Al Campbell, Field Editor

April 29th, 2002

Learning Curve - Fly Tying
By Al Campbell

This is for those who are just starting or getting ready to start tying your own flies. I'm sure others could benefit from it too, but after a few dozen flies we're all experts, so some will tune out right away. For the rest of you, "this bug's for you."

Regardless of the reasons that got you into fly tying, the craft gives you a certain amount of leverage that didn't exist when you were buying flies. That leverage is called creativity. It's the meat and potatoes of the craft. Without it, you're merely copying someone else's view of what a fly should look like, float like or perform like. You might copy each step precisely, but you won't have the vision to give your fly the life you see in other patterns and creations.

Even if you have the vision to see a perfect fly in your mind, you won't be able to create that fly if your abilities are overcome with errors. The best fly tying lessons often ignore common mistakes that hold you back from your dreams and goals. Talking about common mistakes is a negative subject. Most instructors will only discuss the positive side of the craft. I'm a little different though; I'll discuss almost anything if it will make you a better fly tier.

I'd like to take the next few moments to discuss some common fly tying errors and how to overcome those errors. I'm sure others will be able to add mountains to my list, but these are some of the most common errors I've observed in 30 years of teaching fly tying.

Error 1 - Proportional displacement

What I mean by "proportional displacement" is getting the proportions all wrong on the fly. The tail is too short, the hackle too long, the wings are so heavy that the fly rides upside-down and there isn't anything that resembles a smooth head on the fly.

Most beginners have some troubles with proportions. It doesn't have to be that way, but having an eye for fine details like proportions is a learned skill. Start now by observing the proportions of flies you see in books and videos. For instance, a general rule for standard dry flies is a tail roughly as long as the body of the fly, wings just barely longer than the wrapped hackle, and hackle roughly 1 times the hook gape. Most dries have a body to 2/3 the length of the hook shank, hackle that fills to 1/3 of the hook shank length, and a smooth head that doesn't crowd the eye of the hook.

Error 2 - Crowding the front of the hook

Too many tiers crowd the front of the hook. If you don't leave at least 1/3 of the hook shank for hackle and head, you're crowding the front. Some heavily hackled flies allow almost half the hook shank for hackle and head. Failure to observe these rules of proportion usually results in poorly balanced flies that don't perform the way they should.

Spend some time observing proportions on the fly pattern you're using as an example, before you touch your tools. If needed, mark the hook shank at the right places to assure proper proportions. Practice proportions first on every fly. Keep in mind, if you have a large bulky head that crowds the hook eye, the thread probably isn't holding the fly together as well as it could if things weren't so crowded on that end of the fly.

Error 3 - Improper thread tension.

Does your thread break a lot when you're tying? If it does, you need to adjust the thread tension on your bobbin, or look for the sharp edge that's cutting the thread. Sharp edges and nicks in the bobbin tube will cut the thread easily, but a good bobbin that is properly adjusted won't "break" the thread. You don't need killer tension on the thread to tie a good fly. In fact, you don't need any more tension than the weight of the bobbin when you let it hang.

Keeping the length of thread that's exiting out of the bobbin tube short is one good way to control tension and also control where the thread lays on the fly. Adjust your bobbin tension so that it's just a little tighter than the tension needed to allow it to hang, then keep the thread length short if you want to have a firm control of the tension issue.

Too much thread between the bobbin and fly forces you to control the bobbin with sharper angles that increase the likelihood of catching a hook point or rubbing the thread on a burr on the bobbin tube. It's also a leading cause in losing tension on the materials while trying to maneuver the thread into position for the next step.

Error 4 - Cheap tools

There's no excuse for this one, but it's a common problem. You want to cut costs somewhere, so you buy cheap tools and suffer the consequences. You won't treasure those tools for long though. They'll cause you more grief than you're willing to withstand, and eventually you'll spend the bucks for tools that work. So, what are you going to do with all those cheap tools you bought and can't use? Did you really want to buy them twice?

Error 5 - Cheap materials

This problem is just as common as cheap tools, though less severe. You can actually tie some decent flies with cheap materials. However, you won't tie quality, hackled dry flies with cheap hackle, and cheap hair is a curse to bass fly tiers.

Want to save some real money on hackle? Try buying a less well known brand like Conranch or Collins. I have some of both, and firmly believe that Conranch is at least equal to the very best on the market and better than most of the best. You'll tie twice as many quality dry flies with a Conranch neck than you can tie with an equivalent dollar's worth of imported necks, and the results on your fly will be much better.

Error 6 - Failure to use your head.

Sometime in your fly tying education you're supposed to gain the insight to create your own fly patterns. That means understanding that an Adams, a BWO, a Blue Dun, a Dark Hendrickson and at least a hundred other fly patterns all do a good job of imitating the same insect. If somebody tells you that yellow stoneflies are hatching, you tie a stonefly pattern with yellow in the body materials instead of doing a worldwide search for a pattern called a yellow stonefly. It means that you finally understand that there is no insect called an Adams or Royal Wulff, but that these patterns imitate insects and are therefore valuable patterns for your fly box.

Merely learning to copy somebody else's work may fill your fly box, but it doesn't help you select the right fly for the current situation. I wish I could tell you how many times I've been asked to describe and photograph the steps to tying a yellow grasshopper. I always ask which one, which usually brings a long silence. You mean there's more than one pattern called a yellow grasshopper? No, there isn't a pattern called a yellow grasshopper, but there are many patterns that imitate yellow grasshoppers. If you can see beyond the idea of copying someone else's patterns, you can see to create and develop patterns that will work in your area, but only if you use your head.

You need to spend some time looking at insects or their pictures, and the patterns that imitate those insects. It won't take you long to discover that certain insect imitations have common characteristics that can be used to help you develop patterns for your local area. You can enjoy this journey, but it will take using your head to understand why you're on the journey in the first place.

Error 7 - Spending too much on tools and equipment

This sounds like a contradiction to what I said earlier, but it isn't. If you're just starting out, do you really need a $600 fly vise? Wouldn't that money be better spent on a decent vise that costs less and the rest spent on quality tools and materials? Having a room full of first-rate tools and equipment won't do you much good if you can't afford decent materials and hooks. Learn to balance your expenditures to your needs and you'll be much happier. When your talents finally exceed your tools, then it will be time to get better equipment.

As I said earlier, there'll be other things that could have been added to this list. If I had to stress one item, it would be learning to understand the fly you create. Once you know why an Adams is designed the way it is, you'll be able to understand the rest.

Good luck. You can email me at: awcamp@rapidnet.com ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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