In The Beginning…
The first written record of fly fishing is attributed to the Roman author Claudius Aelianus who lived 2,000 years ago. Visiting the far reaches of Rome’s empire in what is now the Balkan nation of Macedonia, Aelianus observed the Macedonians’ unique way of fishing.
“They fasten red wool...round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in color are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.”
Claudius gave the world not only the first written description of fly fishing, but the very first fly pattern. He provided no illustrations of that fly but based on his description, the Macedonians may have been using a fly that looked like this:
I tied the above fly based on that ancient written record and used it to catch bluegills. Admittedly, bluegills are not the most discriminating fish. They are easy to catch on the fly. But it was fun for me to learn that a centuries old fly pattern would still work. And that is a major attraction to fly tyers – to attach wool, fur, feathers, or other materials to a hook and to cast and manipulate that embellished hook in such a way that it entices a fish to bite it.
Today there are literally thousands of fly patterns available to fly tyers. Some flies, especially those used by freshwater trout anglers imitate aquatic insects in their various lifeform stages from larva to pupa to adult. Flies used for other species of fish mimic the shape or actions of the creatures that those fish prey upon. They can range from minnow imitations to likenesses of crustaceans and amphibians. And some flies purposely look like nothing that lives. They are colorful and gaudy and designed to entice a reactionary strike from a fish.
We have come a long way from that terse description of the Macedonian fly by Claudius Aelianus. Today there is no shortage of books on fly patterns and the internet offers countless articles and videos on the subject.
How to Get Started as a Fly Tyer
The purpose of this article is not to cover information on fly tying readily available elsewhere such as specific patterns with step-by-step tying instructions. Rather it is to pique your interest in the hobby of fly tying and to encourage you to try it. The good news is that fly tying can be as simple or as intricate as you like. Further, the most basic fly patterns that are the easiest flies to tie remain the most effective for catching fish. That means that any fly angler can tie flies and do it well enough to catch fish with their own creations.
Another advantage to those of us who tie our own flies is that the fish we pursue are forgiving. Our finished fly may be flawed in some way if viewed by an expert fly tyer. It may be tied on a hook too big or too small. The tail or body of the fly may be too long or too short. It may float when it should sink or vice versa. It may be a color that resembles nothing in nature. But it will catch fish. Afterall, fish do not know the rules and conventions we humans apply to our hobbies. They see something in the water approximating food and they strike at it instinctively. That bodes well for us as both novice and experienced fly tyers. Success for us is easily achieved in our fly tying endeavors. Our victories entice us to tie more flies and catch more fish with them. And on it goes.
So, let us explore what is required to get started as a fly tyer. First, I will cover the basic tools. Like all hobbies, there are many fly-tying gadgets available. Depending on how you progress as a tyer, some of those tools may be useful to create specialty flies. But to tie most flies, and effective flies at that, you need only three tools: A vise, scissors, and a bobbin.
A vise is the tool that holds your hook steadfast while you are tying materials onto it. A good vise will firmly grasp hooks in a full range of sizes. Hook sizes are denoted numerically. Generally, the larger the number, the smaller the hook. Your vise should be able to hold small size 14 hooks for freshwater trout flies all the way up to large 2/0 and 3/0 hooks for striper and pike flies. The jaws of the vise must clamp those hooks tightly. An inexpensive or poorly made vise will not do that well and will frustrate you when your hook slips from the jaws as you try to add materials to it.
Vises from makers like Griffin, Renzetti, or Regal are high quality tools that will meet all your needs Some have rotating jaws that allow you to inspect all sides of the fly as you tie it – a convenient feature. Although a new quality vise may cost between $100 to $300 or more, it will perform flawlessly for decades. They can also be found used at considerably less cost. Given their superior construction, they remain viable tools for years. I have been using the Renzetti Traveler vise pictured below since the mid-1990s. It has more than paid for itself in that time given the thousands of flies I have tied on it.
Scissors are critical for trimming materials on flies prior to and after they are attached to a hook. Of course, they must be sharp. Also, they must be able to reach into confined areas on a fly to make delicate cuts. While household scissors may be serviceable in some fly-tying scenarios, I highly recommend scissors designed for fly tying. They have large finger holes to facilitate easier use and fine points for reaching all areas on your flies. Plus, they are sharp and stay that way for a long time. Good brands to consider are Dr. Slick and Loon. They range from $15 to $30 per pair.
The final critical tool for fly tying is a bobbin. Its purpose is to hold and dispense the thread that binds the fly’s component materials to the hook. In truth, the term fly “tying” is a misnomer. When we tie flies, we “wrap” the materials around the shank of the hook and then we cinch those materials down by wrapping thread on the materials with the aid of the bobbin. The bobbin continuously feeds the thread from a spool during that wrapping process. The only true “tying” we do comes when we finish the fly by making half-hitch knots in the thread near the eye of the hook to secure the materials in place. Those knots prevent everything we have added to the hook from unraveling. A very simple tool, a bobbin is the least expensive one you will need. Most can be purchased for under $10. And like other quality fishing tools they will last a long time. I have used the bobbins pictured below for more than 20 years.
Again, there are other fly-tying tools available. But the three I discussed above are the foundational implements of the hobby. Every fly tyer needs a good vise, scissors, and a bobbin.
Before continuing, let me make a brief statement about budget fly tying kits you may see online or in stores. Avoid them. The vises will be subpar, and the tools they provide will be low quality and contain various implements you do not need. In my opinion, such kits do more to confuse, frustrate and discourage fly tyers than to bring them fully into the hobby. You would do better to buy quality used tools or to borrow them from an experienced fly tyer until you can afford your own.
Some materials used to make flies have not changed since the time of Claudius Aelianus. Yarns and feathers remain staples of fly tying. Hair of various animals is also used. And newer materials have come along. They include foam for floating flies and various flashy synthetic materials such as crystal chenille. Finally, there are threads in various colors and tensile strengths.
Something to keep in mind about flies is that the materials they are made from behave differently in water than they do when attached to a hook in a vise in a dry static state. Feathers and hair pulsate in the water during retrieval giving flies a lifelike action. Further, those free-flowing movements of the materials attached to the hook send subtle vibrations through the water that are sensed by fish. That means there is a visual component to a fly’s attractiveness to fish as well as a sonic component. Fish both see and hear the flies we cast to them, and that is why they strike them.
Let us look at some of the most common fly-tying materials and a few effective and exceedingly easy flies that can be tied with them.
Poultry is the source of most feathers used in fly tying. Roosters are specially bred for this purpose. The slender long feathers that surround the necks of roosters are called hackle feathers. Hackle can be used as the tail or the body of a fly or it can be wrapped around the shank of a hook, to create the appearance of an insect’s wings or a caterpillar’s legs. It can be purchased as a complete “neck” as you see below or it can be obtained in packages of a few hackle feathers.
Another poultry feather common in fly tying is marabou -- the soft downy feathers found on the underside of domestic turkeys. It is a wispy feather that has excellent movement in the water. It undulates in a manner that often proves irresistible to fish. The natural color of marabou is white but as you can see in the photo below, it can be purchased in dyed colors.
One of the best uses for hackle and marabou is to tie a Wooly Bugger, pictured below. A Wooly Bugger is perhaps the most versatile fly of all time. It is also very easy to tie and is often the first fly that new tyers master. No one knows what lifeform it imitates to fish, but it is attacked with relish by all freshwater and tidal species.
The Wooly Bugger’s tail is marabou and a single hackle feather is wrapped around the body of the fly to create a buggy, caterpillar look. When the hackle feather is wrapped around the body, the individual feather fibers separate creating the look of many legs. Together with the marabou tail, the hackle fibers pulsate as the fly is retrieved, sending visual and auditory signals to fish.
Chenille is a thick yarn-like material wrapped on a hook’s shank to make the body of a fly. Chenille formed the body of the above pictured Wooly Bugger. It comes on cards in a variety of colors, thicknesses, and textures.
Flashy chenille, also called Estaz, makes attractor flies that are good for use in stained low visibility waters. An incredibly simple yet effective attractor fly made with Estaz chenille is the Crystal Bugger:
The hair of many animals is used in fly tying but perhaps none more than the bucktail. The tail of a whitetail deer, the bucktail is a common component of flies because the hairs are long, straight and present a lifelike movement in the water. They come in many dyed colors and are especially useful in tying flies that simulate minnows.
The Bendback Minnow, seen below, is tied entirely with bucktail. The hair is pliable in the water allowing the fly to contract in size as you retrieve it and then expand back to its original size when you pause the retrieve. The vibrations caused by the pulsations of the bucktail hair make it a great fish attractor. Indeed, it looks and sounds like a living creature and a ready meal for a hungry fish.
Each of the gamefish we pursue with a fly rod is a minnow eater, which makes the Bendback an effective fly in fresh and tidal waters.
Synthetic Materials -- Foam/Rubber Strands
Foam and rubber strands have become increasingly popular materials for flies in recent years. They come in a variety of precut body forms and colors or they can be trimmed to shape by the fly tyer from flat foam sheets or cylinders.
The resulting foam bodies can then be glued or tied to a hook to simulate topwater creatures such as a frog or water beetle. Add rubber legs, a tail of feathers or bucktail and you have a fly that will either sit quietly on the surface to attract an inquisitive fish or one that can be retrieved in a manner that disturbs the water’s surface simulating a frog or struggling insect. Those flies are known as oppers or gurglers.
Fly-tying thread comes in many colors and breaking strengths. The confusing thing to beginning fly tyers is choosing the proper strength of the thread. In general, tyers should use the thinnest thread available especially when they are tying small trout flies. However, that same thread suitable for small flies may break when tyers try to cinch down the bucktail on a Bendback Minnow or the marabou tail on a Wooly Bugger.
Thread manufacturers use one of two methods to measure breaking strength. One method, known as the “Ought System,” provides a range of numbers from 1/0 to 18/0. The smaller the number preceding the 0, the stronger the thread. The second method of measuring thread strength is the “Denier System.” That method measures the weight in grams of a given amount of thread. In Denier, the larger the number the stronger the thread. For each of the flies in this article I used 210 Denier thread which roughly equates to 3/0 – strong threads. I recommend that new fly tyers start with stronger threads until they learn the proper tensions required to keep materials on hooks. Again, fish will not be put off by your use of heavier threads.
Anglers have been tying flies for at least 2,000 years using yarns, animal hair, and feathers. And while we have the advantage today of synthetic materials and tying threads in a variety of colors and strengths, the basic goal of tricking a fish to bite a fly that we have created with those materials has remained the same. The gratification that comes to anglers in winning that contest with the fish has also persisted over the centuries. The major difference of course is that today fly anglers fish mostly for sport while those Macedonians long ago fished for food. In any case, anglers throughout the ages have experienced a tremendous sense of satisfaction to catch fish on flies they have personally tied. You will too.
The tools, materials and flies mentioned in this article will get you started as a fly tyer. Step-by-step instructions for each of the flies herein can be found online via a search engine. You will see that each fly can be completed in only a few steps in mere minutes. Most fly tyers progress beyond these basic flies to more complex patterns. But they will also return to them because they are so easy to tie and work so well to catch a variety of fish species.
Finally, I offer one more suggestion when it comes to fly tying. Join a fly-fishing club. Here in Maryland, we have the Free State Fly Fishers of Annapolis, Chesapeake Women Anglers, Potomac/Patuxent Trout Unlimited, Tidal Potomac Fly Rodders and Antietam Fly Anglers. Each of these clubs has experienced fly tyers as members who will graciously share their expertise, tools, and materials with beginners. Many of the clubs hold in-person tying sessions for their members. The camaraderie and transfer of fly-tying knowledge that occurs at those sessions is priceless.
Mark Bange is a member and former President of Free State Fly Fishers and author of Fly by the Seat of Your Kayak: A Guide to Simplified Kayak Flyfishing in Tidal Creeks and Freshwater Ponds and The Simple Joys of Kayak Fishing. Both books are available on Amazon.
Get Ready for Your Next Fly Fishing Trip
Ready to test out your new flies? Check out Maryland’s Fly Fishing Trail. The first state-wide trail in the nation highlights 48 sites spanning from the shorelines of the Chesapeake to the mountain streams in Western Maryland.
Before you head out, be sure to acquire your license and check out the latest regulations from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
And if you’re up for turning your fly fishing trip into a quick getaway, check out Visit Maryland for places to stay, dine and things to do.