Confessions of a Half-Hearted Fly Tyer

half-hearted fly tyer

My name is Steve, and I’m a half-hearted fly tyer. There, I admitted it. Perhaps it’s even an exaggeration to call me a fly tyer. Some of the flies I’ve tied might make a more skilled fly tyer laugh. But I’ve caught dozens of trout on patterns I’ve tied. I think that’s enough to give me membership in the fly-tying fraternity.

There are, though, a few confessions that I want to make. And not merely for catharsis, though confession, so goes the cliché, is good for the soul. Rather my admission is to empower other fumble-fingered folks who feel like fly-tying misfits:

1. I am a half-hearted fly tyer.

I know, I already said that. But let me unpack my revelations a bit:

My passion for fly tying resembles the moon. It waxes and wanes. I’m always ready to grab my rod and head for the river. But I don’t feel the same about grabbing my vise and Metz Dry Fly Neck (Grizzly color) to tie a Parachute Adams. I can fly fish for hours and never get bored. But some days I tie flies for only minutes before I’m bored. Some days I’m disinterested before I even start. Yet, sometimes the urge hits, and I will crank out a dozen flies of a particular pattern.

The lesson: Even half-hearted fly tyers can produce useful flies and save themselves some money in the process.

2. I am artistically challenged.

I can’t draw stick figures for the life of me, and my attempts to build a gingerbread house for our annual family Christmas gingerbread competition are pathetic. My creation ends up looking like a dilapidated chicken coop. Surprisingly, though, I can tie a decent fly. Sure, my flies bulge in the wrong places, and the wraps look uneven. However, I’ve discovered that the fish don’t care. Perhaps the bulges and unevenness make my flies look more buggy.

The lesson: Even clunky-looking flies fool trout.

3. I limit myself to a few simple patterns.

I’ve never tied a bad-looking Muddler Minnow.

That’s because I don’t tie Muddler Minnows. I’ve fooled around with spinning deer hair. But it’s an art I never mastered well. So I leave these kinds of flies to the pros. I stick with San Juan Worms, Brassies, Woolly Buggers, and an occasional Elk Hair Caddis. The latter is not an easy fly for me to tie. But I shot a bull elk a few years ago during archery season, and I preserved the hide with a bit of 20 Mule Team Borax. Every so often I can’t resist tying a handful of size #14 caddis flies so I can brag about catching a trout with a fly I tied using hair from a bull elk I called in and took with an arrow. That helps me save face when the fly falls apart after catching one trout.

The Lesson: Even the simplest of patterns can be deadly when it comes to catching trout.

4. I haven’t improved much in two decades.

I’m like the guy who spent five of the best years of his life in second grade.

Honestly, I haven’t tied enough to get a lot better. But again, my interests are not in winning fly tying contests (do those even exist?). I simply want to catch trout. And I’m fascinated enough with fly tying to dabble in it whenever I feel the urge. It is a thrill to fool a trout with a fly I’ve tied. It is fun to create something that looks halfway like the flies I see in the bins at my local fly shop. It is fun to create.

The Lesson: Even if you never get better, you can still feel the satisfaction of sporadic fly tying.

Now that I’ve finished this piece, I feel the urge to get out my fly tying vise, bobbin, dubbing material and … oh wait, I have to fill out my bracket for March Madness!

Fly tying will have to wait until next week. Or next month.

Know Your Pattern: the Parachute Adams

Parachute Adams

If I had to fish with a single dry fly pattern, I’d definitely choose the Parachute Adams. It’s worked well for me on rivers ranging from Oregon to Michigan. Last weekend, I did well with it on the Little Jordan, a small creek in southeastern Minnesota.

I suspect I’ve caught more trout on the Parachute Adams than on any other dry fly pattern, though the Elk Hair Caddis is a close second. Here is a profile of this remarkably effective pattern:

1. How it originated

The Parachute Adams is a modification of the Adams.

According to Paul Schullery, the Adams originated in 1922 in Michigan. Leonard Halladay developed it as a general mayfly imitation, and his friend, Charles Adams, used it successfully on the Boardman River near Traverse City, Michigan. As a result, Halladay decided to name it after his friend.

The Adams is a relatively simply pattern to tie. It consists of dark gray dubbing for the body, brown and grizzly hackle, grizzly hackle tips for the wings, and a mixture of brown and grizzly hackle fibers for the tail.

Bud Lilly observed that the Adams grew lighter when it went east. But when it went west, fly tiers used extra hackle—presumably to keep it floating longer in the swift currents of western rivers.

2. How it has been modified

The Parachute Adams uses the same hackle, dubbing, and tail as the Adams.

However, the modification comes in the hackle (front) section of the fly. An Adams pattern wraps the hackle around the hook vertically—up and down. However, the Parachute Adams contains a vertical post of white calf hair at the front or head of the fly. Then, hackle gets wrapped horizontally around the base of the post. Tiers refer to this as “parachute style”—hence the name Parachute Adams.

There is no wing added as in the traditional Adams pattern.

The Catch and the Hatch has produced a helpful instructional video for tying this pattern. Even if you are not a fly tier, it’s worth watching so you can see what makes this fly work.

One of the more recent modifications to the Parachute Adams is the Purple Haze. This is the exact same pattern with a purple body instead of a dark gray one. It gives trout a bit different look, and I’ve had success with it.

However, I keep reverting back to the time-tested Parachute Adams — especially on rivers where the Purple Haze has become a craze so that trout are seeing nothing but purple.

3. Why it works

Like the standard Adams pattern, the Parachute Adams works well because it is a general mayfly imitation. It is versatile enough to serve as an attractor pattern when nothing specific is happening on the surface. Yet I have done quite well with it during specific hatches like Blue-Winged Olive (BWO) hatch. Some fly fishers even swear by it as an option for the Caddis hatch.

Perhaps it works well, too, because it is a low-riding fly. This gives trout a good look at it as it remains suspended in the surface film where mayflies typically emerge.

One of the most important factors in its success is its visibility to fly fishers. I can see its white post, or parachute, even in low light.

4. When to use it

You can use the Parachute Adams, well, whenever you want to catch trout on a dry fly. I’ve caught trout on it in every season of the year—even in the winter when a size #18 or #20 can imitate a midge cluster.

Unless I suspect that trout are keying in on Pale Morning Duns (PMDs) or on Caddis flies, I’ll tie on a Parachute Adams when I see rising trout. Typically, I like a size #18 or even a size #20 when a hatch is on.

I’ll tie it on, too, when no hatch is happening and I’m trying to coax a trout to the surface. In these cases, I typically use a bit larger size—either a size #14 or #16.

The Parachute Adams is a terrific choice for your number one go-to fly. Don’t leave home without it.

Other Flies in the “Know Your Pattern” Series

    The Royal Coachman

    The San Juan Worm

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!

Trout Flies and Color

Whenever I fish Montana’s Madison River in the spring, I use a tiny red nymph as a dropper. It may be a Copper John or a Dave’s Emerger (a pattern developed by Montana fly fisher Dave McKee). But the body always has red wire. I insist on it because I have had great success with tiny red nymphs. But does color really matter?

Does red work any better than black or copper? Or is it simply, uh, a pigment of my imagination?

The truth is, the color may attract me — the fly fisher — more than it does the trout. Here are a few insights about color:

1. Trout see colors, yet water changes their perception.

Gary Borger observes that “water absorbs and scatters light.” In fresh water, red is absorbed completely by six feet down. Trout see it as a shade of gray. Perhaps the red wire on my nymphs makes a subtle difference since I’m typically fishing it one to two feet below the surface on my favorite runs in the Madison.

According to Borger, orange, yellow, and green get to ten feet before turning to gray. Blue only makes it to four feet.

2. Fluorescent materials retain their colors as long as there is light.

Borger makes this point and adds that “black is always black, and flash is always flash.” Surprisingly, black may be the most “visible” color due to its contrast. Perhaps that explains why a black Copper John or a Zebra Midge can work so well.

3. Trout are more perceptive to the violet side of the color spectrum.

Kirk Deeter made this point in a recent issue of TROUT magazine. Now I know why I’m seeing a rise (no pun intended) in purple Beadhead Prince Nymphs and in the Purple Haze patterns (essentially a Parachute Adams with a purple body) in the bins in fly shops.

4. Use something bright or translucent in your attractor patterns on the surface.

It’s always good to match the hatch. As Kirk Deeter says, go “as natural as possible.” But when you are using an attractor pattern on the river’s surface, red or orange will appear bright. It’s why I like a Red Humpy or the trusted Royal Wulff (with its band of red).

5. The amount of variables determining the way trout see color can make a fly fisher crazy.

The way trout see color depends on several variables – the clarity of the water, the light conditions (cloudy vs. sunny, evening light vs. mid-day light), and the depth of the fly.

So, the best advice may be to keep it simple: The size of your fly and the pattern may matter more than color.

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.

5 Questions to Determine If You Should Tie Your Own Flies

Tie your own flies – that idea might seem far-fetched to a beginner fly fisher. If you’re new to the sport, you might wonder if fly tying is something to pursue.

To tie or not to tie? That is the question. To help you answer the question, here are a few more questions to consider:

Can I tie flies even if I’m not an artistic type?

Absolutely! I am living proof of this.

I do not have an artistic bone in my body. Or perhaps I do, and it is badly broken. While I can color between the lines, I cannot draw anything more complex than a stick figure. Yet I can tie the basic patterns and catch trout on them.

If your goal is to win a “most beautiful fly” contests, then a lack of artistic talent is an issue. If your goal is to catch trout, then being artistically challenged is not a concern. To tie your own flies has little to do with your artistic gene.

How do I learn?

The best approach is to sign up for a fly-tying class at your local fly shop. I learned to tie flies two decades ago in an eight-week class that met Saturday mornings at a fly shop in Bozeman, Montana.

The second best approach is to watch fly-tying videos. There are some great instructional videos that you can access for free. I like the “Beginner Fly Fishing Tips” series on YouTube by scflytying. You might also check the videos by Tightline Productions that Orvis shares on its website.

In my experience, books have limited value. I need to watch someone tying a fly in order to make sense of it. I simply can’t visualize the process when reading a book — even if it contains clear instructions and sharp diagrams. Having a live person to help you figure out what you’re doing wrong is the best way to learn.

What do I need to get started?

To tie your own flies, you need tools and materials.

The first tool you need is a vise. Any fly vise that holds a hook tight will do. Don’t overthink this.

Next, you need fly tying scissors. I recommend two pairs. Spend more on one that you reserve for hair and thread. Buy a cheaper pair to cut thicker items, which tend to dull the scissor blades more quickly. You’ll also need a bobbin (for your spool of thread) and a pair of hackle pliers. Neither item will break the bank.

I’d suggest two or three bobbins so you don’t have to re-thread your bobbin every time you switch spools of thread. Finally, get a whip finisher. Save yourself the hassle of a cheaper one and buy the one sold by Orvis.

The materials you need depend on what flies you plan to tie. Typically, the minimum materials include hackle capes, thread, dubbing material, head cement, and wire. A good fly shop or an online video can help you figure out exactly what you need for the flies you plan to tie.

Will the first fly I tie be worth fishing?

Yes! Sometimes, a clumsy looking fly might look a bit more “buggy” to the trout than something that looks perfect.

Besides, I suspect that a lot of flies are designed to catch fly fishers rather than fish. I’ve caught trout on some gnarly looking patterns. Of course, I’ve gotten better over the years. But trout key in on size and color more than on perfect proportions (though the exceptions increase as the fly size gets smaller!).

Sure, some patterns require more precision than others. But if your first fly is a San Juan Worm or a Brassie or a Woolly Bugger, it does not need to be perfect. To tie your own flies does not require flawless wonders.

What is the financial payoff for learning to tie flies?

The expected answer is, “You will save money.” After all, the materials for a $2 fly may amount to 20 cents.

But that math is too simplistic.

The initial investment in tools will likely reach $100. Then there are the materials themselves. A good hackle cape or neck may cost $50. Even the inexpensive materials – spools of thread, various kinds of feathers, peacock herl, etc – add up. You may not begin saving money until you tie your three-hundredth fly!

So, unless you tie a high volume of flies, it might be as cost effective to buy flies at your local fly shop.

In my opinion, the real benefit of fly tying is becoming a better fly fisher. When I started tying, I learned a lot about the feeding habits of trout, which insects my flies were trying to imitate, and when certain patterns worked (and when they didn’t).

It’s Your Decision

If you decide not to tie your own flies, fine. There are other ways to accomplish what fly tying will do for you.

My podcast partner, Dave, is proof of this. He doesn’t tie his flies. Contrary to my ribbing, he is every bit as good a fly fisher as I am.

But if you’re leaning towards trying, go for it. Like playing the saxophone, fly tying is easy to do poorly. But even a poor imitation can catch a trout.

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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