Fly Tying Tips

From Wes Bigney, New Mexico Trout

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  1. Thread Use
  2. Getting the Most of a Bobbin
  3. Elimination of Ker-Flop
  4. Feathers and Tying On
  5. Elk Hair Caddis
  6. Hair Wings on Wet Flies
  7. Hair Wings on Dry Flies
  8. Posts for Parachutes
  9. Parachutes
  10. Handling Buck Tail
  11. Spinning Buck Tail
  12. Tinsel Streamer Bodies
  13. The Whip Finish
  14. Hook Extraction



If you intend to tie a pattern you have never tied, from a book or magazine photo, you are entertaining the probability that your first try will be a honking, ugly, klunker.  Do not be defeated, demoralized, or embarrassed, for you will not be alone!  Every tier has had this experience.

Put another hook (one size larger) in the vice and copy the klunker, making adjustments to the new materials so it will look better.  It may take three or four tries before you get it to look right.  When you perfect the pattern, take a razor and slide it along the shanks of the klunkers to recover and reuse the hooks.

1. Thread Use

Do not start thread close behind the eye – it only makes for a large head that is difficult to whip finish.  Start the thread ½ inch back from the eye.

  1. Tie in body material with butts facing toward eye and the material pointing back over the bend.
  2. Advance the thread to the tie off point (where the body ends). Now use the body material to wind over the tie in thread and proceed to tie off point.
  3. Now make sure the next material you tie on is in the same manner as above and tied exactly over the top of the tie off of the previous material.

This manner of procedure assures the thread is covered all the way along and eliminates the need for matching thread color of the fly.  The only time the thread shows is at the head, which hopefully takes up a very small space at the eye.  One spool of black thread does it all!

2. Getting the Most of a Bobbin

  1. Bobbins hold a spool of thread and feed it out through a small tube as needed.  The ring finger and baby finger lock the spool and only allow it to turn to release small amounts of thread.  Locking the spool allows you to put more tension on the thread to make the turns on the hook tighter.  The metal pieces that hold the spool in the bobbin should be adjusted so that when the bobbin hangs from the hook – it will not easily unwind without heavy pressure.  It is a delicate balance.  You should test the breaking point of the thread so that you can pressure the thread during the tying to make your flies stronger and more durable.  Tying loosely allows the fish teeth to pull the fly apart while landing the fish.
  2. The bobbin should be held in a horizontal position.  This allows you to keep the thread at right angles to the bobbin and the hook.  Moving the bobbin forward or backward horizontally allows you to see what you’re doing so you can place the turns of thread exactly where you want on the hooks.  This gives you precision when tying.
  3. The distance of the thread from the tube to the hook should be about three inches.  This gives the bobbin free rotation around the hook without hitting the bench during the bottom rotation.  If the bobbin hits the bench it creates slack in the thread and makes the materials loose on the hook and the fly falls apart.

3. Elimination of Ker-Flop

Frequently at the tie off point of body material, what I call the “Ker-Flop” move is used.  This is where the right hand holds the body material and the left picks up the hanging bobbin and throws it over the material and hook shank a few times in a flopping motion.

To avoid this awkward use of hands after the body material is tied ON, the thread is advanced to the tie off point of the body.  Then the body material is wound forward to one turn forward of the thread.  The left hand pinches the body material to the hook and the right hand winds through the pinch in the normal manner and the body is locked on to the hook.  The right hand moves the thread at all times, never asking the left hand to reach over and under the hook with a Ker-Flop motion.

4. Feathers and Tying On

All feathers/quills have alternating flat and round sides.  The tops are round and bottoms are concave.  The flats are on the edges.  This is very pronounced on hackles.  This is why when a hackle is tied on it will automatically flip on to a flat side and the hackles will pop up when you wind it on.  The flat and round sides tend to blend at the tip of a feather.  The flat and round sides cause problems when tying cheeks on a streamer.  You are trying to tie a round or concave side to a round shank and it tends to twist.

Assuming you are turning clockwise, the cheek near you will twist against the wings and not be much of a problem.  However, the cheek on the far side will tend to twist away from the hook.  You may be able to:

  1. Pinch the offending cheek and take two snug (not tight) turns around it and then two or three tighter turns to hold it.
  2. Tie the cheeks onto previous thread turns for a base.
  3. There is another method that may persuade a recalcitrant feather to cooperate.  This allows you to reverse your tying rotation from clockwise to counterclockwise.  Since this changes your hand-eye coordination it should be practiced several times on a bare hook before incorporating it into a fly.
  1. Assuming the far side cheek is the problem: take the thread down the far side and loop it around your LEFT hand index finger and come back up on the far side, keeping the loop tight.  When the bobbin gets above the hook you come forward (towards you) with the thread and around the shank in a counterclockwise direction.  Keeping the loop legs tight with your index finger is critical.
  2. Now tie in the two legs of the dropped loop so that they will not unwind.  Use three or four turns to be sure the legs are tied on securely to the hook.
  3. Now you are ready to tie in the far cheek and the counterclockwise direction will twist the cheek back against the wings.  If that solves the problem, pull down another loop on the near side and come up on the near side and back around the shank to get back to clockwise tying!!

5. Elk Hair Caddis

  1. Head

Do NOT cut hair butts until after whip finish. That allows holding up butts so whip can be done without tying any butts down over the eye.  See Hair Wings on Wet Flies.

  1. Bodies

Start thread at thorax and wind back to tie in tail and ribbing with no overlapping turns.  Then reverse and wind back to thorax to tie in body material.  Then tie body material at thorax and wind back to tail and back to thorax and tie off.  This makes a smooth body with no lump of thread at the tail.  Finally wind ribbing to thorax and tie off.

6. Hair Wings on Wet Flies

When you tie hair on a hook, it tends to migrate around the shank and doesn’t stay on top to make a wing.  The wing should be the shank length.

  1. When you are ready to tie on the bundle of hair – pull the thread up on the near side of the shank and loop it over the top of the hair bundle.  Then bring the thread down on the back side of the bundle between the bundle and the shank.  Then snug the bundle – not tight – down onto the shank on the near side.
  2. Then pull the thread up on the near side of the bundle and over the top of it to the far side of the shank.
  3. Next take the thread down on the far side of the shank and around bundle and shank several turns while pinching it tight to the hook.
  4. The loop around the hair bundle tends to keep it from migrating around the shank.
  5. This technique is to be used with down wings on wet flies and Elk Hair Caddis dry fly.

7. Hair Wings on Dry Flies

  1. Hold the bundle of hair with the butts facing back and points toward the eye.
  2. Pinch the bundle and tie it on top of the shank.
  3. Lift the points and make several thread turns in front of them and up against the base of the bundle. This will tend to stand the points upright. Split the points with the thread using figure eight turns through the points and around the shank to make two bundles of hair for wings. Do NOT reverse this procedure and place the hair points toward the hook bend.  If so, it becomes difficult to make turns on the back of the bundle to make it stand upright.
  4. If one wing doesn’t have the same slant as the other, the offending one can be adjusted by looping the thread around it and pulling it into position.  A couple of turns around the shank will lock it.

8. Posts for Parachutes

After you have tied the hair bundle as in a Hair Wing dry fly, make several turns clockwise around the base of the bundle (not around the shank) to make the post.  If you have so many thread turns that it looks pregnant the parachute won’t be able to float the fly.

9. Parachutes

  1. Peel approximately ¼ inch of points off the base of the quill so you will be tying only the quill to the post.
  2. Prepare the hackle feathers by cutting about one inch off the quill base so you will be using the pliable section of quill to tie to the post. When tying to the post keep the shiny side of the hackle up
  3. Tie the butt of the hackle on to the post with the hackle tip pointing back.  Let the thread hang down on the near side of the shank.  Wind the hackle clockwise around the bundle post (not on the shank) two or three turns, putting each turn under the former turn.
  4. Pick up the hanging thread and overlap the hackle’s last turn in a clockwise direction around the post.  Use two or three turns to secure the hackle to the post (not the shank).
  5. Now you can lift the hackle barbs protruding out over the eye and whip finish under the barbs.

10. Handling Buck Tail

Buck tail is a solid hair as opposed to deer body hair which is hollow.  Buck tail will not stack in a stacker but generally tail is used on streamers and therefore the longer hair is used.

  1. Start by separating a bundle about the thickness of a soda straw and cutting it next to the hide to get the longest hairs.
  2. Hold the bundle at midpoint and ruffle the butts so the shortest hairs fall free.  Then move your grasp to the butts and inspect the tips.  Several will be longer than the rest.  Pull all of these from the bundle and set aside.
  3. Inspect the bundle again and repeat.  This will leave you with three separate bundles.
  4. Line up the tips of all three bundles so that the tips all match. Note: now you have all the butts mismatching – clip the long butts so that all the butts are the same length. You have now hand stacked hair.
  5. Now you can set these on the hook to decide length of hairs to tie on.  (See Hair Wings on Wet Flies.)

11. Spinning Buck Tail

Since buck tail is not hollow it is difficult to spin.

  1. Take two turns of thread around a bundle of hair pointing back towards hook bend, but do not pull tight.  The loose thread will allow you to massage the hairs around the shank.
  2. Then pull the thread tight and take several turns to secure the hair to the shank.

You can make a more bulky body by tying on a bundle of hair as outlined above but this time point the hair forward and massaging it around the shank.  Then trim the butts and fold the points back over the butts to tie down.

12. Tinsel Streamer Bodies

Start thread ½ inch back from eye.  Tie in a length of tinsel long enough to wind back to bend and reverse back to tie in, keeping each piece of tinsel next and close to the previous turn.

If you want a thicker body, do the above with thread for a base, keeping each turn of thread tight but not overlapping the previous turn.  Then wind the tinsel back and forward to tie off.

13. The Whip Finish

The whip finish is NOT a do-all-end-all!

  1. When you get all the material tied on the hook – you can just let the thread hang down and place a drop of super glue on the end windings.  When it dries cut the thread at the hook and add a drop of waterproof cement.  No knot!
  2. One can also use three half-hitches to make a head but they will unwind and must be sealed with waterproof cement.
  3. The whip can be used, but it also must be sealed with waterproof cement.  If the whip is not applied correctly it is no better than half-hitches.  Most tiers use the whip incorrectly but the cement makes it work.

14. Hook Extraction

Note:  If the hook is near or in your eye – seek medical help immediately!

Hooks are much easier to take out if the barb has been turned down or flattened before use.  When a hook penetrates your skin, it makes a tunnel that can be used as a reverse path to extract the hook through without causing any further damage to the skin.  This method is illustrated in the rear hook in the following picture.

Finger holding hook eye against the skin.

Take a length of string or line and thread it through the inside of the bend of the hook. Use the thumb and index finger to hold the hook eye down against the skin.  While holding down the eye, pick up the two ends of the string through the hook bend and jerk backward and down.

This should pull the hook back through the tunnel it made going in and with little pain.

The hook in the foreground shows what will happen if the hook eye is not kept depressed.  The string will lever the shank upright and backward which forces the hook point further through the skin.  This makes for a much more painful and tedious procedure to remove the hook.

Featured image from Pixabay