Fly Tying: A Beginner’s Guide

Fly tying is as much an art as it is a useful skill for anglers to create their own flies. It is also a never-ending learning experience, with new patterns and techniques coming out each year. Much like fly fishing itself, fly tying can be intimidating for beginners who don’t know where to start. But with the basic tools and techniques, anglers can begin tying their own flies and, eventually, develop unique patterns for their home waters.

Tying specific patterns for specific fisheries will give you a leg up on the competition. Once you’ve learned the basics, you can fine-tune patterns, borrow techniques from other flies, and develop specific variations that will outfish patterns sitting in fly bins. It is also worth noting that if you want to start tying flies to save money, you should think again. It can take years to develop a surplus of materials and hooks to finally save a few extra bucks. But the reward of catching a fish on a fly you created from scratch makes it worth it.

As a former commercial tier, I spent years tying flies that were sold at local shops. When I moved to Florida, my attention shifted to saltwater flies, and my arsenal of materials and patterns grew even more. Below is everything you need to know about fly tying boiled down to the bare bones. From the necessary tools and basic techniques to tying tips and beginner patterns. Here’s how to get started in fly tying.

One of the author’s fly boxes that is filled with various nymph patterns. Max Inchausti

The Gear You Need

Before doing anything else, the first step is to acquire the necessary tying tools. You’ll need a vise, a bobbin, a bodkin, a pair of scissors, and a whip finisher to get started. Below are quick descriptions of each of these tools and what they are used for. As you grow as a tier, you can invest in other tools specific to certain patterns you want to tie.

  • Vise: A tool designed to secure hooks in order to tie materials onto the hook effectively.
  • Bobbin: A thread-holding device consisting of a tube to guide the thread and two notches to hold a spool of thread as the tier wraps the thread onto the hook in a controlled manner. 
  • Bodkin: A needle-like tool meant to manipulate materials and split thread.
  • Whip Finisher: A tool designed to manipulate thread in order to tie knots and secure the thread onto the hook so it doesn’t unravel.

The quality of your gear is just as important. You don’t need an $800 tying vise, but if you are serious about learning to tie, investing in quality tools will cut down on the learning curve. A good entry-level vise like the Peak Rotary or the Griffin Montana Mongoose will set you back a few hundred bucks. If you can swing it, this is the better long-term decision because you won’t have to waste your money on knockoffs and reinvest in a better vise later on. As for tools, there are many great options on the market. For beginners, I recommend the Loon Core Fly Tying Kit. You get a pair of scissors, hackle pliers, whip finish tool, bodkin (needle), and bobbin (thread holder). Loon has a reputation for making quality tools, and this starter kit delivers them, but at a fraction of the cost of buying them individually.

fly tying
The author’s custom cicada-inspired hopper pattern he ties for summer trout fishing. Max Inchausti

Pick a Few Patterns to Learn First

Once you have your setup and are ready to start tying, the first step is to figure out what patterns to tie. My advice is to pick three patterns to cover your basis—typically, a couple of nymphs and a streamer. If there are productive patterns specific to your local fishery, start with them. If you aren’t sure what works well on waters near you, go to the fly shop and ask. Either way, it’s hard to beat a pheasant tail, hare’s ear, and woolly bugger. Between these patterns, you’ll learn the most common techniques and develop a strong tying foundation.

Head to the local fly shop and buy all the materials needed to tie your three flies. You can either look up materials for specific patterns or ask your local shop about what to buy. This will give you a starting point to tie these patterns, with materials to spare for future patterns. A shopping list for all the necessary materials is listed below.

Once you have everything you need, choose one fly to start tying. Luckily, the modern era of tying is filled with resources on how to tie particular patterns. Fly Fish Food is a great resource, offering detailed step-by-step videos. Tie a dozen of that pattern; the first few may be rough, but by the end, you’ll get the hang of it. Once you’ve learned one pattern, move to the next and continue the process until you have a strong understanding of how the materials work.

While fly tying is certainly a creative outlet, starting out is not the time to come up with your own pattern. Begin with well-established patterns. This gives you the ability to learn how to tie properly rather than picking up bad habits from the start.

fly tying
A fly tier in the early stages of completing a zonker streamer. Ryan Chelius

Basic Technique

Developing fundamental skills is a critical piece to tying consistent-looking flies. Over time, you’ll be able to learn advanced techniques from certain patterns and apply them to others. But it’s important for beginners to stick with the basics. The first skill to master is thread control. Laying down and properly manipulating the thread is the most important part of tying. I like to keep between one and two hook eye lengths of thread from the end of the bobbin to the hook. Most beginner fly tiers have too much thread out, making it hard to lay down consistent wraps. When it comes to thread wraps, less is more. You don’t need ten wraps to secure a material. Two to three well-placed wraps will do the job and minimize extra bulk.

The next equally important skill to learn is the pinch wrap for securing materials to the fly. To do a pinch wrap, simply pinch the material on top of the hook. As you wrap the thread over the material, pinch that in between your fingers, too. This creates a loose thread loop as you wrap the bobbin over the hook. To finish the pinch wrap, pull straight down, tightening the thread pinched between your fingers. A proper pinch wrap secures materials straight down on top of the hook, eliminating any side-to-side movement. This will make your flies more consistent and keep you from fighting materials.

Another common technique is adding dubbing to the thread. This process involves adding fur or synthetic material to the thread and wrapping it around the fly. It helps add bulk to the body of a fly and create a taper. This is a popular and essential technique, but also one that new tiers struggle with the most. The key to properly dubbing the thread is to use the bare amount of dubbing material. The finest wisp will build a nice taper and let you easily control the wraps. To add the dubbing, grab a wisp in your finger and twist it onto the thread, then wrap it onto the fly. The key is to only twist the dubbing in one direction. This creates a tight dubbing noodle and results in cleaner flies.

A fourth piece of advice for tying consistent patterns is measuring your materials properly. The hook serves as a tyer’s personal ruler. Use the various parts of the hook—the eye, shank, bend, and barb—to measure out the correct amount of materials you need. Tying instructions will often use these hook parts to guide you. For example, it might say something like, “Use a hook shank length of pheasant tail” or “Start your thread above your hook point on the shank.” Take the time to make sure you know all the parts of a hook and use these measurements whenever you can rather than “eyeballing it.” The end result will be consistent patterns that look and fish the same.

Three Great Beginner Fly Patterns

What patterns should you tie first? As I mentioned earlier, anglers should start with simple patterns that are effective on their home waters. If you aren’t sure what works and what doesn’t work on your local waters, there are a few classic flies that are extremely productive all over the country. I chose three beginner patterns—woolly bugger, pheasant tail nymph, and hare’s ear nymph—to get started on. These two nymph patterns will work on virtually any trout stream in the country, and the woolly bugger is deadly in both moving and stillwater fisheries. Master these three patterns first and then build out your arsenal from there.

Woolly Bugger

The woolly bugger is one of the most widespread and effective patterns ever created. It doesn’t particularly represent anything, but its ample movement and profile are irresistible to fish. It’s equally effective in cold water and warm water fisheries and, best of all, is easy to tie. The woolly bugger requires minimal materials and teaches fundamental skills like wrapping hackles. Here’s what you need to tie a woolly bugger.

  • Hook: 3x streamer hook (size 10-4)
  • Thread: 140 Denier thread or equivalent
  • Tail: Marabou (black or olive)
  • Body: Chenille (color to match tail)
  • Hackle: Strung saddle hackle (color to match tail)
  • Rib: Wire rib (size medium)
  • Bead: Optional

Pheasant Tail

If you look in any trout fisherman’s box, you’ll find some version of the pheasant tail. It’s a great pattern to learn because it’s effective and teaches good fundamentals that can be transferred to a plethora of other patterns. The pheasant tail is a generalist mayfly imitation. It’s a nymph pattern designed to be fished subsurface and can be tied to match any size mayfly. Here are the required materials:

  • Hook: 2x nymph hook (size 18-10)
  • Thread: 70 denier thread or equivalent
  • Tail: Pheasant tail
  • Body: Pheasant tail
  • Thorax: Peacock herl
  • Wing case/legs: Pheasant Tail
  • Rib: Copper wire rib (size small/extra small)
  • Bead: Optional

Hare’s Ear

The hare’s ear is a famous and effective pattern for trout fishing. It is also a general pattern, meaning it doesn’t represent anything in particular. It can be tied in different sizes and colors, representing anything from small caddis nymphs to large stoneflies. The materials are simple, and the tying process teaches valuable skills that are helpful for other patterns. Here’s what you need to tie a hare’s ear:

  • Hook: 2x nymph hook (size 18-10)
  • Thread: 70 denier thread or equivalent
  • Tail: Hare’s fur from Hare’s Mask
  • Body: Hare’s ear dubbing
  • Thorax: Hare’s ear dubbing
  • Wing case: Turkey tail or pheasant tail
  • Rib: Gold tinsel (size small)
  • Bead: Optional

Fly Tying: A Never-Ending Learning Process

Tying flies is a great way to bring even more enjoyment to your fly fishing experience. Once you really get into tying, it can become addicting. Trust me, I’ve spent what seems like days at my vise trying to create new patterns that will give me an edge on the water. And that’s the best part about tying flies: taking what you see in other patterns and from your experiences on the water to create something on your own. As you grow as a tier, you’ll pick up new techniques, tricks, and patterns to eventually develop your own style. Once you get past the initial road bumps and learning curve, I guarantee you’ll be glad you started tying your own flies. Especially when your bugs are outfishing everyone else on the river.

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