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So you want to start tying flies...

There is a wealth of information online about how to get started fly tying - some of it is pretty good. Here is my list of ideas and answers to the most asked questions - some of them will hopefully be pretty good (some are just smart ass answers). This is my attempt at taking on the topic for beginners but hopefully there is something here for everyone.

DO NOT get into fly tying to save money. Could it be done? I am sure it can but I sure as hell am not going to be the person to tell you how to do that. I have failed miserably at making fly tying "pay for itself". I suppose one could stick to the handful of patterns that they fish most of the time and buy the ones that they do not have the materials for or the skills to tie but what is the fun in that?

More tying materials...
Another $100+ of hooks and tyinig materials for flies I'll probably never fish.

My opinion on the topic of saving money is that if you get into fly tying to save money, you are likely doing it wrong. You will probably not enjoy it and are less likely to stick with it if you are doing it to save money. The two biggest reasons that I tie are that I enjoy the process of learning how to tie new and different patterns (this is why it has not saved me money) and that it has made me a better, more observant fly angler. I had to know more about the aquatic and terrestrial insects and other invertebrates (scuds, crayfish, etc.) and forage fishes (next week's post...) to be able to know what flies to tie and how to tie them. Selecting flies to buy - or being told what flies to buy - does not do a lot to help your fly fishing knowledge. Tying flies helped me better know and understand the hatches and the life cycles of the different "bugs". On days I could not figure it out, I had to observe what was happening on the stream and go back to vise and see if I could imitate what I was seeing on the water and how fish were responding. It has allowed me to tie my favorite patterns in slightly different versions and fish them under different conditions. A CDC and Elk with more of less CDC or deer hair, a shorter or longer wing, or whatever other options might be worth a try.

What vise should I buy? Without question, this is the most asked - and poorly answered - question I see on fly tying and fishing social media. The answer is almost always whatever vise they tie on even if the person asking said that their budget is $150 and the Renzetti Master Special Edition in the special Popsicle Purple color that is being recommended is nearly a $1,000 vise. It is obviously the best vise and the one everyone should own because I own it and I only own the best. Don't be that guy (yes, it is always a guy...).

My tying desk
My tying desk in a relatively good state of should see it right now, ugh!

My advice, try out a few of the entry level vises, if at all possible. If you can only spend around $100, Griffith, Thompson, and Danvise all make vises that will without question get the job done. If you can spend in the $200 neighborhood, Peak, Renzetti (Traveler model), DynaKing, and Regal make some great vises that will likely suit you for life and if you decide fly tying is not your thing (no shame in that), you will be able to sell it for pretty close to what you bought it for. In fact, if I were looking for a vise, used would be a great way to go. Vises are personal choices and what one person loves may not suit another tyer but even if you do not tie "true rotary", I think the feature is a great one to have.

If you're not able to try a number of different vises, Tim Cammisa of Trout and Feather do a pretty good job of pointing out the features in this (rather long) video. There are a number of other videos on YouTube with a similar theme.

Should I buy a kit? This would be the second most asked question and the answer is almost always a big fat NO! Most kits are cheap - not inexpensive but CHEAP. In them you get a crappy vise, poor hooks, and materials not suited for tying good flies. There are some exceptions but they won't be inexpensive. There are some good tool kits out there - Loon makes a couple of great options - but you will pay for quality tools. If the price sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

Bob Clouser talking about his deep minnow.
Bob Clouser holding court and talking about his Clouser Deep Minnow at a show in Madison, WI. Shows are a great way for beginners to meet and learn from more seasoned tyers.

The allure of a kit is that you "get everything you will need" so it takes away decisions about what to buy - a huge advantage for those that do not really know what they need. The Loon Complete Fly Tying Took Kit is $120 and includes everything you'd need to get started - and then some! It is nice but it is a bit overkill for beginner but the Core kit is half the price ($60) and with a few additions, it would be perfect for the beginner. The core kit has a bodkin (needle on a stick), bobbin (holds thread spools), scissors, hackle pliers, and whip finisher. The only things I think are missing are a hair stacker which I find essential (I don't like the Loon one - broke one and threw it out) and a dubbing twister which would add another $30. For those $90, I could go to The Fly Fishers and buy those tools from different manufacturers and have enough money left to buy another bobbin or three because having to change thread in your one bobbin when you want to tie something different sucks. That would be my beginners tool kit and I would add on as needed.

Walk before you run. Get to where you can tie a good woolly bugger and do it consistently before moving to the 12 inch articulated streamer with 3 hooks and 6 wire shanks. Learning to tie is not about patterns but about learning specific skills that are transferable to other patterns. If you can palmer a hackle on a woolly bugger, you can tie an elk hair caddis and (eventually) a #20 Griffith Gnat. If you can dub a nice tapered body, you can tie a few thousand dries, wets, and nymph patterns when another technique or two are added. If you can make a nice and orderly hackle collar on a traditional dry fly, you can learn to do something similar around a parachute post. The pinch wrap you learn early on will be used for every fly you ever tie. Focus on the techniques and how to control materials and you will be a better tyer, faster and you will be able to tie any pattern you want, eventually. But tie a really good woolly bugger first!

Articulated musky fly
Walk before you run - learn the techinques and in time, this articulated musky fly is within reach.

Fly tying is a creative endeavor but you can only be creative once you have learned to do the basics well. The best comparison I have is cooking. Beginning cooks follow recipes by the book and over time, you learn more techniques and how ingredients react to different techniques and how heat is applied and for how long. Take an onion - if I cook it low and slow, my carmelized onion is a totally different in flavor and texture than a quick sauteed onion. Now compare a white, yellow, sweet, and purple onion - different ingredients for different applications - much the same as fly tying materials. Probably the most difficult thing about tying is understanding how different materials are best suited for particular applications. Deer hair or onion does not tell you a heck of a lot about the type of hair or onion you need for a particular application. That knowledge comes with experience but it starts with good materials and ingredients.

Start with good materials. This leads from the previous entry - much like cooking - starting with the quality ingredients of the right kind is important. It is hard to tie good flies with bad materials or materials not well suited for the application you are using them for. Understanding what materials are best suited for different applications takes time and experience.

Sparkle Dun and X-caddis hair from Blue Ribbon Flies.
Sparkle dun (left) and X-caddis deer hair from Blue Ribbon Flies. While they look similar, the color and where the "crinkle" begins tells you a lot about their uses. The SD hair is more hollow into the tips which tells me it is going to flare a little bit more to create the fan shaped "compara-wing".

Like onions, think of a recipe (fly pattern) that calls for deer hair - what deer hair? Are we tying a compardun/sparkle dun, caddis, or stimulator wing? Tails on a dry fly, split upright wings, a humpy, a muddler-style head, or a bass bug? To tie the best fly, with the least amount of frustration, we need to choose hair suited for that particular purpose. Fortunately, there are some great resources for fly tyers of all skill levels. Those questions are answered by The Feather Bender (Barry Ord Clarke) in his ultimate guide to deer hair (see parts 1, 2, and 3). There are a host of great, free videos by folks like Davy McPhail, Gunnar Brammer, Kelly Galloup, and others that really get into what material they are using and what they are looking for in that material. Fly patterns are "sexier" than learning about materials but knowing the materials and how to use them will make you a much better tyer than know some patterns.

Flattening the learning curve. Fly tying is not hard but like most skills, you get better at it only through practice and experience. Like fly fishing, where getting out there matters; sitting down, tying flies, and critiquing what you have tied is how you are going to learn. It has never been easier than it is today (well, maybe pre-COVID today) to flatten the learning curve. Fly shows, tying events, books, classes, videos, social media, online forums, and other resources abound and many of them are quite inexpensive or even free. Thirty years ago, I learned from a number of more experienced tyers on Fly Fisherman magazine's "Virtual Flyshop" and the Wisconsin Fly Fishing Message Board.

A Madison fly show
Fly fishing shows and fly tying gathers are a great way for the beginner - or any tyer, really - to be able to see flies being tied and ask questions of the tyers.

The COVID era has certainly made things more difficult but sitting and watching someone tie and more importantly asking good questions will shorten the time it takes you to gain experience which I think is the biggest limiting factor for fly tyers. Tying shows, gatherings, and classes are a great option if you can find them. I have a small group of friends that have gotten "together" over Zoom on occasion to tie flies. The conversation is sometimes about fly tying. You probably know somebody that is an experienced fly tyer, ask if you can tie flies together some time. Go to your local fly shop and buy your materials while asking them questions about what you should be looking for in a material for a specific purpose. "What is the best piece of hair for tying #14 to #18 caddis wings?" will get the conversation started and if they are doing their job well, you will learn quite a bit.

Hans Weilenmann tying a fly
Hans Weilenmann tying a fly in Dallas, TX. We meet up when he was in the area (I was in Oklahoma). He was a (mostly) online fly tying mentor for me.

Most anglers and tyers are quite willing to help - they may not be searching for how to help, but they are more than willing when asked. So ask! I learned from some great fly tying mentors and it greatly shortened my learning curve and made me a better tyer, faster.

Sit down and tie. You will not become a good or even competent fly tyer without sitting down and doing it. Find a way to hold yourself to sitting down and tying some flies. When I was a beginning tyer, I made it a point to sit down and tie a fly every day I was home to do so. I still try to tie more days than not, at least during the tying season. You do not need to sit and tie for hours on end but 30 minutes a day would go a long to making you a better tyer, faster. You are probably going to sit around and watch television, why not decide that tonight I am going to tie half a dozen Pheasant Tail Nymphs, Elk Hair Caddis, or Sparkle Duns? Half a dozen is a great number - it means that you have done the same technique at least six times and you have tied enough flies that you can compare and critique them.

Mike tying a Milwaukee Leech.
My friend Mike tying a fly for the Central Wisconsin Trout Unlmited's master's class - TU and FFI classes are a great way to learn to tie and improve your skills.

So you want to tie flies? Good! It is a great hobby - my personal favorite. Like any other hobby, skill comes with experience and experience comes from doing it. I presented some ways to earn that experience faster based on what worked for me and others I know.

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Geoff Roznak
Geoff Roznak
Jan 10, 2022

A couple things:

1) I never did learn to tie a decent woolly bugger. I wish I would would have saved me a lot of time...

2) Thanks for the links above, The Feather Bender looks like it'll be the most help for where I am currently.

I appreciate these meanders, this time of year particularly, and this year more than most.

Geoff Roznak
Geoff Roznak
Jan 10, 2022
Replying to

Girls, and women almost always listen better than boys and men...I should have listened when you guys on the WISFLY board told me to master the Woolly Bugger...but patience has never been one of my things and there were other patterns I wanted to tie more, so I tied a half-dozen awful WBs and moved on to other patterns that I butchered as well.

I remain an adequate tier at best but have been getting better the last few year - more time to tie.

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