The Fly Tying Vise
The History of Fly Fishing Web Site

Amazing though it may seem, the first mention of the vise was by Taylor in 1800. Prior to that it is simply not mentioned. This may seem strange, but there are good reasons why it should be so - very early tyers whipped their hooks directly onto the end of their line, which would have made it difficult for them to use a vise even if it had been invented in those days. Whipped-on flies being hard things to change, these early anglers might well have fished the whole season with just one or two flies. The same applies to flies tied on horsehair or gut links: it was convenient for the tyer to hold onto the horsehair. Although it was described in 1800, the vise didn't really come into common use before 1875, and that may have been due to the adoption of the eyed hook, which was championed by the dry fly men.

It has been suggested that early models were non-specialist vises made with soft cast iron jaws, which were too soft to grip a hook properly, but the evidence for this is equivocal. More likely conservatism came into play here. People were used to the idea of tying flies in the hand, using a skill which was passed down from one angler to another and there was nothing to be found in books about tying with a vise. On top of this, adapting hand-tying methods for use on a hook held in a vise is remarkably difficult, particularly if you lack modern instruments like bobbin holders and hackle pliers.

Hand tyers were used to letting the end of the silk dangle free, catching it and other materials under their fingers to maintain tension, but if you try this method with a vise, the tool gets in the way. You can see the same thing happening with the adoption of whip finish tools nowadays - many people just can't get on with them, but it is arguable that the tool allows the production of a neater head. Will, in years to come, people wonder why whip finishers weren't adopted earlier?

Adopting the vise meant learning an entirely different way of tying flies, and while patterns were relatively simple, there wasn't much reason to go to all the trouble of learning new tricks. Besides, a hand tyer could sit down and make flies anywhere, provided there was a patch of sun and a glass of beer.