FLY TYING FOR BEGINNERS: 3 STEPS TO START FLY TYING FOR UNDER $100
There’s nothing like catching a fish on your own fly. You made it, the fish took it, you landed it. Not to mention they can be works of art. Here are specific instructions to get you rolling – it’s easier and less expensive than you might think. Our goal as always: Get To Better Fishing™.
What should a beginner fly tyer look for in a kit, and what should they purchase to start fly tying? Here you will learn 3 steps to get started tying your own flies today.
Let’s get right into it. Fly tying can sound complicated – matching the hatch, lots of different tools and materials, instruction. Here we break it down so you can get rolling on your own – for not only less than $100 but also in less than a week.
Step 1: Get your tools – we’ll show you what’s needed up front and what you can save for later and for more advanced fly tying.
Step 2: Pick out your materials, for the types of flies you’d like to make. We’ll suggest flies that are straightforward to make.
Step 3: Take in some instruction. It always helps to have an example and a few pointers along the way. We’ll point you to some great online resources.
Fly tyers make flies to both replicate closely insects found in streams, and attractor patterns that elicit a strike even though they look like nothing natural. You can tie flies to not only replicate your favorite bug, but also create your own custom patterns no one else has. In fact, you’ll find out that many local shops have developed their own patterns, based on experience, for a specific fish on a specific river that works better than anything you can buy online from a general retailer. Tying can also be very artistic – for example classic salmon and steelhead flies, and articulated streamers can be just as artistic as painting.
Step 1: Fly Tying Tools For Beginners
Fly tying can seem daunting, like something for the experts, especially if you look online only to see a myriad of different tools and materials out there. Fortunately, it only takes a few basic tools to get started, and there are a few excellent kits that will get you rolling fast. Notice we’re showing photos of the tool in action, so you get an idea of how it’s used, not just of the tool itself.
As you gain experience and begin to tie more flies, you may want to add more tools. However, you can tie most flies with just the following 4 essential tools.
The vise is the most essential tool, as it holds the hook firmly in a steady position while you wind thread and other materials around it. It also is helpful to rotate the fly if you want to focus on different sides, and to keep the fly from touching other materials while head cement and other adhesives dry thoroughly. Also great to use for taking pictures of your newly tied flies!
Purchased by itself, you can find many good, basic vices in the $25 – $75 range. If you’re buying a stand along vice, be sure to get one with a stand so you can take it in the field. Dollar for dollar however, you’ll get more for your money if you purchase a full tool kit, discussed below. However, purchasing tools separately can help you customize your toolkit, such as such as the EZ Rotary Vice by Orvis.
Quality scissors are vital to cut and trim thread, hair, feathers, and the many other materials used. While you might think about substituting utility, school, or fingernail scissors, think again. Fly tying scissors are specially designed and sharpened to let you trim accurately and closely so that you not only create the get the shapes you want, but also so they don’t cut off too much or too little material. Poor scissors will have poor results, for example materials actually unthreading and falling off the fly during use. A quality pair will serve you well. If you need scissors by themselves, check out a quality pair at Cabela’s Needle Nose Scissors.
Flies are tied by winding thread around the hook to position and secure materials, help create lifelike effects (such as ribbing that looks like insect body segmentation), and finish off the head. The bobbin is the tool that holds a spool of thread while you wind it around the hook shank. It helps keep pressure on the thread, so that your wrapping is even and not too loose. It also holds pressure so the thread doesn’t unwind while you are doing something else, like selecting the next material or taking a break. You can spend anywhere from $3 – $50 on a stand alone Bobbin, for a good value we like the Upqua Dream Stream Ceramic Bobbin.
“Hackle” pliers are used to hold feathers while you wrap them, for example, around a body to look like legs or wings. Hackles are just another name for feathers chosen for their fly tying properties. Many flies use hackles, so this is an often-used tool. In effect, what they are doing is holding on tight to the feather’s stem (or tip depending on the fly), something that would be very tricky to do with fingers alone – the feathers would slip right out of your grip especially when finishing the tie-off of the feather. For exacly those reasons, if all you need is the hackle pliers, we like the Loon Outdoors Ergo Hackle Pliers.
Useful Yet Optional Tools
The following tools are handy, but not necessary to get rolling from the start. Many articles say they are needed, and they are included in most starter tool kits, but we give you a couple alternatives you can use if you are buying tools separately.
The bodkin needle has been described as useful as the Swiss army knife. From picking out body “dubbing” to make it look fuzzy, to applying cement or glue with pinpoint accuracy, it’s useful anywhere you need a fine point. It’s really just a thick, pointed needle with a handle. With that in mind, you can do well with a carpet needle (some people make their own handle out of a piece of dowel and secure the needle in the end with cement), or even a sharp narrow shish-ka-bob stick. For a quality Bodkin at a reasonable price, check out the Orvis Bodkin.
Every fly must be finished by tying off the thread. The whip finisher provides an easy, durable method to tying the knot that finishes the fly. However, the finishing technique is actually quite tricky. My favorite substitute – which I’ve been using ever since my middle-school english teacher got me into fly tying – is simply a ball point pen cartridge. All you need to do is make multiple simple loops with the thread, crossing the thread one loop at a time over the eye of the hook, and you’ll get it to just as tight and neat a finish as with the more fancy whip finisher. It’s a great tool, but I’m always amazed when the whip finisher is described as something that can’t be done without – why make things complicated if you are just getting started. All that said, if you prefer to jump in to the pool both feet first, check out the Dr. Slick Whip Finisher.
Also, tweezers can come in handy for various tasks, from placing bead heads, to holding materials for placement, to acting like a bobbin, and so forth. They are also used to pluck out errant hairs and feathers as you finalize the “perfect look” on your fly. There are many on the market, some with very specific designs. For a quality all-around design, try the Orvis Fly Tying Tweezersand you can’t go wrong.
Best Fly Tying Beginner Tool Kits
If you want the best bang for your buck getting started, get a tool kit with all the tools you need included in one place. Here are a few quality options to consider.
We recommendCabela’s Deluxe Tool Kit over their standard kit, because you get a few more tools for just a few more dollars. And even with quality tools, it’ll leave you room to purchase materials on top and still stay under $100. Cabela’s deluxe kit provides all of the tools needed to tie most fly patterns. However, this kit contains only tools, without materials. You’ll need to purchase tying materials separately, which we discuss below, or as part of a kit with tools, which we also give options for below.
Another quality set, with just what you need no frills, but without giving up on quality is the Orvis Encounter Vice & Tool Kit. This beginning fly-tying kit from is terrific, if basic. It includes all of the basic tools for tying flies. These are not super-cheap tools that are found in many kits (or we wouldn’t recommend it, you won’t find any of those kits in this article!), rather, they’re of solid quality and won’t hinder learning or limit you in the future. You may eventually want to upgrade the tools, but you won’t find the dull scissors or scored bobbins that seem to plague some other beginner kits. Perhaps the one disadvantage of this kit (compared to Cabela’s above which can be converted from one to the other) is that the vice must be used at a table with the right thickness for the clamp, and can’t be moved around like you can with one on a stand (e.g. if you want to tie at a friends, fly fishing club, or even take it in the field to “match the hatch” with a quick tie on the go. Some people just prefer the more solid connection to a table, but we wanted to make note of this just in case.
Separately, Orvis also offers a combined materials / toolkit if you want to purchase both together, an even great bang for the buck. The great thing about this combo package, theEncounter Fly-Tying Kit, is that Orvis provides sufficient to tie up to 16 different fly patterns. It also includes a DVD by Tim Flagler of Tightline Productions, which covers how to tie each fly in high-quality video, another bonus for this kit.
Loon Outdoors released their Loon Fly Tying Tool Kit only recently, and it’s a welcome addition because it includes only high-end quality tools. So, in the future you won’t need to replace any of the tools, a real plus from a long term perspective. However, Loon’s kit doesn’t include a vise, so you’ll need to acquire that separately. While it’ll add to the overall price tag, on the other hand it gives you the flexibility to buy the exact vise you want at any price point.
A couple of general things to be aware of purchasing kits at this price level. Sometimes the vises may work well for most hook sizes, but aren’t as refined as needed to hold exceptionally small (e.g. size 20+) or exceptionally large (e.g. 2/0) hooks. Also, these kits sometimes have dull scissors and scored bobbins (which results in accidentally cutting thread at random).
All that said, you can’t go wrong with any of these kits as a beginner, to give as a gift, or to replace older tools you may have if you’re on a budget. Now that you have your tools, let’s look at how to choose materials based on the flies you want to tie.
Fly Tying Desks and Organization
Quick side-notes about keeping your stuff organized.
For starters, all you really need is any table that can hold your vice (check thickness, card tables and picnic tables are perfect, if you are using the dining room table be sure to put down a protective mat or cardboard to protect it from sharp tools and dings).
Consider making or buying a simple fly tool and material organizer, if one doesn’t come with your kit, here are a couple good options:
To keep with our promise that you can start for less than $100, a dedicated fly tying desk is something to think about for the future. Having one is nice, in that it keeps your stuff not only organized but also protected (don’t be surprised if pets, kids, friends, and others get into your stuff just because it looks interesting!). If that’s something useful to you now, here are a couple options, low-end and high-end:
Once you’re all set up with tools, you’re ready to choose fly tying supplies and materials for the flies you’d like to tie. For general material starter kits, consider these options that’ll help keep your overall price tag low for starters:
Knowing what flies you want to tie helps guide which materials you purchase. You can rely on others suggestions, or here we give you instructions on 3 universally effective flies that are relatively easy to tie. One you catch your first fish on your own home-made fly, you’ll start really catching the bug (no pun intended!) to tie more and more. Not to mention, if you tie enough you can really save on how much you spend at your local shop. Below are three patterns that are not only easy to tie, but also are effective for both warm and cold water fish species
3 Flies That Catch Fish – And Are Easy To Tie
We selected these flies because they are universally appealing to many species of fish, in most months of the year, and are straightforward to tie. You can get the materials at your local shop, or in a kit with the tools (check to see that is has the right materials for these flies), or we give you some sources to consider here.
San Juan Worm
The San Juan is a staple fly that works on many species, most of the year. I recall one fishing trip in eastern Washington, fishing for landlocked salmon off the edge of a shallow shelf. I watched one fisherman pull out fish after fish, while several others (including myself) only got occasional hits. I finally decided to ask what he was using – a San Juan worm! No matching the hatch, just what they wanted. Simply tie off the chenille at the bend and head of the fly, finish the head with a small dab of cement to secure the thread, and off you go.
[Note on hooks: be sure to check and see if your local fishing regulations require barbless hooks, so you order the right ones.]
If you haven’t tied before, this could be your first “dry fly!” Dry flies are often inherently more difficult than wet flies, because they must be tied to float well, be perfect silhouettes against the surface or trout will shun them, and often involve wrapping hackle which can be temperamental. Not so with the foam beetle, which requires only a few thread wrapping points and a little trimming. This bug will float forever, and is useful for both trout and warm water species.
This wet fly is so effective, many people would put it first on the list. It may emulate a leach, it may not, perhaps a stonefly or crawdad. In fact, no one really knows what fish think the Bugger looks like. It just works, drifted slow and low with the current or at the bottom of a lake. We listed it third because it has a few more materials than the first two, but is still straightforward to make. Just tie a bunch of maribou feathers for the tail (optionally with some tinsel for a little flash in low light conditions), wrap chenille and hackle around the body, wrap off the head and you are done! There are many variations, such as putting a pink salmon egg head on (may look like an egg sucking leach), adding lead wire for more weight, adding a brass or tungsten head, and adding tinsel to the body in addition to the tail for even more flash. However you make it, the colors that tend to be the most effective are black, olive, and brown. But again, don’t ever hesitate to mix it up and try your own custom pattern – who knows – you may invent the next truly effective fly for your favorite spot.
If you are already raring to go and tie additional flies, beyond those here, consider the following. They are a step up in difficulty, and will add to your arsenal. We’ll cover these in upcoming articles, just wanted to give you a flavor of some of the trout flies and other flies you may be interested in trying:
Elk Hair Caddis
Clouser Minnor (see our 7 Killer Bass Flies article)
Damselfly (or Damsel Fly)
Several types of nymphs in basic universal patterns: Hare’s ear nymph, Prince nymph, Caddis nymph, Mayfly nymph, etc.
You can probably tie the flies described above right off the bat, perhaps supported by one of the excellent fly tying series you can find on YouTube and other online tyer resources. To advance beyond these flies, in addition to online resources there are many clinics and classes taught at local fly tying / fishing clubs, fly fishing shows and conventions, and community colleges.
There you go, 3 easy steps to start tying for under $100 if you shop right. Have fun with it, and send us a photo of flies you have tied! To firstname.lastname@example.org so we can feature you in a future article or post.