Thoughts for Beginning Fly Tiers

After introducing and teaching people how to tie flies over the last 18 years I have answered many questions about constructing flies.  Most are about specific patterns, or maybe a particular material.  A typical question would be, “how to do a Whip finish by hand”?  Another might be, “what can I substitute for xyz material”?  A common one was, “what is this tool used for”?  These are all very common questions from beginners as well as people who have been tying flies for many years.  However, over the years there has been one question that I would get asked more frequent.  That is, “how do I improve my fly tying”?  “How do I get faster?”  “How do I get my flies to look better?”

At the moment, this article might sound like a repeat of an article I wrote a few weeks back entitled Improve Your Fly Tying Bad News​.  Well this article isn’t, rather it is sort of the follow up article.  In that article I mentioned that in order to improve your fly tying you simply have to tie more flies (that’s the bad news for some people).  When I would tell this to various people I was instructing the follow up question was always, “Ok, but what flies and how many”?  It is at this point that I found many people getting stuck in the progression of their fly tying because what they were looking for was a course all laid out for them.  You know, start with a #6 Woolly Bugger, next a #14 Quill Gordon and then a #2 Taps Bug and Bob’s your uncle you’re a pro!  When they have to come up with a list of flies and sizes as well as quantity, don’t even start with colors, that’s where they have the equivalent of Writer Block.  I’m not even talking about creating their own, never before existed, one of a kind Hair Legged Grizzly Soft Beadchain Epoxy Trout EmergDrymph!  Just trying to figure out patterns they like, find interesting because of materials or because they are good in their waters is an endeavor.  That aspect of your fly tying is what this article is about.

It is not uncommon for people who first start fly tying to go all in.  They tie the flies that are in the class and start seeing all sorts of patterns they want to tie in the books and magazines they purchase or the videos they see on YouTube.  At this stage it is easy because it is all new and exciting.  After a few months (especially if they were the winter months) other responsibilities start to creep to the front of the line.  All the yard work that needs attention in the spring.  Family vacations, get togethers with friends, work responsibilities and life in general seem to take the wind out of the proverbial fly tying sails.  Eventually, the tying gear on the desk gets “tucked” away for other tasks but somewhere that it can easily be taken out later.  Before you know it months have gone by and it is winter again and you want to tie flies and your skills are even rustier.  Any of this sound familiar?  It does to me because that is exactly what happened to me so many years ago.  I can remember a time where I did not tie a single fly for well over a year!  I am certain I will be spending a little extra time in purgatory just for that.  Maybe that is why I am devoting myself to teaching more and tying flies everyday.  Shorten that stint a little.

In today’s culture where we have to do and experience it all, it is not uncommon for interests and hobbies to get stuffed in the back closet for a time when “things slow down”.  Keep in mind, this article is not about how to “slow it down” or sage wisdom from an old(er) guy about taking time to smell the roses.  Nope, sorry how you manage your life is your business.  This article is about ways to get yourself focused on tying flies and keeping your focus so even when you are busy you can find time to tie a few flies and improve your skills and knowledge.  So, how is this accomplished?  Easy, make a list of flies you want to tie and their quantities and tie them!  Wow, Ian that is so simple, why didn’t I think of that?  Yeah, I know, it is simple but the hang up is “making the list”.  What flies, what colors, what sizes and how many are the questions that need answers.  The answers are going to depend on each person and why they tie flies as well as what they enjoy about fly tying.  But let’s start simple.  What fish do you mostly fish for?  Where I live Smallmouth Bass is king.  We do not have too many trout streams here in Indiana.  Side note, this always amazed me when teaching how many people always wanted to tie trout flies (especially dry flies) and they only fished for trout twice a year and the rest of the time they were throwing to Bass.  So, think about what fish you chase 80% of the time?  Now, go online and research patterns that are good for catching those fish.  Just do a Google search on Smallmouth Bass flies and take a look at the images (just make certain your safe browsing filters are ON).  If that does not get you a dozen or so, take a look at some of the website results.  If that doesn’t work, look for a book.  Keeping with the Smallmouth Bass genre, Bob Clouser has a great book on Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass as well as a complete book on Clouser flies.  Perfect place to start.  Even if some of the patterns you think you might not fish but look interesting to tie put them on the list.

Rather than making a list of flies, because it can get quite long quickly, some people prefer to focus on flies in a particular book.  The previously mentioned Clouser Fly book is a great example.  Make it a goal to tie all of the flies in the book.  Ok, maybe not all but how about 75% of them?  If trout fishing is your focus take a look at Charlie Craven’s Basic Fly Tying: Modern Techniques for Flies That Catch Fish.  I read through this book a number of years ago and learned all sorts of thing even though many of the flies in the book I had already been tying.  This book is good because it actually teaches you step by step and it has a host of flies in it you can focus on and tie.  If you want something with a more “classic” flare take a look at Classic Steelhead Flies by John Shewey.  Lots of patterns to focus on.  Or maybe you like the real classic wet flies.  Get a copy of Trout by Ray Bergman and commit to tying 50% of the flies in the book.  Although, this one might be a little tougher for those just getting their feet off the ground in fly tying.  But maybe the challenge is what gets you motivated!

The general idea here is to find some way of coming up with a list of flies (basically getting some direction, a path to go)  for you to focus on.  Once you have that you need to answer what size, what colors (if there is a choice) and how many.  The size and color are up to you but the quantity is also very easy…. at least two dozen of each fly (four dozen would be better).  “But I don’t need that many flies, I’ll never fish them all.”  Correct, and you won’t fish any if you don’t tie them.  AND, if you don’t tie them you won’t get better.  With getting better comes the real fun.  Then you are more relaxed and can focus on the the highlights of the pattern you are tying.  You can experience the smoothness of certain materials.  You can admire that one fly out of dozen that turns out just perfect.  You can really see that after a while each fly is looking just like the previous one and know they will do just as good a job at catching a fisherman as they will a fish.  Even if you only tie two flies everyday on your list by the end of the year you will be so much better (that’s 730 flies by the way).  Consider it your escape time.  Guess I did throw in some life management stuff anyway.  An extra pearl.

The point is make that list, write them down, highlight them in a book.  Drag out your fly tying gear and start tying.  You will be amazed at how much you can enjoy fly tying when you slowly work through all or most of the flies in a book.  Even more you will be amazed at how much you learn that can be applied to other flies.  Best of Luck!!



  • Ian Anderson

P.S.  Full disclaimer, I am not affiliated with any of these Authors or sellers of these books.  These are simply books I have ready and like and want to recommend to others.