Shop-dressed Flies

THE majority of shop-bought flies represent very fair value for money. They are well dressed to standard patterns, neatly finished, reasonably durable and, above all, are very suitable for catching fish. During their first season, most beginners rely on them to a large extent, and lose them with alarming speed. They crack them off while casting, catch them up in the branches of trees, break the barbs by hitting stones or obstacles behind them, and, worst of all, lose them in fish through over-vigorous striking. You will doubtless suffer the same inevitable losses and, sooner or later, the thought of saving expense by tying your own may enter your head.

If you count the cost, however, particularly in time, I doubt very much if the financial saving is really very great. The rewards come principally in other forms. Many anglers dress their own flies because of the built-in satisfactions which are derived from using their hands, and for the pleasures of doing the job for themselves. There is another cogent and powerful driving force. Shop patterns are stereotyped, and although innumerable dressings are available, the purchaser is limited entirely to another man’s interpretation of what a fish will take.

I am sure that you will not be long at the waterside before the imperfections of what you are offering the fish will be obvious. When you see fish rising to feed on some natural insect, yet steadfastly refusing your shop-bought imitation, you may feel convinced that some new approach in colour, or some alteration in shape, would give you an answer to this frustrating situation. Once you have arrived at this frame of mind, fly-tying is likely to provide you with an outlet for the expression of your own ideas. Variations in size, shape and colour lie, literally, at your fingertips.

Do not be put off by the apparent complexities of the more elaborate winged flies, nor imagine that the shop-dressed article has some special fish-catching properties superior to anything you could produce. It has not, nor is elaboration in a pattern necessarily more successful than simplification.

As an example, I have chosen an extremely simple nymph which you can learn to tie for yourself in a very short time and with the minimum of inexpensive equipment. Your first attempt may appear crude; you may feel ham-fisted, or all fingers and thumbs. But by the time you have tied up half-a-dozen or so, you should have grasped the first elements of fly-tying.

Take your pattern out and fish it with confidence. In one season, this simple nymph took over one hundred fish for me, including several of over two pounds. And with the first fish it takes for you will come an inner glow and a feeling of added achievement. Catching fish is fine – but catching them with a fly you have tied for yourself is extra special. Experience it once and you will probably find that you wish to go on to learn how to produce much more intricate standard patterns, as well as some of your own design.

Equipment for Fly-tying

Tackle shops offer complete kits suitable for tying either trout or salmon flies, but for your initial experiments on the simple nymph, the following list will meet your requirements. You may easily add to it, alter it and improve on it later. (1) Vice: Any small vice with a jaw width of about $-§ in. will do, provided that the jaws will close firmly enough to hold a small hook. (2) Scissors: A pair of small, sharp-pointed nail scissors are quite satisfactory. (3) Hackle Pliers: These are more or less standard and can usually be obtained from any tackle dealer. One pair will do for a start. (4) Cobbler’s Wax: A small lump can usually be obtained from a dealer. (5) Varnish: Ordinary nail varnish can be pressed into use, or a small bottle of special fly-tying varnish can be bought quite easily. (6) Materials: One reel of black ‘Gossamer’ fly-tying silk; one packet of peacock herl; one packet of furnace brown hackles; one dozen No. 1 hooks.

Method of Tying (1) Fix your vice to the kitchen or study table, first protecting the woodwork from scratches by putting sheets of paper under the clamps. White paper on the top surface reflects the light and helps you to see better. Arrange a table lamp to give really good illumination. (2) Clamp the jaws of the vice on the bend of your hook and secure it firmly. The point will project so you must remember to watch your fingers. (3) Break off about fifteen inches of your tying silk. Hold the cobbler’s wax in your left hand and the top of the silk with your right. Now press the silk against the wax and pull it smartly across the wax. Repeat the process a couple of times until the silk picks up enough wax to make it slightly sticky. (4) Lay one end of the silk along the body of the hook and wind on several even turns. Start at least one-eighth in. behind the eye. This is very important as you must leave sufficient room to finish off the head of the nymph. (5) Wind the silk down the body of the hook to the bend and then back up again to bulk-up the body.

Note: A nymph which sinks very quickly in fast-flowing streams can be tied by incorporating a turn or two of 5 amp. Fuse wire at this stage. (6) Now wind the silk back along the body yet again until you have reached the bend of the hook. Attach the hackle pliers to the silk and allow them to dangle. This holds the silk in place under strain and frees both your hands . (7) Select a piece of peacock herl from your packet. You will find that it is covered with tiny iridescent ‘hairs’ which you do not require for this particular fly. Hold the strip of herl at the broad, bottom end with your left hand and, with the index finger and thumb of your right, gently press and scrape away the hairs. Once you have removed these, you will see that a shining brown, banded material lies underneath. This is called ‘stripped herl’. The tiny hairs are easy to remove but the herls sometimes break. With a little practice, you will be able to judge how much pressure to apply. (8) Place the base of your stripped herl at the bend of the hook and at a slight angle to it. Release the hackle pliers and secure it in position with a few turns of silk. Wind the silk back up the body towards the head of the fly. Tie it there with a half-hitch. (9) Attach the pliers to the herl and wind it neatly and firmly up two-thirds of the body. Avoid leaving any gaps. Gentle pressure with each turn will ensure that it is laid tightly on. Do not pull too hard or you may break the herl and have to start again. Leave the herl hanging from the pliers. Once it has been wound round the shank of the hook in this way, it bears a general resemblance to the body surface, or cuticle, of many insects. The thickness depends on the number of underlying turns of silk. (10) Bring the silk backwards, pass it beneath the pliers and secure the herl with a few turns of silk. Finish with a couple of half-hitches. Release the pliers and cut off any surplus herl. (11) You have now completed the abdomen or body of your nymph. The next step is to produce the ‘humped back’ appearance which is characteristic of the chest, or thorax, of the insect. Select a piece of unstripped herl which still has the ‘hairs’ attached, but instead of starting at the bend of the hook, tie it in two-thirds of the way up the body at the end of the ‘abdomen’. Gently run your thumbnail against the run of the hairs to make them stand out Attach the pliers and wind the herl round the body so as to produce a raised effect. You may have to wind over the same spot several times but this does not matter as long as you bulk it up sufficiently. Make sure that you have left enough room behind the eye. (12) The final stage is to tie in a small amount of hackle. This simulates the legs of the natural nymph and provides your imitation with some vibratory movement in the water. Select a hackle from the packet and strip off any fluffy fibres at the base to leave a clear ‘stalk’. Pull your fingers through the remaining fibres of the hackle against the ‘run of the grain’. This will make them stand out. Take your scissors and clip them down until they are all about £ in. long. (13) Turn the hackle until the glossy side is outwards and place the clear ‘stalk’ across the hook behind the eye. Secure it with several turns and a couple of half-hitches. (14) Attach the pliers to the tip of the hackle and wind it round the hook close to the end of the ‘humped back’. As you do so, you should find that the hackles stand out with each turn. Three or four turns are usually ample as, in this case, you do not want to overdress the nymph. (15) Leave the hackle dangling with the pliers attached, bring up the silk behind them and tie down the hackle with several turns, say a dozen or so, in order to build up a small head. Finish off with four or five half-hitches. (16) Finally, cut the silk and apply a touch of nail varnish to the head .

If you have managed this series of operations successfully, you are well on the way to becoming a fly-tier. Practice will bring deftness to your fingers and sureness to your touch. If you feel like going further – and I hope you will – there are many specialised books available on fly-tying.