GETTING STARTED IN FLY TYING
In college, I lived in a small town with a lot of streams that I fished regularly and were often stocked with rainbow trout. I was a spin fisher who had little luck until a random meeting with some fly-fishermen who had traveled several hundred miles to fish there and absolutely slayed the trout that early spring day. I was hooked on fly fishing before I ever even held a fly-rod.
A few hundred dollars later, and being hooked became being obsessed. I spent a couple of weeks learning the ins and outs of casting and presentation and the rest of the year up to late fall learning to target the various species in my native waters. Walleye were the most fun to catch but I will gladly fly-fish any panfish species from sun up to sun down.
When the weather turned bitter and the fish stopped biting, I was going through withdrawals. I sated myself with visiting local shops and gazing longingly at various flies. In an Orvis retailer, I happened across an innocuous plastic case that promised me I could tie my own flies and I bit harder than any smallmouth! By chance that year, I received a second kit by Scientific Angler from a very thoughtful friend as a Christmas present.
If I loved fly fishing, there was no word to describe how I felt about fly tying. Being crafty and a DIY type by nature, my fascination was instantaneous. There is an art and a science to fly tying and the first lesson and most important was that tying flies makes you a better angler. Understanding and paying attention to what your local fish are eating and tailoring a fly to them will make you more successful than anything else you could possibly do.
That winter, I probably tied 200 flies and even after the fish started biting, I kept tying a few flies every night. I used some and sold some to local bait shops to buy more materials. I was also able to elevate myself from the diet of ramen and mac & cheese so common in college students both through a steady supply of fish and the extra income for selling my wares.
If you are a fly fisherman and don’t tie your own flies, you are doing yourself a disservice and missing out on a great hobby. You can get started on the cheap and take it from there. Supplies are readily available for beginners all the way to professional setups. This guide will take you through the options
Kits are by far the best way to get started in fly tying. They give you a strong introduction to most of the tools of the trade as well as some starting materials and guidance in tying your first few flies. Most kits will come with some tying materials to get going with but it’s usually a short supply and will need replenishing soon.
This is a perfect budget kit to get you off the ground. It doesn’t have all the tools you are going to want but it has the ones you will use most often in fly tying. All of the tools are pretty solid and work quite well in getting started. It comes with a tying vice, bobbin, scissors, and a few other tools. You will eventually want to replace the vice with a better one but, for a beginner, this vice will do.
The kit does come with a small selection of materials that are pretty useful but won’t go that far. You may get a couple dozen flies out of it, which will more than offset the cost of the kit, but it’s just enough to get you addicted. The fly patterns you will be equipped to tie are also pretty limited but the intent of this kit is to pick up the skills commonly used in tying. Once you have those, you can add the materials you really need.
This was my first kit and, in my opinion, the best starter kit on the market today. If you can swing the somewhat steeper price, this is the kit to go with. It has more tools than the Scientific Angler kit, including the vice, scissors, bobbin, a whip finisher, hair stacker, and a few others. You can go a long way with this kit without needing to upgrade but you are going to want to add a few things as your skills grow. I still have this complete kit in its box that I often take on longer fishing expeditions to tie in the field.
The materials included in this kit are top notch and far above any other kit that I know of. You should easily be able to tie a 100+ flies. You couldn’t buy that many quality, hand-tied flies for the price of this kit. It comes with a great selection of threads and feathers but the out of the box patterns are still a little limited. You will want to add more, especially if you want to fish species other than trout.
Starting out, the hardest thing to do is figure out what materials you are going to need. At first it will seem like a daunting list. When I started tying, material kits weren’t a thing and you could really only get what you needed from specialty suppliers. Now, these are commonly sold online for surprisingly good prices and are a great way to add to the library of flies you can tie. While I have never actually bought one of these kits, I looked for the ones that offered the greatest selection of patterns and the best reputation for quality before adding them to this list.
A warning on most material kits: It seems like a lot of companies throw products they have trouble selling into kits to get rid of them. Sometimes the materials are old and not worth tying with. Stick to known brands and check out reviews. Materials can be expensive and you don’t want to waste money on something that isn’t going to do what you want.
Having never bought a kit, I was pretty astounded by what this kit actually contains. It’s not everything you will need but you could probably tie hundreds if not thousands of flies with what comes in this kit. Some of the items will probably last you years of tying. Even for an avid fly-tier, this is a great way to add to your stock of materials.
Everything in this kit is labeled well so you know what to order if you run out and Muskoka has a reputation for good quality tying materials. If you are just starting out this gives you enough variety to cover most species. This is a good way to expand your patterns and keep tying exciting! No one wants to tie the same flies over and over.
If you are willing to spend a little more, you can go with this kit that has a very impressive selection of materials including several spools of threads and enough hooks in enough different types to target most any species. It also comes with some patterns and instructions which will come in handy.
I always consider how many flies I can get out of a material when I buy it. I like a fly to cost me less than a dollar to tie. With this kit, it’s a guarantee you can tie way more flies than you could ever buy for the price of this kit. The material selection is good and Hareline has been selling tying materials forever. My fly tying chest has a number of their products in it to this day.
If you bought either or both of the material kits and add those to a starter kit, you will have a pretty good selection of tying medium but you may run a little short on hooks and thread. I have yet to find a good thread assortment that was worth the price you pay for it and, to the best of my knowledge, no one makes a decent hook assortment that really has what you are going to need. When it comes time to add either hooks or threads, here is my advice:
Danville has always been one of the industry leaders for spooled tying materials and is predominantly what I use unless I need a specialty thread. I do have threads by other companies that work well but I like to find a brand and stick to it.
There are two main qualities a tying thread needs. It has to have reasonable strength and lie flat on the hook. Standard sewing thread won’t cut it, though I admit I have used it a time or two. Get some decent thread when you need it and don’t go in for cheap thread assortments. They won’t do what you need and will just frustrate you by breaking too easily.
I wish I could point you toward some hooks and tell you what is the best on the market but there are too many options. Fly hooks come in shapes for different uses, dry fly hooks, scud hooks, long shank, streamer, and pupa hooks. When it comes to sizes, hooks start out at a size 32 which is smaller than the tip of a pen and go all the way up to a 5/0 which could catch some of the biggest saltwater fish.
Both starter kits have a decent hook selection and the Hareline materials kit adds several more. See what you use the most or what the patterns you end up liking call for and go from there. I use probably more hooks from Tiemco and Daiichi than any other brands but that’s more from familiarity than quality. I probably tie more on sizes 12 to 8 than any other sizes. I use most hook shapes fairly equally.
TOOLS AND UPGRADES
Let’s face it, both of the kits are designed to be affordable and will be plenty for the beginning but you are going to need to add to those kits over time. Sometimes it’s just to get a better tool than what the kit offered but it may be to add a tool that the kit left out. They are not meant to be a full toolkit with everything you will ever need. I did search high and low for a ‘best of the best’ kit but the only option I found was still advertised with an instructional VHS so I am guessing it may be a little outdated.
This is far from my cheapest vice and not nearly the most expensive but it is my most used. If you want to get one vice to tie every fly and will never need replacing, this is it. Once you have tied on a rotary vice, everything changes. There are plenty of other options. A lot of people like vices that aren’t so straight but I have never had any issue with tying a fly with this vice. It’s sturdy and holds hooks securely. For the money, I would get this vice over any other.
Both of the basic kits above come with a single bobbin but you will need several before all is said and done. I keep them loaded with colors I use a lot so I don’t have to deal with threading one every time I want to change color.
Nothing could be more contentious in fly tying than bobbins but I have probably close to 30 and it doesn’t seem to matter to me. The Dr. Slick bobbins are affordable and decent quality to pick up a couple of spares. Avoid anything much cheaper as some of them do cut threads. Ceramic bobbins cost MUCH more and I have never seen the benefit.
Every kit on the market comes with a pair of scissors and you will use them often. Either of the kits above have a serviceable pair of straight scissors that should do you for years but most people will add a pair of curved scissors to make some tasks easier. I really like the Dr. Slick scissors. They last forever so pick up a pair of curved tip if you need them or if you just want about the best scissors you can get for the job, give them a shot. I just got a new pair last year and relegated the old pair to mustache trimmers and they are still plenty sharp after nearly 15 years of use.
If you pick up the Orvis kit, you will already have one of these but there is no alternative to this tool in the Scientific Angler kit. You may not use it often and some don’t use them at all. I will admit to rarely needing mine but if you get into some of the finer hair types on flies, this will save you so much frustration. For the price, pick one up when the need arises.
Another tool covered by the Orvis kit. It’s practically a sin that the Scientific Angler kit doesn’t come with one. This is just one of the best tools to have, especially starting out. I didn’t bother looking for the best because I still use my Orvis one and it’s just like the generic models. If you get the Scientific Angler kit, do yourself a favor and get one of these.
The last thing left out of the Scientific Angler kit is head cement. I have used clear nail varnish in place of head cement but it’s not much cheaper. Get a bottle, your flies will last a lot longer. There is nothing more aggravating than a fly coming apart mid-cast. This is included in the Orvis kit.
Any other tools from either kit will be fine for years to come provided you don’t lose them. The hackle pliers are fine, a bodkin is pretty much the same no matter who makes it, and the bobbin threaders will do its job well. Any other tools are highly specialized and beyond the scope of the beginner.
LEARNING THE TECHNIQUES
There are tons of books, magazines, DVDs, hands-on classes, and internet videos that will help you learn the techniques and processes of tying flies. Pattern books and fly fishing magazines are great for ideas of what you should be tying. The fly tying world isn’t known for mass innovation. Most of the patterns are decades old, you can still get instructional VHS tapes from Amazon if you want them. If not there are plenty of good options for picking up the hobby.
This is probably the Bible of the tying process. There are no patterns to speak of just detailed processes that will make every fly you tie better. If you get through the basics and want to tie more, this book is almost mandatory. If you are a beginner and don’t want to make mistakes, go ahead and pick this book up.
When it comes to patterns for fishing most species in North America, you won’t find a better book. If you are overseas, this book will still have tons to offer, especially when it comes to attractor patterns instead of mimic patterns.
I could also recommend any of the Orvis guides. They are often very cheap and can be purchased from Orvis stores, Orvis online, or Amazon.
The kit you order usually comes with some form of DVD to show you the ropes and they are often worth watching. I could point you to a dozen more full-length DVDs on Amazon and they are probably decent too. But you can get all of the knowledge you need from the internet. Youtube is a great resource and has tons of content on specific flies and general techniques.
One of the best video series on fly tying that really got me started with a show called Fly Tying: The Angler’s Art which used to air on public television. It is still available on the web at many public station websites but can also be found on Youtube. I learned more from watching those guys tie than I did from any book or DVD. I still had the other resources to fall back on for specifics but LeRoy Hyatt guided me on video with great tips and presentation. This show was so prolific that it’s often boxed with kits as the instructional DVD.
The simple truth is if you opt for a DVD you are going to get maybe 10 fly patterns for the price and it’s just not cost effective. Once you have the skills down, you can get a lot more for a lot less with pattern books. You should also consider subscribing to Fly Tyer magazine which is published quarterly for around 5 bucks an issue and can have as many as a dozen fly patterns per issue along with tips and tricks.
Get a few materials and get started!
Fly Tying is among the best and most rewarding skills that an angler can engage in. People have been trying flies with the same processes and patterns since the Roman Empire. The tools may have changed and modern materials have slowly replaced the traditional but once you start into the world of fly tying you are joining a historic line that stretches back more than 2000 years.
For the fisherman, the key to success is understanding the nature and habitat of your target. Even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in a while but if you want to prevail in the world of fly fishing, you have to know the fish. Fly tying is among the best way to do that.
Understanding what fish are eating and when and learning the spawn times of certain insects and their stages will make you more familiar with the nature of the fish and better able to emulate it in a fly pattern. The slightest distinctions can come into play. That is the art and science of fly tying. Know what to emulate through study and know how to emulate it through technique.
I can honestly say that Trout are the pickiest fish on the planet and there have been a number of times that black instead of green was the deciding factor in those who caught fish and those who didn’t. On more than one occasion, getting to the stream and examining the bugs then emulating them in a fly put me more in touch with the fish and allowed me to turn a day of marginal catches into a day of pure enjoyment. If you tie flies and take the time to learn the art, you will be more in touch with the biology of the stream and the fish. That alone will make you a more successful angler.
Get some tools, and pick up some fur and feathers and give tying a shot. You will become a member of the minority. Take the time to learn the local waters and fish and you will be in the upper echelon of anglers. With some practice and dedication, you will become the one people come to for advice when they are having a troubling season. But most of all, you will learn the patient and rewarding art and science of the fishing fly.