Basic fly tying

Fig 51-Types of Wet Flies from The Trout Fly D...
Image via Wikipedia

A box of dry flies, wet flies and nymphs in a variety of colours and sizes is the pride and joy of a game angler. But there is even more satisfaction for the man who has tied them all himself

To create even a rough impression of a fly some knowledge of its anatomy is needed. The head (not simulated on all tied flies) is set on a body which is divided into two sec-tions – the upper thorax and larger abdomen. The wings vary in size but can be represented by different hackles made from pieces of feather. Because dry flies float on the surface, lightness and buoyancy in their construction are most important. The tying must be tight and even to prevent waterlogging. Where heavy or porous material would add to the attractiveness, these are given a last minute coating of a suitable oil to help keep the fly afloat.

For tying your own flies a small fly-tying vice is essential. Select a model that has a firm base, jaws capable of holding hooks from size 16 up to salmon sizes, and a vice which can be rotated for ample access to the fly. Still smaller hooks can be tied if you buy tiny ‘midge’ jaws which are gripped between the standard jaws. Hackle pliers are needed to hold the hackle firm and to prevent it unwinding when released. Two pairs of scissors with short, pointed blades are required: one for cutting quills, tinsel etc., and one for „ feather fibres and delicate materials. A bobbin holder is essential – one with a long spigot is advisable as it & enables turns of silk to be laid on accurately.

A cake of cobbler’s wax will also be needed unless you are going to use prewaxed tying silk. Pulling silk quickly through a block of wax will coat it in such a way that it adheres as you apply it to the fly. A good selection of materials, in-cluding pieces of fur, tinsel, hair, feathers on the skin, wool and silk threads should be to hand as, after basic methods have been mastered, experimental and unusual varieties can be created. There are other useful (though non-essential) accessories, including tweezers and a whip-finish tool which completes the tying with a neat knot.

The angler is now ready to tie a basic fly. A trout hook (size 14-8) is held in the vice with the shank protruding horizontally and with the point clamped out of sight. An exposed point will catch and fray thread as you work.

The body

Our basic body shape is constructed from about 10 in of single-ply floss silk. (Floss is often sold with three or four strands plaited together.) Floss is a convenient body substance as it covers thoroughly and quickly.

Plate VII From Rod Fishing, Henry Wade (London...
Image via Wikipedia

The tying thread you will be using to tie in the different parts and materials of the fly should be attached just behind the eye. Make a few turns towards the bend, then tie in one end of the floss silk with two or three tight turns. Continue winding the tying thread down to the bend.

The tail comes next. Three or four fibres torn from a large cockerel or hen hackle are bunched together and tied in tightly at the bend.

At the same time as introducing the tail, tie in a length of tinsel, wire or lurex in silver or gold. This will be the rib whose glitter adds greatly to the attractiveness of an artificial. Trim off the waste ends of hackle fibres and wind the tying thread back to where you tied in the floss. The weight of the bobbin keeps the thread under tension, leaving both hands free to apply a coat of varnish to the shank. This fixes the first layer of floss silk.

Wind the floss in touching turns down to the bend and back up to the tying thread. Tie off the floss with three or four tight turns of thread and trim the surplus floss.

Now you can wind the rib forward using a spiral opposite to that with which the floss was wound on. This way it won’t disappear among the turns of silk. Now tie off the rib as you did the floss and trim any waste.

When you have completed the body, you have the choice of turning your fly into a dry fly with hackle and head or one with wings, hackle and head, a wet fly with wings, hackle and head or one with just hackle and head, or a nymph with thorax, hackle and head. Whichever you choose – it may be best to leave wings until you have become fairly dexterous – the head is added last of all.


Selecting a wing I Strip the down fibre from the bottom of a suitable feather and separate out a wing section using a dubbing needle. 2 Grasp fibres at tips – pull down and outwards, if they separate, grip the extreme tips, pull outwards, and rub your fingers up and down until the fibres lock together again. For paired wings, select sections from two feathers which are as alike as possible.

In dry fly tying, stiff, glossy, water repellant cock hackles are best for buoyancy, though some people use the softer hen hackles in the belief that these present less of an obstruction on the strike.

To prepare a feather for hackling, hold it by the tip and run moistened fingers down the fibres so that they stand out at right angles and separate. Then, having stripped the base of the quill, lay the feather at right angles to the hook shank, just forward of the body, and lash the bared quill to the shank with tying silk. The fronded remainder is then held at the tip with hackle pliers and three or four turns made towards the eye.

Adams Dry Fly #10 Barbless Hook
Image via Wikipedia

Binding a hackle needs a steady hand since the binding (gilt wire in a Palmer) is pulled between separate fibres of the feather: the wire needs to be kept taut and wound on in a spiral opposite to that used in winding the hackle. Any trapped fibres should be teased out with a sharp needle. Wire binding in the Palmer makes for durability and is attractive.

The weight of the pliers hanging down from the tip will prevent your work springing undone while freeing your hands to fasten it with turns of the silk. Cut off the tip of the feather. The Palmer is hackled along the whole length of its body. If you were tying a nymph, your artificial would have an enlarged thorax in place of a hackle. A thorax can be furbished out of materials with interesting textures, such as chenille, ostrich herl, seal’s fur or angora wool, but is rarely tied on wet or dry flies. The bodies of the less streamlined flies are dressed or ‘dubbed’ with animal fur – mole for example – which is applied to the waxed silk by rolling a pinch of fur on to the silk between thumb and index finger. The furry silk is then wound on to the shank.


Preparation and tying in 3 To make hackle stand erect on a dry fly or Palmer, hold the tip, and draw the feather up between the fingers of the other hand. 4 Tie in stripped butt behind the eye, the outside of the feather facing forward. Secure with figure-of-eight turns of silk. Tie in on edge or the fibres will not stand erect.

Tying in

I Hold wings firmly along top of shank, so that wingtips just reach the hook-bend. Pass silk up between thumb and near wing and down between forefinger and far wing. Draw silk down firmly. Make two turns towards hook eye. 2 Before releasing, raise wings to the vertical. Take two turns round their base and behind. 3 Separate the wings, passing silk forward between them and around the shank, then back between them and around the shank again.

The simplest of dry flies – the Snipe series and Spider patterns – are simply hook, hackle and silk, but with natural colours or by dyeing, this combination affords many possibilities. The addition of wings, however can improve the balance of a dry fly, and makes for more spec-tacular creations. They can be tied in at the same stage as the tail and the fastenings hidden when the body is built up. Alternatively, a space can be left between thorax and hook-eye, and the wings added when the body is complete. There needs to be some silk round the shank before wings can be attached successfully.

Dry flies often sport double wings which also makes them more buoyant. Two feathers are needed from symmetrically identical positions on either side of a bird’s wing or tail fan. Symmetrically matched sections are cut from the centre of these feathers. These diamond-shaped sections have to be torn in half (for the double-wing effect) and eased into rectangles between finger and thumb (without the herls separating). Commercial wing-cutters are available for stamping wing shapes out of cock hackles. The four butt ends are pinched firmly between finger and thumb and introduced at the shoulder, two on either side of the body.

Now a loop of silk has to be squeezed between finger and feather, passing up between thumb and wing, over the wing and down between index finger and wing of the far side. Do this twice more then pull the silk tight. Three turns of silk must be firmly drawn down without the wings splitting. To finish off, wind the thread in front of and behind the wings, passing it between them to keep them separated. The figures-of-eight will be concealed by any hackle which may be added afterwards.

Finishing off

Unless a large, varnish head is to be moulded, the fly can be finished off with a neat whip finish near the eye. Vycoat, a modern varnish not prone to cracking, can be dabbed on to represent a glossy black head. This cleverly conceals any waste ends.

The varieties of dry fly patterns have occupied many volumes, and the possibilities are not yet exhausted. Nor is their use restricted to fishing for trout and salmon, for such coarse fish as rudd, roach, chub, dace, grayling, perch and pike are all taken on artificial flies.