Wading Through Winter

Fly tying 101.

Winter has come. It is the darkest, longest season of the year. It also happens to be the time of year when many anglers retreat to the hidden corners of their basements or workshops and begin the alchemy of transforming fur, feathers, thread, glue, and hooks into flies that will hopefully catch fish. Fly tying is the final step in the fly-fishing addiction process. It could be said that one isn’t truly a “hardcore” fly angler until they have at least one storage tote specifically dedicated to rooster necks, bunny masks, pheasant capes, and dragon dubbing.

It has long been said that entering into fly fishing is beset with intimidating obstacles. Entering into fly tying jacks up the intimidation factor five-fold. The terminology alone can be confusing, and with the innumerable types of materials, tools, and fly patterns, the activity is considered a fool’s errand by many. However, keeping things simple and starting with the basics are the keys to becoming an ace tyer. Fly tying allows one to replicate the tried-and-true patterns that may be running low at the local shop, and it allows the angler to tweak or completely re-invent patterns that no one else has. 

Vise. A good-quality vise is the most essential tool in any tyer’s kit. Vises vary in cost and utility, but its basic purpose is the same: to securely hold the hook while you wrap thread and material around and onto it.

Scissors. These may possibly be the most-utilized tool. Many tyers often palm their scissors in their dominant hand throughout the tying process. These scissors are used to trim or clip feathers, fur, or thread. 

Bobbin. Flies have to be tied with a thread that binds the material to the hook. The bobbin is the tool that holds the spool of thread, which one uses to wind and bind the material to the shank of the hook. 

Bodkin needle. A bodkin needle is the “do-all” of fly-tying tools A bodkin needle provides a fine point for picking, dubbing, or applying glue or epoxy to finished flies. This fine point can also be utilized to separate hackle fibers or brush out dubbing to give your flies a more realistic presentation. 

Hackle Pliers. The “hackle” is the feather part of the fly that gives it the fuzzy appearance. While flies are sometimes tied without hackle, some of the most effective flies require it to achieve the “buggy” appearance in the water that attracts fish. Hackle pliers provide a secure grip on the stem of the feather, which allows for a tight wind around the hook’s shank. Hackle pliers allow for a cleaner, tighter, more durable finish on the fly. 

Whip Finisher. A completed fly has to be finished by tying off the thread. The whip finisher provides a consistent and durable method of tying off the knot that finishes the fly. This knot can be tied with one’s fingers, but the whip finisher allows for a much tighter and cleaner knot.

Getting Started
There are many “starter kits” on the market. These kits range in price from 40 bucks to over 200. Don’t be afraid to approach the fly-tying journey in a piecemeal fashion. Garage sales, eBay, and Craigslist are great places to find quality vises, tools, and materials. If one does a little bit of homework and research, getting started in fly-tying shouldn’t bust the budget. Fortunately, we live in the digital age, and there are innumerable videos and tutorials available on YouTube that will get you started on your pattern of choice. However, there are some fly patterns that will work almost anywhere, anytime:

San Juan Worm
Hook: Daiichi 1130 #12-16
Thread: Danville Fly Master 6/0 Red
Body: Red, Tan, Pink Ultra Chenille

Wooly Bugger
Hook: Daiichi 2220 #4-12
Body: Black, Brown, or Olive Medium Chenille
Thread: Black 140 Denier Ultra Thread
Ribbing: Brassie Size Gold Ultra Wire
Hackle: Black, Brown, or Olive Schlappen Feathers or Whiting Bugger Pack Feathers
Tail: Black, Brown, or Olive Marabou

Tan Caddis
Hook: Daiichi 1180 #14-16
Thread: Danville 70 – Black
Shuck: Sparkle emerger yarn – Tan
Body: Nature’s Spirit fine natural dubbing – Callibaetis
Wing: Nature’s Spirit select cow elk hair – Natural

Final Notes
Tying your own flies is the “open casket” of angling closure. Catching a fish on a fly you have tied from the fur of a road-killed rabbit, a harvested buck or bull, or a brush full of dog hair is, in a sense, a closing of the loop. While entering into fly tying might seem daunting, once you’ve wrapped that first thread, the possibilities of fish-catching excellence are only limited by your creativity and imagination.

Kurt Dehmer is a fifth-generation Montanan and owns Durty Kurty’s Guide Service.