Whether you’re an advanced fly tyer or just starting out, there are a few things you can do to improve your skills. Tie known patterns in bunches, get familiar with your materials, explore new techniques, and you’re bound to become a better fly tyer.
Having taught dozens of beginners to tie flies, I have recognized some common mistakes for most beginners. Here’s what you can do to avoid them and make your fly tying journey much more enjoyable.
You probably first gained interest in fly tying after seeing some stunning, detailed work done by someone who has been doing it for years. But you probably won’t be able to pull off the same patterns when you first sit down at the vise.
Some very effective flies only take 2-3 steps to complete. Start off with the simple ones, and once you feel like you’re happy with the result, find a pattern that requires you to learn no more than 2 new steps to tie. By doing so, you’ll always know how to tie a part of the pattern and will only need to learn one or two new things to complete it.
Over time, the new steps and techniques accumulate and you’ll have learned enough to tie hundreds of patterns with the skills that you already have.
Here are some good patterns to start with depending on the style of fly you want to tie:
- Dry flies — F-Fly or Griffith’s gnat;
- Nymphs — Walt’s worm, frenchie, zebra midge;
- Wet flies — partridge & orange spider, March brown spider;
- Streamers — woolly bugger, bunny leech.
Tie in bunches
One of the most common mistakes amongst new fly tyers is trying to tie something different with every single fly. That might sound fun, but will soon get frustrating because none of the flies end up looking good. To make your tying more consistent, you should tie patterns in bunches and in different sizes.
Pick a pattern you want to tie, and select 3 hook sizes fitting for that pattern. Start by tying 10 flies on the biggest hook, if you feel like you’re happy with them, move on to tying 10 on a smaller hook, then 10 more on the smallest hook you chose.
You’ll quickly notice that the 10th fly you tie will be much better looking than the first. There may be issues adjusting to smaller sizes, but take your time, and you should be able to tie a solid small fly once you’ve done 10 of them.
Downsizing teaches the importance of proportions, the amount of material that you need to use, and even the number of thread wraps you need to take. On top of that, smaller flies will often outfish the big ones, so you won’t regret putting some time in improving your skills on small hooks.
Tie known patterns
I know that it’s tempting to start experimenting with your materials right away. But that rarely turns out well. Instead, find a reference for a pattern you want to tie and stick to it. Books with step-by-step instructions are always great resources, as are videos.
The big issue with videos on YouTube is that anyone can do them, and they may not necessarily be great at tying themselves. But there are many great channels for beginners.
Personally, I watched Davie McPhail for hours every day when I first started, but other YouTube channels, such as TightLineVideo, Fly Fish Food, Ryan Houston, and the FlyToTie channel (shameless plug) are all great resources with thousands of patterns you can choose from.
By tying known patterns, you will be provided with a list of materials you need, as well as the size you should tie them in. This leaves little room for error, and you can focus on your technique rather than worrying if what you’re doing even makes sense.
Know your materials
Whenever you’re tying according to a reference, don’t blindly put materials on a hook. Try to work out why a particular material is used in that particular spot. Some materials may initially seem similar, but turn out to be completely different in the way that they’re used.
For example, deer hair and elk hair may seem nearly identical to a beginner. And while they can sometimes be used interchangeably, they’re different.
Elk hair doesn’t flare as much, which makes it better for wings on flies such as the elk hair caddis. On the other hand, deer hair flares a lot, so it’s great for patterns that require you to spin hair around the hook, such as a streaking caddis or muddler minnow.
The tail of a cock pheasant will be much better for making pheasant tail bodies than that of a hen pheasant. Since the fibers on a cock pheasant’s tail provide some natural segmentation and just a touch of fluff, which isn’t present on a hen pheasant’s tail.
On the other hand, try forming a wet fly wing with fibers from a cock pheasant tail and you’ll soon realize that it doesn’t really work. All while the slimmer, more delicate fibers of a hen pheasant tail have been used to wing wet flies for a myriad of patterns.
In other words — each material is unique, and you need to learn what the best uses for your materials are. Only then can you stop looking at references every time you tie flies and start experimenting on the vice, trying to come up with something from your own imagination.
Learning about your materials is something that will always be an important part of being a fly tyer. Every time you buy something new that you haven’t used before, take your time to get really familiar with it. It will almost definitely result in better, more effective, and prettier-looking flies in your box.
You’ll definitely get a lot of questions when you first start tying. And you might not find answers to them in the books you read or the videos you watch. Make sure to ask those questions, the sooner the better.
Sometimes the simplest answers can help you improve your fly tying in seconds, while it could take months, or years to find those answers on your own. Ideally, you’d visit a local fly shop with a knowledgeable crew and ask the questions there, as they might even be able to show you, rather than tell you, what you need to know.
But even if you don’t have the luxury of having a fly shop nearby, you definitely have the internet. Use one of the thousands of fly tying groups on Facebook or Reddit to ask your questions. Alternatively — get in touch with me and I will be happy to answer any questions whenever I have a minute to spare.
You can email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message to the FlyToTie page on Facebook.
If you need a top-up of fly tying materials, make sure to check out our shop, your support of the shop will not go unappreciated.
Just knowing the tips above isn’t enough to make you a great fly tyer. But if you follow them, you’ll learn new techniques and make your fly tying more consistent. All you need to do know is sit down by your vise and actually start tying. Make sure to have fun while you’re at it!