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Fly Tying to Save Money

What, are you f*%king crazy? Seriously. No, really?! You really don't think you are going to save yourself money by tying your own flies do you? What, are you f*%king crazy? OK, I think I've got my point across and I joke, well mostly. The last few months of posts have been a little "heavy", so I needed a change of pace.

My tying area
My tying area - the armoire to the left is full and since this image was taken, I've added a few more plastic boxes. I've got issues...

Can you save money by tying your own flies instead of buying them? Absolutely! But what is the fun in that? You would have to be a hell of a lot more disciplined than I am, for one. It will probably become clear that I am not terribly disciplined when it comes to buying and experimenting with tying materials. A number of my friends joke that I fish half a dozen flies 90% of the time and they are not wrong. Yet, I have more materials than many fly shops and the armoire that I store most of my fly tying materials is overflowing. I like tying flies - whether I use those flies or not. That's what hobbies are for, I think.

Dark barred ginger
Chicken feathers - genetic dry fly hackle - is one of many place you can really spend some money. This is a saddle from Root River Hackle Farm - many great feathers for a reasonable price.

I will preface all of this by saying that much like so many other hobbies, if you are doing it to save money, you might be doing if for the wrong reasons. I do some home brewing and like fly tying, sure, you could save some money but that is not why we (my dad and I brew together) do it. Hobbies, in my not always so humble opinion, should be about having fun and doing something other than work. Hobbies do not need to "make sense" or have some greater purpose other than to occupy your time and your brain. What I like about fly tying is the creativity and being able to experiment and make little tweaks. I think one of the most overlooked parts of fly tying is that it makes you a better, more adaptable and observant angler. You start thinking about subtleties in flies, their proportions, what they are imitating, how they float or sink if you're into the dark arts, and other such properties of flies. You start caring more about knowing about what you are trying to imitate. You may be doing it more to save money, and that is fine - it is just not my thing. But I am going to give it a go.

Yes, 4/0 and 6/0 hooks and I have never caught nor fished for musky, but I enjoy tying new flies and techniques. That is what happens when you go down the rabbit hole.

The Cost of Flies


Flies are not cheap. Let's rephrase that, GOOD flies are not cheap. For a point of reference, a standard trout fly is generally going to cost between $2 and $3 - generally closer to $3 - at your local fly shop. You may pay a bit more for tungsten bead flies and larger flies like foam terrestrials. Streamers are generally going to cost you a bit more to a lot more depending upon the fly pattern. Simple patterns like leeches and buggers are about the same cost as a dry or nymph while articulated or larger / more complex streamers are typically $5 to $10 each, or more. Move into warmwater streamers, game changers and musky flies in particular, and they might cost you from $8 to $30 apiece or about what you would spend on a comparable lure.

CRTU banquet donation
Flies for the Coulee Region TU banquet. I am not much of a fly buyer but I see that they often sell for less than they would at a fly shop.

Yes, you can save some money buying flies online. Expect to spend a little as a dollar to a $1.75 a fly for standard dries, wets, nymphs and a little more for streamers. But you will need to buy in bulk, often at least a half dozen of each pattern and hook size for standard trout patterns and often in multiples of threes for larger flies. And the good stuff is not necessarily cheaper online. Unlike dropping by the local fly shop to pick up a few flies, you will need to plan ahead. There are a lot of cheap options online but often you get what you pay for. They cut costs by using poor hooks, crappy hackle, and/or paying the tyers poorly. Some of the flies I see online are simply awful and unlikely to last for more than a fish or two. So yes, you can save money buying online but online fly buying is not some panacea of savings, at least not if you want good flies that will hold up to some use.


How you Could Save Money


Saving money tying flies requires you to keep it fairly simple. Pick a few versatile patterns that will work anywhere - I will use my baker's dozen flies for the Driftless as a starting point and add in a woolly bugger and some sparkle / comparaduns for the mayflies. Whatever flies you choose, learn to tie them well. You can make variations off those flies. Certainly an experienced angler can do this pretty easily; less experienced anglers may have a difficult time in determining what flies really work for where they fish. That is knowledge that comes with experience.

My tying set up - in a relatively ordered state.
Tools

I start with tools because that will probably be the largest investment for those just getting started. Materials are easy to scale up over time, tools can also be added to over time but there area a few initial requirements - a vise, bobbins, scissors, etc. A fly tying vice is probably the single largest investment for most tyers and with bobbins, scissors, and other tools, you probably have another $100 invested to have good quality tools and a light. Here is my quick list of what it would take to get started and have pretty good tools. I'm using Tightlines Fly Shop and The Fly Fishers for prices.

That is about $300 - $450 depending upon some decisions you make and how good your eyes are (buy a light, trust me!). You may not buy it all right away but you are likely to eventually. Fly tying is not cheap but if you consider that a fly would cost you $2.50 more to buy than tie after paying for hooks and materials; you have 120 flies or 10 dozen flies tied up in tools. At $450 in tools, it rises to 180 flies or 15 dozen flies store-bought flies. Of course your first few (many?) dozen flies are not going to be "fly shop worthy" but they'll probably work just fine.


Hooks and Beads

For most trout patterns, the hook is the biggest investment and they tend to range from about 7 cents to a dime apiece for the least expensive hooks to maybe 35 to 50 cents for the most expensive dry fly and trout streamer hooks. I have had good luck with some less expensive hooks but they can be a little hit or miss. Move into musky-sized hooks and some saltwater hooks and you may be spending around a dollar apiece for many of them. Beads add another significant cost for nymphs and streamer. Wholesale Fly Company has tungsten beads for $10 per 100, a dime per bead, for the smallest size to $25 per 100 (a quarter apiece) for the largest sizes (4.6 mm). Like so many decisions, buying in bulk helps save money but it also requires a greater initial investment.

Whiting Farms necks
More recent purchases - Whiting High and Dry and Pro Grade necks in grizzly dyed brown and rusty dun.

General Thoughts on Materials


Where most tyers go wrong in trying to save themselves money is that they buy cheap materials that are poorly suited for their needs. Or worse yet, they buy one of those hideous beginner's kits with shitty tools and even shittier materials. Want to tie good flies, you need good materials. I would suggest that maybe the largest detriment to beginning tyers is that are often using materials poorly suited for the flies they are tying. This is why you should avoid buying a beginners material kit - you are likely to get really crappy materials. I also think that maybe the most difficult but maybe the most important thing experienced tyers learn are the characteristics of materials and what types and sizes of flies they are best suited for. For example, deer and elk hair seems pretty straightforward but nuances abound. Trying to tie a CDC and Elk with deer hair that does not have the proper characteristics to tie a down wing of that size will make for a less than ideal fly. (Yes, I use deer hair for all my CDC and Elk flies, just as Hans Weilenmann, the pattern's originator does.)

Quality deer hair
Blue Ribbon Flies X-caddis (top) and sparkle dun (bottom) hair.

For many materials, it is very easy to buy quality materials but many of the natural materials are much less consistent. Dubbing, synthetic fibers and flash, thread, wires and tinsels, and some natural materials raised specifically for the fly tyer are general very consistent which makes their purchasing a pretty simple task. This is not necessarily the case with many natural materials that very greatly not only in quality but in their application to a particular task. Two quick examples - CDC (cul de canard) and deer hair - illustrate the point. CDC feathers that I want for a CDC and Elk are incredibly different from those that are used for other purposes like wings or in a dubbing loop. I want relatively short feathers where the barbs come off the hook at a 45 degree angle for CDC and Elk caddis - feathers I best find in wild ducks. Most of the commercially available feathers are too long and the stems too thick. One of my pet peeves in fly patterns is that they often call for "deer hair"? What deer hair? Depending upon where on a deer the hair is taken, what the hair is best used for can vary wildly. There is hair that is very hollow and effective for spinning and stacking and other hair that is non-compressible and suited for totally different applications.


Dry Fly Feathers


Today, the tyer has access to a great amount dry fly hackle that is well suited to their purposes. Tyers that have been at it for awhile know this was not always the case. It is easy to find quality dry fly hackle today. Whiting has been "the gold standard" but many other great producers are also producing hackle at very reasonable prices.

Whiting Farms cape (neck)
Hard to go wrong with Whiting Farms hackle.

Dry fly hackle is probably second only to the hook in cost per fly, with that cost somewhere between a few cents to a quarter per trout fly, depending upon what you buy. According to Whiting Farms and their "Olympic Grading System", the quality goes up slightly with grade but the biggest difference is the number of feathers on the capes and saddles. What grade you purchase has a per fly cost effect but also an initial investment effect. It may be more cost effective to purchase all high end hackle but the initial investment will be several time higher. And you may never tie the thousands of flies each Whiting gold neck or saddle may be able to produce. As I dug deeper into this, it seems like a post for another day.

Grizzly, light, and dark barred ginger
I have a thing for grizzly and barred hackle - these are Whiting saddles in grizzly, medium, and dark barred ginger.

Here are some generalities:

  • Capes - the neck of a chicken, will give you a wider range of hackle sizes, typically from #20 or smaller to #10 or larger, depending upon the individual neck.

  • Saddles - have a narrower range of feather sizes but the feathers are longer and easier to work with. Today's saddles often tie 10 or more flies per hackle feather.

  • Capes vs. saddles - capes are more versatile and will offer feathers for other things (tailing, woolly bugger hackles, tails on deceivers, etc.) but saddles are more cost effective if you are tying within a small range of hook sizes.

  • Hackle grade - cost per fly goes up with the lower grades but the initial investment is much more significant if you buy higher grade. Most tyers will probably never use up a gold or silver cape or saddle.

  • Producer - You can certainly buy less expensive hackle than Whiting Farms but they are rather the gold standard, so I start the conversation there. I have a number of other producers' hackle, much of it quite old but will say I have purchased Metz, Root River, Collins, and Sideling Hill products recently and they have been excellent and quite cost effective. Give them a look!

  • Colors - This is where you can really start spending a lot of money if you are not careful, trust me. I am a big fan of the grizzly and barred hackles and prefer them over solid colors. If I had to pick just three colors, I'd go with a barred ginger or cree, a medium dun, and a grizzly. I could change the color of any of them with a marker if I really had to.

Now the crazy part, you can probably skip the dry fly hackle or at the very least, buy minimally. It is really nice to have and if you fish out west or mostly spring creeks. I rather rarely fish traditionally hackled flies unless I am fishing outside the Driftless area. Crane fly imitations and the Hippie Stomper, where the foam does most of the work in floating the fly and the hackle is clipped underneath the body, are where I use most of my hackle. Add in a generic parachute for most any mayfly and I could probably get by with a medium or dark barred ginger or cree saddle that ties #14 to #18 and have my needs covered. There, I just saved myself a ton of money! Unless I bought Whiting cree at today's prices (The Slide Inn Cree video).

Hippie Stomper with grizzly hackle.
Purple Hippie Stomper with grizzly hackle. It is hard to see here but the hackle is clipped at the bottom of the fly.

Other Feathers


Dry fly hackle is easy - any of the producers will produce hackle that is consistent and effective. Chicken saddles and necks are breed for a specific purpose and become quite invariable. Soft hackle and bugger hackles are more variable but also much less of an investment. A quality bugger hackle is a lot harder to find than you might think. In my opinion, most bugger hackle is too stiff so the flies do not move in the water as they should. Smaller soft hackles are easier to find but here too, many are too stiff for good soft hackle flies due to the fact that chickens are selected for dry fly hackles, not hen (soft) hackles. There are some good soft hackle out there - finding them in small enough sizes is often the biggest issue. Look into the Brahama hen necks which sell for under $20 a cape and have a nice range of feather sizes. A nice partridge skin is about a $50 investment today but you will have quality soft hackles for a long time. It is a splurge, to be sure (this is why I have not saved money tying - I splurge). Collins hens are a great deal here and I've found Wapsi hen soft hackle patches for $7.50 to be a great bargain - but you just won't find many feathers that will tie #14's and smaller. There are ways to make longer feathers work.

Soft Hackles
A variety of soft hackle feathers - these are all from chickens but many gamebirds have excellent feathers (that you can probably get for free).

In addition to a few soft hackle necks, some peacock and turkey and pheasant tails for nymph bodies and wing cases are a necessity for the trout fly tyer. These are cheap and even free if you hunt or know somebody that does. Marabou is pretty inexpensive and an ounce will last you for several dozen flies. A quarter ounce of marabou is typically $3 to $5 and an ounce is around $15. Avoid the stuff labeled "Woolly Bugger Marabou" and go for the blood quills which tend to be better feathers.


Hairs and Furs

Hairs and furs can get a little complicated but to keep it simple, my "must have" pieces would be a nice piece of deer hair for caddis and another for comparadun wings. I would like a nice piece of deer hair for spun or stacked heads like on Muddlers but I could probably get away without that. Lastly, a nice kip (calf) tail for parachute posts and, of course, the Pass Lake. Buying as high of quality hair as you can, we are talking about a $20 investment total.


Odd and Ends


I haven't broached thread or a number of other basics. Thread is easy, buy white and black and with some markers, you can have any other colors you would like. It really doesn't matter that much. Closed cell foam can be bought at any craft store for really cheap. Better Evasote foam is quite cheap at the local fly shop. I would add a dubbing selection or two - a hare or squirrel based one for nymphs and soft hackles and a dry fly dispenser with beaver or a synthetic dubbing. Each are $20 or less and will tie a ton of flies. Add in a couple packages of Arizona simiseal for the Milwaukee Leech. Add in a few other things - some wire for ribbing and some non-lead wire for adding weight to flies, some UV resin, superglue, and/or head cement, and others. But that's where fly tying really catches you - it is the little things that all start to really add up. Soon you have overflowing armoires and plastic totes, trust me.

Milwuakee Leech
A simple Milwaukee Leech requires four materials in addition to the thread, hook, and bead. It all starts to add up...

I would imagine that once the hook and bead or hackle is accounted for, the rest of the materials on most flies might cost another nickel or two at most but buying it all adds up. A mix of a few expensive items - mostly hackle - and a bunch of items that are individually quite cheap but together, they add up pretty significantly. I could get some materials for free - turkey and pheasant feathers, duck flank and CDC, and soft-hackles from gamebirds.


If I really tried, I could probably get it down to $200 for a relatively reasonable tying materials collection that would allow me to tie a collection of nymphs, streamers, and dry flies that would keep me from having to buy flies. But what's the fun in that?

Personally, I like to test my skills and learn new fly tying ideas. It is a good part of what keeps me busy and connected to fly fishing in the winter. I enjoy tying musky flies I will probably never fish. And having a rusty dun neck that I will probably barely touch except for a special pattern here and there. I think fly tying is part of learning curve and it tends to make you a better, more observant angler. It makes you think about how to solve a puzzle you were not able to solve on the water. It makes you understand the hatches, the stages that are most vulnerable to trout, and the seasonality of those hatches.


It is way too late for me but save yourselves from the road I went down. But to be completely honest, I would do almost all of it again. Yeah, I might not have bought that skein of Alpaca yarn so I could tie Utah Killer bugs for the next 10,000 years.

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