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A Guide to Tying Better Flies

Experienced Tips for Tying Flies that Look Good and Catch Fish

Ugly flies catch fish, pretty flies catch fishermen, but a well tied fly catches both.  This is why it is important to not only tie effective patterns but it’s also important to tie correct patterns.  When I say correct, I mean proportional flies using the materials from a recipe and using the right techniques to make the fly look as intended by the original author of the pattern and durable enough to make it worth your time to tie.  You will get a great satisfaction out of tying flies when they are correctly tied and look good.  The fish are going to eat them either way in most cases if you have good presentation, so why not make the best fly you can?

In this guide, we’re going to teach you some of the best tips we’ve acquired from our 15+ years of fly tying experience so you can tie flies that not only catch fish, but also look good.

Tie Perfect Portions

Insects Aren’t As Big As You Think

Tying perfect proportions is probably one of the hardest things to to in fly tying, but it is one of the most important.  You want to tie the right amount of materials on to achieve the correct insect profile both in length, height and girth.  Insects aren’t as big as we think they are most times and when you hear the advice to go down a size or two when fish refuse your current fly, it’s often due to portions being too large on the fly you are fishing.

The key to tying correct portions is simple to state and takes time to master.

Practice Makes Perfect

Knowing the pattern and having experience on how to tie it will help with portions greatly.  Knowing when you can make one wrap instead of 5, or learning to tie in multiple materials at once to reduce bulk in your pattern is the sign you’ve learned the pattern well.  Tie a lot of a single pattern and look for ways to keep a slim profile.

Do Less Whenever Possible

When you can, do two wraps instead of 4, tie in 3 fibers instead of 6, use less dubbing when possible etc.  Remember that the hook diameter will already add a lot of width to your fly pattern and once you add dubbing, it will greatly increase the girth.  Most insects aren’t wider than 2-3 hook diameters, so tying beyond that in most cases is not necessary. This is especially true when tying dry flies because over portioned dry flies won’t float or look right.  Don’t sacrifice durability for doing less, but don’t do more just because you can either.

Measure Portions to Hook Size

Ydry-fly-proportionsou’ll often hear in our fly explorer videos, that you should tie in the tails to 3/4 the hook size, or 1 and 1/2 hook gaps, or two eyelets back etc.  Using the hook itself as a relative measurement tool helps you size up and size down based on the hook size while keeping uniform portions to match the pattern imitation.  A size #20 pheasant tail has the same relative tail length to a size #10 pheasant tail, because it’s based off hook size.  

See the diagram here made by Charlie Craven, fly tying legend in Colorado on dry fly portions and notice how he uses the hook size as the guide to the measurements.  All flies have their proper portions and the more you know about your entomology, the better you’ll understand the right portions.

Fly Tying Videos Really Help

fly-explorerFly tying videos like the HD ones we offer on our Fly Explorer, really help show not only what the portions should be but how we achieve those portions.  Pictures only help with half the battle when getting the portions right.  Do your best to find a good video with an experience tyer and you’ll learn the right way to tie and achieve good proportions.

With time and practice you will develop good portions both on the materials and how they are applied to the hook.

Use Correct Materials

There’s a Reason It’s Called a Recipe

You wouldn’t make pizza dough by substituting in sugar for flour.  Sure flour and sugar look similar, but their properties are so different you’re going to end up making sugar cookies instead of pizza crust.  The same is true for fly tying.  While there are many materials you can substitute without any issues, you need to understand those materials properties before making the substitution.  You can substitute 140 denier thread with 70 denier thread, but you have to understand that you are going to create double the bulk on the fly in the same amount of wraps.  This may be fine for you given a certain pattern, but you need to understand the properties of materials before you substitute.  

As you begin at fly tying, stick to the recipe exactly, most patterns created have gone through dozens of tests and variations and the author knows what works and doesn’t work.  As you improve, you’ll find that substituting materials can work out well for your pocketbook, but overall if you can afford it, then stick to the recipe.

Though not complete by any means, here’s a list of a few example materials I know work as substitutions when you are short on certain common materials:

  • Coq De Leon vs Partridge Fibers
  • 8/0 Uni Thread vs 70 Denier Thread
  • 6/0 Uni Thread vs 140 Denier Thread
  • Ice Dubbing vs Polar Ice Dubbing
  • Flashabou vs Tinsel
  • Hook substitution by brand or similar shape

This is why we list every recipe with exact materials on our fly explorer, because it matters when you’re trying to achieve the best possible fly.


Understand What You Tie

Know Your Bugs, Stages and Behaviors

It’s important to know that your fly pattern imitates both a caddis emerger and mayfly emerger.  It’s very helpful to understand that green drakes hatch during early to mid summer.  This kind of knowledge is called aquatic entomology and it’s the study of insects that are often eaten by trout.  

Knowing Insect Categories and Stages

There are roughly 12 categories of insects each with 2 – 4 stages that change their size and shape and colors.  This gives you about 40 or so different insects/stage combinations to cover.  Then you have different colors and sizes to imitate species and insects during different times of year.  Most insects have a 4-6 size range and 2-3 different colors they can be tied in.  If you do the math, you can see that there are 1,000’s of combinations we try to imitate as anglers and then to top that all off, we tie all sorts of flies that look like nothing in order to attract fish more than imitate a direct food source.  On our fly explorer, we list each pattern to include insect category and stage so if you know you need to tie some midge emerger patterns, you can just click the filters and get your results.  It’s a really handy way to tie flies.  Check out our video on how the filters work if you’re interested.

Knowing Insect Behavior – Caddis Example

Even knowing all the options that a fly could imitate is only some of the battle.  Also knowing how the insects behave is important.  For example, we know that female caddis come back to the water after mating in the trees and deposit their egg sacks on the waters surface.  This “egg-laying caddis” is often tied differently than a standard caddis dry fly.  Because of the egg sack, we tie a hot green, orange or red hot spot at the bend of the hook to imitate the egg sack and because we know the females skate and flutter along the water a straight eye or even upward facing eye is better than a down eye on the hook because if you strip the fly in to make it skate while fishing it, a straight eye or up eye will help keep the fly afloat better increasing your chances to catch fish.

As you can see, knowing the categories, stages and behaviors of insects only improves our opportunities to tie more effective flies.  If you’re interested in learning more about fly fishing entomology, check out our course, it will teach you all you need to know and really help improve your fly tying.


Tie in Dozens

Repetition is Key

You can understand a pattern by tying one or two, but you can’t perfect a pattern with at least tying a dozen.  I know people who tie 60 of the same pattern every time they commit to learning it.  Lord knows we get enough materials in the packaging to tie an endless amount of flies, a few more hooks and time can help you master a pattern.  But isn’t that boring to tie that many of a single pattern?  Yes.  

Tips to Make this Interesting and Not So Boring

Luckily, we have a tip on that too.  Let’s take a mercury midge for example.  Simple to tie, but portions and practice make the fly perfect.  Midges can be tied in sizes 16 – 24 and in nearly any color you like.  Why not pick 6 of your favorite colors, say red, black, olive, white, blue and purple and tie two of each color in each size.  That’s 10 of each color in 6 different sizes.  At the end of mastering the mercury midge, you will have a fully stocked midge box ready to handle any season and a back up of each fly once it starts working.  That’s the same pattern changing thread color and you get a ton of variety.

When the patterns get more advanced, like a royal wulff, you will learn that tying at least of dozen of the pattern really helps you master it.  Commit in your mind that you are learning a new pattern and don’t leave that pattern until you’ve mastered it or run out of materials.  This will actually save you money in fly tying as well.  Materials are expensive when you want to tie 100 different patterns, but when you can start with 2 or 3 at a time, the costs are much cheaper and tying until your materials get low or run out gives you the best value on your investment.

Lay Out Materials First

Assembly Line Increases Productivity

Assembly lines are proven to increase productivity.  Doing one step at a time when preparing marterials saves you time and frustration when tying.  I hate having to put down my bobbin and scissors every step to trim out tails, or find my dubbing etc.  If your recipe calls for 3 pheasant tail fibers for the tail, pre cut out 3 for each fly you’re going to tie. Then when it comes to tying in the tail, it’s a quick grab, measure and tie in, instead of setting everything down and doing it one at a time.  

This saves you time as well as keeps your flies looking more uniform.  Matching the tails to the last set of tails helps you keep uniformity to your pattern which is what you’re looking for if you’re tying right.  This is also great for durability.  Doing head cement or UV resin all at once helps me be more uniform and faster at adding durability.  Create a drying space in your fly tying desk and also leave room for your prepared materials as you tie.  

Invest in a Good Vise

A Craftsman Is Only As Good as His Tools

I have owned one vise my entire life and I’ve tied for 15+ years.  A craftsman is only as good as his tools and a good vise is likely the most important purchase for fly tying.  While they come in a variety of options, I believe a free standing rotary vise gives you the most opportunity to tie in a variety of places.  The final choice is up to you, but don’t go buying those $10 vises to get into fly tying.  Go tie with a buddy if you’re starting out anyway and learn with their materials and tools.  Then once you’re hooked and like it, drop the cash for a good vise and you’ll never have to replace it.  I would have had to buy at least 30 vises now if I had bought the cheap $30 ones.  Instead I bought a $200 vise that is well known and recommended and I’ve never looked back.

Achieve Perfection

Ugly Flies Catch Fish, But Pretty Flies Catch Fishermen

If fly tying was about just tying flies to catch fish, then peacock herl on a hook would be all that is needed.  If you spend a moment to consider it, fly tying is so much more than that.  Like any art or craft, the details, process and end result both aesthetically and functionally are equally important.  Tie each fly to the highest standard and you’ll enjoy your flies so much more when fishing them and the fish will too.  Here are a few tips to focus on when tying the perfect fly.

It’s Ok to Start Over

You don’t have to live with the mistake.  Most mistakes can be undone by unwrapping the thread or wire that secures the mistake in place.  Throw out any broken or damaged materials and start over.  The hook is the most expensive part of the fly, so make your money count.  Using some standard pliers, you can grab at the fly and rip off all the materials and start over from scratch.  Don’t be afraid to do this on existing flies that have broken and need re-tying or as you’re tying them if you made a mistake that has to start over from scratch.  

Tie Slow as You Learn a New Pattern

Don’t tie so fast you give yourself carpal tunnel.  Some guys can tie this fast, but they have tied thousands of that pattern usually and they know exactly what to do.  As you are going along, slow down at the hardest parts.  I tied shitty soft hackles for years because I rushed this part of the pattern and they never came out like I liked them.  I’ve learned to slow down and take this step slow and when I do, my flies come out so much better and the fish and myself enjoy them more.