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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Tying vs. Buying - Which costs more?

Creativity meets economics

This fly sells for $10

There are a lot of reasons why people tie flies.  I really like the artistic outlet that I have on my vise and the ability to create basically anything I want.  Others might like the relaxation tying gives them, they might only tie to re-supply their standard fish catching patterns, or they may do it to save money.  I have heard this a million times that you will never save money by tying your own flies, and for me specifically (if I didn't sell them) I'd say that I would definitely NOT save money no matter how I try to justify having about 25,000 hooks on hand.  This being said, there is definitely a way to save money on flies if one is fairly methodical about it.

Before I get into the actual money saving part, I'll preface this by saying that if you only buy flies you are limited by what is in the shop, or what is available online. Period.  If you want to so much as change the marabou color on a Wooly Bugger you are running into asking a custom fly designer to do it for you which will most likely cost you some cash money.  So - by relegating yourself to only purchasing flies, you are limiting yourself to the creativity of others.

Before I go all "Curtis" on this and put my Nerdalysis hat on let's set some parameters on the cost of a fly (in very broad general terms).

  • Junk fly - $0.75 (Congrats, you just purchased a zebra midge from Africa.  Yes it will still catch fish... after you Zap-a-gap the hell out of it)
  • Normal run-of-the-mill fly - $2.00 to $3.50 (Typically from a reputable fly distributor i.e. Rainy's Umpqua, MFC etc.)
  • Specialty fly - $3.50 to $15.  These are more specialized ninja patterns that include big articulated meat and bugs from custom tyers.
For the sake of simplicity I'll use $2.00 as a general reference for what a fly costs (and this is probably a low estimate.)

The kicker in making the jump into tying flies is the sunk cost that comes with the purchase of a vise and tools.  I guess a nice dry fly hackle really ups the initial price of tying dry flies as well, but the hackle will literally last you for thousands and thousands of flies.  For the beginning tyer there really isn't a huge "need" to buy all of the top-of-the-line vise and tools, but it certainly won't hurt to have top quality stuff to tie with.  This being said, in my example I'll use a vise and tools that you won't want to throw away after the first month of tying like the tools that many of the starter kits come with.

Vise: Griffin Montana Pro - $78.00
Scissors: Dr. Slick All Purpose - $15.00
Bobbin: Griffin Supreme Ceramic - $12.50
Whip Finisher: Dr. Slick Stainless Whip Finisher - $7.00
Total price: $112.50

So this list represents "needs" and not "wants."  In order to get started with tying flies, these are the things, in my opinion, that a new tyer needs to start off on the right foot and not want to throw a vise (or bobbin) through a window.

Now lets get down to the nitty gritty.  Let's say that a new tyer wants to start out tying wooly buggers and pheasant tails, and I'm going to list (generously) enough materials to tie 25 flies:

Wooly Bugger
Wooly Bugger:
Hook:  Allen S402 #6 (pack of 25) - $3.39
Thread: UTC 140 - $2.00
Tail: Marabou - $3.50
Body: Chenille - $2.50
Hackle: Schlappen - $7.00
Total price: $18.39

Pheasant Tail
Pheasant Tail:
Hook:  Allen D103S (pack of 25) - $3.39
Bead: Tungsten beads (pack of 25) - $3.75
Thread: UTC 70 - $2.00
Tail/body/wingcase: Pheasant tail fibers - $2.75
Thorax: Peacock herl - $3.25
Ribbing: UTC ultra wire - $1.45
Total price: $16.59

So if a new tyer started from ground zero, it would cost $147.48 to tie those first 50 flies.  That averages out to be about $3 per fly for the first go 'round.  For the next round of flies when you don't have to account for the vise and tools, your cost is $34.98 which rounds out to be about $0.70 per fly (and it will likely even be cheaper than this because your materials will actually tie much more than 25 flies.)

This is kind of an extreme example because you are limiting yourself to one size of hook and one color per pattern, but as you move into buying materials for different patterns you will start seeing that your materials will mix and match to tie many other types of flies.  As you get further and further down the road of tying, you will get to the point that you are only limited by how many hooks and beads you have.  Like I said above, if you buy all the materials for a certain pattern, there is a very likely chance that you will only have to buy another pack of hooks to tie your next 25.

Uncle Ken's Wooly Bug
The other thing to consider is that your flies won't look like friggin' Captain America sat down to tie them (I'm confident that he is great on the vise), so it will take practice to get your flies to the point where they can compete, or even be better than their store bought counterparts.  Your goal from the get go is to tie flies that are durable and that can catch fish.  Once you have that down, you can focus on cleaning them up.  I have ranted many times about tying flies that are nice and tidy and that look great, BUT, if you are tying for yourself and don't intend on selling them or entering them in the Miss Universe contest, feel free to just tie "fishing" flies.

I'll tell you right now that many tyers (myself and Curtis included) will likely never "save" money tying flies because we have the sickness of having to have every new material and doo-dad that comes into the market.  Even though tying is a viable way to save money on flies if one is disciplined, for many people the draw of tying is much more than that, and it's worth it for them to have $25,000 worth of junk in a basement dungeon in order to have that perfect caddis pupa with just the right amount of flash and legs etc...   

The point I'd like to make the most with this post is this: Is it possible to save money by tying your own flies? Absolutely. It is probable? well...  that's complicated.

~ Cheech

P.S. To all you married fellers... One of the biggest ways to save money is to find a way to keep hooks from finding their way into your wife's feet.  I hear divorces are expensive.


  1. Excellent post - Like midges, being a 3 minute fly in some recipes - why pay 1.75 - 2.00 per, when 5-6 bones will fill you up for the season.... Of course the fact that the initial investment is still needed in vice, tools etc... But I got some buds that only nymph - and they have purchased enough flies to hire outsources to tie for em

  2. I agree with you that you can save money and it is nice to see you put the numbers with it. Really like that and I appreciate the time in. Hopefully some who are considering getting in for this reason will read this. That wain I am with you, I am far too sunk into tying to save money. I go to a shop and see shiny beads, beautiful hackle, and 17 other things I need. I have an addiction and I don't think I will make it through a 12 step program. That said well done sir, very well done and thought out post.

  3. My wife was looking at a #24 midge a few years ago, and said "how much did this cost?" I told her it was $1.99...I tie 99% of my own flies now, and am still happily married!

  4. Great post. You spend money either way. Bottom line is creativity, function and durability. Can I twist at sweat shop rates, uh, hell nah but I can tie enough to keep my box racked without trips to the store every week. I value my time more than I value my money.

  5. I remember when I started fly fishing some 17 years back (when I was 14) and buying flies at the local shop. This was before I was accustomed to anything- I would go into my fly shop and pay $2 a fly- complete trash flies too. The two things that bothered me most- having it unravel after 1 fish or casting on a rock and having the wind blow it out of my fly box and sink to the depths. Back then I was broke- I couldn't afford to lose flies either way. I have a super limited fly box, and cut my teeth on repairing wooly buggers. I never tried new patterns for fear of it costing me $2 on the river- so I stopped buying flies and then just bummed em off my best friend and fishing partner- that lasted around 10 years haha. I would often just watch him fly fish because I didn't want to keep bumming flies off him. He started tying flies probably 5 years ago, and I caught his bug a year later. Now I have 24 fly boxes, and I throw out or donate flies at the beginning of every season. Fly tying is what got me re-interested in fly fishing. I think fly fisherman everywhere should be ashamed at buying flies and supporting their local fly shop- when they stock foreign SHIT. Pay an extra dollar or two and support a local fly tyer and the shop at the same time. You won't have to worry about needing 1 fly per fish you intend on catching :)

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  7. the 7 dollar streamer , purchased as a sample. before you get to tie more up. that gets both hooks buried in the deep water log that is too deep to retrieve. Rest is all good. i have a small fly shop at home and at work, where i have 12-13 guys show up to twist up some bugs. i buy in bulk so it goes a long way. (and i have an unknown sponsor)
    5wtblog@tumbler check it out

  8. the price of my serenity when I have the ability to tie in winter months thinking of warmer days and dry fly hatches is priceless… whether they see water time & catch a single fish are tertiary. I still buy and tie, mainly because I feel a part of me is lost when a client snags large woody debris and my double boogie man never comes home, but it is better than paying $6 a fly.
    Tight Lines,

  9. Isn't this like saying you can save money on gasoline by buying a whole tractor trailer load?

    I'm one of those guys who has the basement full of materials. I could likely tie many thousands of dollars worth of flies, maybe tens of thousands of flies, (yes, I have a lot of hooks too) but would never in my lifetime buy that many flies. Not that I buy many anyway. My vise & tools have been long paid for, so on a per fly cost basis, yes I save on tying my own so I agree with you. On a total investment basis, I probably could have paid off my mortgage already. All a matter of the perspective.

    I tie because I enjoy doing it & as said can tie anything I need so am not limited to what's available from other tiers. We each tie or buy for our own reasons & needs. Besides, it's only money. Someday we'll all leave this world, that inevitable & all the wealth in it won't change that fact. Might as well enjoy it the best way we can!

  10. Great write up. I just started...b/c like you mentioned, if I go to basspro (sorry) and all they have are size 18 zibra midges...guess what I'm buying. But now I have 200 ranging from all the "skittles" colors. I donate the terrible look'n ones to my buddies...they're free to them so I don't care if they don't fish. I'll never save money...but I get a kick out of watching my buddies struggle w/ my unruly buggers!!!

  11. Of course you can save money. Its like anything you wish to produce on your own, be it vegetables, kitchen chairs, or flies. With just a little creativity and a firm understanding of the basics, money can be saved.
    This is especially true when it comes to the very fancy items.

    What is less often mentioned is the learning curve required to get there. Even simple flies have a set of requirements that must be met, both in materials and procedures. Learning these to the point that you do a good job of your intended work has a cost, by necessity. Keep in mind, I've left the needed tools out of the equations.

    Fortunately, even materials obtained at retail go a long way. I usually allot $20 for materials for any new pattern I want to maintain in my collection - part of that will be eaten up in the learning curve. Once past that point, the costs per fly begin to decrease dramatically.