When I started tying my own fly fishing flies about 3 years ago, I spent a long, long time figuring out what materials to buy. Trying to dive into fly tying, even if you’ve been fly fishing like years, was like learning a new language. Sure, we buy flies all the time. Learning the names of every fly, along with all its permutations is hard enough. Now, consider that each of those flies uses several different materials, which come in different lengths, gauges, sizes, and weights. And well, you’re better off learning organic chemistry in your free time.
Fear not, as I’ve done the hard work of figuring out what you need to buy to get started. And, lucky for you, I bought a lot of crap that I thought I needed and have never used. I’ve also had to buy more of things I thought I’d never use and wound up using all the time.
Fly Tying Vise
This is the coolest and most geared out part of fly tying… and it’s also the most expensive. While you can certainly spend a lot on a vise, you can also spend next to nothing to just get started. After all, the solitary function of a fly vise is to just pinch and hold a fly while you work your magic. The more expensive ones do this job faster, can pinch tinier and tinier flies, and spin the fly for you. The latter is what’s called a rotary vise, and is really something to upgrade to, as it just makes things go faster as you get better at tying and want to increase your throughput. Until then, you can just gawk. You don’t need to drop the cash on it for now.
That being said, I saved my money for materials and bought the cheapest of the cheap vises, the Super AA. It was $20 and clamps to my desk and pinches the fly. It works, even after 3 years. It’s ugly and I’d like to upgrade to something like a $100 Griffin Spider, but I can wait. The really nice rotary vises are north of $200, so I’ll probably hold out until I’ve got the liquidity to drop that much on a glorified pair of needle nose pliers.
If you’re a beginner, save your dough to buy more materials, or better yet, good tools. Surprisingly, they’ve updated the Super AA in the past 3 years and it’s now got “polished” aluminum components and slightly different hardware, along with a material holder.
Here is where its easy to skimp, as it might be hard to convince yourself to spend $8-$15 on a pair of scissors. But they pay big dividends in the end. Invest more in the essentials tools, listed below, by a decent brand like Dr. Slick. Put them in your fly tying box, and don’t let them anyone else touch them or use them on stuff other than flies. That includes yourself. Don’t use your scissors to cut off hang tags, or your bodkin to clean your grody fingernails.
I’ve divided the list into essential tools and extra tools. Essential tools are ones you will either: use frequently, have some sort of critically necessary edge or tolerance, or does that something very, very specific. Extra tools are additional tools that you’ll use often, but, in my opinion, are either durable by design or aren’t going to experience enough wear and tear to justify spending a lot of time and money on. I’ve linked to some off-brand alternatives to these tools right off the bat.
Dr. Slick is generally the best brand to buy when it comes to essential tools, and they’re ECO line is a very good alternative to their standard, as they cut out the fancy gold trim and change to a lower grade stainless steel (410 to 400 SS). Buy some ECO tools first, and if you wear them out, replace them with the standard. They’ll probably outlast your patience when it comes to fly tying.. just saying.
Here are the essential tools you’ll need:
- Dr. Slick ECO – 4″ All Purpose Straight Scissors
- 4″ All Purpose Curved Scissors (more useful than you think)
- 2 Non-ceramic bobbins (ceramic bobbins were intended for Kevlar thread, you don’t need it – get two, keep one to always have a spool of black on it)
- JS Stockard economy stacker ($5-$8)
- Dr. Slick Rotary Hackle Plier ($7-$13) – Buy the longer ones if you have big hands
- Just Simply Tools Bobbin Threader
- Bodkins + Half Hitch Tool ($5) – Glorified metal pick, except for the half hitch end
- Whip Finisher ($7) – You can whip finish with your fingers just as easily
- Barb Plier – ($6) (Just to bend down the barb of the hook, feel free to use a small pair of needle nose pliers)
Additionally, there are a lot of gift sets out there, but they are kind of pricey.
Everything else is extra or should be purchased if you plan on tying a specific pattern. I keep things simple and just use Danville Un-waxed Flymaster thread. If I need wax for adding dubbing, then I use it with a stick of dubbing wax. There are other brands out there, like UNI and Veevus, but Danville is a world-famous brand and the factory is down the street from my parent’s house in Danville, New Hampshire. So I buy local. It’s pretty cheap too, so I like to buy some crazy colors every now and then to try a new pattern.
Fine Rib Wire
Buy a spool of gold, silver, and copper wire. Danville makes a Fine wire, but I generally like the look of the slightly thicker gauge UNI Ultra Wire Medium size. To me, it stands out more when tying nymphs or using it as ribbing on wooly buggers. If you plan to tie brassies, well, then buy the UNI Ultra Wire Brassie size.
Round-Lead Free Wire
Wire is wrapped around bare hooks for nymphs and sinking flies to weigh them down. They used to be made from lead, but people went cray-cray over them. Get it? I’m hilarious, I know. Instead, you can just buy the Hareline lead free alloy kind, which is about 60% the sinking power of lead. There is also tungsten wire now, but it’s slightly more expensive. However, they can make the tungsten wire in very fine guages, so its useful if you like to fish with tiny nymphs, like brassies and scuds.
Basic Non-Feather Materials
Obviously you’ll need hooks to tie flies. There are a ton of different variations, from size, to curve, to shank length, and then brands. Everyone has their preference so rather than go through them all, I’ll let you know what I use. I’m not saying these are the best, but they work fine for me. The hook sizes correspond to the fly size, just like when you’re using them, so you can change your hook sizes depending on your tackle and what flies work best for you. However, when first starting out with fly tying, bigger flies are easier to tie until you develop the dexterity and technique.
For Dry Fly Patterns: Daiichi 1180 mini barb multi pack – #12, #14, #16, #18
For Streamer and Wooly Bugger Patterns: Mustad Signature R74-9672 4x Long shank, 2x strong wire hooks. They make a coated variation for salt water flies here: Signature S74DT-34011 Hook
There are a few different type of beads but they mainly fall into the head, eye, or body type category. Bead head beads are generally the round or conical shaped beads which add some flash and downward-diving weight to a fly. The eye beads provide the same effect but also look like eyes for a baitfish pattern. The body beads are typically glass or plastic and are stacked up to make a segmented body, usually for nymphs. Eye beads are optional, I never tie those types of patterns so I don’t own any. Body beads are optional too, I bought two bags, in read and green, but I’ve hardly used them since making up a handful of nymphs with them.
Bead head beads, on the other hand, I use a lot on buggers and little nymphs. It’s tough to figure out what size you’ll need though, which I learned the hard way. Too little and they don’t provide any weight, too large and they don’t look right on the fly. Go by the manufacturers chart for bead size to hook size, it’s usually pretty good. You can usually go up a bead size for a more dramatic look, but be careful on going down a bead size, as the inner diameter of the hole may not be big enough to fit the hook’s outer diameter.
Many “new school” fly tyers like to say that beads are played out and you should stop using them. It’s your own prerogative. I like they weight they add, and if you don’t like the gold, copper, or brass, Cyclops now makes them in black tungsten (which looks awesome on an all black streamer, i might add).
Dubbing are the fur or fibers that are gently twisted onto thread and then wrapped around a fly body. You then lightly Hareline makes these awesome dubbing packs which makes life a whole lot simpler. If you want to tie dry flies, get the micro dry fly pack. Spirit River also makes some great packs. You can also consider picking up a pack of ice dub or krystal dub, which is useful when making some more flashy dubbing-bodied nymphs. Dubbing can go in different ways. For dry flies, they can mimic the soft body of a winged insect. On nymphs, the dubbing can be lightly picked with your bodkin to look like insect legs.
Another standard material for the wooly bugger and other streamers is chenille, which can basically be described as fuzzy string. Think of a bendy little pipe cleaner you used in grade school, but if it was made of string. Wrapped around the shank of a hook, they make a durable fuzzy body to flies, which doesn’t look as buggy as dubbing. I would buy this stuff in medium diameter in the same color as your marabou to match the tails with the body, but don’t get just the plain colors, they are kind of dull. Flashier variations like ice chenille, cactus, and krystal flash are cool ways to add some pop to the body.
This another sticking point when it comes to buying materials. I couldn’t figure out how much hackle I’d need, what size to invest in, and what colors to buy. Plus, it can get expensive. The best, most versatile dry fly hackle feathers I found are the Whiting 100 packs. They give you a small pack of long hackles, which are advertised to be able to “100 flies” per pack. They are expensive at $20 a pop, so I would recommend you get a grizzly, and then brown colored packs. These two colors will get you by most of the time, with grizzly being just a do-all color.
That is unless you have a specific pattern or species where you fish. Get dun if you want to tie duns, get white or olive if you plan to tie BWO’s. You get the point. But when in doubt, grizzly out.
Soft hackle are feathers that come from upland birds and are used in a variety of flies. Unfortunately, there are so many different types of soft hackle out there and its very hard to figure out which you need. Luckily, Nate over at Stone River Outfitters (my local fly shop), introduced me to Hungarian partridge feathers. These feathers are really cheap and come in just about every color. What makes them so versatile is that they have 3 parts to them. The bottom of the feather is a soft, wispy downy feather, which can be used in nymphs like a soft hackle Ray charles. The middle portion is webby and can be used for collars for wet flies. The tip is soft enough to be used as the wing on an Adams Dry. Three different pattern families out of one cheap little feather. Ya dig?
Marabou feathers are like those plumes you see feather boa’s made out of on TV. They are the bread and butter of streamer flies, specifically the infamous wooly bugger. I suggest buying a pack in black at the very least, as this is the staple wooly bugger color, along with olive green, which is also very effective. Don’t bother using synthetic marabou fibers, I tried that at first with poor results.
This is the primary body material for making pheasant tail nymphs (as the name implies) and commonly used in prince nymphs, so only buy it if you want to make patterns which include it. It’s not really a widely used material, but is quite versatile. Peacock herls are what make up the characteristic peacock feather. Unlike most bird feathers, the big feathers that make up the peacock’s fan tail are made of tiny little quills on a larger main quill. Each of these little quills can be plucked off and wrapped to make bodies just like chenille. I’ve begun making wooly bugger bodies out of these and they are killing it. The cool part of getting peacock herls is that they range from dark green to olive green to even blue green, so you get a lot of variation from a single feather.
Wooly Bugger Hackle
Turkey collars are the last major part of wooly bugger flies and are also used to make the webby collars of wet flies. A lot of fly tyers swear that the type of webby hackle you’ll want to use depends on the waters you plan to fish buggers in. For fast waters, you’ll want a stiffer hackle, like from a rooster cape. If you plan to fish slow waters, such as pools, ponds, and lakes, you’ll want a softer hackle to give more motion to the fly, such as from a hen saddle. Personally, wooly buggers are, by nature, such a ubiquitos fly, that I just stick with using a stiffer hackle whether I’m fishing slow or fast water. I’ll sometimes add my own twist to a bugger fly by adding a wrap of marabou for some soft body motion. However, rooster capes are pretty expensive. You can either buy a pack of the Whiting 100’s in a larger size, like 10, for wooly buggers for $20. Or, I’ve found out (again, from Stone River) to try wrapping strung streamer necks for the body instead just for streamer tails. This stuff is awesome. The length of the quills are longer, but can be trimmed down. Super durable, super buggy, and cheap at $6.
Other, Other Materials
I didn’t add these before because these are fly-specific materials but are used in very widely used flies.
Elk Hair (For Elk-Hair Caddis and Royal Wulff)
Your best bet is to buy a small patch of elk or deer hair in natural tan or brown. Make sure you get a hair stacker for these, they are critical in getting all the tips to line up perfectly for a tail or wing. (Another useful tool is a small bone comb, which will help comb out the soft undercoat fur from the strong outer fur – you’ll see after using ungulate hair a few times).
Fine / Ultra Fine / Velvet Micro Chenille (For San Juan Worms)
Unlike the standard or medium chenille mentioned above, this finer chenille is plusher and denser. It’s also thinner in diameter and makes an excellent little san juan worm to net trouts when the water gets murky. I like to make them in san juan red or blood red. You can also look for this mixed with antron as well, to give it some shine.
Egg Beads or Foam Beads
After reading a Hatchmag.com article a few years ago, I switched from using fabric based materials for my egg patterns to using newer plastic beads. Its up to you what you’d like to use, but after making the switch, the benefits of plastic beads are obvious. They are shiny like an egg, naturally float, and are basically indestructible. Hevi-Beads are used by salmon fishermen and don’t really require you to tie them, as they can be slipped onto hooks streamed. However, traditional yarn or McFly foam eggs are way cheaper, and let you make different colored patterns and egg-sucking variations of other flies.
Finally, you need a good way to organize all of this. I was lucky enough to be given this old machinist’s chest that belonged to my girlfriend’s grand father. He had taken this to WW2, it even had his old military ID in one of the drawers when I first got it!
The next best thing to this is a generic plastic toolbox, the kind that opens with a lid and may or may not have drawers built into it. Drawers are clutch because they help keep these super lightweight materials contained. A tool holder is also recommended and used by a lot of people, but I’ve never bothered to keep one. I keep them all out on the table while I work, and put them all back into the drawer when I’m done. Make sure to have a waste bin nearby or a desk that you can sweep everything into. I really like using old pasta sauce jars or large coffee cans if it still has the lid. I’ll cut a hole in the lid and then shove scrap material into it. This method or a pasta sauce jar with a tapered top help keep loose material from just flying out with a breeze.
I hope all this helps point you in the right direction and avoid some wasted money buying the wrong tools and materials. Feel free to share your suggestions and tips for me and for other readers!