It happened again and I shook my head. The moment I went to tie the flashback into the flashback pheasant tail I was diligently creating, my thread broke. It happens. Rare. But it still happens. The olive strand unraveled just enough to taunt me. Hope? There was no hope. I was done with this fly and reached to throw it away, then stopped. Could I save it?
I sat at my vise in the “Wadeoutthere Nerve Center”, staring at the fly. The thread. My tools. Suddenly, an idea came. An idea so simple and obvious I am embarrassed it had not occurred to me years sooner. At that moment I realized two things.
First, there were more than a few fly tying techniques that took me a bit longer to pick up than they probably should have.
Second, it’s all part of the process. This is how we get better. As much as I watch one outstanding YouTube video after another online, there are some things that cannot be learned without doing.
And that is the thing isn’t it? You have to begin, to begin to learn, and some things you learn the hard way.
I hope by sharing this list of ten fly tying techniques that I learned the hard way, I can save you time, bring value, and help you down the other path in fly fishing.
What is the other path? READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Welcome to WADEOUTTHERE.
1. Hackle Pliers Fix a Break.
It was hackle pliers that solved my broken thread story that I shared above. After the thread unraveled, I realized I might be able to salvage the fly. I had done this in the past by restarting a wrap with my bobbin, but it does not always work depending on what unraveled and how bad it is. The biggest problem is generally that you need to hold down the unraveled material while you tie in.
Enter hackle pliers. Simply grasp the unruly piece of thread or feather or flash, re-wrap what is required, and let it the pliers hang. The hackle pliers will act like the bobbin and keep everything tight while you mend your fly. It may not work every time, depending on how intense your fly tragedy may be, and I have had some whoppers, but it comes in handy.
2. Hackle Pliers Help Start Beadheads.
One fly tying task that inevitably required all the dexterity I could muster was placing tiny beadheads on tiny hooks. Once again, hackle pliers saved the day. I lock the hook in the vice by the shank with the point up, so it looks like the letter J. Then I grab the beadhead with hackle pliers and thread its smaller hole onto the hook. Once the beadhead is past the barb and settled in the bend of the hook, I remove the hook from the vise, slide the beadhead up to the eye, and reset the hook in the vise for fly tying. Works like a charm. Another good technique is to use a popsicle stick with a flat magnet on the end to more easily control the beadhead.
3. Tighten Up.
Even the simplest fly you tie will require you to tie in some variety of material or wire. When tying in material I try to remember to “tighten up”. This helps me do two things.
First, too much thread out of the bobbin when tying something in, generally causes me problems. It ends up being too much loose thread to manage that can veer off in different unwanted directions. To alleviate, I “tighten up” by pulling the thread back onto the spool. This moves the bobbin up closer to the fly before I tie in. Keeps things tight and gives me more control when tying in material.
The second meaning of “tighten up” is after I wrap something in, instead of tightening on the opposite side of the hook as I wrap down, I wait until I am all the way around the hook and tighten as I pull up in my wrap. This prevents the material from being pulled down around the backside of the hook. Similar if not identical to the “cinch wrap” technique used for tying things onto the top of the hook. You can easily find YouTube videos on how to execute this. Here is a great one from Orvis:
4. Tie in on an Angle.
In nearly every YouTube fly tying video, when someone ties in their material, you will see them angle it in a diagonal across the hook shank 30 to 45 degrees at the beginning of the wrap. This is especially true for feathers, hackle, wire, and herl. I know. Pretty much everything!
I never noticed it until I figured out why they did it. When you are tying in material, instead of placing it parallel to the hook, angling it down helps the thread grab the material and bind it to the shank as you wrap around. I lean more towards 45 degrees, but as long as there is some angle, it seems to be better than none. It is simple, effective, and although widely used, I find it is rarely discussed. Check it out the next time you watch a YouTube video on tying flies. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.
5. Counter Wrap.
Another head shaker when I figured this one out. This is talked about frequently on some of the fly tying videos but I either saw the wrong videos for a long time or just wasn’t paying close enough attention.
When you wrap in material one way, such as pheasant tail or dubbing, wrapping the wire around the hook in the opposite direction helps secure that material and keep it from unraveling. I think one reason it took me a while to incorporate this is because it was mentioned often, but I did not grasp why it is important.
6. Tie In and Pull Back.
This is another technique that I had seen a few times, but never realized how useful it was until I started using it more. Now, I tie in and pull back on nearly every fly I tie. You do not have to tie in material at the precise length you need it at. You can tie in something with a couple firm wraps and then pull the tag end of the material back until you have it at the desired length. This is extremely useful with small flies where it can be difficult to grab and tie the measurements that are required by the tiny hooks. It makes things easy for tying in things like the tail of a fly or wings of a nymph.
7. Slotted Beadheads
The short story is that slotted beadheads are a great way to get beadheads around the bend in tiny hooks. Especially, little midges. They are incredibly useful little contraptions.
8. Less is More.
This still gives me trouble, but I am getting better. Every time I make a wrap or tie something in, and think, “I’ll just give it a few more good wraps. Just to be safe.” I add a couple more wraps to my pattern. Two more wraps I most likely do not need.
It’s the way I am wired. I am a believer in the adage “Two is one. One is none.” I like having contingencies.
The problem is that those wraps add up. Especially on smaller flies. Too many unnecessary wraps, over the course of tying a fly can result in bulky patterns or sloppy, crowded heads at the eye of the hook.
9. Pinch and Twist Dubbing the Same Direction.
This one did not take terribly long to learn, but I remember how painful it was trying to tie flies in the beginning without this knowledge so to help save you that agony, it made the list. It is simple. When you twist dubbing onto the thread, always twist in the same direction. Twist it between your finger and thumb, release, then twist again in the same direction. This wraps the dubbing around the thread and makes a tight noodle.
10. Take the Time for the Fly Tying Technique Videos
I saved the best for last. I think I could have avoided learning many of these lessons the hard way if instead of just trying to tie fly after fly, I had taken the time to go through the various available videos on fly tying techniques. There are so many great online resources for tying different flies, it is sometimes hard as a beginner to take a step back and remember that tying flies requires many different techniques for different scenarios at the vise. Deliberately taking the time to learn the basics of tying, can help save some pain in the long run.
I love tying flies. It has so many benefits for the fly fisherman or woman that wants to improve. Connects us to fly fishing in so many ways.
I truly hope some of these techniques help you at the vise. Along the way I learned them the hard way, but I wouldn’t trade it. Looking back now, many of them seem obvious, but at the time they were difficult. Sound familiar? If you are there, I understand. I’m still there myself. Still learning. Still trying to improve. Still working at it. It is one of the beautiful things about tying flies AND about fly fishing. You get to work at it. Ain’t it cool?