January 28th, 2002

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Discerning Fly Quality
By David Browne, Lindon, Utah,
Website: www.iflies.com

Even though flies are mass produced, they are not assembly line products like cars where a given person has responsibility for just one component. Fly tiers have no one to blame but themselves if their product is inferior since every step of the finished fly is completed by the same person. When you get right down to it, the quality of every fly is determined by just two factors: the materials used in the fly and the manner in which they are attached. What else is there? The tier truly has total control over his work yet inferior flies continue to be pushed onto the market. The reasons for cheap flies are many: scrimping on quality materials to lower cost, cutting corners in construction to reduce the time it takes to tie each fly, practicing improper tying techniques for lack of knowing there is a better way, and a lack of understanding about what the fly represents and how it should perform which leads to flies which don't function as they were designed.

Fly quality is obviously not regulated by an independent agency; hence, the only oversight of the product reaching the market is the fly tier or the owner of the business. I believe quality control should be top priority in the fly business. Not everyone agrees with me as evidenced by the flies being peddled today. Years ago, few industry professionals would argue that the very best quality control, and therefore the best flies, came from the English speaking countries. Flies tied in Taiwan or Hong Kong were generally dismissed as cheap imitations suitable for kids and others that knew nothing of the proper proportions and materials that the fly originators intended. All that is changing now.

Today there are some excellent flies being imported from far away places even though junk still finds its way here as well. I believe some of the American fly companies which have overseas factories have much tighter quality control than many products created by American tiers. Commercial flies are brought in from Mexico, China, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and other exotic places. The cost of human labor is the greatest factor in fly expense and labor costs outside the U.S. are a fraction of what they are here. With a host of tiers trained in the same specific techniques and all using identical materials, a quality product which remains consistent over thousands of dozens of flies can be maintained. My first exposure to this mass production technique came from watching Dan Bailey's girls tie at his shop in Montana. I was a young kid visiting Montana (and assumed I was in heaven) when I got to visit Dan's famed shop as a side trip to Yellowstone Park. Bailey's Wall of Fame with all its magnificent trout, to me, was like a hallowed religious shrine to which a fly fisher paid homage. I'd never seen a woman tie flies before; I was naive and childish to think back then that flies had to be tied by fishermen. Helen Shaw not withstanding, I was caught off guard to see rows of tables and hundreds of dozens of flies being produced at a rapid pace by these skilled ladies. I remember wondering to myself whether any of them had ever been fishing or had the slightest idea what their creations represented.

Discerning fly quality can be a little like looking at a group of people and deciding who is fit. There are a number of outward appearances or signs that give clues as to how well the tier did his or her job. But you must first know what to look for and understand what the fly originator intended for a particular pattern. Just as an example, patterns which simulate a mayfly dun (the adult floating stage) should look just like the real mayfly dun when it rides or sits on the water surface. Mayflies are delicate, fairly thin creatures with long legs, wings and tails. The famed Catskill (NY) style of dry fly dressing paid particular attention to sparseness of materials, proper color match of body, tail, wing and hackle, and fly part proportions that allowed the fly to rest at an angle resembling that of the mayfly dun. Unfortunately, you can walk into a tackle shop almost anywhere today and pick up a mayfly imitation, the Blue Dun for example, which sports a bright blue body, large thick clump of a tail which is too short, hackle which is too thick and too long for the hook size, wings nothing like the original is supposed to have and a thick black thread head. Is this really a Blue Dun? Are you able to recognize the reasons why this dry fly can retail for less than a dollar?

Here are some of the clues or things one looks at to discern fly quality. Since every pattern has unique material combinations or tying techniques it's a little dangerous to generalize but I will attempt to point out what I believe are the key indicators of quality:

- Use of proper materials given the fly pattern. Flies can be tied successfully out of many, many different tying materials, but each pattern's dressing calls for a material which will aid in that pattern's effectiveness. For example: the body of an Adams dry fly is supposed to be tied with dubbed muskrat fur. Many cheap fly imitations substitute gray wool yarn on the Adams' body because it's less expensive and faster to tie in. There are at least three problems with this substitution. Most gray yarns aren't the correct color (muskrat gray has a blue tint to it), yarn bodies generally end up being too thick and bulky by the time one ties in and off the yarn, and finally, dry fly bodies should be dubbed with the fur of a water animal (there are natural oils in the fur which repel water and help to float the fly better.) Fur of beaver, otter, muskrat, nutria, etc is preferable to that of land animals like sheep (wool), fox, coyote, etc which tend to hold moisture.

- Use of high quality hackle. One of the most telling signs of quality in a dry fly is the type of hackle used including the tail and wing material. High quality genetic dry fly necks are many times the cost of a cheap imported or domestic cape. Quality hackle is very stiff with a minimum of web on the barbs and each feather is very long with a soft quill when compared with the imported necks so often used in lesser quality flies. Good hackle means a fly will float higher, repel water better, last longer and contain less bulk than a fly which sports a poor quality hackle. Genetic hackle costs more, but all the best flies today incorporate their use.

- Materials which are not compromised because of cost or availability. High quality peacock herl is called for in many fly patterns but finding good herl is becoming more and more difficult. Did the tier use the hard-to-find herl with long thick fibers or just make do with the usual short fibered variety that most retailers stock? What about the hook brand? Was the hook a quality imported version like Daiichi or Tiemco or was a much less expensive version substituted? How about the quality of the marabou, the quill section, or the stacked deer or elk hair? Nearly every natural material used in fly manufacture comes in various grades of quality although often the price is the same across the spectrum. Ask the question: did the tyer of this fly go out of his way to make sure he incorporated the best materials available?

- Fly proportion is extremely important. Maybe the easiest way to tell a cheap fly is to recognize that it's proportions are wrong. Experienced fly tiers and fishermen can instantly tell if a hackle is too long for the hook size, or a body is to large or a tail too short. The poor fly not only looks wrong, but it's effectiveness will be severely hampered because it's function will suffer as a result. Dry flies with improper proportions will not float well or with the right attitude on the water. Does your fly often land on it's head with the tail sticking straight up toward the sky? Wet flies, nymphs, and streamers of poor proportion will look all wrong for the creature they're imitating and will probably not swim properly under the surface. Proportion is very, very critical to fly "fishability" and has to be correct. [For a visual representation of proportion, please refer to this Steves's site section entitled "The Perfect Fly."]

- Notice how the fly is tied off. It's surprising what clues the fly head can give away about the tier of the pattern. Large bulky heads, especially on dry flies and nymphs, signal one of several things, all bad: the fly components were crowded at the head meaning the proportions are wrong, the tier tried to cover up a mistake with lots of thread, the tier broke his thread and tied off the mistake then started over and had to tie off a second time, or too large a diameter thread was used adding extra bulk to the fly. Also check the head to see if it was cemented (a step that is sometimes avoided to save time.) Is the cement haphazardously slopped on the hackle too or does it plug the hook eye? The best tiers are very careful, detail oriented, and aware of the little steps which add to a flies' attractiveness.

- Look for extreme consistency among both patterns and sizes. Look at all the fly bins in a store which contain a particular pattern, say a Royal Wulff. Are the materials used in each size the same? Do all the different flies, say from sizes 8-18, look identical except for their size? They should be. Avoid flies where the size of the #12, #14, and #16 patterns are all the same except that the hook size is different. Finally, look at all the flies in one bin. Are they hard to tell apart? If you don't see any variation in color, size or pattern, chances are the tier was a good one.

- Pay particular attention to the smallest sizes of each pattern. Tying errors and shortcuts are most noticeable in the tiny sizes. It's harder to tie a proper size 20 fly than the same pattern in a size 12. Small fly hackle is harder to find and most tyer's fingers aren't as nimble around the smaller flies. Does quality drop off as the fly size decreases? Often cover-ups of mistakes are more glaring the smaller the fly size.

- Can you tell that there is minimal use of dyed materials? Trout flies of quality will have very few, if any, dyed materials used in their construction. Poor quality flies will often exhibit colors which don't naturally occur in nature (bright blues, red, yellows and greens.) Dyes are tricky to work with (to obtain correct colors) and were seldom used by the original pattern developers. A good example is blue dun hackle. A good dun neck is quite expensive and hard to find (except in the genetic version) so a white cape is often dyed dun color as a substitute. The trouble is, white capes are generally of poor quality and most dyeing jobs will not look like the natural. Quality flies don't generally incorporate substitute materials.

- Look closely at deer, elk and moose hair components. Quality flies which have wings or tails of hair should exhibit no fuzz undergrowth, no bent, errant, or cut off hair, and a length which ends in the tips of every hair being equal. Stacked and trimmed hair (for example, the body of an Irresistible or the head of a Muddler) should be dense, tightly compacted and trimmed to a proper round or oval shape. It is easy to tell a good hair fly from a poor one as the quality patterns will show an attention to detail that the poor ones bypass.

- Trimmed hackle, wings or tail. I almost hesitate to include this clue as it is so obvious to the observer that it goes without saying; yet I am amazed at the frequency with which trimmed hackle appears on trout flies. Rather than choosing the proper size of hackle or the correct fiber length for ings or tails, some tiers just snip off the fibers in an effort to achieve correct length. Avoid any pattern which has clipped hackle rather than the natural fiber tips.

- This may sound weird, but look closely at the method of display given to the flies. Shops that stock the high end flies are usually careful about how they are presented. The concept is similar to the idea that an expensive painting is rarely displayed in a cheap frame. Is the retailer proud of his product and concerned about it's appearance? Or is the fly display dusty, falling apart, or poorly labeled so that specific patterns are difficult to find? Are there multiple patterns in a single bin suggesting that it has been awhile since the retailer cleaned house? What if you're looking for flies on the internet? I would look at the web site. Is it easy to navigate? Are there photos of the flies so that you can get some idea of quality, or are there just fly pattern names (which tell you nothing about the quality of the product)? Does the owner pay attention to detail and customer service? If not, his flies will most likely reflect the same careless attitude. Look around . . . you'll soon find it's easy to spot quality. ~ David Browne

Publishers Note:
Discerning Fly Quality, might easily be combined with another article on David's website section which surveys some of the mistakes tiers make which lowers the quality of their product. [See Steve's website for additional article(s).]

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