Ten Tying Tips of the Pros

March 9, 2011 By: Al and Gretchen Beatty

Fly Tying TipsWHILE 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.

1. Place the scissors parallel and tight against the hook shank and clip the wings. It is easy to tie the hackle on the gentle slope.

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.

2. On this fly, the authors tied the hackle at the base of the wing. They allowed the bobbin to hang from the base of the wing and wrapped the hackle. Next, they spiral-wrapped the thread through the hackle

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.

3. The authors tied the hackle close to the hook eye. They then wrapped the hackle to the wing, leaving small gaps between the turns of feather.

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.

4. The authors then wrapped the feather back up the fly, filling in the small gaps. That bushy collar looks great!







Tip 2: Even Wings

1. Clip a few fibers from the thicker wing to create two 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.

2. These wings are even and will make a lovely fly.

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

1. Steel wool in a film canister is an excellent tool for removing glue from a bodkin.

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.

2. Gluing stacked hair to the inside of a film canister lid protects the material in your travel bag.

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

1. Tie the feather to the hook in the normal manner. Wrap the hackle up the hook; leave small gaps between the raps. Tie off the feather with one thread wrap. Next, carefully spiral-wrap the thread down the hook.

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.

2. Wrap the hackle back down the hook, filling in the gaps left between the first wraps of the feather. Tie off the hackle with one wrap of thread. Carefully spiral wrap the thread up the hook.

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.

3. Spiral-wrap the feather up the hook. Tie off the thread and clip the excess hackle tip.

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

1. On this fly, the author tied off the hackle with several wraps of thread. Now he'll have to clip the surplus feather and then cover the stub with more thread wraps. The result will be a bulbous and misshapen head. Perhaps we could do better.

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.

2. Here's a better way to tie off the hackle and finish the thread head. Secure the hackle with one firm wrap of thread.

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.

3. Brush back all the hackle fibers and length of excess hackle. Wrap the thread back on the excess hackle. This jam knot will firmly secure the feather to the hook.

4. Pull the excess hackle forward and clip. Any stub will be hidden in the hackle collar. Now you may whip-finish the thread and clip. This neat idea will help you make tidier heads on your dry flies.

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

1. Complete the body so the thread is hanging from behind the wing.

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.

2. Wrap the hackle. Tie off the feather around the base of the wing post.

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.

3. Tie off the thread and clip.

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.)


1. Tie the herl to the hook. Next, make a thread dubbing loop. Catch both the loop and the herl in a dubbing-loop spinning tool.


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.

2. Spin the tool to create a chenille rope.

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.

3. Now you may wrap the rope up the hook to create a very durable peacock-herl body.

(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.




1. The tail is in place and the calftail wing is tied to the hook. Most tiers then clip the butt ends of the calftail with the scissors positioned straight up and down. Wrong!

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.

2. The butt ends of this wing were clipped straight up and down. There's no way to hide the resulting hump. Perhaps there's a better way.

3. Hold the scissors flat along the top of the hook, and cock the butt ends of the calftail up at a 45-degree angle. Now clip the excess fibers.

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.

4. Wrap the tapered fibers tight against the top of the tail. This level underbody will help create a smooth dubbed or floss body.

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.





1. Stack a bunch of hair for the wings. Tie the bunch to the top of the hook with the tips pointing forward.

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.

2. Pull back on the hair until the wing equals the length of the spare hook.

3. Tighten the thread to pull the wing to the top of the hook.

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.


1. Here we see the original Wonder Wings. The stem, tied to the hook, causes the fly to spin and twist the leader when cast.

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.

2. Clipping the base of the stem from the wing is a poor solution; you'll also cut some of the desirable soft fibers that form the wing.

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.

3. Tying the improved Wonder Wing is simple. Select a feather and clip away a part of the stem. Brush the hackle fibers down in the same direction. Tie the fibers to the top of the hook.

4. Pull the wings to length and tighten the thread. These Wonder Wings look great and the fly won't spin when cast.

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.