It seems inevitable that whenever a conversation turns to fly fishing, I get asked: “Do you tie your own flies”? Tying flies is an essential part of my fly fishing. I believe it completes the circle, whereby you create a fly, then fish it and fool a wary trout. Tying contributes to a better understanding of the insect life that makes up the trout’s diet. The more you learn about Midges, Mayflies, Caddis or Stoneflies that thrive on trout streams, the more fish you’ll catch. Tying brings you closer to the world of insects and will improve your trout fishing immensely. When considering fly tying, you’ll need the tools of the trade for a beginner.
Fly Tying: The Tools of the Trade for a Beginner. Fly tying has a set of tools specifically created for the task of tying. Tying vise, Scissors, Hackle Pliers, Bodkin, Bobbin, Whip Finish Tool, Hair stacker, Wire cutters. Additionally, are the materials used to create the flies such as feathers, fur, thread, tinsel and of course, the hooks.
The growth in popularity of fly fishing over the past few years, especially among women and millennials, has delivered a new batch of freshmen to the fly fishing class. Along with learning to fly fish, learning to tie should also be included in my view. Insects are the diet of trout. Tying and fishing these imitations is what fly fishing is all about. So to help sort this all out, rather than looking at how to tie flies, let’s get acquainted with the tools of the trade of tying flies first.
Fly Tying: The Tools of the Trade for a Beginner
Before you actually start tying, finding a location to tie is important. Ideally, an area that you can dedicate to tying is best. A place where you can store your materials and have your vise set up permanently would be the best-case scenario.
When I started tying a kitchen table was my fly tying desk. But, working at any kitchen table meant getting booted off as it was needed for something else. I would have to clean up everything, and put off tying until the table was available again. Having no choice I had to find a place where I could tie.
Today, I have a designated area for tying flies. I admit I took it to an extreme in a sense. I bought a roll-top desk and dedicated it as my fly tying bench. When I am finished tying for the day I simply close the desk, everything is put away and the area looks neat and clean.
Now I’m not suggesting you buy a roll-top desk and spend a ton of cash, but what I am saying, if you can find a place where you can tie regularly and leave things where they are when you have finished tying, it’s a big help.
The Basic Tools
Most everything we do, whether for work or a hobby, requires a given set of basic tools. Fly tying, of course, is no different. In order to tie a fly, fly tiers use an array of tools. Some are purchased and some are created by the tier for a specific purpose. But regardless, a basic set of tools is needed and the most basic need is the vise.
Fly Tying Vise
One of the first decisions one needs to make when it comes to a vise is, what base you would prefer to have for your vise. Some vises clamp to the edge of a table using a “C” clamp concept, while other vises come with a sturdy base, called a pedestal, that sits flat on the table. The pedestal is heavy and can be detached from the main vise stem for storage purposes.
The advantage of a pedestal is, it can be used anywhere there is a flat surface. Even on a picnic table while camping for example. But more importantly, any table in the house is perfect. In comparison, the “clamp” style vise clamps to the edge of something. This works well as long as the surface edge isn’t super thick or angled oddly. You do have to be careful too when clamping, so as not to damage the surface you are clamping to.
The Jaws of a Tying Vise
There are three designs that are the most common for locking or securing a hook in the vise.
The Cam-Lock, Pull Pinch and Spring Clamp. Cam-lock uses a lever to secure the hook, while the Pull Pinch jaws are squeezed together as they are pulled into the vise body. The Spring Clamp Jaw is under tension and is forced open to accept the hook rather than squeezed together.
When a fly is created, materials are tied to the hook, of course, to create the fly. So when working with the hook you want it to be secure in the vise. This is the job of the “jaws”, securing the hook. When you place a hook into a vise, for obvious reasons, it needs to stay secure. That means it shouldn’t move or slip. A good vise will grip the hook so that if you push down on the hook it should bend rather than slip in the jaws of the vise. Rarely though do we ever put so much pressure on a hook to bend or break it, but a good grip is important regardless.
Flies are tied in an array of sizes and to accommodate this, the jaws of the vise can be adjusted, either with a cam lever or screws, to fit the size of the hook they secure. For example, some vises will handle a range of hook sizes from small, size 24, to size 2/0. Other jaws from 28 to 4/0. Some vises available offer interchangeable jaws and the jaws themselves may either be textured inside or flat and smooth inside. The vise you choose should match the size of the flies you most commonly fished in your area.
Rotary or Stationary Vise
I have been tying on a rotary vise for so long that I can’t remember what it is like to tie on a stationary vise. I’m just being honest, and highly suggest you get a rotary vise. A feature called “true-rotary” lets you turn the jaws of the vise so that it rotates the hook flat on its horizontal axis. This allows you to view your fly from all sides. It also lets you more accurately wrap materials around the hook by rotating the hook instead of wrapping the hook by hand.
As an example of this feature, I turn the fly upside down to start my dubbing. Dubbing is material for creating the body of certain flies, usually nymphs. By rotating the hook and starting from underneath the fly it lets me avoid the hook point and improves my tying results. This will make more sense later once you tie a few flies.
Buying a vise is the biggest expense when starting out. But it is the essential tool when it comes to fly tying and the tools of the trade for a beginner. It may seem expensive now, but a good vise will last a long, long time. My current vise is 25+ years old and still going strong.
The Tools of the Trade Beyond the Vise
Obviously, the vise is the main and most important of the tools needed to tie flies. But, along with the vise you’ll need, Scissors, Bobbin, Bodkin, Hair Stacker, Hackle Pliers, a Whip Finish Tool, and regular pliers. Let’s take a look at scissors first and then we’ll move down the list from there.
Scissors do everything from cutting off the thread to trimming materials. That said there are few things to take into consideration when choosing scissors.
Short, sharp scissors with a straight blade are a good choice for most of the flies tied for trout fishing considering most flies are tied on hooks, sizes from 8 to 20. It may sound funny to say but, short scissors are long enough.
What is most important are scissors having cutting ability all the way to the tip. When trimming material like deer hair and feather veins, as for example, it’s crucial for the scissors to be able to cut these close by snipping with the tip of the scissors.
Tightness and Sharpness
Shearing and cutting are the main functions of scissors for tying flies. Blades that move tightly and closely together along the full length of the blade perform these tasks best. As scissors age, they lose their tightness reducing cutting ability. Poorly made scissors compromise tightness right from the start.
Smooth or Serrated Blades
You are most likely familiar with serrated knives and scissors. Cuts made with a serrated blade are typically less smooth and precise than cuts made with a smooth blade. Some guys like serrated blades because serrated scissors seem to grab the material before cutting.
Personally, I like a smooth blade and the clean cuts it makes. But realistically, the difference between the two is so small and subtle I doubt any trout will know the difference.
Using two sets of scissors isn’t usual. Having a bigger pair for cutting hide, foam or even wire is a way to save the life of your small pair. I have a small pair of wire cutting pliers for wire and don’t use scissors for that purpose. But a lot of guys will use two sets of scissors, one heavy-duty type cutting and a pair of scissors for the delicate work.
An essential tool of the fly tier is the bobbin. The bobbin holds your thread spool and maintains constant tension on the thread as it is wrapped around the hook. It works by dispensing the thread through a tube from the spool to accurately wrap the thread around the hook. Tube lengths can vary and are made using either metal or ceramic. Some bobbins provide tension adjustment while simpler models rely on your hand to apply tension as you tie. A bobbin for fly tying is one of the tools of the trade that is must-have. Having a quality, durable, bobbin is important because like the vise, it is used every time you tie a fly.
Many of the insect patterns that we tie use feathers of some sort as part of the fly’s design. Wrapping a feather around the hook is made easier by using hackle pliers. This tool utilizes is a specialized design to “pinch” a feather by the tip in order to wrap it around the hook. Hackle pliers are helpful in working with shorter materials because of the precise grip. As an example, I tie a pattern that uses a string-like material as a rib to lock in the body dubbing and to create a segmented look the fly. Trying to wrap this material while holding it with my fingers is difficult. Hackle pliers work great in situations like this.
One of the materials used for tying many fly patterns is animal hair, such as deer, elk, caribou, along with others. These hairs may be used for wings or tails as one example. Aligning the tips of the individual hairs is what a Hair stacker does.
How a stacker works to align hairs is pretty simple. Place a section of hair cut from the hide and put them, tip first, into the stacker. Tap the stacker a few times on the table or desk and turn the stacker horizon and separate the base revealing the tips. Now lined up evenly you grab the tips and secure them to the hook.
A popular fly, Elk hair caddis, gets its name because of the use of elk hair as the wing. When tying this pattern stacking the hair gets the tips even, presenting a more natural-looking wing. A hair stacker is another fly tying tools of the trade a beginner needs to acquire because many basic patterns use hair in their design.
The Bodkin is a long needle with an attached handle to hold it. This tool is the simplest tool in the group but does it ever come in handy. It is nothing more than a long, easy to handle, needle. A bodkin is used for everything from adding or spreading a little head cement to making a fly look “buggy”. By preening feathers and pulling fur out with the tip of the needle, the little “hairs” sticking out tend towards a buggy look. Also, it comes in to use for poking head cement out of the eye of hooks.
This is a good tool to have but, to be straight forward, any needle will do the same thing. Buying a bodkin and having one is nice, no question, but when starting out you don’t need to get one. If you have a long needle that will be good enough.
Whip Finish Tool
The Whip finish tool is another specialized tool of the trade for fly tying. It is used to tie off the thread to complete a fly. It makes for a neater and more durable head on your fly by letting you control the number of wraps while locking down the thread under the wraps.
This tool takes a bit of getting used to when first using it, but the good news is, it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it. What the Whip finish tool actually does is creates a slip knot or noose around the head of the fly. As it creates this “slip” knot by wrapping around the loose end of your thread it also helps create the head of your fly. Once you have wrapped the loose thread end (actually the “loose” end is going to the bobbin and not lose at all) you pull the end to secure the knot. What you end up with is a clean, neat-looking, series of wraps forming the head of the fly and locking in your thread.
Again, for fly tying, it is the tool of the trade a beginner must buy. Are there ways around using the whip finish tool? Absolutely, many guys use a half hitch knot to secure the thread and there are ways to learn to tie a whip-finished knot without using the tool. But having this simple little tool in my mind is a must. You save a lot of time and the precision is worth every penny.
I added wire cutters to the list of fly tying tools of the trade for a beginner, as a choice to consider instead of the second pair of scissors. A small set of cutters for cutting wire, monofilament, string, and many other things comes in handy. They also last a long time. They were made for cutting wire where scissor wasn’t.
A small pair is all you need and like the scissors, you want a pair that cuts using the tip. They need to be able to get in close to snip the wire extremely close to the hook shank. A wire is used in almost all patterns to secure the bodies of flies. Fine wire is used on many flies including dry flies. A good pair of small wire cutters, as I said, need the ability to cut close to snip the wire.
I prefer the wire cutters over scissors because they last longer and were made for this type of work. But, tight budgets can use a pair of scissors to do exactly the same thing. For a while that is.
To learn fly tying and using the tools of the trade for a beginner, is only the beginning. I firmly believe that tying flies will improve your trout fishing. I believe this to be true because each new pattern you tie mimics aquatic life for the most part. Each time one ties, the fly being tied teaches a little more about insect life. Each pattern has been designed by the originator to capture a moment in an insect’s development and match the time of the season. Even flies that are tied with no specific insect in mind, but instead, to be a more general fly, will still teach you about trout and trout behavior. Understanding trout behavior and their feeding habits will greatly increase your catch ratio.
Tying also has a different reward. Time at the vise is quiet time. It also is a reflective time. You’ll be surprised how many times a family member ends up sitting with you while you are tying. Those conversations are priceless and if it’s your kids, it’s great quality and bonding time. But the biggest reward is that feeling you get when you tie a fly, fish it, and catch a trout. The completion of the circle. I can’t explain that one to you, you just have to experience it yourself. Fish on!
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Does Fly Tying Save Money?
In the long run, you will save money but not until you have tied a high volume of flies. The costs associated with collecting materials, in the beginning, is high. But over time tying will save you money.
What Is A Rotary Fly Tying Vise?
A rotary vise, for tying flies, was designed to rotate or turn. A Rotary vise positions the hook on a perfect rotational centerline, allowing the hook to be spun, instead of hand-over-hand wrapping. With the shank of the hook always aligned to the center, the material can be “turned” or “spun” onto the hook.