Based on the number of phone calls I receive and conversations at fly-fishing shows, many fly tiers trying to make the transition from tying trout flies to hair bugs get frustrated with their poor results. Typically they aren't aware of a few tips that can make the transition easy. Of course, there's also no substitute for practice.
1. Buy Good Scissors
After teaching workshops for many years, I notice that many tiers lack a pair of both straight and curved serrated hair scissors. The typical 1-inch-long bladed scissors used to tie trout flies are not adequate. I recommend the Anvil Ultimate Model 70 (right handed) or 71 (left handed), which cost around $20 each. These scissors have adjustable cushioned handles, ice-tempered stainless-steel blades, and one serrated blade that grips and cuts the hair.
Buy both the straight and curved models. The curved model is essential for shaping the hair after all of the hair has been spun on the hook. Trying to use straight scissors to cut a round shape is inefficient and leads to poor results.
2. Buy the Right Bobbin
Because tying hair bugs requires more thread tension than tying trout flies, a bobbin that keeps the thread spool in place without having to squeeze the bobbin, and automatically maintains the correct tension on the spool, is invaluable. After a standard bobbin is broken in, it is often necessary to bend the wire arms inward to achieve a reasonable level of tension on the spool, and still some hand pressure is required. I have found that the Rite Mag or Cermag adjustable bobbins put the necessary amount of tension on the thread. The long thread tube makes putting torque on the thread and manipulating the hair easy.
3. Buy the Right Hair Packer
I have tried all types of hair packers over the past 30 years, and the only two that compress both the thread and the hair are the Brassie Hair Packer and the Anvil Hair Packer. All other hair packers are not able to slide the thread along the hook shank with the hair since the tool must be able to get past the hook eye, which is always wider than the hook shank. Ballpoint pens, dowel rods, and pieces of aluminum with a hole drilled in the center pull the hair toward the hook shank rather than push the hair along the hook shank. By establishing a small 1/4-inch to 5/16-inch thread base before spinning or stacking the hair, and then packing both the thread and hair, you get a more durable fly that is less likely to rotate on the hook. Make sure to use a drop or two of thin head cement after packing each clump of hair.
4. Use the Right Thread
I have used gel-spun polyethylene (GSP) thread since 1988 and find it superior to nylon or polyester for hair bugs. It is two to three times stronger for the same denier than either of the other materials. I have used Gudebrod GX2 (130 denier) for several years, which has a breaking strength of 6 pounds 8 ounces. Other gel-spun threads that work well include Uni Cord 7/0 (100 denier), Ultra Thread GSP (100 denier), and Cascade Crest GSP (100 denier). There are also a number of gel-spun threads between 50 and 70 denier that work well for small hair bugs (size 6 hooks and smaller) and trout flies where small clumps of hair are used.
Some tiers prefer Danville's Flymaster Plus (210 denier), Flat Waxed Nylon (210 denier), Gudebrod G (330 denier), or Wapsi 210 denier. These threads work most of the time with smaller clumps of hair equal to one to two #2 wooden pencil-size clumps of hair. With too much pressure, nylon or polyester thread may occasionally break. Gel-spun thread is more slippery than nylon or polyester, so the thread slides easier against the hair when spinning or stacking. There are a number of patterns that I stack three to five large clumps equal to four or more pencil-size clumps of hair. In this situation I try to put as much pressure on the hair as possible without cutting the hair, and gel-spun thread works every time.
Some people use rod-wrapping thread and Uni's Big Fly thread, but I have found these to be too bulky and they don't slide against the hair nearly as well as gel spun. Use the gel-spun thread only for the hair portion of the fly. For tying materials such as rubber legs, hackle, or marabou on the back of the shank, use 6/0 (140 denier) threads.
5. Get These Other Tools
You'll also probably need double-edged shaving blades for smoothing the body, a bone or aluminum hair comb for removing underfur from the deer hair, a bodkin for pulling out hairs that sometimes get caught when applying repeated clumps of hair, an extra-large hair stacker for evening hair tips for collars on divers and other patterns, and a thin head cement that penetrates easily.
6. Select the Right Hair for the Job
There are three different animals that most experienced tiers use for tying hair bugs: late-season cow elk, whitetail deer, and mule deer. Each animal's hair has different qualities and certain parts of the hides have more suitable hair for spinning and stacking. Some hides have superior hair; others have hair that is not suitable. Having processed my own whitetail hides for 20 years, I am still amazed at the uniqueness of the hair on each whitetail deer.
Ideally the hair should be 2 inches long. Late-season cow elk hair is usually longer than that. Late-season whitetail and mule deer hair is usually around 13/4 inches to 2 inches long, with a few hides having hair as long as 21/4 inches.
The hair should be close to a nylon paintbrush in texture and snap back quickly to its original position after running your thumb across the center of the hair. As a general rule, when looking at natural hair, lighter color hair tends to have this crisp characteristic more than dark hair. The darker the hair the less likely it is good spinning hair. Take the hair out of the package and inspect it before buying. If the hair feels soft or mushy, don't buy it.
Cow elk is usually firmer and more consistent from animal to animal than whitetail or mule deer, and many consider it to be more durable. I still prefer to use good quality whitetail or mule deer because it flares better.
7. Prepare the Foundation
Always wrap a small, 3/8- to 5/16-inch-wide thread base before beginning to stack or spin hair. Don't believe the old wives' tale that deer hair can or should only be spun on a bare shank. After establishing the thread base, place the thread in the center of the thread base.
8. Learn Thread Control
Cut two to three #2 pencil-size clumps of deer or elk hair as close to the skin as possible. Comb out the hair to remove the underfur. If the hair is to be spun or stacked and the fly won't have a collar, cut off about 1/4 inch of the tips. Lay the hair at a 45-degree angle on the side of the hook closest to you. Make three snug thread wraps around the center of the hair ending up with the tip of the bobbin about 1/4 inch from the clump of hair. B.Flare the hair about halfway. Use the tip of the bobbin to roll the hair around the hook. You may need to move the bobbin tip closer to the hair before spinning the hair after you flare it. Thread control is critical. Practice this technique until you get good at it.
Another technique for spinning the hair is to make five snug wraps of thread around the center of the hair, then pull the bobbin toward your stomach or chest depending on where your vise is positioned. The hair will spin and flare. At least two of the wraps that you made will unwrap.
After spinning and flaring the hair to its maximum, bring the thread up from under the shank and make two thread wraps in front of the spun clump. Now make two half-hitches. Maintain firm thread pressure throughout this process.
Next, holding the hair from behind with the left hand (right-handed tiers), use the hair packer to pack the thread and the hair. Place a large drop of head cement at the base of the hair.
Now make another thread base and repeat the process. Continue until the hair is about 1/16 inch from the hook eye. When spinning the final clump of hair, make sure to use at least three to four pencil-size clumps of hair. Make sure you use enough thread pressure to flare the hair at a 90-degree angle to the hook shank. This procedure helps eliminate the less-dense look that is sometimes found in the front of some popper bugs. If you are tying a diver body, cut the hair close to the shank and the hair will be as dense as cork.
After you have spun or stacked the final clump of hair, make two or three half-hitches and cut the thread. Gel-spun cuts best under tension and if you use a sawing motion with one scissors blade or razor blade.
9. Know Your Limits
Do the following exercise to learn how hard to pull on the thread. Grab the clump of spun hair with your left hand (right-handed tiers). Gradually increase the pressure on the thread until you cut through the hair. This exercise will help develop a touch for flaring hair without cutting it. Repeat this exercise until you know when to stop pulling. The hair stops flaring just before the thread cuts through the hair.
10. Form a Neat Head with Plastic
Poke a hole in the center of a 1-inch-square piece of 3 mm plastic. Push the hole over the hook eye. This plastic keeps stray hairs from catching in your thread while you are finishing your fly. Attach 140-denier (6/0) thread and build the head. After making six or so wraps, put some head cement around the head, then continue building the head until you have a fairly large bullet-shaped head. Whip-finish and apply a coat of high-gloss head cement. After the first coat dries, apply additional coats as needed to obtain a smooth, glossy head.
11. Use Your Hands
Stacking hair involves the same technique as spinning hair except that the hair on the bottom of the hook is usually a different color and requires "rolling" the hair onto the bottom of the hook shank before flaring the hair. Make three thread wraps around the clump of hair and push the hair with the bobbin tip onto the bottom of the hook. Hold the hair firmly with the thumb and middle finger of your left hand. Pull down with the thread and flare the hair. To stack the top of the fly, make sure the total amount of hair used equals the amount on the bottom of the hook.
If you plan to use three colors, divide the hair accordingly to achieve the same quantity. Lay the first clump on top of and parallel to the hook shank. Make two or three wraps. Place your thumb on top of the clump and your middle finger on the bottom of the fly and pull straight down. Repeat with the other colors.
Pull the hair back firmly with your left hand, make two thread wraps, and tie a half-hitch. Pack the thread and the hair with the hair packer. Place a drop of head cement at the base of the packed hair. Repeat stacking hair until you reach the hook eye.
12. Finish Trimming with a Razor
When trimming any hair-bug body, you should follow a standard procedure to avoid ending up with an asymmetrical body. Start by trimming the bottom of the fly with the serrated scissors. Then use a double-edged razor blade to finish trimming the bottom.
Next, trim and shape the face or top of the fly (depending on the type of fly) and then finish by trimming each side of the fly. Be sure to hold the fly by the hook bend in your left hand and look at the fly head-on and from below to make sure everything is symmetrical.
If you are tying a standard flat-faced popper, apply a coat of glue such as Bond 527 to the face of the fly. You can also coat the bottom of the fly.
The most important advice I can give you is to practice these tips repeatedly. As time goes by you will see continual improvement in handling the hair and trimming. The more time you spend practicing, the quicker the entire process will become second nature to you.
Christopher Helm owns Whitetail Fly Tieing Supplies. He lives in Toledo, Ohio.