11 Tips For Cleaner, More Consistent Fly Tying

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

Clean, well proportioned flies are the mark of a good tyer.

Fly tying is a little bit craft, a little bit art and a little bit science. Even when tying simple flies it  can be challenging to produce consistent results and top quality, especially when the patterns get small. Most tyers are self-taught and many never learn some of the fundamental skills which produce good results. I teach fly tying classes from time to time and I see tyers struggle with the same fundamental issues over and over. Spending some time on the basics will pay big dividends in both quality and efficiency.

Here are 11 tips for tying cleaner, more consistent flies

Get the proportions right from the start.

You should be thinking about the placement of every element of a pattern from the first thread wraps. Each pattern has a code that’s easy to break down if you start off right. The key is to break down the hook shank into simple fractions. Here is an example. When tying any Gotcha style bonefish fly I use my thread to break the hook shank into quarters. I start the thread behind the eye and lay down a thread base to the middle of the hook. It’s easy for your eye to see halves, so I start by dividing the shank in half, then I wind half way back to the eye. That’s my first quarter, and that’s where my dumbbell eyes go.

If I were tying a parachute-style dry fly, I’d divide the shank into thirds and place my parachute post on the first third. Using these simple fractions not only insures that your flies are consistent, it insures that the proportions stay the same as the hook size changes. Your #20 flies will look like miniature versions of your #12s.

Measure and prep your materials by hook size.

Another key to keeping proportions consistent is to organize your materials by the size of the patterns you’re tying. Use a hackle gauge to select feathers which match the hook size and set aside as many as you will need for a tying session.

When tying in tails or wings, use the hook shank to measure the right length. Know the right proportion for the pattern you are tying and always use the hook as your reference. When using materials like hair, keep the number of fibers you gather in proportion with the size of the pattern. Smaller flies will require smaller clumps of hair.

Use the right thread.

Like every material used in a fly, the size of your thread varies. You might use 3/0 thread for streamers or saltwater patterns but that heavy thread will ruin the proportions on your dry flies. I use 6/0 on large terrestrials, 8/0 for dries and nymphs size 8-18 and 11/0 for everything size 20 and smaller, unless I’m making thread bodies.

Keep consistent thread pressure.

This is a common problem for beginning tyers. Every wrap should lay down with the same force and that pressure needs to be consistent throughout the entire revolution of the wrap. (With the exception of special techniques like stacking deer hair and catching in wings.) Once your materials are tied in with even wraps, lock the thread with 2-3 wraps. Then the weight of the bobbin will keep them in place.

Keep your thread on a short leash.

I often see tyers making big circles in the air, with 3 or 4 inches of thread outside their bobbin. It’s awfully hard to control materials and thread with all of the distance between your bobbin and the hook shank. You wind up putting wraps in the wrong place or trapping fibers by mistake. Keep that leash under an inch and you will get cleaner results.

Don’t put down extra wraps.

Lots of tyers are in the habit of giving it a few extra wraps for good measure. I’ve heard these called “thinking wraps” and they will quickly wreck your proportions. Most materials never require more than 4 wraps to secure. Make 2 wraps over a material, then lift the waste end and make one wrap under, then lay it back and put a final wrap on the outside. That’s as solid a connection as you will get.

Don’t crowd the eye.

This is easily the #1 problem in fly tying and even some experienced tyers do it. Always leave room for a small thread head behind the eye of the hook. Your flies will not only look better, you’ll be able to tie them on.

Don’t build excessive heads.

Too often tyers will try to hide the sins of sloppy work with thread wraps at the head. Materials which were poorly secured or trimmed get buried under big sloppy heads. Get everything nice and clean and keep the head tasteful.

Catch materials in precisely.

Another common problem is catching materials in exactly where you want them. Often materials land farther up the hook shank than intended or roll to the side of the hook when they should be on top. Usually this is due to poor thread control. There is an easy way to fix this problem. Most materials can be caught in using this technique.

Measure your material and hold it in place directly over the hook shank with the edge of your fingers at the exact point where your thread should land. Let your bobbin hang and spin it quickly counterclockwise. Let it spin for several seconds. This tightens the fibers of the thread. Next come over your material with a lose wrap. Your tightened thread will jump back against your fingers, insuring that the thread lands in exactly the right spot. Once the thread comes back under the hook shank, apply pressure with the thread pulling up. Keep your material in place with your fingers while you tighten and make a second wrap to secure your work. This will keep your material on top of the hook shank.

Learn to stop materials at the same spot.

Many patterns require that several materials be secured, and stopped in the exact same spot. This all comes down to thread and material control. Keep your thread spun tight, with consistent pressure, and you should be able to land your wraps exactly where you want them. Stop 2 wraps short of where your last material stopped, trim your material, and use those last 2 wraps to cover the ends.

Wear magnifying glasses.

Even if your eyes are good you can always increase precision by using magnifying glasses, especially when tying small flies. Be sure you have good light, too. You can’t tie clean flies if you cant see.

Practice these fundamental skills and you’ll see a big improvement in the quality and consistency of your flies. Do better flies catch more fish? You bet they do, and they they last longer, too. A little extra effort at the bench can make for much better days on the water.

Have a favorite tying trick I didn’t cover? Tell us about it in the comments.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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19 thoughts on “11 Tips For Cleaner, More Consistent Fly Tying

  1. Your final tip was magnifying glasses. Maybe that tip should be #1?

    For me, the magnifier on the flexi-neck in front of the vise is clumsy and always in the way. I purchased a pair of head-worn magnivisors from Amazon for less than $30.

    They look stupid, really stupid, but nothing has helped my tying more than wearing these magnifying visors.

    • I used the head-worn magnivisor for a few years; then I discovered “Flex Spex”. (Order direct on-line $35.00 with a carrying case.) Just clip them to the bill of your favorite cap and away you go. They are there when you need them and out of the way when you don’t. No problem with a heavy clumsy magnivisor, a sweaty head band, or magnifiers that won’t stay in place. Also doesn’t look nearly as goofy.

    • Remember that reading glasses are designed to have different focal distances. What I mean by this is that I have 2.5 power reading glasses for books that focus at about 2 feet (the distance you would hold a book from your face). When I tie, I use 3.5 power reading glasses that focus at about ten inches (the distance from my face to the fly).

  2. Can’t wait to try out your tip on catching in materials on some wet fly quill-slip wings. It’s always challenging for me to get them to lay right.

    Any advice on how to stop shreading my thread with my rough finger callouses? And please don’t say manicures for better fly tying!

    • Head straight to your local drugstore and pick up a pack of those fine emory boards that are most often found in the ladies cosmetics section. I always have one or two floating around on my desk. They will smooth out your rough fingers in no time flat! I use them all the time. One will last you a long time. Got my first one from my wife. You can also use them to smooth out your nails if they are ragged.
      I also use them for filing down foam etc., when tying. Trust me, it will be the best $2 you ever spent.

  3. It might be worth expanding the “don’t crowd the eye” to also cover Don’t crowd the bead. I’ve only been tying for about 6 months, so I’m still quite green when it comes to fly tying, so tips like these can be Very handy!!! One of the challenging parts for me has been making sure to leave enough space between the thorax and bead on nymphs so that I can tie in the legs, wing case, flash (whatever else) and still having enough space behind the bead to get everything trimmed neatly and secured without running over the back of the bead. (I’m particularly bad about having the wing case extend over the back of the bead…)

    On another note, to all y’all veteran tyers out there. Any tips on securing coneheads so that they don’t spin on the completed fly? I’ve tried a few things, but just struggle to get them secured to the point that they will not spin…

    • The only thing I can think is get a little glue in it somehow
      Maybe dab some glue on the shank so it gets inside the cone when you slide it foreward to the eye?

      I’m not a tyer yet but that’s what makes sense in my mimd

    • I’d say a lead wire wrap locked down with some thread wraps behind the cone. Just make sure the lead wire is firmly placed directly behind the cone.

        • I’ll have to try it with the glue on the lead. Typically I have a handfull of wraps of .035 lead free wire jammed up to the front of the cone. Does a bang up job keeping the cone in place, but didn’t do much for the spinning cone. I’ll try putting a couple drops of Zap a Gap on the wire. Thanks Guys!!

    • Regarding keeping a conehead from spinning. If it spins, it’s moving, if it’s moving it might also be rattling. That creates noise which might help fish zone in on your fly. We put rattles on some patterns to attract fish. So I’m not seeing why having a conehead that doesn’t move is a desirable thing, except on a tube fly for the obvious reason it can slip off. But it can’t or shouldn’t be able to on an eyed conventional hook.

  4. These are great tips. I feel like I’ve heard them, (though not quite verbatim) from somewhere else. Was it Production Fly Tying by A.K. Best? Nah, maybe it was someone else… Norm Norlander? I can’t put my finger on it, but either way, its always good to have a refresher.

    • Wouldn’t surprise me if many of these tips were in “Production Fly Tying”. I read it a long time ago and incorporated many of his tips into my tying. I’d have to go through that book again to figure out what came from where!

  5. Regarding magnifying. We live a computer age, it’s no big deal to have a computer on your tying bench. It’s easy to rig up a webcam to an old computer and have the fly magnified on screen in front of you. An added benefit is you can see the far side of the fly without having to turn it around.

  6. Remember that reading glasses are designed to have different focal distances. What I mean by this is that I have 2.5 power reading glasses for books that focus at about 2 feet (the distance you would hold a book from your face). When I tie, I use 3.5 power reading glasses that focus at about ten inches (the distance from my face to the fly).

  7. I tie a lot of flies with peacock herl and find if I use 4 strands of herl, I hold one strand upright at the tie in point and wrap the other 3 around it the length of the body needed and then wrap the entire segment around the hook as in a grey hackle peacock or twist nymph, and use 2 half hitches to secure it, I can catch 3 times the amount of fish on one fly. CJ Webb

  8. I’m an old bloke who has been fishing for 69 years, fly fishing for 54 years and tying for 9 years so I still have a lot to learn. It’s good to reads all of the comments.

    I only tie on hooks from 6 to 7/0 so I rarely need a magnifier. When I do I have a pair of 2X clipons which go on my bifocals and that works for me.

    The other thing I do is always tie a half hitch if I’m going to let the bobbin hang while I am doing something else. I learnt to hand whip finish at 5 years of age so it is a quick flick of the wrist. I have caught 49 saltwater species since I have been tying and I tie all of my flies so I must be doing something right. Cheers BM

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