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Finishing Flies Using Permanent Waterproof Markers

Finishing Flies Using Permanent Waterproof Markers

Fly tying, when done well, is often referred to as an artso it comes as no surprise to me that so many good tiers are also great artists. Dave Whitlock, Andy Burke, and Rick Takahashi all come to mind when art and fly tying come together, but even an average Joe can let a little art creep into his tying with a small investment and a bit of creativity.

Permanent waterproof markers are always within an arm's reach of my tying bench. Directly to the right of my vise sits a container holding about 50 markers of varying colors and tip shapes and sizes. From pale cream all the way to bright fluorescent, black, and muted earth tones, my marker stash has become an imperative piece of my tying program.

Add Stripes

To add stripes and bars to rubber legs, twist a rubber leg by rolling it in your fingertips, then draw a straight line down the leg.

Antennae Speckling

A few quick strokes with a fine-tip marker on the antennae of this caddis pupa pattern contributes a natural speckling and the illusion of movement.

Artistic Touches

You can also add artistic touches to beads, cones, and anything metal. This Fish-Skull head has been dressed up with a dark top (brown), colored sides (orange), and black spots.

Barber Pole Effect

When you release the tension on the rubber leg, you'll see a barber-pole effect.

Hot Spot Marking

Use a marker to add a hot spot to the head or butt end of any nymph to make it stand out from the crowd.


Prismacolor, Pantone, and Sharpie are some of the more popular permanent marker brands for shading, barring, and coloring flies. Photos: Charlie Craven

Polar Fibre

This baby brown trout pattern is tied with light cream Polar Fibre and a bit of pearl flash. The variation in color from top to bottom is created by shading the Polar Fibre with markers. Start with the lightest, lowest color and work from front to back, bottom to top. Add the barring last to the completed fly.

Reefer Madness

Brian Schmidt's Reefer Madness has colorful barring, and accentuated pincer and leg tips, all achieved with colored markers. Dressing up a plain colored pattern is quick and easy and adds life to many flies.

Saltwater Patterns

Saltwater patterns for bonefish and stripers can gain much from a few marker strokes. Here the carapace of a bonefish fly has been striped with a wide-tip marker, adding mottling and definition. Barring is not limited to one color. Try highlighting the edges of darker bars with a contrasting lighter or darker shade for even more 'pop. '

Short Strokes

Rather than dragging a marker across a fur head, try making short strokes from front to back to work the ink deeper into the fur. Use a wire dubbing brush to blend the colors together for a smoothly variegated head.

Striped Wings 1/2

Use a fine-tip marker to mottle spinner and dry-fly wings by drawing the fibers taut, and adding stripes at right angles to the fibers. Keep the stripes spaced widely to allow for marker bleed.

Striped Wings 2/2

Use a fine-tip marker to mottle spinner and dry-fly wings by drawing the fibers taut, and adding stripes at right angles to the fibers. Keep the stripes spaced widely to allow for marker bleed.

Tail Outline

Create a well-defined tail outline on a mullet pattern by adding a black stripe along the back end, as seen on this EP Minnow.

I didn't realize how much I relied on markers until a gentleman at one of my fly-tying demonstrations asked how much influence markers and coloration had on my tying.

I had to stop and think, and then agree that I often don't consider a fly finished until it has had a bit of makeup added to dress it up. Finishing flies using permanent waterproof markers can add extra realism to most fly patterns.

While I may not be completely convinced that it makes a huge difference to the fish, dolling up an otherwise bland and monochromatic fly pattern with spots, barring, or shading certainly makes the pattern more interesting to my eye, and I fish a fly with more confidence when it's something I like.

Make no mistake though, breaking up a solid color profile by adding camouflage mottling and barring increases realism, and is a quick and easy way to set your pattern apart from the crowd.

Of course, markers have been used for years to simply darken existing fly patterns. Many years ago I recall pulling a black Sharpie from my vest and darkening a standard Pheasant Tail to better match emerging Baetis nymphs in Cheesman Canyon. The altered fly worked wonderfully, and the marker kept me from duplicating the standard versions in my fly box with other colors. This is perhaps the most common usage of markers, and it has been widely used for many years.

Any brand of permanent waterproof marking pens can be used to alter the color pattern of a fly. Prismacolor, Pantone, and Sharpie markers are widely available in a range of colors and can be put to good use on both freshwater and saltwater patterns.

One of my favorite marker techniques involves barring a synthetic wing with a wide-tip marker to add color variation and contrast. I use this technique on patterns like my Gonga, marking the head and collar to break up the outline.

I also bar the synthetic wings on many of my bonefish patterns to create just enough contrast while retaining the overall light color of the fly. This added contrast helps the fly stand out against light-colored sandy bottoms. In some cases I go a little heavy with the marker, or use a dark brown or black marker on a light tan-colored wing to make the barring even more pronounced so the fish can spot the fly from farther away. Conventional bonefish wisdom says that your fly ought to match the color of the bottom and in many cases this is true, but factor in a glassy calm calf-deep flat where you'll have to land the fly a bit farther from your quarry, and anything you can do to help the fish find your fly is an advantage.

Another favorite technique is barring rubber or Superfloss legs with varying color bands. Much like the barring on grizzly hackle imitates movement, and makes your fly patterns seem more alive, barred legs, particularly when crafted of a lively rubber-type material, appear to shimmy and shake with even the slightest of movement as well as matching up better to most naturals. My Charlie Boy Hopper patterns have barred legs to add both a bit of color and movement, and I typically add barring to any rubber-leg material on any fly for the same purpose.

Markers can also be used to shade and mottle both drys and nymphs. I frequently use a bright red or orange marker to add a hot spot to my nymphs, and have been known to sometimes color a thread head with a brightly colored shade just to change a pattern up a bit.

My Jumbo Juju Chironomid has a red butt that beautifully imitates the hemoglobin found in emerging midges. You can add a similar hot spot to store-bought patterns as well.

A dark brown or black fine-tip marker is handy for mottling or even drastically altering the shade of a fly pattern and is a worthwhile addition to your vest or boat bag. Simply adding stripes to the wing of a Callibaetis spinner is an easy and effective way to increase the legitimacy of the fly, and can quickly be done at the bench or on the water. Just stroke the fine tip of a dark brown or black marker across the wing at right angles to create the bands of color, but be sure to space them out a bit as they tend to run together and blend.

My friend Brian Schmidt of Umpqua Feather Merchants puts markers to great use on his new Reefer Madness bonefish fly. Several colors combine to create barring and highlights on the carapace and claws of his pattern, with the unique and accurate use of blue tips on the pincers. I'm sure his fly would get eaten even in a plain vanilla flavor, but the variegated version is inarguably a lot sexier and really stands out.

Adding a small batch of permanent markers in carefully selected colors to your tying bench is a fun and easy way to add life to a variety of patterns. Merely having them at the ready will create all kinds of uses and just may bring out your hidden artistic tendencies. Look out, Dave Whitlock!

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.

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