Ten Tying Tips of the Pros
WHILE WE WERE GIVING a recent fly-tying demonstration, one of the people in the audience asked us if we had developed all the tips and tricks we were sharing that day. The question kind of brought us up short. We had to think about it for a minute. As it turned out, the answers — yes, no, maybe some — needed further explanation. Whenever possible, we often spend up to 10 hours a day at our vises, sometimes for several weeks straight without time off. It’s not uncommon to stumble on a technique that is new to us, and the hours we spend at the vise give us ample time to refine any new idea.
On the other hand, we have attended many fly-fishing and tying shows over the years, and our minds are always open to new ideas and ways of tying better flies. We don’t attend a show with the idea we are the experts that everyone should look to for fly-tying guidance; instead, we are also there to learn from the other demonstrators. And do you want to know something? We’ve never come away from a show where we didn’t learn a neat tip or trick that we could use at our vises at home.
We’d like to share a variety of tips that we think will increase your I productivity and help you tie better fish-catching flies. Some of the ideas are our own; others we learned from fellow tiers. For instance, the peacock chenille came from Louisiana, the wonder wings from Europe, and one of the film-canisters tricks came from California. All the shows we attend are opportunities to learn, and we have never been disappointed. Why not view your next fly-fishing show or club meeting as an opportunity to discover a new trick? You, too, won’t be disappointed.
Tip 1: Down the Slope
THERE ARE A COUPLE OF WAYS to eliminate any gap between the wing and hackle collar on a Trude-style fly.
First, place the scissors tight against the hook shank when clipping the excess wing fibers to produce a gentle slope. Next, leave the bobbin hanging at the start of the slope where you tie the hackle to the base of the wing. The weight of the bobbin keeps the feather from slipping forward when wrapping the hackle down the slope.
Another technique is to tie the feather on at the front of the hook. Wrap the feather back toward the wing (up the slope), leaving small gaps between each turn of hackle. Wrap the hackle back to the hook eye to fill the gaps and complete the collar.
Tip 2: Even Wings
HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED how difficult it is to divide the wings on a hair-wing dry fly? Calftail wings are more difficult to make than those constructed from deer, moose, or elk fibers, but the solution is really very simple.
The easiest fix we know is to simply use scissors to clip a few fibers from the thicker wing. We often use scissors to remove waste materials, hair fibers that are in the wrong place, or feathers that don’t want to get with the program.
While on this subject, we also use our scissors — along with a pair of tweezers — to remove individual hair fibers that refuse to line up with their neighbors in the hair stacker. Once again, calf tail hair is the worst offender. We seldom worry about an errant fiber or two in our fishing flies, but the patterns mounted in a fly plate should be perfect.
Tip 3: Film Canister Tying Tools
EVERYTHING IN FLY TYING isn’t about “how to.” Sometimes it’s good to think about “with what?”
We don’t remember who first showed us this trick, but Al remembers he was at a Federation of Fly Fishers conclave cleaning dried glue off his bodkin using the backside of a scissors blade. A fellow tier said he didn’t need to do that and produced a film canister with holes in the top. The fellow inserted the needle into one of the holes and removed the glue. It turned out that the canister contained steel wool. Well, Al recognized a good idea and he made several after returning home. Just stab the bodkin through one of the holes in the lid and the steel wool works its magic.
We stumbled upon this second idea while having coffee with fellow fly tiers Paul and Char Stimpson. It’s a great way to protect hair in your travel packs and have it ready to go on the hook. Even the tips of a bunch of hair — moose hair, in this case — in a hair stacker. Clip the butt ends of the hair even. Next, secure the clipped ends to the inside of a film canister lid using hot glue. The tips remain even, and the hair fibers are protected in the film canister.
Tip 4: Heavy Hackle
WE REALLY HAD TO CHUCKLE over this tip — making a heavy hackle using only one feather. It wasn’t that many years ago when it was standard practice to use four Indian cape feathers to hackle one dry fly. Times have changed.
Today, many of our customers request heavily hackled flies for use on our rough-and-tumble western rivers. We can accomplish this task with a single saddle hackle.
Start by tying the feather on the hook at the back of the hackle area. Wrap the hackle forward to the hook eye, leaving small spaces between each turn. Tie it off at the eye with one wrap of thread. Wind the thread to the back of the hackle area, taking care to not mash the fibers. Next, wrap the feather down the hook, filling in the spaces. Tie off the feather with one thread wrap, and wrap the thread forward to the hook eye. Once again, wrap the feather forward, tie it off, and form a thread head. Clip off the waste part of the feather. The number of times we’ve crisscrossed the thread and feather makes this hackle collar bulletproof and very attractive.
Tip 5: Neater Heads
IT’S NOT UNCOMMON to construct a really good-looking fly and thoroughly mess it up when making the thread head. Once the mistake is made, the fly is disfigured forever.
In the first photo, Al has tied off the feather, making a common mistake. He used 10 thread wraps to anchor the hackle so the trimmed end wouldn’t accidentally pull out from under the head. Next, when he cuts off the feather, he’ll use more thread wraps to cover the trimmed stub. The finished head will be very large and lopsided. Does this happen to you? Well, here’s the solution.
Hold the wrapped hackle in place using only one wrap of thread. Use the left thumb and first two fingers to gently pull the hackle fibers and feather tip back and out of the way. Next, place nine wraps on the hook as a head or jam knot. This knot kicks the feather back into the wrapped hackle. Trim the feather so a short stub sticks up to improve the fly’s durability. You’ll never see the stub, because it’s hidden in the bushy hackle collar.
Tip 6: Perfect Parachutes
FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS, Al avoided commercial orders for parachute dry flies tied on hooks smaller than size 18. Why? Because he hated customer complaints about hackle-clogged hook eyes; he knew this problem was more common on smaller flies.
When we got married, we spent three months living in the back of our pickup, traveling and fishing anywhere we wished. When we needed money to get another tank of gas, we would tie an order of flies. We were “stream people.” One gas-tank order was for 20 dozen size 22 Parachute Adams. We spent two days sitting on the banks of the Gallatin River figuring out how to tie those little parachutes without clogging the hook eyes. The solution was quite simple.
Our technique changes the location on the fly where you tie off the hackle. Construct the parachute body so it ends with the thread behind the wing post rather than at the hook eye. Wrap the hackle, tie it off at the bottom of the post, and trim. Pull the thread forward to the hook eye, and tie off the thread using a knot-tying tool. (Note: We used a marker on the thread to better illustrate its relationship with the materials.)
Tip 7: Peacock Chenille
PEACOCK HERL IS VERY ATTRACTIVE to many fish. The problem is that after catching a fish or two, you might have to retire the fly; peacock herl doesn’t stand up to much abuse. But making a durable peacock body is really simple.
Tie several peacock herls to the hook by their tips. Form a dubbing loop about as long as the herls. Capture the thread and herls with a clubbing-loop tool. Pull the loop tight and rotate the tool. The chenille appears starting at the hook.
(Caution: The loop and herl will grow slightly shorter as you rotate the tool. Allow it to do so, or the herl will break under the tension.)
Wrap the chenille around the hook to form a durable peacock-herl body.
Tip 8: Smooth Dry-Fly Bodies
SOME FLY TIERS HAVE DIFFICULTY blending the butt ends of the wings and tails on hair-wing dry flies so they can tie smooth bodies. You might think it doesn’t make any difference because you can cover up the transition point with dubbing, and you’d be right — for a while. But the disguise lasts only as long as the fly is dry; when the dubbing gets wet, it reveals the dirty little secret under it.
Blending the butt ends of the wings and tail is really very easy, and you’ll create a level platform for tying a smooth body. It’s all in how you hold the scissors. If you cut the excess wing material off with the scissors straight up and down, there is no amount of dubbing, thread, or other materials that will hide the resulting bump.
If, on the other hand, you lay the scissors flat along the shank while holding the waste hair ends up at a 45-degree angle, the resulting cut tapers toward the tail. The angle on this cut provides a much smoother transition and a better looking body.
Tip 9: Correct Wing Length
FOR YEARS WE STRUGGLED with the length of the wings on our hair-wing dry flies. Gretchen tended to get hers too short, and Al was all over the scale. Then we stumbled on a really easy fix using a spare hook as a gauge. This solution was lying in front of us for years.
Select, clean, and stack a clump of hair for the wings. Tie it to the hook shank on the near side so it is much longer than needed; use snug but not tight thread wraps. Mount a spare hook in an electronics test clip or hackle pliers to use as a measuring gauge. Pull back on the wing until enough hair has slipped out from under the thread wraps to equal the length of shank. The wing fibers are now the correct length. Next, tighten the thread wraps to pull the wing into position on top of the shank.
Tip 10: Looped Wonder Wings
THESE GORGEOUS WINGS require a material many fly tiers have in excess: the large feathers from the ends of rooster capes.
The first photograph shows the Wonder Wing in its original form with the feather stems tied to the hook shank. It has a beautiful profile with one major problem: the stiff stems in the wings cause the leader to twist during casting. We discovered that removing a section of the stem next to the hook shank solves the problem, but this cut other fibers unintentionally. We needed a better way.
The light bulb went off one afternoon. All we had to do was sweep the fibers back on a length of stem shorter than the intended wing. Next, we tied the feathers on the hook shorter than the final wing using snug — but not tight — wraps of thread. We then pulled the feathers out from under the thread to the proper length and tightened the thread. Looped Wonder Wings! It’s just that easy.