Getting Started with Fly-Tying

For those of you that have never tied your own flies, it may seem like a daunting and complicated extension to an already challenging pastime, and that the main reason we do it is to save money. So I guess this is where I’m supposed to tell you fly-tying is actually dead simple and can be learnt within the space of an evening or two. Well, I’d be a bloody liar if I did…and furthermore, it will probably end up costing you a fortune rather than saving money. However, you will gain immense satisfaction when you start catching fish on your creations and as an added bonus you’ll have the flexibility to tie specific patterns the night before a fishing trip. I must however make it clear that I’m a less than mediocre fly-tyer, so for professional advice and tuition you’d better go buy a book or something.

What to buy?

My initial fumblings with fly-tying began when I purchased a ‘Beginners Fly-Tying Kit’ from Mullarkey’s about 12 years ago which contained a vice, some tools, a few crude instructions and the necessary materials to tie several different patterns. My first attempt (Black and Peacock spider) was utterly shit, something akin to a furry slug half way through the grim process of ingesting a sparrow. My second and third attempts were no better. In fact, just about everything I tied using these materials was useless. That was probably due to the fact that most of these materials were in fact useless – imagine trying to hackle a fly with hen hackles that could easily pass as marabou. If it wasn’t for the fact that someone very kindly donated a selection of decent materials from their own collection, I would have been tempted to give up there and then. As a consequence of this, I would be tempted to avoid buying a cheap ‘starter kit’ and instead build up tools and materials of your own choice over a period of time. Failing that, I suppose a good quality, comprehensive starter kit may be good value for money.

Here’s what I’d recommend as a good hand-picked selection to let you hit the ground running:

Essential tools

A super AA type vice with adjustable cam will do just fine, you can pick one up for less than a tenner. But if you can afford it, go for a half decent rotary vice like the Snowbee Fly Mate which you can get for about £30. Don’t bother buying a really expensive vice to begin with.

Bobbin Holder
For holding your bobbins in! Nothing fancy required, you shouldn’t be spending more than about a fiver here.

Dubbing Needle
Essential for all sorts of tasks such as applying varnish, assisting with a whip-finish, teasing out dubbing on a fly body, stabbing people in the eye etc. £2 max!

Scissors X 2
One decent pair of scissors with a fine point used for cutting thread, floss, fur, feathers etc. A second cheap pair to use when cutting hard stuff like wire.

Hackle Pliers
Hmmm. Trial and error here, the ‘English’ type hackle pliers can be a bit hit and miss, some grip the hackle very firmly, some don’t. Buy a pair, see how you get on – if you don’t get on with them you can try some of the rotatable hackle pliers

A bottle of black varnish and some clear varnish.

You can use (hard) beeswax or there are various brands of soft ‘tacky’ wax, I find the latter easier to work with.

Whip-finish Tool
It may look like something Laurence Olivier would use on Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, but it’s actually a useful gadget if you struggle with manual whip-finish.

Useful Materials

Jesus, where do I start….
Down-eyed wetfly hooks in sizes 12 and 14
Down eyed light-wire hooks in 12 and 14
Lure hooks in sizes 8 and 10
Curved buzzer hooks in 14
Drennan, Scorpion and Sportfish ‘own brand’ hooks have always served me well.

Fine black thread, about 8/0 should do
Thicker black thread, for lures
Brown 8/0 thread
Olive green 8/0 thread
Gold wire
Silver Wire
Flat silver tinsel
Flat gold tinsel
Medium Pearl tinsel
Fine copper wire

Dubbing Materials
Seal’s Fur
Olive Green

Hare’s Ear
Packet of natural hare’s ear
Packet of dyed olive hare’s ear
Or, bit more expensive but more versatile:
Complete natural Hare’s mask
Dyed Olive Hare’s mask

Winging Materials
Hen Pheasant centre tail
Cock pheasant centre tail
Marabou (black, orange, white)
Bronze mallard

I suggest small packets of genetic hackles, Hoffman, Metz etc for smaller dry flies, but cheaper Indian/Chines capes will probably suffice for other flies . Useful colours would be:
Red game
Olive dun
Grey dun
For hen feathers, you can get away with Chines/Indian capes
The hen cape I use the most is Black
Grey, brown and olive partridge hackles are also very useful.

Peacock herl
Goldhead beads 1/8”
Black Chenille
White Chenille
White Antron yarn
Fritz (white, green, orange)
Pre-tied Hopper legs
Natural CDC

This little lot will set you back a fair bit, but there’s no dross and you’ll be able to to tie all sorts of different flies to cover a range of situations. These include:

Gold Ribbed Hare’s ear + various Hare’s ear variants
Marabou lures
Fritz lures
Mallard and Claret
Black and peacock spider
PT nymph
Various buzzers, including Shipman’s
CDC Emergers

Free stuff!
Get to know someone who shoots game, they are a ready supply of pheasant tail feathers, squirrel tails, rabbit fur, maybe even snipe or partridge wings. Failing that, road kill, sheep’s wool off barbed wire fences, and even fur from moulting cats and dogs. Samoyd fur is excellent winging material!

Protect your materials
If you obtain materials from anywhere other than a shop/retailer there’s a good chance it could be infested with mites or some other nasty critters. Mothballs help, but you can also zap natural materials in the microwave to kill off insects and their eggs. I stupidly left an untreated bag of years old hen pheasant wings under my sofa for a couple months which resulted in an infestation of carpet beetles throughout my flat. Unpleasant, to say the least.

Restore old flies
If you’ve got old flies that are intact but in a sorry looking state with crumpled/flattened hackles then all you need to do is hold them over the steam from a boiling kettle! Outside of a solar eclipse or specialist Bangkok ping-pong ball act, this is one of the most impressive things you’ll ever witness. Probably.

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