Fly Tying in the Spotlight
By Paul Prentiss

Part of a two- part article that appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera during December 2005 and January 2006
While preparing this article I tentatively settled on the title "The Golden Age of Fly Tying". To my surprise the new issue of Fly Fishermen Magazine arrived with a Ted Leeson article entitled "A Golden Age." He discussed how designs, methods, materials, and the level of technical proficiency have advanced at a dizzying pace. He believes, and I concur, that this golden age started some 10 or 15 years ago. It can be linked to better tools and materials, instruction and communication media, the drive towards better imitations, and passion for the sport of fly fishing depicted in the movie "A River Runs Through It".

Lefty's Deceiver is known by fly fishermen throughout the world. It's a general-purpose baitfish pattern and can be used in both salt and fresh water. There are many color variations, mostly in the wing - green over white; red over yellow; all white; blue over white, and so on. You can tie it out of natural or synthetic materials or use a combination of both. The pattern was originally developed in the 1950's by Lefty Kreh for the Striped Bass in Chesapeake Bay. It is a style of tying designed to imitate the shape and size of various baitfish but when lifted from the water it can be cast with ease. The wing is attached at the tail of the hook to prevent fouling in flight. It also helps to animate the fly in the water because of its great swimming action. Picture courtesy of Solitude Fly Company

Over the next several two issues of Flies, Ties, and Lies I'll pass along some of my impressions about the growth of fly tying. I started tying flies about 40 years ago and the changes are simply amazing. This installment sets the stage by addressing a few of historical points.

Around 200 AD Ælian's Nature of Animals included the following passage when describing how Macedonians caught "fish with speckled skins" on flies

"Now though the fishermen know this, they do not use these flies at all for bait for fish; for if a man's hand touch them, they lose their natural colour, their wings wither, and they become unfit food for the fish. For this reason they have nothing to do with them, hating them for their bad character; but they have planned a snare for the fish, and get the better of them by their fisherman's craft.
They fasten red (crimson red) wool around a hook, and fix onto the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in colour are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the colour, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive." Radcliffe's Fishing from the Earliest Times, Murray (1921).

In all probability anglers have been tying flies for over 2,000 years. But despite this long history, the primary method and approach has remain unchanged - a hook with body materials and/or feathers attached so that it appears to represent a food source.

It has been shown that fly fishing was practiced in Europe as early as the beginning of the thirteenth century. The most famous printed British work publish in the fifteenth century is A Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle. The text includes instructions on how to make a rod, line, hooks, instructions for twelve fly patterns and hints about how to catch the common varieties of British fish. It can be read on line at While there have been numerous debates over the writer and exact timing, it stood alone as the most definitive work on the subject for two centuries.

Charles Cotton a fishing companion and collaborator of Isaac Walton (author of 1653 classic, The Compleat Angler) described sixty five trout flies in the fifth edition of Walton's book which most certainly marks the beginning of a the diversification in fly patterns.

By the eighteenth century the tackle trade was well established and you could actually buy books with illustrations of flies. The first half of the nineteenth century was the period when the winged wet fly emerged, and marked the transition to the fully-dressed salmon fly. The Fly-Fisher's Entomology written in 1836 by Alfred Ronalds was indicative of the progress being made. It described some 50 artificial flies and offered 20 plates of hand-colored illustrations of insects and their imitations.

The discovery of the dry fly and the method of upstream fishing had an enormous impact on every aspect of the sport and drove the technology of the next century. During this same period American fly fishers began to develop their own identity, with new patterns, techniques, and equipment. With the breakthrough of nymph fishing, by one of the angling greats, G.E.M. Skues, fly fishing took another dramatic turn.

Fly tying 100 years ago meant hand-tied flies. It was a skill passed down from one angler to another. Today it might seem cumbersome but hand-tying methods were not particularly suited for hooks held in a vice. Adopting a vice meant learning an entirely different way of tying flies. Patterns were relatively simple, hooks sizes were large, and it was easy to tie right on the stream. It's said that the introduction of eyed flies preferred by the dry fly fishermen brought on adoption of the vice and all the associated tools.

It would be reasonable to assume that the combination of easier to master production tools, the expanding range of local and more readily available materials, and the growth of international communication were the drivers for expansion.

Fly tying at any level is truly an art form. Fur, feathers, thread, and steel are the building blocks from which the tier creates his imitation of life. Once the basics have been mastered each tier begins to impart his or her personal signature on the patterns they tie. As time moves on, the level of experimentation and originality grows. Every pattern encountered is evaluated from the standpoint of "How it can be made better or more suited to my purposes." As the skill level expands the tier gravitates to more specialized and focused original designs.

At the end of the day fly fishing and fly tying are inseparably linked because the anglers success is dependent the tier's skill. As Gary Borger pointed out in Designing Trout Flies "To produce consistently successful designs, then, the fly tier must understand both the fish and its food. In addition, the tier must have a good working knowledge of the materials used to construct the artificial; information such as color, texture, light transmitting or reflecting quality, and durability. And, the tier must be acquainted with a range of techniques for applying the materials as well as the angling techniques that will be used to fish the fly."

Of all the ways to catch a fish, few are as exciting and rewarding as catching one on a fly that you tied. For many fly fishermen, tying flies is as satisfying as landing a fish. As a matter of fact, it's a substitute for fishing in the dead of winter.

In January I discussed the long history of fly tying and its evolution towards current patterns. At the end of the article, I mentioned that Gary Borger indicated that a competent tier must possess a good knowledge of materials and be well acquainted with a broad range of tying techniques. That seems sensible, but where and how do you get started?

When I began tying, I didn't have a family member or friend to show me the way so I learned by taking flies apart and studying pictures in sporting magazines and catalogs. I'd never actually seen any commercial fly tying until I came to Boulder and wandered into Hank Roberts Shop on Pearl Street.

The prospective fly tier has a broad choice of learning options - step-by-step books or videos, clinics, fly tying shows, classes, and the internet. My recommendation would be to start with a class offered through a fly shop. This will give you the basics and help you make intelligent decisions on equipment and materials. Buy these items slowly and as you need them.

The next step is to secure some "how to" materials. Get some advice from a knowledgeable source and examine them closely. Keep in mind that a number of fly shops will lend or rent reference materials.

The internet can be a tremendous source of information. Almost any fly shop with a web presence has pattern indexes with recipes and how to tie instructions. Moreover there are numerous specialty sites that focus entirely on fly tying. A great example is Hans Weilenmann's Flytier Page where you can find over 2700 patterns from about 200 of the top fly tiers in the world. You can use Internet search engines to find these sites or go to an information portal like the one created and maintained by Front Range Anglers -

Attending clinics or shows like The 30th Annual West Denver Fly Tying Clinic scheduled for February 11, 2006 from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds is a great option. Here you can watch five dozen of the best fly tiers in the West do their thing. During the winter most fly shops offer free Saturday morning programs. All you have to do is show up and enjoy the presentation. Even if you don't want to tie flies you'll learn how to fish various patterns more effectively. I think the best thing about clinics is not how to tie a specific patterns, but improving your tying techniques.

Basic fly tying is not really all that hard, nor do the tools and materials have to be expensive. All you need to get started is a vise to hold the hook, a bobbin to hold your spool of thread, some hackle pliers to help you wind feathers, a half-hitch tool or whip finishing tool, and a pair of fine-bladed, sharp scissors. This can easily be done for under $75 or even less particularly if you're working with one of the fly shops. Buy black 3/0 pre-waxed thread, some head cement (super glue or nail polish will do), the hooks and specific materials for the pattern you intend to tie. Find a spot which has ample room and good lighting. If you're farsighted get a pair of high magnification reading glasses so you can actually see what you're doing.

If you have decided to take up fly tying to save money, you'll be sadly disappointed. If you become addicted, and you probably will once you start catching fish on your creations, spending will get started in earnest. An even funnier concept is to take up fly tying so that you can earn money by selling your flies commercially. Do you really think sanity is possible when faced with an order for 100 dozen flies of the same pattern?

I have two pieces of advice for the addicted. First buy high quality tools. When you skimp, the results will not meet your expectations and you'll ultimately end up spending the money anyway. Whenever possible try before you buy. Generally speaking, fly tying bargain kits are a bad idea. Second, go slow and ask plenty of questions. If you don't have the skill or knowledge to select quality materials, expensive mistakes are inevitable. As a general rule, buying materials that you can't examine is not a red hot idea. That great buy on eBay may prove costly.

Find a place to store your tools and materials. When your four legged best friend chews up a $100 dry fly cape that you could have placed in a $3.00 plastic container, you will understand this point.