I Sucked at Tying Flies: 5 Ways to not be me

Take your game up a notch

Copper John, clean and purdy
The other day while tying at a fly fishing & tying expo, we had a few people stop by our booth and mention how much they admired the flies we had sitting on display and would sometimes add a self-deprecating comment as to their fly tying skill level. I usually try to explain I'm really not a great fly tyer, I just fake it. But seriously, it's not really far from the truth and here's what I mean....

The first fly I tied was back in high school in the 80's. I didn't really get "into it" until a few years later when I got my first kit. My first flies were ants and mosquitoes for the high country of north eastern Oregon. I caught a lot of fish on those flies. And they were as ugly as sin. I still caught lots of fish.

So all tolled I've been at this game of fly tying for near on 25 years. But looking back now, I'd say I spent a good half of that time tying super-crappy flies. It wasn't until I saw my future cohort-in-crime, Cheech, tying at a fly shop demo (he'd only been at it for a couple of years) that I said "holy crap, I need to pay more attention to what I'm doing" as his flies were impeccably tied and super well-proportioned. I literally went home that night and started to pay more attention. I chucked out a bunch of flies and buckled down to tie better looking patterns. Once I really started to look at what I was doing, critiquing myself and focusing on what I was doing, I found I dialed in the quality a lot more consistently.

Now, at the end of the day, my crappy flies still caught lots of fish, so I'm not proposing this will make or break your fishing success, but let's face it -- most of us would like to tie flies to be proud of. If you still don't care about that, go ahead and navigate on over to Netflix for some Walking Dead episodes. Otherwise, here are some things I learned and what I think will help you take your flies to a new level:

1. Pay Attention! This is a simple yet overlooked one. Before, during and after you tie a fly, look at it and make sure you're doing all the stuff you need to be doing to churn out quality. Inspect each and every fly and look at what you can do to make it better and/or more like the previous ones (assuming they were good). In other words, actively be aware of the next 4 things!

2. Quality Materials. One of the most over-looked aspects of tying good looking flies is to make sure you use good materials. One of the reasons my parachute patterns really sucked hind teat at first was because I was using an incredibly nasty India Rooster neck. It wasn't until I ponied up the investment to get some good hackle that those types of patterns really took off for me. Same happened with comparadun hair, goose/turkey biots, thread and even hooks to some extent. And the list goes on. So if you look at a fly after you tie it and it's looking gnarly because the material is either garbage, too big or the wrong color, swap it out for something that works best for what you're doing. You might be surprised at how good materials can make a difference on how your patterns look!

Cheech was proud of this brassie  ;)
3. Proportion. If you're tying a mayfly imitation, pay attention to either the actual insect you're imitating or the fly pattern itself you're tying. Look at the relative lengths of body, wing and tail sections. Do yours match the naturals? Are you using the appropriate amount of hook shank in relation to the pattern size? Take the time to measure, in advance, tails, wings and hook shank tie-in points for the various body parts. Don't crowd the head, don't block the hook gape, don't let the body eat the thorax and make double sure you don't tie a "Fatty longtail" with a tail that is 4x hook shank length and a body that could be used on a fly that's three sizes bigger. Also, use the right sized thread. 200 Denier GSP is tough as nails, but will really be an epic FAIL using it on a size #14 parachute Adams since your fly will be 50% thread.

The bad example on the right shows Cheech needs to get a handle on his proportions. Don't be Cheech.

4. Critique and Judge Yourself. So you'll finish up a batch of fancy Copper John's, you'll admire them, you'll want to take pictures of them and share with your buddies on Facebook. Then you'll stick them in your box to fish someday and forget about them. However, instead, at some point, take the time to look at them a few hours or even days distant from the time you tied them. Look at some Copper John's online or wherever and compare yours. Do they still look as good as you thought? How can you do better? Make a note and tie up a couple of new ones to compare. Almost guaranteed, you'll end up finding something. So don't be afraid to judge yourself, live with a few failures and improve.

5. Practice. This is probably the most important of all. You can hit all of the above suggestions but if you don't buckle down and tie flies consistently, you'll see little improvement. And practice would include a few of these things here:
  • Tie every day if possible. Yep, just do it. If you can't tie every day, tie as often as possible. It's not like riding a bike.
  • Tie at least 5 or 6 of each pattern you tie every time you tie it. I often find myself junking the first couple of flies for a new pattern sometimes because I haven't gotten down the proportions and little nuances of the pattern yet. Consistency is the key!
  • If you're not good at parachutes, practice on a throw-away hook with bigger sizes. Cut it off and do it again. Don't waste tying a whole fly if you stink at only one particular method or part of it. Using a bigger hook will help get the hang of it before down-sizing.

And now you're a pro....sponsorships available!