Friday, January 30, 2015

Fly Tying: The Dark Art Of Fishing Guides

Depending on which calendar you subscribe to it is currently mid-winter. The sun is finally coming back with spring being hauled begrudgingly along with it. This season of darkness is also the season of the alchemy that is flytying, the infamous dark art of fishing guides everywhere: There is nothing quite like cooking up a cauldron of voodoo-soaked trout catching patterns for the upcoming season on the river. Every now and then we take a break from wearing an awesome wizard hat behind the vise and write some things ABOUT time spent behind said vise. It is a vicious cycle. First off we will consider some points regarding fly construction and efficiency that get mentioned often in tying manuals. Next post will deal with traits we think flies should have and what it takes to build them BetterFasterFitterStronger.

Some fly tying manuals recommend building flies in stages to improve quality and increase tying speed: The repetition of doing all the posts for a bunch of parachutes at a shot should make them all more uniform, and now you have all the stacking/measuring of wings out of the way, saving' some time! While this all sounds great it is not something that should be practiced regularly. My fly tying brain is wired to see each fly as a whole, all the proportions dependent on one another and doing one stage at a time usually results in a pile of flies that just don't look quite right. Something about internal symmetry: If the tail is just a bit too long you can compensate with the other parts of that particular fly, resulting in a decent looking bug. Sometimes a "slightly off" fly leads to some insights into what makes a pattern tick in the first place leading to better patterns the next run around.

There are some patterns, such as big steelhead flies (see above picture) and articulated streamers where staging makes a lot of sense and is even necessary for making a run of flies uniform. In these cases it is a good idea to stage, and stage hard . These patterns aside the only staging I do regularly is material staging, such as selecting all the hackles I will need for several dozen parachutes or knotting up a bunch of those annoying hopper legs. Also when tying stonefly nymphs wrapping the lead for several dozen hooks is a great idea: After leading up all your hooks, washing your hands will prevent any darkening of the dubbing blend with lead residue. Other than this I tie each fly from start to finish in one seamless beer-adled motion. Because that is the way the guide do.

To Glue or Not To Glue:
I was taught by mentors and tying manuals that gluing is an important part of fly-tying which tremendously increases fly durability and fishability: You should glue the base thread layer, each step of construction and finally the head after whip-finishing. After a decade of tying flies for clients and fishing these patterns into the ground I no longer consider this tenant as gospel and in fact often avoid gluing all together. There are several half-hitched reasons for this:

1) Gluing flies can negatively affect their fishability. Small technical flies, such as cripples and thorax's, lose their "springiness" on the water and sink easier if they get glued multiple times. Streamers with deer hair heads don't swim / bob n' weave as naturally when glued (See Gallup's book  for more on this idea). These are the two styles of flies I tie most often and as a result I don't reach for the glue pot much.
Nymphs are not effected by these factors in the least so go ahead and glue those copper johns to your hears content, but if you are building them' sneaky dry flies or seductive streamers then lose the glue.

2) Most* flies longevity is governed by the durability of materials which you cannot glue. Here I am talking about hackle and calf / elk / deer hair, the "three wise hairs" of the tying bench if you will. A fly can have a triple-glued body that will never break down under the forces of sun and time but the hackle is only good for a dozen fish or so. A perfectly flared deer-hair wing gets chewed off at about the same rate. Adding the extra tying time and weight to a fly makes less sense considering you are getting the same number of fish out of the hair / hackle regardless of gluing. The asterisk applies to patterns with a lot of foam in them and whose durability is not dependent on natural fibers. I tie very few foam flies because of personal bias but I can say if you're gluing a foam fly multiple times you probably don't need to. And you should also probably stop tying with so much damm foam.

3) Good tying doesn't need gluing. This comment is probably going to catch some flak but I truly believe it: Skilled tying motions that maintain thread tension, securely place bundles of material, properly taper bodies, and emphasize certain stages like tie-offs and heads, do more for fly durability than any amount of gluing ever could. These skills are the residual of countless hours behind the vise and there's no other way to get them. Put in the time tying those five dozen Goldenstones and see how "built" the last couple flies are, how seamlessly each stage is tied into the next and the internal durability that results. Relying on glue to do the durability business for you is often a shortcut around sloppy construction. Don't let it happen to your flies!

4) Durability doesn't factor into big-fish situations. Sure, I love catching a bunch of fish on the same fly and bragging to my friends about how I would totally be winning that One Fly competition right now, but when THE fish shows itself I am sure as hell cutting off the battered parachute I've been fishing all morning and tying on a fresh one. Period. No questions asked. I do not want to be making that first critical cast with a chewed-up half-sinking bug. This consideration makes fly durability far less of a concern in those situations we actively seek out and dream of finding ourselves in. In the school of "one cast, one fish" headhunting the fly should always be an appropriate imitation freshly plucked from the fly tree. Glue or no glue doesn't matter.

Having said all this we still glue finished heads and stage large batches of streamers and nymph bodies. Doing what makes sense for each pattern is a better rule than rules made up just for the sake of tying:  Worries about tying speed, efficiency, and durability should all be second concerns behind tying a handful of truly sharp looking, fish-catching flies. There will always be boxes of purple hazes and woolly buggers for extra ammo when needed, all we want to do is add a few killer black magic flies to the box.

Darkness IS!


  1. Good Stuff Chris. Lets fish sometime.

  2. Word on the tying article; well put. Better be saving the best for the old man!