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.

3 Replies to “Why I Learned the Art of Fly Tying”

  1. A student at seminary gave me some basic instructions on tying his favorite Metolius River fly–an Elk hair caddis, orange body. I fumbled through it, went to the river and caught fish! It hooked me about 45 years ago. Now half my garage, and an entire bedroom is filled with fly tying stuff. Of course most of it was acquired to supply the classes I taught. 🙂

    1. Duane, you get the credit (or the blame) for telling me how to cure an elk hide by using 20 Mule Team Borax! I know it isn’t as easy to use as the patch of hide you buy in a fly shop. But it’s cool to catch trout on an elk hair caddis you’ve tied with elk hair from a bull you shot with a bow. Great to hear from you!

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