[Guide] 10 Tips To Tie Better Flies

We all started somewhere. Trust me. I’m not master. I’m still learning just like you. Fly tying isn’t necessarily the most organized of disciplines. Hook sizes are almost purely subjective. Most tutorials throw around so many unique materials it will make your head spin. I’m laying down for you 10 beginner fly tying tips that cut through the tier’s bench b.s. as much as reasonably possible. Keep these in mind and you’ll start to see through patterns and tutorials and start crafting your own.

Fly Tying Tip #1.) Pay Attention To Fly Proportions…

Yes, this sounds like something you’d tell an art school student, but proportions are crucial to making better flies. Imitation patterns of actual insects are actually the easiest for learning proportions, because nature is inherently geometric. Most bugs within a genus or family follow the same body proportions between head, thorax, abdomen, and wing. If you break down the fly pattern into proportional sections in your mind’s eye, you’ll be able to pick things out. Keep things proportional to the overall shape of the final pattern, but also in terms of a relative object: the hook. Look at the hook shank length, where along the hook shank the hook point ends, the barb, and how wide is the hook gap. These things are useful measurement tools for fly proportions. Most rules of thumb follow a pattern for wings to be about 1 to 1.5 times the hook gap. You can quickly size appropriate wings on the spot. Boom!

Fly Tying Tip #2.) Learn Tying Thread Tension and Breaking Strength…

This will lead to way fewer swear jar donations. Different threads break at different tensions. I think we all forget this while we focus on thread color. Nothing is more condemning than breaking your thread midway through a fly. Yes, you can cover the loose thread with a new jam knot, but this adds unnecessary bulk and puts you in a shitty mood. Whenever starting a new thread, I always like to begin as if I’m making a jam knot and just over tighten the crap out of the thread, generally adding tension until it breaks. Then I do it again, faster. Then at normal wrapping speed. Now I have SOME idea about how much force I can put on the thread before it breaks. Eventually, you’ll instinctively know the thread strength based on the thread size (14/0, 8/0, etc) . Don’t get me started on synthetic threads though.

Fly Tying Tip #3.) There’s Always a Substitute for Materials…

Just because that YouTube video said you need endangered polar bear belly fur for that pattern doesn’t mean you need to as well. For the most part, fibers used for tails are eminently substitutable on most nymphs. Rubber legs can be swapped for biots. Dubbing colors are interchangeable and you can blend your own with a pinch of two different colors for your own look. Few materials have no substitute. These are luckily not that expensive. I’d put peacock herl, marabou feathers, tungsten beads, non-lead wrap, and hackles on this list.

Fly Tying Tip #4.) Get Sharp Fly Tying Scissors. Hide Them From The World…

Invest in two pairs of sharp scissors. An all purpose plain edge and a serrated edge for deer hair. Don’t use the plain edge on the deer hair. Don’t use either scissor for anything else besides cutting materials (except for wire and lead!). Hide them from the world. They look like great nose hair trimmers. You’ll likely still wind your girlfriend cutting coupons with them. Deal with it. Try to prevent it.

Fly Tying Tip #5.) Stop Trying to Save Scrap Materials…Use The Trash Can

No, I don’t mean keep your area tidy (which you should do), but I mean, don’t be afraid to throw stuff out. I fell into the trap by trying to scrimp and save every little bit of extra feather tip, extra lengths of brassie wire, and half used marabou quills. When you think about how much material you get in a pack, and how much it even cost you to buy (a few bucks?), you’re just wasting time and mental energy trying to set aside that half length of UV Krystal Flash. Just let it go. It’ll be awhile before you’ll need to buy another pack unless you’re tying every night (at which point, you should just go night fishing).

Fly Tying Tip #6.) Learn a Fly Pattern. Keep Tying The Same Pattern.

I do this too, so I’m sort of a hypocrite to preach it… but pick a pattern that you know you’ll use, learn it, tie one. And repeat it at least 5 times. Don’t deviate. Don’t try to free-style. Learn the pattern, practice it, tie it in a few different sizes. You’re not only developing the fine motor skills for tying that pattern (which will be used for others), you’re also adding to your fly box with a few different sizes. I’ve come to the point where once I’ve tied about 5 flies, I’ll then try to change all the colors, but keeping the materials the same. Boom. Now you have a variant that no one else on the river has. Then I’ll do it again. What I’m getting at is develop the skill to tie at least 1 fly masterfully before you jump back on Youtube and get sucked down the blackhole that is the “Recommended Videos” side bar.

Fly Tying Tip #7.) Learn how to use a Whip Finish Tool.

Learning to whip finish with a whip finish tool is easy once you watch it done. You can learn it in under 5 minutes. Just check out this video (the best, IMO) by Tim Flagler.

Nothing is more frustrating than tying up a fly and not finishing it off properly and locking down that tag end of thread with a solid 3-4 turn whip finish. Even if you think your “other” knot holds, it will either slip off or come undone after getting wet. Whip and clip. And drop some head cement for good measure.

Fly Tying Tip #8.) UV Resin is awesome.

Speaking of head cement, make sure you get some. As you progress, get some UV cure resin. There are several out there, such as Clear Cure Goo, Loon Outdoors UV, or my preferred goop: the Solarez 3-pack. Get whatever you can afford and a UV Led light. I found most manufacturers are super overpriced, charging upwards of $50 for a little purple flashlight. I don’t need to shine this to the moon. So I found this sub $10 light on Amazon which has so far, cured all the UV resin on every fly I’ve tied with it. Your mileage may vary, but I’m getting pretty high MPG here.

Fly Tying Tip #9.) Get Some Fly Tying Books. Or, at least, read some good articles.

Youtube is an awesome resource, I’m not denying it. But many Youtube videos blow right by the basics. What’s the right way to dub? How do you lay thread down flat? Do you use a bobbin for floss or wrap by hand? (Hint: By hand!). If you don’t have a good fly shop that ties flies, get some good primer books or check out some of the websites below. There is a benefit to the slow absorption of knowledge gained by reading, rather than watching. I recommend the following books, pricey new, but a wise investment if you can find them used. These books never leave my bench, unless its to my “Sunday morning reading throne”.

The Fly Tier’s Benchside Reference (the REAL bible of fly tying)

The Fly Tying Bible (the other bible of fly tying)

Pop Fleyes: Bob Popovic’s Approach to Saltwater Fly Design (innovative methods)

For websites, I’m going to keep the list short. You can find a plethora of websites that show the next best pattern, but these few are ones that I found the most helpful, most explanatory, and written thoughtfully and clearly. These are websites where it pays to read every line, gold mines of knowledge.

Loren Williams – Tyer, Guide, and 7-year Member of Fly-Fishing Team USA. Read every pattern and explanation. Awesome tips. Proven techniques.

Gilbert Rowley of Flytying123.com. Check out his Rowley Stonefly pattern, unreal.

TheLimpCobra.com – Takes discussion of things like dubbing to a whole new level

Fly Tying Tip #10.) Finally, Don’t be afraid to Use Your Flies!

They might look like crap. But ask any veteran tyer or fly fisherman that isn’t a complete liar, and they’ll tell you the fish don’t care. You do. They don’t. They eat bugs. Even the ugliest flies, that don’t look remotely like anything living, dead, or imagined, will catch fish. Ask your local fly shop to show you their collection of customer submitted flies that caught “the one”. Some look like the nasty stuff that clogs your sink drain, but they worked (allegedly). I’m not saying use them just to use them. Use them to test them. Ask yourself the following questions as you fish them:

  • If its a dry fly… Does it float? Does present softly on the surface of the water or does it splash down like a lunar lander? How long does it take to dry?
  • If its a nymph… Is it reaching the bottom quickly? Is it holding up to being dragged along the bottom? How heavy is it? How heavy is it compared to your other nymphs? Is it a good anchor in a two nymph rig?