The Art of the Angler

Why to tie a fly



Photography by Robert Clark

Fly-fishing has a long and rich sporting heritage. Nobles, Roman soldiers and English women of refinery all had a hand in the development of the sport. Izzack Walton fished with a fly and wrote one of the sport’s early classic pieces of literature. Shakespeare was a fly-fisherman, and so was Ernest Hemingway. President Jimmy Carter was also known to match the hatch.

However, there is no fly-fishing without first the art of fly-tying! Fly-fishing — or better, fly-casting — was developed to provide a delivery system for delicate and almost weightless artificial lures. An artificial fly is just that; lashing pieces of feather and fur onto a hook to mimic a small insect or other potential food item for fish. Flies were developed first for trout and other similar species that are predominately insect eaters. Even large fish can gorge themselves on the countless thousands of aquatic and terrestrial insects that live in and around the water year-round. 

Anyone who has ever tried to fish with a live cricket or grasshopper knows that the bait is usually torn just getting it on the hook. If it does manage to make it on the hook, the appearance is mangled, and it almost certainly is lost after a cast or two. Now, imagine an insect the size of a housefly or mosquito; there is no way to use live bait in these situations. An artifical grasshopper made of fur and feathers can look more realistic, be more durable and catch more fish than the natural. Our forefathers and mothers had to create a way of casting those tiny artificial lures out to the fish and the rest — as they say — is history. In short, a heavy fly line carries the weightless fly out to the target, while in all other forms of fishing, the weight of the lure carries the thin line out to the fish. In fact, there are more books on the sport of fly-fishing, fly-casting and fly-tying than any other sport.

So why not just use a worm? Because trout, in particular, display a genetic trait called “selective feeding.” Most fish feed “opportunistically.” This means they eat whatever happens to come their way and usually the bigger the meal the better. All fish live by a simple rule; they must gain more in calorie return than they expend in catching their prey. A bass, for example, would rather eat a large frog and go sulk under a log for two days than try to catch a bunch of dragonflies because he gains the most in calorie return for his effort. 

 

  

There are a few things to keep in mind when tying flies: always wrap the fly-tying thread away from you in the same direction and remember what gets wrapped last, gets tied first — think in reverse. 
Gather the materials needed to tie a Pheasant Tail Nymph: a vice and hook, fly-tying thread, pheasant tail fibers, peacock herl, fine copper wire and head cement.
1. Place the hook in the vice. Make sure the shank of the hook is parallel to your work surface and not at an angle. Use the fly-tying thread to form a base. Tie in pheasant tail fibers that are equal to the length of the shank of the hook at the bend. Allow the tapered tips to be exposed. Next, tie in the fine copper wire (this will be used later — remember think in reverse). Then, tie in a second clump of long pheasant tail fibers that will later be used to form the body. Tie the clump tips down so that the thicker fibers are used as you wrap forward.
2. Wrap the fly-tying thread forward (toward the eye hook) over the pheasant tail fibers and wire to form a smooth underbody. 
3. Wrap the long pheasant tail fibers forward to form the body. Twisting them will help keep them together. Tie off the fibers with thread once you have wrapped two-thirds of the shank (body). 

 

Trout in rivers, however, live in insect-rich waters where thousands of tiny bugs float past them every day. They take a stationary position and let the current bring them their food, so they can eat very tiny insects and make up for it through abundance. They won’t move far or chase and waste energy, but they have to eat lots of insects to get the daily calorie intake they need. A bass may feed once every two or three days where a trout may need to open his mouth hundreds of times in one day.

Confused yet? It gets better! All of these insect species have different life cycles and times of year when they are most active. So the fly tier has unlimited opportunities to create fanciful imitations. Here is another example: a butterfly starts as an egg, hatches into a larva (the caterpillar), after a time it becomes a pupa, and finally hatches into the adult butterfly. If you were trying to match the “butterfly hatch,” you would need no less than three very different artificial flies to mimic the three different life stages of the natural insect. 

Aquatic insects have similar life cycles so the prudent angler would need no less than three or four very different flies to cover the life cycle of one specific insect. Some would drift under the water and others float. Every unique variety of insect should be slightly different in size, shape and color, requiring many different patterns to be prepared on the water. “Having the right fly” is the stuff that keeps fly-tiers up at night.

In the fourth grade, I read Field & Stream cover to cover and was always fascinated by fly-fishing and even more, tying my own flies. I vividly remember chasing the dog around the house snipping pieces of fur. I had “borrowed” scissors and thread from mom’s sewing kit and was trying to hold a hook in my hands while creating my first masterpiece. I have always been a little artsy and love to draw and paint. 

 

  

4. Trim any excess body material (pheasant tail fibers). 
5. Wrap the copper wire (from step one) forward using equal spacing. This is called ribbing. I usually do three or four wraps. Cut off the excess material, completing the abdomen or body of the fly.
6. This is where you begin tying the thorax. Tie in a third clump of pheasant tail fibers directly on the top/back of the fly. These fibers will be used to form the wing case and legs. This clump will be tied with the tips off the back so that when pulled forward they can form legs.

 

Every angler worth his salt will tinker and modify any and all fishing gear, so fly-tying is the perfect marriage. I tie, I create, I tinker, I fish! You might even say, “I fish, therefore I am.” By the time I was in middle school, I was supplying the local fly shop with quality patterns that could not be purchased commercially. Instead of going to summer camp, I went to a fly-fishing school sponsored by Trout Unlimited and that was the end of me. I didn’t just learn to drive in the summer of 1976, I learned to double haul and create dubbing loops.

Many years later, I found myself living my childhood dream of working in the fly-fishing industry, devouring everything I could read and watch and meeting many of the heroes of the sport. I was privileged to present slideshows on insect entomology and the artificial flies that match them. These days I have expanded my repertoire to include flies for bass and saltwater. These are large flies that imitate baitfish, frogs, crayfish and the like that large predators prefer. Catching any fish on a fly that I have tied from scratch is the most satisfying aspect of the sport for me. Difficult, right? If you can tie your shoes you can tie a fly, so let’s dive in on just how to get started. 

Like most hobbies, there are several essential tools that will help you get off on the right foot and enjoy some early successes. The vice is just that; a specialized fulcrum designed to hold a variety of hook sizes securely while you create your masterpiece. Unlike my early miscues, sewing thread is not okay. Specialized fly-tying threads are very small in diameter and very strong, so buy a few sizes and colors. The spools of thread are held by a bobbin, which is essentially a hollow tube that allows you to precisely direct each wrap of thread without fraying while applying the proper tension. 

 

  

7. Trim the excess wing case material and neaten up the underbody of the thorax.
8. Attach multiple strands of peacock herl and then wrap the fly-tying thread forward, just behind the eye of the hook. Leave enough room to tie everything off and finish the fly — it’s the classic beginners mistake!
9. Wrap the peacock herl forward forming the thorax and trim the excess. Again, twisting the strands will help this process. 

 

Fly-tying scissors have narrow sharp points with serrated edges for tight work with delicate materials. Hackle pliers hold materials and act as an extra set of fingers while wrapping feathers (hackles) and other materials. Head cement helps hold all of those wraps and make the fly more durable. There are many other specialized tools, but those are the basics. Many companies offer a starter fly-tying kit to make life easier. You can find good options locally from Barron Outfitters or by ordering from Orvis, L.L.Bean and many others. Most good fly shops and local clubs like Trout Unlimited and the International Federation of Fly Fishers will offer classes. 

A word on materials. It’s overwhelming, so you might need some fresh ice in that tumbler. The earliest materials used in fly-tying tended to be “natural,” meaning the feathers and fur of animals that were readily available. In Creation’s perfect plan, materials harvested from one species can be used to fool another. The flank breast feather of a mallard duck has barred markings that make it perfect for creating insect wings. The iridescent blue/green/purple flash of peacock herl has been attracting fish for centuries. Rabbit fur (Hare’s Ear) and the fibers of a pheasant tail are other materials that can’t be improved upon. 

Remember the tinkering part? These days, we raise genetically specialized roosters to produce dry fly hackle that can fetch more than $50 for a piece of chicken neck feather! Synthetic materials like wire, tinsel, and these days metal and glass beads are all the rage. The Internet has created a marketplace where anglers can buy materials from around the globe for every application from the tiniest freshwater insect imitation to a saltwater baitfish fly capable of taking a marlin. If you become passionate about this hobby, a significant portion of your office or basement will soon be dedicated to a fly-tying station and the storage of materials, so plan in advance when buying your next home. 

Flies catch many things. Some are designed to catch fish, most are designed to catch fisherman. There is a huge difference between a fly that looks good in the water and is attractive to a fish versus those that just look great to the fisherman’s eye with his wallet in hand. Flies fall into three basic categories: suggestive, impressionistic and realistic. 

 

  

10. Pull the pheasant tail fibers (from step six) over the thorax and tie down just behind the eye of the hook to form the wing case. Once tied, split the fibers in equal bundles at the tips and fold back on either side of the fly (lateral) forming the legs. Use the fly-tying thread to tie back and keep in position.  
11: Form a small thread head and finish the fly with a special knot called the whip-finish. A drop of head cement can be applied to the head for extra security (optional).
12: After some admiring, your Pheasant Tail Nymph fly is complete.

 

Opposite, clockwise from top left: Matuka Sculpin Streamer, Elk Wing Caddis, Cutwing Mayfly (Hendrickson), Pheasant Tail Nymph. 

 

Suggestive is just that –– the fly is suggestive of something to eat and may imitate a number of potential food items. If you have done any fly-fishing in the past, you may be familiar with a Wooly Bugger, one of the best flies of all time, and it doesn’t look like anything in nature. However, once in the water the marabou and hackle spring to life, pulsing and breathing as the fly is fished, suggestive of many food items including large insects, minnows, crayfish and leeches. If you want to catch fish on a suggestive type fly; start with a Wooly Bugger. 

Impressionistic flies will take the general size, shape and color of a more specific class of food items, like caddis larva for example, while still having a lifelike look underwater. An insect tumbling in the current kicks, swims, wiggles and generally panics, and fish don’t have time to count legs. They have to make a quick decision to eat or let it pass. Realistic flies, on the other hand, usually take a very artistic approach and mimic every little leg and antennae on the bug. However, these flies tend to be very stiff and motionless and don’t usually fish well. They catch fisherman; not fish. 

Some of the most successful trout flies include the Wooly Bugger, Prince Nymph, Bead Head, Pheasant Tail, Hare’s Ear, Adams, Elk Wing Caddis and Muddler Minnow. Research them and you will discover that most of them are impressionistic –– what they lack in fine detail they make up with on the water — fish catch-ability. They look like something alive and good to eat. Tie them in the size, shape and color of the local food base, and you will catch fish.

Back when I was a fishing guide, I used to say, “Everyone is a fly-fisherman; they just don’t know it yet.” What I mean is that anglers all go through a progression. We start by fishing, then we want to catch lots of fish, then we want to make it harder on ourselves by chasing exotic species or downsizing the tackle. We go from bait to artificial lures, then to lighter weight tackle. Sooner or later that usually leads to fly-fishing. So it is too with fly-tying. 

If you have been fly-fishing a couple of times and feel comfortable in rubber pants and an ugly hat, then you will probably end up wanting to try your hand at fly-tying. There is nothing in the angling world that can top catching a fish on a fly that you’ve made. There is your wedding day, the birth of your kids … and your first trout on a dry fly that you tied. It’s just that magical. 

You can read more about the history of fly-fishing and local opportunities in the June 2015 issue of Columbia Metropolitan Magazine.