Manual dexterity, fly-tying techniques, and skill come from observation and lots of practice. Good fly design comes from imagination and knowledge about the insects or bait you are trying to imitate, the fish you want to catch, and the material you use to tie the fly.
Here are 20 tips that have been indispensable for me as a professional fly tier.
#1 Gather as much reference information as possible about hatches, baits, fish, tying techniques, materials, fly design, and fishing. Books, videos, fly-fishing shows, lessons, on-the-water experience, and observing other tiers are all excellent ways of increasing your knowledge. Knowledge is the key to becoming an accomplished fly designer and tier.
#2 Keep your tools clean and sharp. Bucktail and many synthetic materials dull your scissors blades quickly. Dull scissors make for a frustrating tying session. A small ceramic sharpening stick works great for honing your scissors. Years ago at a gardening center I found a small set of sharpeners in different shapes.
#3 Mix your epoxy on small, white paper pads. This size fits neatly in your tying space without taking up too much room. I cut 4x6, white paper scratch pads in half on a cutting board with a utility knife. One side is already bound with glue. Take the loose side, even the cut pieces, and apply a liberal coating of contact cement to one edge. You now have two pads. Each sheet is large enough to make two batches of epoxy. When done (and the epoxy has hardened), tear the sheet off and throw it away. This is a neat, quick, and economical system.
#4 Purchase a small thread rack from a local sewing center. This is a quick, easy way to store thread adjacent to your tying area.
#5 Use empty 35mm film cans for open storage bins for cut material such as Flashabou, hackle, Krystal Flash, and lead eyes. They are 2 inches deep and prevent materials from migrating all over your house. Your spouse will love you.
#6 Buy a tool caddy to store your fly-tying tools. I use a Renzetti. A tool caddy increases your efficiency by keeping your tools in the same place so that when you need them, you know where they are. A caddy also helps keep your tools from getting damaged or lost.
#7 Crimp the tie-in end of a monofilament weed guard with a pair of serrated pliers. Insert the end of the weed guard in the tip end of the pliers, not the side, and squeeze tightly and push the guard up or down. This creates a series of grooves along the end of the weed guard and a flat place to tie the material in. The grooves catch and hold your thread wraps, and the guard does not slide around as you tie it in place. This little step saves time and aggravation.
#8 Flatten hackle quills before tying them in on the side of a streamer. Crimp the quill with a pair of flat blade, duck-billed pliers. The quill of a hackle is oval, not round, and often when you tie it in place it turns sideways under the thread torque instead of lying flat against the fly. Flattening the quill prior to tying eliminates this annoying problem.
#9 Use your tying vise to help make monofilament eyes. Burn the end of the mono with a butane lighter, and place it in the vise jaws to cool. By the time you have burned the next piece, the first has cooled and you can handle it without getting burned. Don't melt the end with a burner that has a wick such as a candle, alcohol burner, or a Zippo lighter. The soot from the wick will turn the burnt ball black; a butane lighter will cause the ball to turn tan in color. I have never seen a shrimp with black eyes. If you want to make the eyes look more realistic, give them three or four coats of spar varnish.
#10 Learn to whip-finish by hand. A hand whip-finish is more versatile (you can whip-finish at the bend of a long-shank hook), faster, and offers more control than a whip-finish tool. Always whip-finish from the back of the wrap to the front.
#11 Wrap a perfect thread base by using the tag end of your tying thread as a guide. When wrapping a thread base the length of a hook, hold the tag end of the thread out from the hook shank at a 45 degree angle. Throw each wrap against the tag end of the thread and pull down. Every wrap will lay shoulder to shoulder with no gaps or overlays. With practice, this trick saves you time and allows you to tie a neat fly.
#12 Steam your materials and flies to rejuvenate them. Hackles, bucktails, and many other natural materials take a set while in storage. Run them through a column of steam to straighten them. The narrower the steam column the more control you have. I use a small tea kettle with a narrow spout.
Steam is also a great remedy for fished flies with matted and out-of-place fibers. Hold the fly in a column of steam with a pair of pliers or forceps, or put several in a small colander.
Be careful not to scorch yourself with the steam. Also, do not attempt to steam synthetic materials: The heat may cause them to curl and shrink.
#13 When trimming spun deer hair, make your first cut with a double-edged razor blade, then hold the trimmed area over a column of steam. The steam causes every fiber to stand up and your second cut will be even and accurate.
#14 When making bendback hooks, only make a slight bend in the hook shank. If you bend the hook too much, the hook point goes below the hook eye and you cannot get a good hook set. An easy way to check this is to take a straightedge and lay it parallel to the hook eye. If the hook point is below, even with, or only slightly above the straightedge, you have bent the hook too much.
#15 Thread and pull a discarded hackle through a hook eye blocked with head cement or epoxy that hasn't dried yet.
#16 Keep a large magnet next to your tying area. I once spilled a box of over 200 wire weed guards on the floor. It was a simple matter to find them and pick them up. About once a week I run the magnet over the entire area around my tying bench, and it always amazes me how many hooks I find that I wasn't aware I dropped. A magnet has saved me countless dollars in vet bills for taking hooks out of my dog's feet.
#17 Explore craft stores for alternative fly-tying materials. Many materials sold in the fly-tying industry come from the craft and fabric industry, so you never know what you can discover. When you find a material you like, purchase plenty of it: Sometimes materials are not on the market for long before they are discontinued.
#18 Organize your hooks by brand name, model number, and size. Most large discount and craft stores carry a broad selection of plastic bins and drawers that are ideal for this. They also carry plastic tubs (available in several sizes) with snap-tight lids for storing necks, bucktails, and other materials.
#19 Always carefully inspect any new tying materials for insect infestation before you introduce them to your other materials. If you have the slightest doubt of infestation, place the materials in a large plastic bag and put the bag in a chest freezer for at least a week or two. Freezing should kill any organisms such as ticks and moths that might be present.
#20 Use multiple lights at your tying area to eliminate glare and shadows, which strain your eyes and cause headaches. I use two lights on flexible arms and position one behind the vise and one in front of it.
I hope these tips help you become a better and more efficient tier. There's much more to learn, so I encourage you to talk to and study other tiers, gather as much information as you can, and practice, practice, practice.
D. L. Goddard is a commercial fly tier, photographer, and author. He lives in Easton, Maryland.