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Fly Tying 101 - How to Get Started in Fly Tying

Fly tying is a wonderful hobby and one that will help make you a better fly angler. I cover a lot of why you should - and should not - tie your own flies in a previous post (So you want to start tying flies). I gave my thoughts on how to choose a vice and linked to others' suggestions. And I provided a tool set that would get you started. And I talked about building skills rather than worrying about fly patterns and that is where I want to go a little further with in this post. That was all some time ago - but it is once again, fly tying season and tying is a great way to make a winter pass faster.

I have certainly written some of this before in different ways - but to put it all in one place...why tie flies? I think the best answer is that tying flies makes you a better, more observant fly angler.

Fly Tying Basics

Every fly has a few things in common. While there is a massive amount of variation in how flies are tied, the basics are pretty simple. The thread gets started, materials are applied to the hook shank, and the fly gets finished with a knot (or glue/epoxy). I suppose some flies are not even that complicated as their bodies are just thread - zebra midges, peridigons, and others.

Think of it a bit like learning a musical instrument, understand that you will suck at first. And some people that are simply going to pick it up faster than others. I picked up fly tying pretty quickly - though it was a lot of practice and my early flies were not necessarily very pretty. I have tried to pick up an instrument a few times but am afraid I have a tin ear and an instrument has never "taken". Start simple and move to the more complex. Learn a sense of proportion (read Charlie Craven's blog post on proportions - it's really good!) - then take that to the big ass streamers, spring creek dry flies, or whatever got you into fly tying. A two material fly - like the foam beetle above - will catch fish anywhere you go. Flies do not need to be complex to be effective. In fact, many of my favorite flies are simple and my #1 fly, Hans Weilenmann's CDC and Elk uses but two materials (thread does not count...). I have probably caught more fish on that fly than any other fly and it is probably not all that close.

The Venerable Woolly Bugger

Let's start with a fly pattern - a recipe for the fly. As I am sure I wrote about elsewhere, fly tying is like cooking, not baking. Tyers learn to substitute materials and find ways to customize their flies for their uses. There is no better example of this than the venerable woolly bugger. There is no one correct way to tie a Woolly Bugger and there are tons of variations on the bugger theme.

I would venture a guess that most people that have tied a fly, have tied a woolly bugger. And there is a reason that the woolly bugger is the first fly that most people learn to tie - it teaches you so many of the basics that you will apply to other flies.

Woolly Bugger (Links in the pattern help describe the materials)

Hook: Typically a 2 to 4 extra long-shank wet fly / streamer hook

Thread: 3/0 or 6/0 or 100 to 200 denier, color to match body

Weight: Bead and / or non-lead wire underbody

Tail: Marabou (color of your choice) and a couple of strands of Krystal Flash (optional)

Rib: Metal Wire - color of your choice

Body: Chenille (standard) but I prefer a dubbed body

Hackle: Rooster or hen saddle hackle or Schlappen

There are about a billion different ways to tie a Woolly Bugger - none are necessarily right or wrong. However Cheech's method in the video above is more right than most. Tie for awhile and you will develop these strong opinions too. My opinions come from a particular point of view - I like simple flies that are near bulletproof that have a certain aesthetic. If I have a criticism of that tie, I would put weight in it to help it sink faster since it is a fly I am nearly always going to fish deeply. A bead will make it "jiggier" or a non-lead wire underbody will make it sink a little faster but help keep the fly level in the water. Combining a bead and some lead wire and you will get a fly that is a bit less jiggy but is heavier and will sink faster.

I start with the Woolly Bugger as it teaches so many important lessons in one simple fly. And from this simple fly, we can use those lessons to tie a wide variety of different flies. The first bit of tying is something tyers take for granted - starting the thread which is simply a jam knot (thread is wrapped over the tag end to secure the thread to the hook). Next is securing the tail to the hook which we do through a pinch wrap.

Most materials are applied by a pinch wrap. It is probably the single most important method you will learn. With time and experience, you will figure out how thread pressure and the angle of the thread relative to the material will allow you to be more precise in your material placement. Once we have our marabou tail and flash (optional) secured, it is time to create a smooth underbody with your thread.

Smooth underbodies
Smooth underbodies will make for better flies. Take your time to get the foundation right, it pays dividends later.

Start with a lumpy, bumpy underbody; you are going to finish with a lumpy, bumpy fly. Does that really matter to the fish, maybe not. But if you want to become a better tyer, you need to have a critical eye, some attention to detail, and a desire to make every fly better than the previous one. It probably does not matter so much on a bugger but later when you start tying flies with quill bodies, every little inconsistency will show in the final fly.

Our next step in our Woolly Bugger is to add the rib, which we do through another pinch wrap. I start my rib near the head of the fly and secure it along the length of the hook shank for a tougher fly. I probably even bend the wire back towards the bend after securing it and giving at least a few wraps over the doubled-over wire to make the fly even more bulletproof. I probably add a bit of superglue here to be very sure the rib is secured - though that is probably quite unnecessary. Typically, I like to put the wire rib either one side of the hook, rather than the top.

And once this is complete, it is time to create the body. This is where you tons of options. The standard WB uses a chenille body but there are not rules telling you that is what you have to use. If you use chenille, put a bit off near the end to expose the thread core and use a pinch wrap to secure it. That pinch wrap sure has come in handy, hasn't it? There are other options, I may want to have a dubbed body instead. Dubbing is something you are going to use on a ton of flies so it is a good technique to learn. No doubt, I would first tie a number of buggers using chenille to get the pattern down before moving to dubbed bodied buggers.

While I like the dubbing he used in the last example which made our Woolly Bugger a little "buggier", a dubbing loop will create an even buggier body. This is how I tie most of my buggers though it takes a little more time, using a dubbing with plenty of guard hairs to give it a buggier look.

My emphasis on a "buggy" body is a personal preference. Others prefer the look of a chenille body - and that is certainly a little easier. Cheech, in the video above, selects a red and black variegated chenille with a little flash in it, another personal choice. If I am tying a chenille fly, I prefer the variegated chenilles as they seem a little more realistic.

The next step is tying in the hackle - though I am going to give you another option for tying what I think is a better, more bulletproof fly. You will notice in the video below, Tim Flagler begins by talking about this being a technique for tying Catskill dry flies. Truth is, these hackle techniques work for any fly, including our Woolly Bugger. This is an idea at the heart of fly tying, learn a few techniques and you can tie thousands upon thousands of different fly patterns.

Cheech uses the first technique but wraps the hackle from the front to the back - a technique we refer to as palmering a hackle. While this is a very good way to tie in and wrap a hackle, my more bulletproof method is to tie in the hackle before I tie in the rib using Tim Flagler's third method in the video above. This does two things, it helps create a nice, smooth underbody and it creates a fly where the hackle is better secured and can not pull out, ever. Once we palmer the hackle, secure it with the wire rib you have waiting at the back of the hook. Then bring that wire rib forward, using the wiggle technique that Cheech shows you in the first video. All that is left to do is to secure the wire rib at the front of the fly and finish the fly with a whip finish.

I first show a hand whip finish but I will be honest, I rarely whip finish by hand and usually use a tool (see below). However, it demonstrates the principle behind how a whip finish is completed and "the triangle" or a number 4 as Tim Flagler discusses in the next video.

My preferred method to finish most flies is with one or two whip finishes and a bit of head cement or UV resin to make the fly, you guessed it, even more bulletproof. Sure, we could have made this fly a little simpler but I like my flies to last through several fishes.

Techniques You Have Learned

The bullet points below all link to other, more detailed sources for further information on each technique.

Oh, the Flies You Can Tie...

First, you can tie a ton of variations on a Woolly Bugger - that alone will serve you well. Below is an example that "amps up" the WB a little bit but the presenter has really done nothing we have not already learned. He offers another method to tie in a hackle but it is really no different than the method I suggested for our bugger. The added rubber legs present a bit more of a challenge as they can be a bit of a pain to work around - but they add another element of bugginess that I like.

The most important part of this lesson should be that you can tie a lot more flies than a Woolly Bugger with the techniques you have learned and the skills you are building. We can tie any number of nymphs, dry flies, and streamers with these techniques. Hell, about half the articulated streamers out there are basically just Woolly Buggers with a few more adornments.

Uncle Cheech ties a Hare's Ear Nymph using a number of the techniques you have already learned. You can tie this fly in about a thousand different ways too. And let's fact it, most nymphs are a variation of this or a Pheasant Tail Nymph, another you can easily tie already.

You don't just have to tie flies that sink. With not much more than our dubbing techniques and palmering hackle, by adding a wing, you have made an Elk Hair Caddis, probably one of the most fished dry flies there is. Tying in the wing is an application of the pinch wrap, but how you control thread pressure and what direction that pressure is coming from becomes more important. Charlie Craven does a great job of explaining this starting at about 10:30 in the video above. Hans Weilenmann uses what I think is an even better method, starting at about 3:20 in the video below.

You can now tie my favorite dry fly - and about a thousand other flies with down wings. What is a stimulator, after all, but a palmer hackled fly with a down wing? Add some rubber legs to a stimulator and you have a pretty darn effective grasshopper imitation.

Wrapping it Up

It is going to take you some time - anything worth learning to do will take time. I am a big believer in that idea that tying your own flies makes you a better, more observant fly angler. And it is a wonderful way to spend a winter. Just don't think it is going to save you a lot of money...

I will probably write a few video-heavy fly tying posts this winter - another great way to make a winter pass more quickly.

Links to other Beginning Fly Tying References
Links to other The Scientific Fly Angler fly tying posts
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