Our Man In Canada
February 14th, 2000

The Absolute Beginner


By Piscator

I remember when I first started fly tying being bewildered by the plethora of tools, gadgets, and materials offered in the shops and catalogues. I didn't have a problem choosing my first set of basic stuff, as these came in a kit which I received as a Christmas gift from my father-in-law. The problem came when I wanted to expand.

I was too inexperienced at first to realize that the kit wasn't a particularly good one with no-name tools and scruffy materials, but it was enough to get me going and for that it served its purpose. It wasn't long, though, before I became aware of its inadequacies, and began to look for both upgrade and expansion. That's when the confusion arose. Here are a few tips on how to navigate through the seas of stuff out there.


There are still plenty of inferior kits around, and like me, you might have started out with one of them. One way to expand is to purchase a quality kit. I'd recommend that if you go this route that you buy a kit consisting of tools only - without materials. More about this later. There are a number of excellent models available from reputable manufacturers . . . Some come with vices and some without. The advantage to a getting a tool kit is the savings; the disadvantage is that you might rarely use some of the more specialized tools some of them contain.


If you've discovered that the basic set of tools you have (vise, bobbin, hackle pliers, scissors, dubbing needle/half-hitch tool) is poor quality, the first thing you should do is upgrade them. Once you've done this you can start expanding.

Today, the number of different tools and gadgets is far greater than it was when I started out decades ago, and they vary considerably in their usefulness. You'll find that tyers won't all agree on what tools are the most useful. This is quite understandable, as experienced tyers don't all have the same tying habits or demands. But there are some which most would put at the top of the list for an expansion plan.

Bobbin Threader

I still tend to thread my bobbins by sticking the end of the thread in the tube and sucking it through. A rather disgusting habit, I admit. A bobbin threader allows you to perform the operation with couth and without danger of spreading contagion.

Whip Finisher

While half hitches are an easy way of finishing the head of the fly, whip finishing is neater and more secure. Most professional and many amateur tyers do this by hand, as it's faster. Some have never resorted to a whip finishing tool. If you have somebody who can teach you how to do this, go ahead. However, there are some of us who, for various reasons, find the manual method difficult. I'm one of them. This is partly due to my low level of manual skill and partly due to my problem with rough skin on my fingers which catches the thread (it also plays havoc with floss). There's no shame in using a whip finishing tool, and it does just as good a job as whip finishing by hand. There are a number of styles available, but those with revolving sleeve handles are by far the easiest to use.

Hair stacker

These simple tools are invaluable for tying neat hair wings, particularly on dry flies such as Comparaduns and hair wing caddis patterns. They allow for quick and easy leveling of the tips of the hair, which is essential for correct wing configuration and balance. Stackers come in a number of sizes. The smallest are used for the fine hair used on trout-sized patterns, the largest for the big bunches of coarser hair used on lures and bugs. You'll find them made out of wood or metal. Some of the wood models are aesthetically pleasing, but I prefer those made of heavy metal, such as brass or stainless steel.

Cement Applicator

Applying cement to the head of a fly is easily and quickly done by dipping the tip of a bodkin into the bottle of cement and simply transferring it to the fly. However, this necessitates leaving the lid off the bottle - a potentially dangerous situation. It's all too easy to knock that bottle over and flood your tying bench (or the polished surface of the dining room table) and the carpet beneath. Been there, done that. An applicator, while it won't enable you to apply cement any more precisely, will prevent such a disaster, as the device allows you to apply cement without removing the lid. If it gets knocked over, nothing is spilled. I wouldn't be without one.

Hair Packer

There are a number of patterns, from irresistibles to bass bugs, which involve packing clumps of hair tightly on the hook shank. The simplest way of doing this is with the fingers. However, a hair packing tool enables you to pack the hair much more tightly than by hand. Moreover, it also prevents you inadvertently ramming your thumb into the point of the hook - a painful, and all too frequent occurrence for many of us. Packers come in a variety of sizes to accommodate various sizes of hook eyes and wire thicknesses. The best have a combination of different sized apertures, which enables stacking on a wide range of hooks with a single tool.


There are many other specialised tools, such as dubbing twisters, hackle gauges, dubbing combs and teasers, hackle guards, and a whole variety of gadgets to attach to your vise. Some of these are more useful than others, but it's best to avoid most of them until you've mastered the new tools listed above. It's not a particularly good idea to have too many new gadgets to learn how to use at the same time.


Tying materials catalogues and stores are awfully tempting. It's so easy to get carried away so that, before you know it, you've spent hundreds of dollars. The best way to expand your inventory is to discipline yourself to buying only those new materials you need as you extend the patterns you're tying. This way you'll keep down your expenses and avoid accumulating a whole pile of stuff you'll never use.

One of the biggest problems, especially if you have a limited budget, is in purchasing expensive capes and saddles. Simply purchasing a basic range of top quality dry fly capes in natural colours can set you back a few hundred dollars. What makes this even more frustrating is that certain sizes (usually #18 - #12) of hackle are used up much more quickly than the other sizes, obliging you to buy a whole new cape just to get those particular sizes of feathers. You can reduce this problem by taking advantage of the half-cape and half saddle packs provided by most major suppliers. Some provide mini-packs of sized hackle on the skin, Winter Issue which offer even greater economy. ~ Piscator

We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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