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How to Tie a Fly

by Jack Ohman
illustrations by Jack Ohman

Jack OhmanI’m not much of a fly tier. I can do it—my friend calls it “ham and eggs tying”—and I tie some cool flies that I can’t buy in a fly shop, but other than that, I would no more sit down and tie a dozen hopper patterns than I would do something absolutely insane, like build a rod. A friend at The Oregonian often says that he’s going to become a crazy old guy who’s building a robot in his garage, and that’s about what rod building is to me—the mark of someone who has completely gone around the bend.

I have read a lot of fly-tying instruction books, and some of them are pretty good. But I have not as yet seen a fly-tying book that honestly breaks the process down, step-by-step, and shows you—honestly—how to do it in a way that truly reflects what you need to know. So I provide here a basic, building-blocks guide to tying a fly.

1. Select a hook. I like to tie small flies, so I like to use a hook that I can’t really see, like a 20.

2. Drop the hook into the carpet and hope you don’t step on it.

3. Get another hook.

4. Put the hook in the vise. Make sure you prick your thumb when inserting the hook into the jaws, oth­erwise you won’t have enough blood to hold the fly together.

5. Carefully wrap size 8/0 black thread around the hook shank. Take care to overwrap the hook shank so that the profile of the fly is way too fat.

6. Examine your materials and organize them carefully.

7. Sneeze.

8. Reexamine materials and reorganize them carefully. Let’s try a simple pattern, like an Adams.

9. Take the tail materials (I can’t remember what they are, and I can’t find my tying guide, anyway). Brown hackle barbs, I think.

10. Take the brown hackle barbs off the hackle, and wrap the thread around the bend of the hook.

11. They should be sticking out .00000009 microns.

12. Switch reading glasses, again.

13. Switch reading glasses, again.

14. Switch reading glasses, again.

15. That’s better.

16. Okay, get the dubbing material and rub wax all over the thread. Too much wax will make the fly body even fatter, so just screw the wax.

17. Carefully spin the gray dubbing material around the thread until it gets too twisty and the bobbin spins wildly. Six thousand rpms should work.

Jack Ohman18. Now wrap the dubbing material around the hook shank, all the way up to the hook eye. The rear part of the fly will be fatter, even if you don’t want it to be. Try squashing that fatter part down between your bleeding thumb and index finger. Good luck.

19. More blood.

20. Good.

21. Now, for the fun part. You need to tie in the wings and wrap the hackle. Clip the wings from the ends of two too-large grizzly hackle feathers.

22. Tie on the wings.

23. No, this way.

24. For the love of Pete. Please.

25. They have to be like this.

26. No, they need to be at a 45-degree angle and uprightish. Like this.


28. Close enough.

29. Okay, now tie in your hackle. It should be grizzly and brown.

30. Get out your hackle guide to make sure that, again, they are simply too long. You will need to have the profile of the fly way too fluffy to be natural, so be careful. You can lightly trim them later in the pro­cess to assure maximum unnaturalness.

31. Now wrap the hackle around and through the wings.

32. Okay, now you have mashed the wings in a com­pletely weird and useless position. Take your bloody thumb and forefinger and readjust them.

33. Oops. You don’t need that second wing, anyway. Don’t even bother to get on the floor to find it. Keep wrapping.

34. Now tie off the hackle, making sure that you can’t tie off the head without having those little points sticking out.

35. Wrap even more thread around the head of the fly. More. MORE THREAD.

36. Now you can’t see the points at all, but the head now looks like The World’s Largest Ball of String Roadside Attraction in Fromage, Wisconsin.

37. Whatever.

38. Now do a whip finish. Take your whip finisher and get the little wire thing over the thread, rotate it, hold it up perpendicular to the shank of the hook, turn it again, rotate, twist, twist again, drop, loop, hook, and then GENTLY break the thread.

39. Good. Now, as fast as you can before the fly unrav­els (usually instantaneously, but sometimes you get a break and it will hold for ten seconds, just before you can get the new thread on), tie on even more thread.

40. Forget the whip finisher. Use the hollow thingee needle device.


42. Okay, now open the bottle of head cement and inhale.

43. Kidding.

44. Get the needle and dip it in the bottle.

45. Put one to eight drops of head cement on the head of the fly.

46. Compulsively stick the dubbing needle into the hook eye so it doesn’t get filled in with cement. No matter how many times you do this, it will magically in-fill when you take the fly to the stream and attempt to put your tippet material through.

47. Now trim the thread.

48. You must have accidentally cut the thread, again.

49. Never mind.

50. Go to fly shop and buy a dozen Adams.

Excerpted from Angler Management: The Day I Died While Fly Fishing (Headwater Books, September 2009, 214 pages, hardcover). Purchase in the MidCurrent Store.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Jack Ohman is the recipient of the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for editorial cartooning and one of the most widely syndicated political cartoonists in the Unites States, with his work appearing in 300 newspapers including The Washington Post and The New York Times. Reprinted by permission of Headwater Books. Copyright © 2011-2012. All rights reserved.
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  • Tom

    Thanks, Jack and Marshall, you made my day!

  • Caffreymot


  • Nate

    This was great!  I find a little blood on my patterns add that extra something.  Although, does that mean I have added “flavoring” to my fly???

    • Yes, it does.  So you are not allowed to use it in international tournaments.

    • Marshall Bartlett

      I was always told that the blood was some sort of “druid”-esque baptism a fly had to go through before it was deemed worthy of fish, an offering to the gods of fly-fishing.  Method: prick finger, bleed on fly, invoke ritual expletives.

  • Lykos33

    I don’t appreciate this wise guy peaking i my window while I try to manufacture flies…..LOL!

    • JaxFlyTyer

       Seriously! Who’s he think he is sharing my patented methodology?

  • Greg McIntyre


  • Pbyrley

    there must be more humor in tying trout flies.  I like to tie bigger, salt water flies, like maybe hook size 2.  I just couldn’t relate to the funny story, sorry.  With my salt water flies, I pretend I am going to catch a redfish or a snook (I did catch a few small snook on flies I tied using Jacques Herter’s wonderful materials about 1954).  I’ve never caught a snook since but someday I’m gonna!

  • Mdrew01

    Great timing! Our Project Healing Waters Fly Tying class starts tonight, and I will definitely share this with the class. Thanks!

  • Mark Cole

    Missing a step. Add step 5a. Make sure that while wraping the thread place at least one wrap, more is better around the point. Do not notice this addition until the fly is complete and the head cemented.

    Great. I will share with my fly tying class this spring.

  • Thorunn

    Thanks, this just might get me started in the fly tying business 🙂

  • Gofishinor

    Too funny, Don’t forget when putting the fly into the vise it shoots across the room bounces off a couple walls then on to the carpet just when the wife walks in and finds it in her foot. Step 2a

  • BadCaster

    And then “gently break the thread”  I think I peed myself a little laughing at that one!

  • Michael in Seattle

    I’m really good on the first half of step 4. I guess I need to aim for bleeding more. I usually get to the last sentence of step 38 earlier in the process…WAY earlier. I’m convinced I have defective thread because I sat down to tie a few eggs the other night…to RELAX a little before heading for bed, mind you. The thread broke six times, each progressively further into the process after starting over but I trudged ever onward.

    When I got up in the morning and examined my work, I decided that fish eggs can indeed look completely scrambled and misshapen like chicken eggs. Perhaps I’m on the verge of a great discovery that steelhead LOVE their eggs scrambled and smashed…

  • This made my day ! In fact I was having a down day till I read this !   Thanks, milo

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