Fly Tying (Shady Flies)

How to Teach a Four Year Old to Tie Flies.

“Wanna tie a fly Pop?” 

It was a whisper, but it woke me.  My son’s weight leaned against my chest.  When I cracked my eyes, his gleamed back inches away.  I took a deep breath and smiled. 

He smiled back, then rolled over me and plopped between my wife and I pulling the covers tight. 

“Whatcha think Pop?  We haven’t tied a fly in a while.”  He said seriously.

We had tied yesterday. 

“Okay son.  But first let’s get some breakfast.”

The Beginning. 

It started unintentionally.  Our home has no better location for my fly fishing endeavors than the basement.  This also serves as an excellent location for my son’s playing endeavors.  I maintain my fly tying equipment and materials in the drawers and cabinets surrounding a wide counter top along a narrow wall.  My son maintains his balls, stuffed animals, Nerf darts, and superheroes in the other various cupboards and compartments throughout the room.  He also keeps a perpetual fort built into the couches and bounces or runs from one enterprise to the next, generally at a very high speed. 

I was at my vise in the basement, when my son paused his bouncing and asked, “Whatcha doin’ Pop?”

“I’m tying a fly son.”

“Can I tie a fly?”

My immediate reaction was no, but I did not say it.  Instead, I pushed back in my chair and looked over the desk at a slew of materials, devices, and tools.  I could feel him watching me while I sat there playing out various catastrophic scenarios in my head.  And then I considered a different scenario and turned to him.

“Sure you can.”

So began a year long process that has resulted in many happy memories at the vise with my son.  Here is what I learned along the way. 

Safety First.

My first problem was the obvious and overwhelming one.  How to maintain some semblance of organization while simultaneously managing the act of tying flies without my son pouring head cement on his own head or slicing a finger with scissors. 

Over the course of the first few days, I made three important decisions about how to proceed safely.  Without these prerequisites, tying flies with my son would not have been possible. 

1. Rule Number One.

The first decision was made in the first thirty seconds.  My son is similar to any four year old in that he has a mind of his own and is fiercely independent.

I sat him on my lap and explained, “There is only one rule when we tie flies son.  Are you ready?”  I waited until he was looking me in the eyes, then slowly stated.  “You HAVE to listen to Papa.” 

A head nod confirmed his buy-in.

That’s it.  That is the only rule.  Having only one rule is easy to remember, and it means that essentially, there are no rules.  If he stops listening, we stop tying and go play something else.

2. Deconfliction of Resources.

The second course of action took me longer to figure out.  I needed a means to deconflict his tiny hands from all the things that I did not want him to randomly grab. 

Proceeding to tie with my son on my lap while we both tied proved totally inefficient and unsustainable.  I quickly learned the only way to keep him from getting into everything was to laterally deconflict him from the things that I needed to be the gatekeeper of.  This included pretty much everything in the beginning.

I accomplish this by sitting in the middle of the desk with my vise in front of me.  To my right is a cabinet and a drawer that contains all my fly tying materials and equipment.  When I tie, I take out what I need and place it on the desk to my right.  On my left is a small chair that my son stands on and a drawer that holds all of his fly tying materials and equipment.  He has full access to everything on my left, and nothing to my right.  If he asks for something like a feather, or piece of thread, that is not on my left, I pause and give it to him.  For example, if he wants the scissors, I stop, hand him the scissors and watch him the entire time.  When he is done, I take the scissors and put them back on my side.  He takes great pride in handing the scissors back to me the way I taught him.  Handle first.

3. Positive Control of Hazardous Material.

I have six items that I deem hazardous that I always maintain positive control over.  Three pairs of scissors, two needles, and head cement.   I treat the six items like a checklist.  The cabinet to my right has a child proof latch on it.  Whenever I start or stop tying, even without my son around, I count to six and touch the six things that could actually hurt him.  That way I know that they are either laterally deconflicted on the right side or locked away in the cabinet when I am done.

It’s a Process.

In the beginning he was happy to have his own feathers and some pieces of thread to play with while I tied next to him.  Observing me remove olive dubbin from the drawer for a Hare’s Ear, he would ask, “What’s that Pop?”

“This is dubbin.  It’s for the body of the fly.”

“Can I have some dubbin?”

“Yep.” I would take out a small amount and hand it to him.  In this way he was introduced to all his new materials and equipment.  If Pop was using olive dubbin for a Hare’s Ear, then he too, required olive dubbin.

Soon, he wanted time at the vise.  At first, I would lift him onto my lap and help him through the process.  There was no hook.  He would clamp different materials into the vise until he had something he was satisfied with. 

Next, came tying with hooks.  At this stage I would completely stop my tying and focusing solely on helping him.  

His hook was always a size 8 or 6 to make it easier to manage.  I showed him how to tie things into the hook and watched him tie until I realized he had the basic technique down.  Then he was off to the races making all manner of colorful and extravagant flies.

The real game changer came when my brother presented me a travel kit for tying flies on my birthday.  Now my son had his own hand-me-down vise AND bobbin.  He was very excited, and so was I.  We could truly tie together now. Each of us at our own vise. 

So Many Things for a Kid to Enjoy.

I was constantly surprised by the new aspects of tying flies that my son became excited by and found enjoyment in.  Here are a few things he has fun with.

Pop Does It.  The first thing is obvious.  Pop does it, so he wants to do it.  Obviously, it is a big boy thing.  These are big boy tools and devices. Not just toys.

New Stuff.  The second big hit was that he acquired all sorts of new stuff.  He would acquire a small amount of whatever I was tying with, and then tie it in.   He stored all his own materials and equipment in his own drawer, to my left. 

The Materials.  The materials used to tie flies are treasure for my son.   Feathers.  Beads.  Thread.  Tinsel.  All interesting and new for a small boy discovering fly tying.  Not so different from my experience, although I was thirty years older.

The Names.  My son enjoys learning and pronouncing all the interesting names for the flies we tie.  Zebra Midge.  Pats Stone.  Hares Ear.  He nearly fell out of his chair in laughter when he discovered we would be tying the “Woowy Booger”.  He also loves to name his own flies.  Usually the label equates to some combinations of flies, such as the “Pat’s Stone Hare’s Ear”, or “San Juan Bwoo Wing Owive Dry Fwy Nymph”

His Own Fly Box.  Not only is it exciting for my son to tie his own flies, but he also loves having his own fly box to put them in.  The more he ties, the bigger the box I give him.  Filling it with his own creations always brings a smile.

A Sense of Accomplishment.  When my son finishes a fly, I take a picture and send it to grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  Mommy also gets a presentation.  His finished product gives him a sense of pride and seems to propel him towards the next fly he will tie.    

Independence.  There are times I want to help my son, but he prefers to tie on his own.  Sometimes he surprises me and asks for help.  I try hard to avoid interjecting how or what he ties.  When my son ties something it is truly his creation.  He likes to do it on his own.

It is Not About Tying Flies.

When I tie flies, I try to approach the process very methodically.  I find I am able to increase my proficiency and productivity this way.  I tie flies for the rivers and trips that I am planning on fishing.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | River to Fly Strategy (R2FS) – A Fly Tying Process for the Beginner’s Success.

My son takes a different approach to his fly tying.  He ties what he feels onto a hook until he requests a whip finish from Pop, signaling his completion.  He prefers the professionalism and rhythm of the whip finisher to the half hitch I used to perform.  His flies are always his own.  They do not resemble much of a “real” fly, or even the flies I am working on next to him.

In the beginning we sat at the vise for fifteen to twenty minutes at most.  Usually, I could get through one and a half flies before he wanted to play ball or superheroes.  Even if I was in the middle of a fly, I tried to stop and play with him.  Maybe we would come back, maybe not. 

If you are thinking, Yeah right.  No four year old can tie real flies, I suppose that is partly true.  But it depends on what you mean by tying flies.  Watching my son tie, I see his imagination and focus coming together with pursed lips and a scrunched face.  To him, it is very real.

My son’s flies:

I showed one of my son’s flies to my father and brother.  My brother responded, “Dollars to donuts, Jas catches a fish with that thing.”  This is perhaps the greatest compliment I have received with regard to whatever fly fishing and tying talents I possess.

It’s Up to Him.

When will my son tie actual flies for the river?  When he asks.  And if he does not ask, that’s fine too.  He can decide what his interests are in life.  But for now, it is nice that he enjoys tying flies from time to time with Pop, and I hope someday he will ask to come with me to the river, and Wadeoutthere. 


Jason Shemchuk

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