5 Tips for New Fly Tyers

new fly tyer

Learning to tie flies can be as bewildering as learning to fly fish. There are a lot of concepts to grasp and skills to master. New fly tyers might get ten different sets of answers if they asked ten veteran fly tyers to give them five helpful hints.

But here the first five tips that come to mind. I’ve found them quite helpful over the years as a fly tyer.

1. Beware of using too much material.

My fly tying mentor, Bob Granger, talked about this a lot. The temptation is to apply too many wraps of thread or to put the dubbing on too thick.

You can get away with this (sort of) when you’re tying larger flies. But with smaller flies, you’ll crowd the hook and have difficulty finding a place near the eye to tie off your thread when you’re finished. If you look at real Blue-Winged Olives or Caddis flies, you’ll notice how sparse they are. So there’s no reason to apply too much material unless you want your Caddis fly to look like it is on steroids.

2. Don’t misuse your sharp scissors.

Buy two pairs of scissors.

Spend a bit more on the one that you’ll use to trim deer or elk hair, thread, and tiny feathers. Use a cheaper pair to cut the stuff that can dull your more expensive pair. This includes the stem of larger feathers, copper wire, and elk or deer hide.

3. Tie larger sizes and easy patterns first.

It makes sense to begin learning to tie a San Juan Worm or a Woolly Bugger.

Even a size #18 (tiny!) nymph like a beadhead brassie is a good “starter” pattern. While it’s small, it’s ridiculously simple to tie. Wait to try your hand at tying an Elk Hair Caddis or a Royal Wulff or a Muddler Minnow.

You can learn to use a hair stacker, to work with calf hair, and to spin and stack hair after you’ve mastered some of the easier patterns.

4. Watch online videos for help.

I wish these were available when I started tying.

You can search YouTube for about any pattern you want to tie and find some terrific videos. Fly shop websites often produce their own. Major brands like Orvis also have excellent instructional videos, including some on fly tying. Here are just three:

    Tying a San Juan worm

    Tying a Woolly Bugger

    Tying a Brassie

5. Don’t fret over imperfection.

Your fly does not have to look catalog-ready to be effective.

What appears sloppy to you may appear “buggy” to a trout. So don’t worry about uneven hackle or a piece of hair or sticks out a bit longer than the others. Your fledgling attempt may not catch fly fishers like a commercially tied fly does. But it will do just as well at catching fish. And that’s what matters!

Why I Don’t Tie My Own Flies

Steve does. I don’t. I do not tie my own flies. In this post, I make a case for why some fly fishers should not tie their own flies.

Steve, the other half of “2 Guys and a River” and I are life-long friends. In college, we hung out so much the haters called us “Bo and Luke” after the lead characters on the silly TV show “Dukes of Hazard.” We even went on double dates together, though neither of us married our dates, much to the appreciation (on some days) of our wives.

But Steve and I could not be more different.

Steve is a first child. I am not. Steve is so much of a first child that when we take fly fishing trips, Steve will make the bed every morning at the place we’re staying, even if it’s the last day we’re there. Yes, he makes the bed. Let’s just say that I don’t make my bed (though I will pull off the dirty sheets on the morning I leave).

We also differ on many aspects of fly fishing. We use different rods. We wear different waders. How we think about fly fishing brands, even, is so different. I tend to be practical and cheap; he is more brand conscious.

And we also differ on the topic of tying flies. Steve does. I don’t. There are consequences to my decision, such as not having the ability to tie a pattern at the river’s edge and feel the surge of emotion as I hook a brown with a woolly bugger that I tied. I don’t get to feel one with nature because I caught a fish with something I created.

However, I’d rather buy than tie, and here’s why:

1. We had too many kids.

We ended up with four, and with all their sports and school activities, I can barely get out on the river as it is. A lousy excuse, I know. But given the dizzying number of places to buy flies, I’d rather watch my sons play football or my daughters play soccer or attend one of my sons’ wrestling meets.

I can’t do it all, so I’ve made the choice to eliminate, among other things, tying flies.

2. I also love to hunt.

I’ve limited my sports to two – fly fishing and hunting. I’d rather fly fish and hunt upland game and waterfowl than spend time in a damp basement under a bright lamp with tiny hooks and peacock herl. Just sayin’.

Obviously, when I hunt is not generally in the evenings and in the winter, but even so, life is a series of trade-offs. And I’ve traded tying my own flies for other opportunities.

3. I’d rather write than tie.

In my free time, outside of fly fishing and hunting, I like to write. I’ve written two books, with another on fly fishing (with Steve, my podcast partner). I’ve written thousands of blog posts, it seems, and another hundred or so articles.

Writing is another choice I’ve made.

4. I’d rather work more than tie.

I’ve started a couple small businesses, so I’d probably rather throw my shoulder into landing one more client than spend an evening staring at a vise.

Again, it’s another choice. It’s probably more like a kind of illness, but I enjoy throwing my shoulder into what I feel I’ve been called to do.

5. The patterns on the market are legion.

I’m grateful for all those who tie flies, and the artistry that I can purchase amazes me.

Yes, I may be paying more per fly than I should, but you can’t have it all in this world. I’m happy to pay for flies. I just am. And I’m thankful for the talent that ties the flies that I can buy.

6. We have too much clutter in our house.

Until the kids all leave (and it looks like it will be a while, even though the two oldest are in college), we need every square inch of our house for kid stuff. I don’t have space for a bench and a corner for more boxes.

7. I can live with the ambiguity of who ties my flies.

Someone recently taunted me for my decision by saying that I’m contributing to slave labor, that most flies are tied in China (or Thailand) in a sweat factory, and that it is the dirty little secret of the fly fishing industry.


Just for starters, none of the flies I purchase are from big box retail stores. I generally buy from local fly shops. I know for a fact that at least some of the fly shops where Steve and I fish regularly purchase flies from local tiers. For example, one fly shop in Montana has this on their web site: “We stock only flies & gear useful within fifty miles of our door, we designed and/or tie around half the flies we stock …”

However, no doubt that many of the ties sold in both fly shops and big box retail stores are tied by, as a fly shop monkey said to me the other day, “a little old lady in Thailand.”

So do individuals who tie flies in bulk for that fly shop make a live-able wage for their work?

I have no idea.

Do the folks at the factory who make your nets and leaders and tippet and vests make enough money to live on? I don’t know.

Are the mutual funds that you invest in for your retirement comprised only of investments in companies with vetted labor practices? Do you know how your investments are used?

I have no angst about who ties my flies. I just don’t.

8. I still catch fish.

Steve and I have fished together for years and years. I will admit that he is a much better fly fisher than I am – for a variety of reasons.

But somehow, I still seem to catch fish. I’ve never had a day where I think, “Man, if I just had some hand-crafted flies, I’d catch more fish.” Just today, Steve and I each caught 20 browns before 10:30 AM. We fished different runs. We each caught a 20-incher. I guess he did catch two whitefish, and I caught none. So, there again, he is the better fly fisher!

Has there ever been a moment when I thought, “I sure wish I could run back to my truck and tie a fly that matches the hatch?”

In 35 years of fly fishing, maybe a handful of moments. And given what I am able to do because of my other choices, I am more than happy to concede the moment to another fly fisher who can.

Episode 51: Should You Tie Your Own Flies?

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Tie your own flies? Some might say you can’t be a real fly fisher unless you do. Well, we differ on the matter. Steve ties his own, and Dave doesn’t. In this episode, using a point-counterpoint approach, we discuss the age-old question of whether you should tie your own flies.

Listen to Episode 51: Should You Tie Your Own Flies?

At the end of each episode, we have a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience. Please add your ideas to the creative mix.

Do you tie your own flies? If so, do you ever buy flies? If not, why not?

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Why I Learned the Art of Fly Tying

The art of fly tying – I may not be the best one to champion the art of anything.

Two decades ago, I learned to tie flies, and the flies I have tied over the years are truly wonders.

Now I’m not bragging.

My flies are mediocre at best. But they are wonders considering that I was born artistically challenged. And I still am. At age 54, I draw at about a 5-year old level. When our family holds its occasionally-annual gingerbread house competition, the mansion I construct ends up looking a shack in a third-world country.

I repeat, I am artistically challenged. So it’s a wonder that I’ve actually caught trout on the flies I have hand-tied.

Why in the world did I set out to tie flies, knowing that I have zero artistic talent?

Here are five reasons I learned the art of fly tying. You can figure out which ones are silly and which are serious. Maybe this will inspire you to learn to tie flies too. Here we go, starting with number five (drum roll, please).

5. It would help me learn to say “tying flies” rather than “flying ties.”

If you’ve never made that mistake, then you won’t understand. But it’s so easy to get tongue-tied and talk about flying ties (think about that image) rather than tying flies. I figured that if I was around a veteran tie flyer, whoops, I mean fly tyer, I would learn to say it right all the time.

Alas, I was wrong. So this really is not a good reason to become a fly tyer.

4. It would put hoarded stuff to good use.

I’m not a hoarder, even though it runs in my family. But like most folks, I have a garage full of old extension cords, balls of yarn, and peacock plumage. Yes, peacock plumage!

One of my neighbors in rural Montana had peacocks, and my kids used to pick up some of the long feathers and bring them home. As any fly tyer knows, peacock herl is used in a lot of fly patterns. The yarn turned out to be decent dubbing, and the old extension cords have provided me with a lifetime supply of copper wire. The downside of this is that I’ve become a magnet for stuff people want to discard.

I could buy the top-of-the-line Sage rod if I had a five-spot for every time a friend said, “Here, I thought you might want this for fly tying material.”

3. It would allow me to use the feathers and hides I collected from hunting trips.

One of my dreams has been to catch a trout on an elk hair caddis that I tied using the hair from a bull elk I would shoot with a bow. Believe it or not, that actually happened. However, my counsel is: if you want to tie flies from the fur and feathers of game you harvest, just stop. Those materials are harder to work with than the commercial elk hides or feathers you can buy for a handsome feel.

Here’s a bonus tip. If you’re stubborn and decide to use the fur and feathers from game you harvest, don’t tell anyone your intentions. Otherwise, you’ll have friends giving you deer hides, turkey feathers, pheasant feathers, and all kinds of other raw materials.

2. It would eliminate the need to shell out two bucks (and more!) for a hook with a bead and some wire.

Now we’re getting serious. There are some fly patterns which are more than worth the two bucks I pay for them. But tying a bead head brassie only requires me to put a bead head on the front of the hook, followed by a couple turns of peacock herl, and then a few turns of copper wire. Even I can do that relatively quickly.

San Juan worms are the same. If you can tie on a piece of chenille, and then use a lighter to cauterize both of the ends, that’s all it takes.

1. It would make me a better fly fisher.

This is the most important reason of all. When I learned to tie flies, I got more than I bargained for. I learned a lot about the feeding habits of trout, when certain flies worked (and when they didn’t), and how much of a trout’s diet comes from beneath the surface (something I needed to hear as a lover of dry fly fishing). Learning to tie flies is worth it for no other reason than becoming a better fly fisher.

Like playing the saxophone, fly tying is easy to do poorly. But even a poor imitation can catch trout. That’s the key. My theory is that a lot of flies are tied to catch fly fishers, not fish.

I’ve never interviewed a trout, but I’ve caught a lot of them on some of the rather clumsy looking patterns I’ve tied. So don’t be afraid to give the art of fly tying a try. If I can do it, you can do it, too.

Still not convinced? Then try something else. Perhaps tie flying.