March 25, 2022
By Charlie Craven
Let’s talk seriously about dubbing. In fly tying, the word is both a noun (the material) and a verb (the act of applying the material) and is the cause of more headaches than it ought to be. The act of skillfully twisting fur and other fibers tightly around tying thread is one of the most basic skills of fly tying, yet one that few tiers have mastered. I have to admit, I often judge other tiers by their dubbing and I am often woefully disappointed. The best tip I can give right off the bat—before we even get into the details—is that you’re probably using too much. But before we return to that topic, let’s look at some more nuanced points on attaching dubbing to your thread.
To dub well, you must understand exactly what it is we are trying to do when we twist fur onto thread. Watching someone else dub well makes it seem pretty straightforward, but once we get to our own vises, we all find out that there is a bit more to it than meets the eye. There are many factors that come into play when dubbing. Thread size and texture, the use of wax, the texture, staple length, size of fly, and the effect of the actual dubbing material on the finished fly are all variables we need to consider.
Fly Tying Thread
Let’s start with the thread. Tying thread is most often made of nylon or polyester. [See “A Tangled Mess” by Charlie Craven in the Feb.-Mar. 2017 issue. The Editor.] Polyester threads are more textured and grip dubbing better than their slicker counterparts. This is not to say that you can’t dub well on nylon threads like Danville’s or UTC, but rather, textured polyester threads like UNI-Thread and Veevus have more texture and “tooth” to their surfaces, and they grip dubbing fibers more tightly. If you are just learning to dub, it’s probably best to start off with polyester thread and work your way up to the slicker stuff as your skills progress.
Thread size should be a consideration also, as it relates to the size of the fly being tied and determines the starting diameter of the dubbing strand. Thick thread with a thin layer of dubbing is always going to be thicker than thin thread with the same amount of dubbing. On small patterns, the bulk of the thread builds the majority of the body shape. Think of it this way: If it would take 15 turns of just thread to build a body, you’d want only eight to ten turns of dubbed thread to do the same job. The thread itself adds more bulk than you’d think, and the thread size needs to be accommodated when applying the dubbing.
Thread color is also a consideration, as it typically shows through the dubbing at its finest points. Choose something that matches.
I use wax every time I dub, but that does not necessarily mean you have to. I have baby soft, smooth, dry fingers owing to a life of luxury and abhorrence for manual labor, so dubbing fibers tend to slip and slide within my grasp without a touch of wax to add some traction. I never apply dubbing wax to the thread itself, and other than the old LaFontaine touch-dub technique, I can’t find reasons to do that. Tying thread offers little surface area to hold wax and therefore it really doesn’t help much. Instead, I apply a thin layer of wax to my index finger by lightly swiping it across the top of the tube and then I rub some of it onto the pad of the thumb on my dominant hand. This light layer of wax helps get a grip on the dubbing fibers in order to get them started, and it also helps to continue to twist them around the thread.
Think of wax as a traction aid rather than glue. Like licking your fingers to turn a page in this magazine, a small bit of wax aids in the grip, but too much can cause problems. I’ve tied more flies in the last 40 years than anyone else I’ve met, and I am now only on my second tube of dubbing wax. Average tiers should pass the remains of their dubbing wax on to their grandchildren. A tiny amount is all that is necessary.
Some tiers just use a bit of saliva on their fingertips to the same end and it also works. The only drawback is that at some point, you’re going to end up with fur in your mouth.
I like Overton’s Dubbing Wax or BT’s Tacky Wax. I don’t like slippery wax, as I use it solely for traction.
Types of Fly-Tying Dubbing
Dubbing is either natural fur that has been cut closely from the hide, synthetic fibers, or a mix of both. Fur cut from the hide is blended using a mixer to mishmash the fibers and mingle them together in a random pattern.
You can wander into any fly shop and find natural fur dubbings from every critter imaginable—from the common rabbit to Australian possum—as well as synthetic fibers of varying textures and lengths and even blends incorporating two or more different types of fibers.
Fortunately, these can be broken down into just a few different categories pertaining to the fiber thickness and stiffness (coarse/fine), and their staple length, which is the length of the actual dubbing fibers.
Basically, there are short, coarse-fibered dubbings (Ice Dub), coarse long-fibered dubbing (Angora goat and many “leech” style synthetics), short fine-fibered natural dubbings (rabbit and beaver), and long, fine-
fibered dubbing (Superfine, Ultrafine wool, and Antron). Coarse, stiff fibers of any length are harder to twist around the thread than softer fibers and they generally result in a buggier overall look.
Of course there are also those blends of different dubbing types as well and sometimes short, coarse fibers are smartly blended with a longer staple length in a finer diameter to allow the soft stuff to “carry” these coarse fibers along in the twist. This naturally occurs with fur from a properly prepared hare’s mask and adds “bugginess” to the finished product.
I categorize blended dubbings by their coarsest component, so if I had some Angora goat (mohair) and rabbit mixed together, I would call it a coarse dubbing rather than a fine.
The fine stuff in the mix helps with the application, carrying the coarser fibers along with them, but twisting those longer, stiffer fibers still has to be dealt with.
Of course, all of these factors need to be considered in tandem with the size of the fly you are tying. Finer dubbings lend themselves better to smaller-sized flies, while coarser dubbing is more appropriate for larger stuff.
However, there are times when the opposite can be true—coarse dubbing on a small scud pattern makes for a very translucent effect. Fine dubbing to provide a hard base for palmered hackle is essential on well-known patterns like the Stimulator.
While I am on that subject, coarse dubbings tend to be more porous and sink better/float worse than their finer, tighter counterparts. That’s one reason a well-tied Stimulator floats so well.
Modern floatants can waterproof almost anything, but can’t overcome porous materials that are loosely applied.
I make little use of waterproof dubbings, as it isn’t the water that makes your fly sink, it’s the fish slime. Do you ever notice that when you aren’t catching fish you have no trouble at all keeping your dry fly afloat, but when you’re catching them one after the other it’s all you can do to get the dang thing dried out? It’s fish slime, not water, so waterproof dubbing doesn’t help much.
I see my best results using coarser dubbings on sinking flies and streamers where their stiffer nature and coarser fibers allow light to pass through, create bulk more efficiently, and generate a larger silhouette without density.
I prefer more finely textured dubbings for floating flies, as they are less porous, more easily shaped, and they lend themselves well to smaller applications. I also use fine-fibered
dubbings on many of my small nymph patterns, as I am able to control the shape and taper much better using materials scaled to the hook size.
Most dubbing comes packaged in a neat resealable plastic baggie that is easy to store and identify. Unfortunately, these little bags can compress dubbing into a matted clump, making individual fibers hard to separate, which leads to difficult and heavier-than-needed applications.
Fine, long-fiber dubbing seems to be immune to this fault and works beautifully straight from the bag. The bag acts as a dispenser, allowing you to draw out a few long fibers at a time.
Shorter fibers, however, are often packed tightly together from their time in confinement and may need a little help. I often pull a larger clump of these dubbing types from the bag and loosen it in my fingers by repeatedly pulling the dubbing apart and loosely restacking it into the clump.
If I am tying a large batch, I even go to the trouble to remix the dubbing using canned air and a large Ziploc bag or with a coffee grinder to loosen and separate the dubbing fibers.
Working with loosely packed dubbing helps you separate much smaller amounts and you get a much better idea of how much material you are working with at a time.
If you pull a clump of dubbing from the package and it’s matted tightly together like something you brushed out of your dog’s coat, you’re probably going to need to loosen that stuff up. You want something that looks and feels like a dust bunny rather than a felt pad.
The act of dubbing can be aptly described a “controlled tangling.” When properly executed, a strand of dubbing—or a “noodle” as it is sometimes called by old men with long, gray mustaches—should be tightly tangled around the thread.
I see lots of dubbing twisted into a nice tight rope right next to the thread and that just ain’t right. The idea is to twist the dubbing fibers around the thread, tangling them amongst themselves to form an even, continuous strand with the tying thread at its center. If it’s done right, the dubbing and thread become a single unit.
I don’t ever make tapered strands of dubbing as often recommended in the tying books of yesteryear where the experts advocated building the taper of the abdomen into the strand of dubbing. They often started thin and fattened up as you worked down the thread. The problem with this method is that the skinny end of the fly is dubbed tightly, and the fat end is much more loosely applied. Loosely applied dubbing loses its shape easily and produces a ragged mess that no one is proud of.
A tight, thin, consistent diameter strand of dubbing gives more control to build smoothly tapered bodies and thoraxes, and the tight dubbing holds its shape much better than a loose application. Dubbing is one of the few fly-tying materials that you can overlap without consequences, and a thin strand makes these moves much more precise than a thick, ragged cord.
Another misguided technique I often see is when folks take a small pinch of dubbing, twist it tightly onto the thread, grab another pinch and twist it on directly below the first, and then pull the bottom pinch up to the top pinch and try to weld them together.
This old-school approach often yields a “chain” of dubbing, with distinctly separate links, as opposed to a more desirable continuous rope. A single, continuous and interwoven strand builds a body or abdomen with no bald spots or lumps, and a consistent diameter makes building tapers and shapes much easier.
1. These instructions show how to use long-fibered, fine dubbing—in this case Superfine Dubbing—to build a dry-fly body. (Superfine is a polypropylene fiber with a slight crinkle and a staple length of about 1.25 to 1.5 inches.) Start by lightly swiping the pad of your dominant index finger across the top of the wax, then touch your thumb pad to your index finger to lightly coat both surfaces.
2. Pull a tiny clump of fibers from the bag, drawing out the fibers so they align themselves and lie relatively parallel to one another. I don’t use dubbing boxes, as I find wadding these beautiful long, straight fibers up into a clump and shoving them in to a small compartment misaligns the fibers and creates folds. Boxes are fine for short-fiber dubbings but can really detract from the inherent qualities of longer, finer dubbings like Superfine. As a general rule, each time you pull dubbing from the pack, say to yourself, “Use half that much.” Use this stuff like it’s $50 a bag.
3. Bring the dubbing to the hanging thread, about a thumb width from the hook. There will always be a short length of bare thread between the top of the dubbing strand and the hook, so I place my hanging thread toward the midpoint on the shank to allow me to evenly distribute this bare thread on the way back to the bend to create an even underbody and start with the thinnest tip of the dubbing right at the bend of the hook. I don’t apply the dubbing farther down the thread and then slide it up to get it closer to the hook, as this always loosens the dubbing’s grip on the thread and makes it harder to manage.
4. Transfer the clump from the top “twisting hand” to the bottom “distributing hand.” Align the dubbing clump so the fibers are relatively parallel to the thread. Loosely pinch the main, lower end of the dubbing clump with your bottom hand and begin to twist a few top strands at the other end with a long, tight roll to create an anchor point. I roll the pad of my thumb toward the tip of my index finger, and I only twist in a single direction. That is, once my thumb has reached the end of my index finger, I open my fingers and start back over again, rolling in only one direction. Twisting in both directions twists the dubbing on and then off again.
5. Attach the top end of the dubbing to the thread as thinly as possible. The top of the dubbing strand will be the first turn of dubbing around the bend of the hook, and if it’s thick, the abdomen only gets thicker from there. If it starts slim and narrow, you have a much better chance of creating a beautifully tapered body.
6. While holding the anchor point in place with your top hand, draw downward on the main clump of dubbing, stretching it loosely down and parallel to the thread as you begin twisting the dubbing onto the thread from the top down. Make long, smooth rolls in one direction, pushing your thumb across the tip of your index finger to roll the dubbing onto the thread. Notice that my middle and index fingers are stacked in this photo. When I twist dubbing onto the thread, I do it as tightly as possible, and overlapping my fingers makes for a tighter strand.
7. Your bottom hand controls the amount of dubbing by distributing it as you move down the thread. If your bottom hand slows as the top keeps twisting, the dubbing will pile up and make a lump. If your bottom hand moves too quickly, you’ll pull the clump apart and have a non-continuous strand. Distribute the dubbing evenly as if drawing a Kleenex from the box, taking care not to pull it all the way out but just enough to keep the next one feeding right behind it. Longer fibers allow you to move your hands farther apart, and with very short fibers like beaver dubbing, your hands may be stacked right on top of each other.
8. Once your top hand has worked down the length of dubbing, go over it one more time, making long rolls from top to bottom to twist it tightly to the thread. Be sure both the top and bottom ends of the strand are tapered and tight. This creates a smaller starting point and a cleaner finish at the front.
Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie’s Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado, and is the author of two books: Charlie’s Fly Box (Stackpole Books, 2011) and Tying Nymphs: Essential Flies and Techniques for the Top Patterns (Stackpole Books/Headwater Books, 2016).