several of them. Now the fish won’t care if proportions are a bit off or workmanship less than flawless. I must confess, however, to being somewhat obsessive about these things. I keep that scraper blade handy on my desktop, and use it immediately on any fly I’m not satisfied with. This practice has been very helpful in reducing further additions to my collection of rejects. 


The easiest thing to do is to tie a fly that will catch fish. When I teach fly tying I always try to offer some encouragement when a student asks my opinion of their work.  Sometimes they’ve done such a good job that I find little if anything to critique. If not, I’ll offer suggestions for improvement. If the fly is very poorly tied, my favorite comment has always been, “It will definitely catch fish.” Which is true.  No matter how ugly a fly may be, if you show it to enough fish you’ll find one that will try to eat it. Sometimes ugly flies work even better than pretty ones. 


Pro Tips for Winter Fly Tying

As for the pro tips for tying efficiently, there are some that I employ and others I don’t bother with. Perhaps the most common one is that you should carry the scissors in your hand at all times while tying rather than waste time and motion putting them down and picking them up again. I’ve heard this truism from so many respected professionals that I felt I had to give it a fair trial. I have no gripe with those who like to do this, but I find it awkward and uncomfortable. I have the habit of always setting my scissors down in a certain spot just to the right of my vise.  I put them there and reach down to pick them up again without looking or thinking about it. There’s a middle ground here.  You should ask yourself, as a recreational tyer how fast do I need to go? That’s very much a personal decision.


I do prepare materials in advance. If I’m tying Woolly Buggers, for example, I’ll set out a dozen de-barbed #8 3XL hooks (with bead heads or other weights installed, if I’m using them), pre-measured lengths of chenille, and pre-selected hackle feathers and marabou plumes. I may even clean the waste off the butt ends of the feathers. This kind of prep work can be done for most fly patterns.  The actual tying then goes remarkably quickly.


If you have the time and interest to do it, you can stockpile a lot of flies over the winter.  It’s best not to mass-produce unproven patterns before testing them on-stream. But there’s a lot of satisfaction in filling up a stock box with the fruits of your labor and then refilling your working boxes so that they’re ready for fishing season. Each fly you tie holds a world of promise. You never know which of them will connect you to a memorable fish.  Tight threads and tight lines to all!

1 comment

Kevin Brugman

Kevin Brugman

The author talks about tying a dozen of the same flies. I would suggest adding a bunch more and giving them to a valid charity of your choice, Casting for Recovery, the Mayfly project, Healing Waters, or Wounded Warriors to name a just a few and there are other equally valid local fly fishing charity opportunities. This does at least two things, the most obvious being helping the charity and (selfishly) greatly improving your fly tying skills.

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