5 Tips for Tying Cleaner Flies

Tidy up your tying

Stonefly tied on a jig hook
I started tying flies about 14 years ago in a call center of all places.  I was a college student needing work and sat all day taking phone calls in Spanish, but most of the time I was wishing I was outside fishing.  With the extremely low call volume, there were a few team members who would fill the time doing things other than work, and one employee decided to bring in his fly tying kit.  I remember tying my first wooly bugger that was blue, red and black.  The tail was about 5 times too long, the hackle was too thick, and the head was super crowded.  I thought it was awesome.  Later that year I got a tying kit and started on my own journey to where I am now.  About 5 or 6 years in to tying, I decided that I really wanted to focus on good looking flies, and if a fly didn't come off right, I would cut it off the hook and start over.  I went through a lot of exacto blades that year.  I would take my time, and envision myself tying flies for a big company like Rainy's, Umpqua, or Orvis.  If they wouldn't accept my fly, I wouldn't either.

Synthetic 20 incher variation

I have heard it many times...  "But the fish don't care.  They will still eat it."  I think Charlie Craven summed it up best when he said something like, "if we didn't care what the fish ate, we would be throwing dough bait and salmon eggs."  There is something about having a very nicely tied fly that is both fishy and artistic.  Here are 5 ways to start tying cleaner flies.

Uncle Ken fails at proportion.  
Click HERE to see how not to tie clean flies.

1. Learn about proportion.

  • This is especially key in learning how to tie smaller patterns.  One way to learn this is to make sure you have the actual fly pattern, or an actual bug to look at.  That way you can tell if your tail is too long, or your body is too fat etc. etc.  After you tie in a material, make sure you look at it to make sure it fits correctly.  If not, untie it and change it for the material with correct proportion.
  • Common areas of concern are dubbing and hackle.  With dubbing - less is more (you can always add more if you didn't get enough, and if you get too much, it comes off the thread just like it went on the thread).  With hackle - get a hackle gauge or hold it up to the fly to see how it will work proportion wise.  Don't be afraid to unwind it and start over.
  • Hook gap...  Make sure that the fly that you spent so much time tying and fishing is actually going hook a fish when it eats it!  As a general rule, try to leave the bulk off of the bottom of the fly, and don't wrap your curved shank hooks so far down the bend that the hook won't penetrate.  If you have a killer pattern that eats up the hook gap, don't change the pattern - just tie it on a different hook.
  • Don't crowd the eye.  This is easier said than done, but it's all about just leaving space for nothing but a whip finish.  

2. Minimize thread wraps.  Make your wraps tight.

  • Too much thread is always a clean fly killer. When you dress your bare hook, just barely put enough to cover the metal up.  Dressing the hook isn't always critical, and many times I don't even dress the hook at all.  It is also key to learn how many wraps of thread will hold your material - once you know this, don't add one single additional wrap.  Additional thread wraps waste time and critical space on your hook shank.  You will be surprised how solid two good wraps of thread can be.
  • Make sure you are comfortable with the breaking strength of the thread.  If you are unfamiliar with this, just wrap some on a hook and pull until it breaks.  Tight thread wraps will increase the durability of your flies more than any glue.  It will also help you minimize the amount of wraps you use to tie something in.
  • Choose the right thread.  I typically try to tie with the biggest thread I can without making the fly look too bulky.  That being said, I typically tie with thread in the 70 denier range for 75% of my flies.  

3. Good lighting.

  • I can't stress this one enough.  If you have great lighting, you will be able to see where you are placing materials.  It is amazing what one little lamp will do for your tying.  Right now, I have a huge fluorescent light hanging directly above my tying desk and a portable LED lamp right above the vise.  A good lamp is almost as critical as a good vise in my opinion.
  • This doesn't mean that you have to go out an buy the fancy lights that show you colors exactly as you would in the sun light.  Most of the lamps I have had are about $15 from Home Depot.  If it makes light, it's good.  I usually have two lamps at my tying station at all times.

4. Change bad habits.

  • This one is easier said than done, but we all have certain quirks that we do that affect how clean our flies turn out.  If you watch someone else tie, you will see lots of differences in the way that they do things.  I like to go home and try them all out to see if it is easier, faster, or resulting in a better fly.  My latest bad habit was that I typically twist the dubbing the same direction for all of my dubbing needs.  I finally bit the bullet and started alternating the direction based on the effect it would give.  It was HARD to train my fingers to do it, but I did, and the results have been great.  YouTube is your friend on this one.

5. Get feedback.

  • How will you know if your flies are hitting the mark?  I like to send bugs out to people who will give me real feedback about my flies so I can make them better.  One of my regular customers will flat out tell me if my flies suck, so I make necessary changes.  If I wanted positive feedback on my flies, I'd send boxes to my Mom (she thinks they are all really cute.)  The more criticism you can get on your flies, the more you can improve them.  As far as giving criticism, don't give it unless you are asked.
Surely I missed some critical points.  What have you all done to improve your tying?  Please add comments as you see fit.