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A Bakers Dozen Fly Tying Tips and Hacks

A Bakers Dozen Fly Tying Tips and Hacks

Tom Herr, Guide and Sales Associate at the Lancaster shop provides 13 tips and tricks that can help any fly tyer from beginner to advanced.


I can still remember it. I was about 8 or 9 years old and so very much into fishing at that young of an age that after it would rain and that puddle would form along the edge of our driveway, I would get that zebco kiddy combo, cast into that puddle and for a moment – I was fishing in the ocean and hooking into sailfish. And when I got bored with that, I would take the gardening trowel and dig trenches under the huge Norway maple in the backyard where the sun never shined and as a result – the grass never seemed to grow. Then the garden hose would come out and I’d fill the trenches with running water and suddenly I was fishing the stream of my dreams. I had a whole thing going on there with parking lots for my matchbox cars and my little plastic army men who would be the fishermen. They never fought battles – they always just fished.

Then, I picked up a copy of the Outdoor Life magazine dad always got each month and read something in there about tying flies. And – for me that’s how it all started. Running up the steps to moms sewing room, getting a spool of thread and some yarn, going down in the basement where dad kept our fishing gear and taking a Mustad bait hook – the kind with barbs on the shank as well as the bend, holding that hook in my hand and wrapping the thread around the hook to secure that piece of yarn with my other hand. My first fly. Then I took it out and ran it down that pseudo Montana Yellowstone River I created under the maple tree and floated it down the current. I only wish I would have kept it.

And I never really stopped. Some 56 years later, I’m still wrapping yarn and feathers on a hook. Pretty amazing actually because I tend to think that it’s not often in today’s world that one may find themselves filled with the same passion about something that you had when you were a young un. In fact, in many ways the passion has grown stronger – to the point where there are times that I can get so filled with thought about a new design or pattern that it’s all I think about. It’s what keeps me young in thought I guess because it continues to be a constant learning experience. Each and every time the thread is initially wrapped on the shank – it’s a new experience for me. And along the way, as I taught myself how to do it – never taking lessons because back then there were no lessons available – I learned some things that perhaps I have taken for granted and don’t really think about anymore. And now when I teach others – these tips and hacks have seemed to help others pick it up perhaps a bit quicker.

1. With most material (deer hair is one exception), you only really need at the most three wraps of thread to secure that material in place. What I have learned to do is when I initially tie in material, I use 5 wraps of thread to secure it in place and then I back off 2 turns of thread before I continue forward. This eliminates bulk throughout the tie.

2. Breaking thread is something that we all do. Although it is rare that I do it since using Semperfli’s Nano Silk threads, every now and then it happens. And we all do it, I don’t care how long you’ve been at the vice. And when it happens, tension is lost on a few of the wraps and one needs to restart their thread. So, until that thread is restarted – clip on a pair of hackle pliers on the end of the thread break to give it tension while you wrap over top of the existing wraps. Should save the day.

3. Once while tying at a show in New Brunswick, Canada, a gentleman watching me told me that the reason he never got into fly tying was because he thought his fingers were too fat and chubby. But he also said that after seeing mine – he could not use that excuse any longer. And yep – after climbing poles as a lineman in my previous life, my fingers may not be as “well formed” as others. That why many times when I tie in material especially on smaller ties, I’m not as worried about tying it in at the exact length I need it to be. My fat fingers don’t allow me to do that on small ties. I can always pull it

back to the exact length I need after I tie it in by pulling on the butt end. Secure the material where you want it and then pull on the butt ends to get the exact length you want it to be.

4. Dubbing – less is so much better. If you think you have the right amount, take less than that. And spin the dubbing on the thread in one direction with your fingertips, not back and forth. Spinning the dubbing and thread backwards will just undo what you did by going forward. And it helps to wet your fingertips just a bit prior to applying your dubbing. Wax helps but really isn’t needed once you get it down to using your fingertips.

5. If using head cement to finish off the fly, keep a small feather available of which has a stem small enough to fit the eye of the hook. Marabou works great for this. Once the head cement is applied, pull the feather through the eye which will effectively clean the eye out of any head cement that may have found its way there. Actually though – I rarely use head cement anymore, instead – I use a single whip finish of 6-7 turns. Never had a fly unwrap on me. Personally, I always use the tool to do this – not my fingers as I think using the tool creates a tighter and neater head. But that’s me……

6. Always keep the front of the hook shank, right behind the eye, where you eventually will be tying that whip finish empty of any tying thread. That spot is reserved for your finish. Many beginning tyers end up crowding the eye of the hook and if you keep it open – you’ll thank yourself when it comes to that part of finishing the tie off.

7. Keep the scissors in your hand while your tying by placing one of the scissor loops around your ring finger. When it comes time to use them, you won’t have to reach down and pick them up off your bench since they are already in your hand.

8. I like to keep a piece of 2’ x 3’ white foam board under my vice and tying bench. First of all, it keeps my bench top clean from cements and other items that may find their way there and it gives a bright background that enables me to see the items better. When it gets gnarly, I simply replace it with another and now I have a whole new benchtop. These can be purchase at any craft store for a few bucks and cut to size with a razor knife.

9. Don’t trim if you don’t have to. Often times the material we tie in such as tailing on nymphs can be used to form the tapered body on the tie. If you trim the tailing off right at the tie in point, it may create a bump there when the body material is tied in. Instead, wrap over this material towards the front and then trim off.

10. Wash Your Hands!!!!! Mom used to tell me that all the time! And each time before I sit down at my tying bench, that is the first thing I do. If you want to tie a dirty fly, don’t wash your hands. If you want to tie a clean fly – wash up. If you really want to see how dirty hands affect a tie, try working with white Japanese silk which is what I use of by classic and artistic tying. The dirt and even the oils on your fingertips will stain the silk immediately. If nothing else – washing your hands softens the skin which will make all your tying easier to do – especially dubbing.

11. Scissors are expensive and all it takes is to drop them on a hard floor and suddenly the tips are ever so slightly bent which makes them useless. And sooner or later it will happen. Simply take a scrap piece of carpet and lay it directly under where you are tying. My piece is about 3’x 4’ and not only does it serve to protect my scissors but when I drop other items such as a hook or two or an entire box!!!!, I simply pick up that piece of carpet and take the small magnet I have set aside and run it over the carpet to retrieve the dropped items. Saves crawling around on my knees and saves the scissor tips.

12. Material Personalities. One of the key things to learn in tying is that one needs to get the material that they are using to do what they want it to do – not what it wants to do. An example of this is that the stems or rachis of a feather can be round, flat in line with the feather of flat 90 degrees with the feather. This can create issues when tying that feather in in that the feather will spin when the thread is tightened. A good pair of flat jawed tying pliers helps tame this in that you can flatten or twist the rachis/stem to where you want it so that doesn’t happen.

13. Relax and take your time when you tie. Some of the ties I do for charity may take 20 hours or more to tie one fly. That doesn’t happen in one sitting and there are times when I sit down to continue on what I have started and after about 10 minutes of tying, I walk away because I’m just not in the right frame of mind. Tying is not a race and corners should not be cut. When starting the thread on the hook shank and wrapping it back to the bend – make edge to edge wraps, not open wraps. Use that whip finisher to create your heads and take your time doing it. It is the most important spot that holds all your previous work together. Tying is an art form and always will be. Be proud of what you create at your bench and always, always – no matter how long you have wrapped a hook – teach yourself and learn new ways to create your own patterns.

In the end – it really is amazing just what a few feathers, some dubbing and some thread wound on a hook can do. Not only for the fish that may be interested in it but for the person who created it.

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