The Fly Tying Experience For Beginners Pt. 1

As a fly fisherman we’ve all had (or will have) one of those days when the guy or gal fishing alongside you, or across the river is stripping in fish after fish and you can’t seem to even turn one.  The more time you spend on the water the more you realize how particular fish can be.  Not just trout, any fish.  I’ve experienced hot flies in the morning that turn ice cold by lunch time and vise-versa.  The same species of fish, at the same time of year but in a different body of water can be gobbling up totally different bugs.  There are certainly a few flies that always seem to work better than others, no matter the year, no matter the water you’re fishing, and in some cases no matter the fish you’re after, but as experience is gained the reasons behind which fly you tie onto the end of your tippet become more direct and usually the results are more productive.  Note I threw the word usually in that sentence, it is still fishing after all.

I first fly fished when I was 18.  Throughout most of my twenties I never took it seriously.  My evolution as a fisherman committed to fly fishing exclusively was a slower one.  However, that slow evolution has steadily increased in pace over the last several years.  Enough so that I have not fished with a spinning rod for at least three or four years, I watch knot tying videos nearly daily, and I lay awake at night trying to visualize a fly that I want to tie the next day.  Which transitions neatly into the idea about this blog – Tying Flies, from one novice to another.  Even for those more advanced tiers, it’s ok to snicker, but maybe this read can help you reminisce about your own humble beginnings and evolution.

There are so many things about fly fishing that can be intimidating. Maybe that’s why my transition into fly fishing was so cumbersome. There are rod weights, and line types, and leaders, and tippets, and knots and dry flies, and wet flies and streamers, and on and on. My personal foundation of fishing is rooted deeply to a couple of split-shots and a grasshopper on a hook connected to a reel that may or may actually deploy, but that was ok because you only needed enough line to reach the creek in which your toes were immersed in. I’m here to urge you to not be intimidated. Don’t get bogged down in all the lingo and all the equipment and all the assemblies. If you enjoy fly fishing there will be time for all of that later. Fly fishing and tying can also be expensive. You do not need the fanciest vise or the most expansive or expensive set of tools. I’m keeping it simple. Let’s to tie up a couple flies and let’s try to do it without breaking the bank.

As your fishing partner holds up a sleek hybrid pheasant tail nymph with a deep red torso, and maybe a little soft hackle, you’re already scanning through your fly box for the same bug, only to come up empty handed. Little do you know that it was tied up the night before and there is no fly shop this side of anywhere that carries that particular fly with its custom design and flare.

Experiences like this one are slowly pulling you into the vortex that is fly tying.  Don’t resist it- You’re going to love it.  And if you don’t, I’m going to try to give you some tips on how to get your toes wet before you cannonball into the deep end.

If it’s not clear already, I am yet only a novice tier of flies.  I constantly watch YouTube “how to’s” and often end my evening session of tying with my pocket knife slicing tattered thread and foam or unruly hackles off a hook all the while repeating vulgarities aloud.  But I really do love it, I swear.

I’ve heard it from every different position out there when it comes to tying your own flies.  Some people fly fish their entire life and never tie a fly.  In my opinion but obviously not always, these are probably the people that only fish once or twice a year, and when they do it’s likely from the seat of a drift boat with a high dollar guide steering the ship and untying their knots.  There is absolutely nothing necessarily wrong with these people.

Some people tied flies in middle school natural science class before they’d ever even caught a fish or swung a fly rod. I knew and still know several of these people and some (many) of them have still never swung a fly rod, or – caught a fish.  This is not their sport, not their thing. They tied the silly little bug on a tiny dumb hook because they had to. There is absolutely nothing necessarily wrong with these people either. To each their own.

Then there are people much like myself, who have fly fished for several years and though, always curious about the world of fly tying, never really became motivated to take the leap. I’ve never been artsy and craftsy, which is how I portrayed tying flies. I squint when I mechanic on small objects at work and it gives me a head ache. I fumble around with fat fingers trying to get washers and nuts on a bolt. There are several reasons I stayed away from fly tying. I could say my main reason though for never tying my own flies was the lack of knowledge, or should I say experience, in general. These were the early stages of my slow and cumbersome transition I mentioned earlier. I fly fished fairly regular, but I started with a nymph and an indicator and didn’t change waters too often so I had about 4 nymphs in my box and if none of them worked you may as well sit down, crack a beer and enjoy the scenery because you weren’t catching a fish that day. July was for hoppers so I always had a few of them in my fly box. You could even get lucky and catch a hungry fish on a hopper at strange times of the year sometimes. And of course you usually have a couple dry flies in your arsenal. This one because it looks like a mosquito. This one because it looks like a little moth. This one because it looks cool (and none of them probably ever caught any fish).

And slowly, but surely, over the years, my experience grew, my interactions with fish grew, my observations of fish grew, and the arsenal in my (now plural) fly boxes grew.  As the altercations between myself and my quarry became more scientific, more exciting, and more strategic – my interest in entomology, hatches, baitfish, feeding habits, water temperatures and on and on grew (and still grow with every excursion).  I feel like I am always teetering on the precipice of being a dude with a fly rod burning daylight, while taking steps in the direction of becoming a weatherman, a scientist, an entomologist, and an artist with a fly rod- effectively and efficiently tracking down fish, presenting them with what they want, when they want it and how they want it.

It is fun to chase fish.  And it is exponentially more fun when you effectively and efficiently catch the fish you are chasing.  My confidence in fly fishing grows every outing I am able to take.  Not to say I don’t take steps backward too, but I’m usually figuring something out in the process.  I had built up a variety of techniques and strategies and a cache of flies, from nymphs to dries to wets and streamers.  None of which I had tied myself.  My signature has been forever scratched into the screen of the credit card swipe machine at the fly shop because I was buying so many flies.

Eventually I was fishing regularly enough and venturing out to different waters and chasing different species of fish, that it became very easy to spend $50.00 on flies one week, and before the following weekend, go right back in there to drop another $50.00 because I was going from open water to moving water.  I felt lucky if I walked out of there spending less than $50.00.  What’s more depressing is after you spend $50.00 you may only have 10 or 15 flies if you dropped a few streamers in that little clear fly shop logo flashing “free” fly cartridge you put all your new flies in.   As I began to come to grips with the amount of money I was spending on flies, and now having a fairly solid foundation of experience and knowledge and a for sure passion for fly fishing – I contemplated more and more the idea of fly tying.  Fishing buddies were flashing cool (and affective) flies that they tied themselves.  I’d go to the local shop on “fly tying” night and watch football.

Then it happened.  My tipping point.  The vortex was too much to handle and I was sucked in.  I was fishing a stretch of water I know well (or think I know well) and not having much luck.  There was one more gentlemen on the river that I had ran into in the morning.  He headed upstream so I went down.  After a couple hours I spot him up river and begin the game of spy vs. spy.  You know those times when you try to act like you’re fishing but you’re really watching the other guy?  It was one of those days, and it didn’t take me long to know that I was getting out fished.  Luckily, our paths crossed at the end of the day on the way back to our trucks, and luckily he was one of the happy-go-lucky old timer fly fisherman you love to run into.  A fish catching machine with not a care in the world.  Just him and his 25 year old waders,  40 year old rod, and 60 years of experience, knowledge and passion.   During 15 minutes of streamside fodder, I learned more about that stretch of river, the fish within it and the bugs around it than I had learned in three years of fishing it myself.   Then he started showing off his fly boxes.  All flies hand tied himself.  Some were just plain old flies, some were pretty unique, some you’d think were silly, but all of them caught fish.  I won’t be able to quote him exactly, but as our conversation was winding down he spoke a few words in all his wisdom that I couldn’t shrug off.  Standing in the setting sun, wind burnt crow’s feet in the corner of his eyes, his tattered waders and antique fly rod.  “It’s one more way for me to get immersed in my passion and connect with the fish.  It’s more fun when I catch fish on flies I’ve tied myself.  It gives me a sense of pride.”

Within a few days I made the plunge.  I bought a fly tying tool kit and I bought a starter materials kit.  I tied my first fly.  I learned a second, and a third and a fourth.  I was watching “how to” videos and learning new flies and I was adding my own variations to flies as I preferred.

Some work and some just don’t.  That’s ok.  It’s part of the learning curve.  It became ultimately clear fairly quickly that the man I ran into on the river was exactly right.  It was another way for me to immerse myself in my passion.  If the wind was blowing 30 miles per hour I could skip fishing and tie a few flies.  If the rivers were blown out I could stay home and tie flies.  If my guides were freezing I didn’t feel bad about calling it a day earlier than normal and tying some flies in front of a warm fire place.

Then the pride comes.  You tie 20 elk hair caddis- a pretty simple fly- and they all look a little askew.  The hair isn’t flaring up right and you’re discouraged.  But finally you tie one and it’s perfect.  It turns out the exact way you pictured it before you started and pretty soon you’re kicking out beautiful caddis every four minutes.  You’re friends start to notice or you get asked what streamer you’re using because it’s catching fish and you finally get to reply “…..well – I don’t know.  I tied it up myself.  It’s a variation of an INSERT NAME HERE, so I’ll call it an INSERT VARIATION NAME HERE.”

MORE FUN.  How do you have MORE FUN fly fishing?  You already love it.  It’s already fun………  Catch a fish on a fly you tied yourself.  I’m here to guarantee it is MORE FUN.   The slurp and miss of the first fish of the day will make you antsy.  The first hook-up will work up a hoot and a holler. And when you disengage the hook on a self-tied fly from the lips of wondrous creature and watch it slide back into the abyss, you’ll look down at the fly you tied the week before, or the winter before or the night before and realize you’ve never been more immersed, felt the same pride or had more fun doing something you already knew was a lifelong engagement. 

Now- I want to be the one to introduce to you a new aspect of an already great hobby, or sport, or way of life. Stay tuned for Part II of THE FLY TYING EXPERIENCE FOR BEGINNERS, BY A BEGINNER. Tying flies, learning new bugs, and imagining or putting variations together of your own work will make you a better fly fisher.

By: Todd Pomeroy

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