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Fly Tying for Beginners – How to Get Started

If you love fly fishing, tying your own flies is a fantastic accompanying hobby.

When you learn fly tying for beginners, you can create the exact fly patterns you buy at the fly shop. You can also create custom flies to replicate the bugs that are common in your favorite fishing location. You can create as many different types of bugs as your creativity allows.

Once you learn the bugs that are common in your favorite stream, you can replicate that to enhance your chances of walking home having caught many fish. Again, you do not have to worry that you might walk into fly shop and find the flies sold out.

If you do decide to get into the artistry of fly tying, nothing feels better than catching a fish on a fly that you have tied yourself.

Basic Fly-Tying Equipment

Although the first fly you tie may not look like a fly, you will get better at tying the more you do it. When tying, the first thing you need is to pick the right tools. There are some fly-tying kits available online, which you can use for the entire process.

Fly tying station
Fly Tying Tools & Materials

Once you have the tying experience, you can buy more tools and accessories to tie more varieties of flies. Some of the essential tools you need include:

  • Vise – This is the most essential tool you need to tie flies. The tool holds the hook firmly as you work the thread and other materials to create a fly pattern.
  • Scissors – You use scissors to cut hairs and threads and any other materials that need cutting as you make the fly.
  • Bobbin – A bobbin holds the thread and allows you to wind it around the hook and hold other materials next to the hook.
  • Hackle Pliers – Hackle is another name for feather in fly fishing. When fly tying, hackle is one of the most used material to create bugs. To cut the feathers with ease, you need hackle pliers. The pliers hold the stem of the feather rightly so that you can pluck the pieces of the feather with much ease. If you choose to hold the feather with your hands, you will manage, but the stem might keep rolling.
  • Bodkin Needle – This is a fancy name for a metal rod with a sharp pointed edge. You can use it to pick out dubbing or apply glue and cement to the hook. You can use it in any place you need a sharp point.
  • Head Cement – Head cement works as the glue that holds the final length or knot of the thread onto the hook. You only need a drop or two of the cement to ensure that the knot does not unravel or break when you start fly fishing.

Materials Needed for Fly-Tying

Now that you have the tools you need to tie a fly, which materials do you need?

There are hundreds of materials you may need to tie flies, but for a beginner, you only need a few. If you are just learning to tie flies, you can start with flies such as San Juan worms, pheasant tail nymph brassie, hare’s ear nymph, and bead head caddis.

While you can buy a fly-tying materials kit, it is best to buy the materials one by one. This way, you are sure you will buy the best quality of all the material. Some of the basic materials include:

  • Hooks – Hooks are necessary in fly tying. A hook is the base on which you attach all other materials. Hooks come in a variety of styles and sizes. Because you learning to tie flies, you can start with nymph hooks sizes 12, 14, and 16 and use more hooks later once you master the art.
  • Thread – A thread attaches other materials such as feather and fur on the hook. Threads are available in a range of colors and widths. The most used thread width is 6/0. However, if you need to make smaller flies, say Tricos or PMDs, you need a thread width 8/0. To make larger flies such as stoneflies and steamers, a thread width size 3/0 comes in handy. Threads are also available in practically any color, so you can mimic the color of the bugs. To start learning how to tie flies, choose black, brown, and red threads in standard size 6/0.
  • Wire – You can tie a wire on top of a thread to create the impression of a bug even better, the coils of wire around the hook makes the fake fly appear to have segments on the abdomen, and this confuses the fish even more. The wire also adds weight to the fly. In bright light, the wire shines to call the fish to attention. You can buy wires in a variety of thicknesses and colors, but for fly tying for beginners, a fine copper wire will suffice.
  • Beads – I have used beads for the past 10 years. When beads came to the market about 20 years ago, I did not see their use, but now, I use them on every fly. Beads give the fake nymph a head. The beads also give the fly weight, which is needed for wet fly fishing. The beads sport a brass or tungsten construction with a gold, brass, or silver color. Some beads might come in vibrant colors such as yellow or green. Instead of trying to wrap your head around all the available sizes and colors, pick a gold bead size 3/32, which is versatile enough for most flies.
  • Dubbing – Dubbing acts as the main material on most flies. The material sports synthetic nylon construction, but you can find some in natural material such as hare’s ear. You can choose between coarse and smooth dubbing, depending on the look you need for your fly. If you choose smooth dubbing, you will have a flatter and more uniform look on the hook. If you need a fuzzier and less uniform look, pick a coarse dubbing. There are assorted colors available for dubbing. For a beginner, you need caddis green, tan, and gray hare’s ear.
  • Pheasant Tail – You might have heard of the pheasant tail nymph. This fly gets its name from the material used in its creation. The pheasant tail is used in many of the flies. You can use the tail to create the wings, tails, or the body of the flies. Its tiny fibers ensure that the fly has a natural look while its movements mimic those of sea insects. You can buy the pheasant tail in either individual feathers or as cut pieces in small packs.
  • Peacock Herl – I love using peacock herl when creating my flies. The fish cannot resist the shine and vibrancy of peacock herl. The material creates the abdomen and the body of certain flies. However, unlike other materials, peacock herl is fragile and needs care during application to avoid breaking. When shopping, you will come across spun herl and full peacock plumes. For a beginner, pick spun peacock herl as it is easier to apply.
  • Chenile – Chenile is common in red or orange. The material comes in handy when you need to create San Juan worms. You might also find other colors such as black, green, and brown, allowing you to create the Pat’s rubber legs and woolly buggers’ bodies.

Other Tools and Materials Needed

  • Waste Basket – The basket gives you a way to keep your work bench clean by holding the excess feathers, hair, and thread. You do not have to throw out everything in the basket as you can recycle some for some flies.
  • Hair Stacker – This is a simple tube that holds hair and other materials to make it easier for you when you are tying the flies. When you are making dry fish, you need to keep the hair even on the fly, and therefore a hair stacker comes in handy.
  • Wax – Wax is not an essential material, but it makes the results more impressive. You can apply the wax on the thread to make it sticky for easy attachment of the dubbing. Wax only makes the dubbing adhere faster, but the oils on one’s hands work simply fine. You only need wax if your hands are extremely dry or you need to get a uniform layer of dubbing.
  • Whip Finisher – You must finish the fly by tying off the thread into a neat finish. Instead of using your hands, you can use a whip finisher to tie a clean knot that finishes the fly.

Learning to Tie

Are you ready to start fly tying?

You need to learn a fly pattern. Different flies have different patterns, and you must learn them if you need to create perfect flies. The fly pattern shows the size of the fly you create (so that you do not end up with a ridiculously small or exceptionally large fly). The pattern also specifies the hook to use, the fly materials, the size, and the type. Some patterns even have more instructions to enable you to achieve a specific effect.

Tying a fly

With the pattern, you can create the same fly consistently. If two people use the same pattern to create a fly, the two flies will look the same in size, colors, and all other aspects. However, there are patterns that give you alternatives of some materials in case some materials are not available in your location.

Patterns are meant to give you consistency when you tie flies, but there might be minor differences from one writer to the next. When shopping for a fly pattern, pick one with an image of the finished fly to show you how the fly looks after it is completed.

What are the parts of a fly?

Flies are not all the same. Some are simple and others are complicated with Salmon flies being the most complex of them all. Because the Salmon has the most parts compared to any other flies. Most of the text on fly fishing shows a Salmon as a sample. Some of the parts you will see include:

  1. Tail
  2. Tag
  3. Butt
  4. Hackle
  5. Throat hackle
  6. Over wing
  7. Under wing
  8. Horn
  9. Side
  10. Head
  11. Cheek

There is no single system of naming artificial flies. Some of the popular patterns have had their names for many years. You have the liberty to create any fly you need and name it as you will. For a beginner, however, you need to create flies with the available patterns and learn to create your own flies from there.

Easy Flies to Tie for Beginners

If you are following tying patterns, it is easy to create the flies you need. It is easy to follow the fly patterns, and if you have all the tools and materials needed, you can make the flies with ease.

Once you learn how to make the flies, you can learn to tie a few knots to launch your fly fishing. The turtle knot is one of the simplest to create for beginners. You can create this knot, pass the leader through the hook or the eye of the fly, and push the fly up the leader. Make a loop at end of the leader and pull the loop over the fly and tighten the loop.

The first flies you make should be simple and easy to make. You need to practice severally until you are good to create the flies without looking back at the patterns every time you need to create the flies.

San Juan Worm

San Juan Worm
San Juan Worm by WaldemarpaetzTroutster.com, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the easiest fly to tie, which makes it a perfect choice for beginners. It is named after the famed San Juan River that runs in New Mexico and Southern Colorado. The river has millions of these red worms that the fish eat. They attract many fish in different rivers. You can use the worms to fish in almost every river, seeing that every river contains annelids.

If you are not sure of the type of fly to use, or if there are no bugs with nymphs in the season, you can use these worms. They are between 12 and 18 in size. Depending on where you fish, the worms can be made with red, pink, or orange chenille.

Zebra Midge

Zebra Midge
“Dubbed Zebra Midge” by BTW Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When winter kicks in, zebra midges turn to be the delicacy that fish feed on. These flies are small and with minimal features. You only need a few materials, which make them ideal for beginners. They will work well in any size between 16 and 22, but you can make them even smaller if your skills allow. To make them, use black, silver, and red. However, if you are feeling creative, you can use virtually any color.

Brassie

Brassie Fly
Brassie by polaire801 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brassies are not as common as the San Juan worm, but they are the most versatile flies. You can use them when winter kicks in or when the caddis hatch. They look like both caddis and midge larvae, so you can use it during the season of either of these two bugs. You can tie the flies in any size between 14 and 22 using copper or brass wire for the body and a peacock herl for the thorax. You do not need a bead head, which makes them even easier for beginners. However, you can try different wire colors, say red.

Bead Head Caddis

These are simple flies that attract fish when all other flies fail. Unlike other flies, these require dubbing. You can tie them using a green ice or gray hare’s ear dubbing. However, you can be a little creative and mix different colors to create the best bait. It is created in between size 14 and 16 with a bead head that make it a little heavier.

Hare’s Ear Nymph

Hare's Ear Nymph
“Hare’s Ear Nymph” by sailorbill is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hare’s ear nymphs are common everywhere. Every fly shop you walk into will stock this fly. There are different variations of the fly you can buy or create, depending on where you need to fish. The fly looks like scuds, caddis larvae, and mayfly nymphs. The flies are so versatile that when you do not know what to use, you can always go for them.

Tie this fly in size 12 to 18 using hare’s fur. The fur creates a bushy tail with the dubbing from hare’s ear creating the body and the thorax. There are patterns that offer tinsel and wire to form a ribbed body. You can choose to include a head bead or use the fly the way it is. You can create the fly in a variation of colors if you need to target specific hatches. Look for the pattern and start making this fly.

Pheasant Tail Nymph

Pheasant Tail Nymph
“Pheasant Tail Nymph” by Bill Young is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is one of the oldest flies. It has been used since 1930, and it is very effective in catching fish. The fly mimics mayfly nymphs. Tiers have modified this artificial fly severally throughout the years to make it look more like the nymph.

The pheasant tail is the main material used to create this fly as pieces of the tail are used to create the body and the abdomen. To create the thorax, use peacock herl. Combine these with turkey or pheasant to create the wings of the fly. The fly is tied in between size 12 and 18. To make it more functional, use a gold or copper bead.

Final Tips & Suggestions

Tweak The Size and Color of Flies

When starting to learn fly tying, you should follow the patterns strictly to create the flies consistently. You can compare different patterns from different writers and see which is easier to make or mimics the bugs in your favorite fishing spot. Once you learn how to make one fly consistently accurate, you can move on and learn the next. Once you master all the flies in your fishing spot, you can try altering the flies to see what works.

If you have been fishing for long, then you know the flies that are available in different seasons in your favorite fishing spot. Granted, you can tweak the colors and the sizes of the flies to get a size that matches the fly you are targeting.

Fish Wet Flies

Dry fly fishing is common with most anglers, but that doesn’t mean one cannot try wet flies. If you have reliable floating line, dry fishing is a great option to try. If you target trout, try wet fly fishing, which is also a simple technique. The method allows you to target different species of fish and fish on different seasons.

Use Hide Fur to Create Flies

Fur dubbing for fly tying comes in handy when you need more success at the stream. The prepackaged fur is used for dubbing different flies. However, the fur is not readily available. This fur comes from chopped and blended squirrel or rabbit hair. Fur still on the hide has been used for many years, and it offers a host of choices, especially if you are a beginner fly tier who needs an easy way to create flies. Muskrat, mole, and otter produce great hair for use in creating flies. Other available fur on hide materials include options from beaver, opossum, raccoon, nutria, bobcat, lynx, coyote, and badger. The advantage of fur on hide is that it provides natural color. With this option, you can even omit the use of guard hairs on your flies.

Summary of Fly Tying for Beginners

The first few flies you make might be frustrating. Even if you follow the patterns keenly, your hands are still not used to the precision of joining small hairs on small hooks and parts. It takes getting-used-to, artistry, skills, and patience.

The more the flies you make, the better you become at fly tying. The skill might take many months to master to the point that you can alter the patterns, but all you need is determination. As long as you have a vise, scissors, dubbing, thread, and a few other tools and materials, you are good to go.

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Ron Lawson

Ron Lawson

Ron grew up in Central Maine. He has been fly fishing rivers and creeks in Northern and Western Maine for the past 25 years. He likes learning everything there is to know about fly fishing and wants to pass that knowledge on to others.

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