As a longtime commercial fly tier, I'm used to people marveling about how fast I am at fly tying. Truth is, short of an emergency deadline, or a late night followed by an early morning trip, I prefer to tie slowly and methodically, but when the heat is on I am proud to be able to knock some flies out of the vise very quickly. Given that we'd all like to tie faster, whether from a commercial tying standpoint or simply to ease through a batch of flies with less time and effort, I offer these 11 tips compiled after years behind a hot vise.
1 Practice. I know everyone is hoping for a magic bullet to speed up their tying immediately, but frankly, I never encourage anyone to try to tie quickly. Speed comes from familiarity, and familiarity comes from practice. Knowing the pattern at hand well enough to tie it from memory, knowing the materials and order of steps, and feeling comfortable and at ease with the process leads to easier, more efficient tying. Practice, practice, practice. The more flies you tie, the better you'll get, and we all know there is no such thing as too many flies. Branch out and tie a wide variety of patterns, even if you may not think you'll fish them. Each pattern contains a lesson, and the more patterns you master the more techniques you'll become familiar with.
2 Never put down the scissors. Ever. Carry your scissors looped over the ring finger of your dominant hand, inserting your thumb into the opposing loop when needed to make a cut. This leaves the rest of your fingers available for normal tying procedures, with the tool stowed safely, and at the ready, in the palm of your hand. Keeping the scissors in your hand at all times eliminates losing them amid a pile of errant materials, and has them ready for any job, from clipping the butt ends of a tail to separating hair clumps for a wing. Carrying the scissors may feel a bit awkward at first, but it quickly becomes second nature, and is a tremendous time saver.
3 Get organized. Stopping to search for each tool and material is a speed killer. Set out only the essential tools and materials on your bench and place them in the same spot each time you tie. Dubbing goes on my left, my whip-finisher at the base of my vise, and my hooks are spread out on the right. Having only the required materials available, and in the usual spots, eliminates hunting down everything. The tying process becomes much smoother and more efficient without a gigantic pile of slag to sort through after each step.
4 Start with a short tag. I have saved at least $4 in thread over the duration of my 30 years of tying by starting my thread with just a short tag. Because I don't have to stop and trim a longer tag end, this little rule has saved me much more time than money. Small things like this make a big difference in the long run. Save a step wherever you can, and flies start to fall out of the vise much more quickly.
5 Be efficient. Make short circles of thread with your bobbin. A short length of thread between the end of your bobbin and the hook is easier to control and faster to wrap. Don't make more turns of thread than are necessary. If two tight wraps will secure a material, don't make seven. Be conscious of wasted efforts and steps. Rather than clipping off fine wire with your scissors, simply grab the end tightly in your fingertips and snap it toward the bend of the hook. It will break off cleanly and save the more precise step of trying to trim it flush with your scissors (and it won't dull your scissors).
6 Separate your hooks. Shake your hooks from the package so they fall loosely on the table and are well separated. It's quicker and easier to reach over and grab loose hooks, rather than having to untangle them one at a time from the box or from a knotted pile.
7 Use good tools and quality materials. Dull scissors and rough bobbins are time thieves. Any tool you have to fiddle with—or adjust—steals seconds away from efficient tying. Sharp scissors cut where you need it the first time, smooth bobbins don't fray the thread and cause setbacks. Quality materials also contribute to efficient tying. Consistent, evenly mixed, and loosely separated dubbing adheres to the thread easily without having to take time to weed out unneeded guard hairs or knits.
8 Prep materials. I usually cut all my strands of flash to length, and set them on the bench before I tie, so I don't have a static-charged mess to deal with on each new fly. Select and size your hackle beforehand so the feathers go straight to the hook without any extra steps. I also prepare lengths of poly yarn for wings, spade hackles for tails, marabou, rubber legs, and foam strips, by cutting them to usable lengths so they are ready to lash to the hook. For weighted flies, wrap the lead wire onto all the hooks ahead of time. This way, you only deal with the wire one time. Install all beads onto their hooks in one step as well, so you don't have to fumble with them. The best way to learn to put beads on a hook is to sit down and put beads on a hundred of them. You'll quickly develop your own method to boost your efficiency.
9 Loosen your dubbing. Natural dubbings like beaver, hare's mask, and rabbit fur typically come tightly packed in a baggie. The fur is often matted and hard to work with. Run your natural fur dubbings through a coffee grinder/dubbing blender, or use my canned air and Ziploc bag technique to loosen up the strands. Loose dubbing is easier to separate, adheres to the thread more evenly, and is more efficient to apply.
10 Skip the head cement. On most trout flies, head cement tends to goober things up and clog the hook eye. This not only slows your production, it causes frustration onstream. On small flies, head cement only serves as a backup if a poorly tied whip-finish comes untied. Solution: Tie a good, tight knot, and call it good. When I use head cement on larger patterns, it is more from an aesthetic standpoint to create a glossy, "finished" look and it does little to improve the durability of a fly.
11 Think about it. If you concentrate on making quick efficient turns of thread, not fumbling with materials, smoothly applying each piece to the hook, and moving your hands quicker each time, speed comes much sooner. The result will be not just fly boxes overflowing with flies, but better flies overall.
Practice builds the speed and efficiency you need to fill your boxes with dozens of uniform, durable patterns.
Never put your scissors down. Keep them ready in the palm of your hand.
Organize your desktop so it is tidy and everything is right where you expect it to be.
Start with a short tag of thread so you don't create an extra trimming step as you begin.
Loosen and separate your dubbing so it's quick and easy to apply it evenly to the thread.
Your tinsel, hackle, feathers, and most other materials should be
selected, trimmed, and ready to apply before you begin tying.
Remove your hooks from the packaging and spread them out on your desktop or table so they are easy to grab and put in the vise.
Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie's Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado, and is the author of Charlie's Fly Box (Stackpole Books, 2011). He is also the featured tier in the iPhone app FlyBench, available in the iTunes store.