Category Archives: Fly Tying

Where we find more ways for you to use butt ends and random clippings

I’ve always called it by what it’s good at doing, combining all manner of leftovers into a “chaos wrap”, which tames a gaggle of unruly and dissimilar materials into something cohesive on your hook shank.

As well as melding unrelated objects it can right-size materials that are too long, and add some thread spine into those that are too fragile, as a double strand of thread can add toughness to thin or brittle stems, ensuring that damage is no longer catastrophic and feathers no longer unwind.

It’s also exactly the kind of shaggy I’m looking for when I marry shad’s brightness with trout’s buggy, as unlike the gentle presentation of trout flies, these will be slapped on the water via shooting head and all the G – forces commensurate with a swearing angler and his double haul.

Mats_In_Loop “Dubbed Loops” have shown a bit of a resurgence of late, and have always worked well converting hair and fur into hackle for big nymphs. Less well documented is their ability to mix a variety of materials into a single strand, and with a judicious stroke of scissors, can offer new opportunities for feathers that are too big for normal attachment and winding.

Above is a tuft of Red Fox Squirrel, dyed teal, and Peacock Angelina that I’ll marry as the thorax of a caddis design. I’ve cast a dubbing loop around the shank and tied it off, and inserted the three materials as a single pinch. I’ll push them collectively up the thread close to the hook shank, then spin them within the loop until the thread tightens around the butts of all three materials.

In the photo above, the material on the left side of the thread will be the portion I’ll retain and wind onto the fly. The material to the right of the thread will be trimmed close to the thread once the thread has started securing it in the loop.

trimmed_buttsResizing materials that are too long for the hook shank is done by pulling only a fraction of the material through to the left side of the loop, just enough to match the length of the legs needed for the fly, trimming the balance when semi-secured.

At right is the loop beginning to spin the materials into a “hackle”. I’ve trimmed all materials on the right side of the thread and will continue spinning the loop until the materials can no longer be pulled from the thread.

semi_tamedI’ll attempt to persuade the materials to clump on one side with finger pressure or saliva, but as the materials have been spun like a rubber band, they will resist your efforts to tame them.

Instead I’ll focus on sweeping the material back as it’s wrapped onto the fly. This will minimize the amount of trapped fibers, as well as encourage the strands to sweep over the rear of the fly.

Touching up the thorax area with a bit of Velcro will add a hint of fuzzy  free trapped materials and assist them to meld into a cohesive collar as they sweep towards the tail.

Depending on the fly being tied, the distribution of fibers can be made to make either a symmetrical or asymmetrical hackle. Placing the fibers in a clump will yield the small amount of duck under the bug as shown below. Spreading the fibers out yield a traditional style hackle.

Green  Caddis Shad Experimental

The completed experimental.  The transparent vinyl is wrapped over a base of flat gold tinsel, affording the abdomen a bit of “pop” and brightness. I’ve tied additional flies in pink and red just to see how traditional Shad colors fish with this caddis-style exterior.

Green trout-like shad flies

In Spring an Old Guy’s thoughts turn to divorce, or the encroaching Bony Silver Menace

The physics of it all dictate lighter and smaller, the biology suggests buggier, and all the painstaking research says we’ve only scratched the surface of their depravity, as their tastes might range from drab to the ridiculously bright.

Physics because there’s a lot less water and rather than flinging high atomic weight, I may drag bottom with bead chain. Smaller because the absence of all that water suggests the prey may well be discriminating – shy of big flies in that shallow water …

Biology because the off season led to a wealth of papers on the American Shad, their eating habits, and my surprise to find out that the reigning angling wisdom on what and how they eat – has no basis in reality.

… and while they might seine all manner of smallish creatures in the salt and brackish estuaries (mostly small shrimp from stomach samples), the oddity of their attraction to bright colors may well be that of an expatriate dining on foreign cuisine – snacking on visual cues or the opportunistic feed when an item resembles something familiar.

Which is all that a burgeoning fly inventor need know … armed with a pocketful of bright will still work, but a cornucopia of experimental caddis and mayflies, minnows, moths, tee shirts, tennis balls, and discarded Doritos, might actually yield a Secret Fly of Complete Shad Dominance (SFoCSD), something that’s rumored to have surfaced many times in as many zip codes.


I’ve got a pocketful of unknown and untested and am proof against both parking lot catcalls and all-knowing snigger. I’ve got buggy and somber, drab and motile, bright and bug-shaped, and every other combination a fertile mind can summon …

… and now I’ve got them in trout sizes, out of respect for low water …

You lads can flee to elevation and keep all those fragile trout company while I defend the local waters from the Silvery Invasive Menace surging upriver from the deep. All those bony palates, buck teeth, and feelers, paired with loose morals and lower standards, exactly what’s needed to keep a fly dresser thinking he’s distilled pure genius to a hook shank.

Six hundred things edited out of Fly Fisherman as the Zip Code wasn’t exotic enough No 311 & No 288

Flat tinsel is one of the many thousands of fly tying tasks that are intuitive in concept and unduly difficult in practice. Tinsel in past decades was flat metal, which sliced through fingertips with only slightly more resistance than tying thread.

The switch to Mylar eased the bloodletting and ended tarnish, but had the same problems with its application. Now you had to remember to tie in the color opposite what the body would be, as one side was silver and the other gold, which would result in the only cost savings two hundred years of fly tying has ever produced.


Figure 1: Gold side facing you means the fly will have a silver body

Tinsel bodies are quite common in trout streamers and steelhead flies, and can be tamed with three simple tricks; always use the widest tinsel available to cover the most with the least number of wraps, never overlap turns, and always double wrap the body, never attempt to single wrap the fly.

Tinsel is cheap – there’s little advantage in hoarding it.

Never overlap turns of tinsel

Figure 2: No turns overlap

If even the slightest overlap occurs it will create a “bubble” or air gap that will eventually slip to reveal the thread wraps beneath. Always wrap the first layer so you can see thread color between turns.

Final layer added, no overlap

Figure 3: Final layer of tinsel added

There are no overlaps on the upper layer of tinsel either. Because the two layers are at right angles to one another, no thread is visible despite our leaving rather obvious gaps on the bottom layer.

In the above “Comet” style of steelhead fly, I used an under-the-tail-wrap to change direction and bring the second layer forward to the eye. This makes the change of direction seamless, and lifts the tail away from the hook bend.

As an additional step, one that I’ve been asked about, is how the “tip-first” style of hackling subsurface flies can accommodate a second color.

Comet’s have a mixed orange and yellow hackle, and “folding” hackle so it drapes back naturally, precludes a second color – given that winding it forward would bind the first to the shank.

Instead, treat both feathers as if they were a single feather. Size the hackles by spreading the barbs perpendicular to the stems with your fingers. Place one on top of the other, and using either the thumb (top feather) or forefinger (bottom feather) slide the two along each other until the stroked barbules are the same length, as below:

slide the two feathers until the barbules are the same length

Figure 4: Both orange and yellow fibers match in length

A better view below, showing the two hackles now tied in, yet spread from the stem so you can see they’re of identical length …

A better look at the two feathers barbules

When gripped thusly, the forefinger controls the tension on the bottom feather, and the thumb controls stem tension on the top color. Note how the stroked perpendicular barbules are of the same raw length.

Now all that remains is to keep the stems together under equal tension when you stroke them at right angles with your scissors, or saliva equipped fingers, whatever is your favorite tool for moving the fibers to the same side.

Fibers now stroked roughly to the same side

Figure 5: Fibers stroked roughly to the same side

I use the edge of my scissors scraped towards me to break the backs of all the fibers and push them to a single side. Fingers finish the task, by stroking anything unruly back into line. Note how close the two stems are kept, they might as well be a single stem.

Now wind two forward

Figure 6: Winding both colors forward

This technique ensures the proper balance of colors as one turn of orange yields one turn of yellow, and the mixed color is exactly half of each. Adjust the stems over lumps or bumps using the finger that controls the wayward stem – bring it back in line with the other so they wind as a single object.

The completed comet style

Figure 7: The completed “Comet” style

This style of hackle does away with the overly large head caused by wrapping over the “dry fly style” hackling and forcing it down and over the back of the fly. A fly tied with this style hackle can have a head no larger than a trout fly if done correctly.

Note how the sizing we did at the beginning yields flues of equal length for both colors? No more guesswork needed to pick two hackles, simply slide them around until the flue length matches.

Using the right “style” of hackle for the task is a very important distinction a tyer makes on his path to mastery. When he understands why he abandons “butt-first dry fly hackle” for his underwater flies, it’s a real milestone in his formative process.

Six hundred things edited out of Fly Fisherman because the Zip Code wasn’t exotic enough – No.335

I’ve always assumed that questions about the mechanics of dubbing stem from the preponderance of fly tiers that attempt to learn the craft from books, Youtube, or blog posts like this one.

Most of us contract the fly fishing bug from someone else, and while casting and simple tasks like knots are shared from one angler to the next, fly tying and its legacy of dead animals parts is an individual journey for most.

I feel the mechanical ritual described to apply fur to thread is made overly complex in most books, and seeing someone else do it is much more enlightening, especially if you can ask questions.

The neophyte usually peers from an audience at some dignitary tying at a club dinner, who’s so enraptured by a future step as to scrub a mass of fur across thread without really describing much other than what preparation is needed for the feather he’s mounting next.

It’s a step glossed over not so much out of meanness or ill temper, so much as the journey fly tyer assumes dubbing is a simplicity shared by all watching, which is not always true.

Like all things, there is a right way and many wrong ways to attempt the fur on thread nightmare.

  1. Dubbing isn’t applied by cutting an enormous gout of fur from the hide and dipping your fingers in pancake batter to make it stick.
  2. Dubbing isn’t scrubbing fingers together in both directions, it’s scrubbing fingers together in one direction only. Tiers scrubbing fingers in both directions are attempting to make the hole the hook made hurt less.
  3. Commercial waxed thread offers no advantage getting fur to stick to thread, that’s because the wax used by Danville and other vendors is meant to plug bobbin barrels, and is much too hard to be tacky.
  4. Dubbing isn’t applied, nor can it be tamed, by attacking the middle of the fur with freshly licked fingers dripping with training saliva. Training saliva is only available after drinking milk, the rest of us use mousse.

Most of your trouble starts with your dependence on packaged dubbing. Grabbing a bag of fur allow you to pull an ounce or two as easily as the merest hint of color. Mirroring your drive-thru habits, you insist on supersizing your helping – whose bulk will fight you at each and every subsequent step.


The proper amount should be transparent to the eye, and objects can be seen through the dubbing over its entire bulk.

The second portion is understanding that dubbing cannot be wrapped around thread until it is anchored to the thread at the top, with the balance of the fur then spun around the thread as the fingers move down the fur.


You can’t spin a rubber band tight, or anything tight, unless one end is “immovable” first, dubbing is no different.

It’s a devilishly simple and completely deceptive task, something that even video cannot impart completely, given that sub-steps of “hint of fur” and “anchored” are unknown to the novice, making the overall process simple yet completely foreign.

Wherein we recant the “you can’t have none” taunt, and admit to most of the obvious shortcomings

One of the horrors of being thoroughly enamored of a hobby is the fits of giddy that result when something attempted actually lives up to the original idea, versus flaming out midway through the development process.

My ambition was to develop a dubbing that mimicked the superfine aquatic mammal fur we’ve reserved for dry flies, yet was cheap and plentiful, took dyes well, was easy to mix and blend, and could replace the increasingly costly fur bearers like mink and otter.

Synthetics have become dominant in many areas of fly tying, yet have never lasted long in the dry fly space. Most are borrowed from aerospace or the carpet industry and have fibers too coarse for tiny fly bodies.

The fly tying market is tiny relative to carpets, which is why we’ve always adapted other items versus entreating DuPont or 3M to make something to fill the void. We dutifully salvage what looks promising, but most fibers made for upholstery, yarn, or car interiors, are useful for nymphs and streamers, not for gossamer or tiny.

Periodically some neo-prophet makes a wild claim that vaults a product into the limelight, like polypropylene, but nothing made by Man has ever lasted long enough to dominate muskrat or beaver, or any of Mother Nature’s aquatic fur bearers.


Dry fly bodies need extra fine materials that allow the body to be dubbed thinly to avoid absorbing too much water. Tiny amounts of fur can be air dried with a couple of false casts – too much fur is a sodden lump that we curse with every ungraceful landing.

With all the yarns and oddities I’ve pawed through over the last decade I managed to find a material heretofore unknown in the fly tying lexicon, whose fibers rival the thin filaments of aquatic mammals, absorbs dyes like a Black Hole, and is cheap as dirt – other than requiring a great deal of my labor to render it from its found form to dubbing.

Here’s the best part … the damn stuff floats as it’s naturally buoyant, something the aquatic fur bearers can only gnash teeth over …

Queue giddy.

As a means of apology for the excesses of yesterday’s post, if you email me your mailing address I’ll toss a couple of useful colors into an envelope allowing you to fiddle with it, after which you can call me an outright lying SOB, so thoroughly wrapped up in his own magnificence as to have lost sight with reality.

I will not use these addresses for any other purpose. unless you say you don’t like the material – then I’ll sign you up for every porn site containing pygmies and grape Jell-O

I have about four pounds of test colors, most being initial attempts at the Big Three; olive, pale olive, and gray. I have plenty of rust, some browns, a bit of Trout Underground Scarlet (which has been reserved by his Bleeding Lordship), and plenty of PMD look-a-likes.

I don’t mind sharing, and wouldn’t mind a bit of feedback either.

When I get to the process of picking final colors I will engage readers that want to take part in that process, just as I did with the Free Range Nymph products.

My mailing address is on the “About” link at the top of the page. I don’t ever dare type it in because of all the page crawling spiders that harvest email addresses for spammers.

You shouldn’t have to pay for poor quality control, take the time to visually inspect any fancy fly tying hook purchase

Tying these fuzzballs reminded me of all the notes on competition hooks and their efficacy I’ve been scribbling over the last couple of seasons. I find myself having so many defective hooks of late, and at thirty-five cents a hook I keep trying to make up for poor quality control and fix them with tying thread, simply to get a bit of service before cursing, snapping the thread, and hurling them into my waste can.

Over the last three years, I’ve accumulating a couple thousand Knapeks, Grips, Dohiku, Skalka, and Hanak’s – and the common thread among all of these seems to be how many poorly wired eyes exist in the small dry fly sizes.

I switched over a couple seasons ago because most of these newer manufacturers use the Redditch standard versus the Mustad/Tiemco extra-long shank variant.  Much of the early angler commentary I had read mentioned quality control and too-soft wire, but at the time was directed at the Czech nymph styles, which by nature are fast sinking, rock pounding, heavy abuse flies.

While I’ve had no wire issues over the last couple of seasons with nymph, Czech nymph, streamer, and dry fly hooks, big problems exist for nearly all the makers of small dry fly hooks.

Small being size #16 and below, which isn’t all that small …

Knapek has been the most egregious offender, and despite multiple purchases over the last three years, show little change in their quality control. Many of the 25 packs of dry fly hooks #16 or smaller have 8 or 9 hooks with incompletely closed eyes.

… suggesting that for each $6.50 spent on the hooks, $2 or more is wasted.

Low Profile Midge

This is one of the Low Profile Midge prototypes I’ve been fishing last month, using a Knapek #18 dry fly hook. You can actually see the butt end of the incompletely closed eye and how much thread it took to get some use out of the dang hook.

For those interested in trying these hooks I have no issues with the larger sizes and styles in all flavors and models. The larger hooks (#16 and above) have far fewer eye defects, but I would also recommend a visual inspection of the container contents.

Most of these are sold in transparent packages. Take the time to shake the hooks onto the bottom of the container so you can visually inspect the eyes. Purchase those boxes that contain the fewest visible defects.

The fly above is something I’ve been refining for the last couple of months. In Black, I used it as a Trico spinner with mind-numbing success rates on local coarse fish.

Underneath the hackle is a double shellback of moose fibers. When married with a dab of slightly undersized hackle you get a low profile, high floatation, midge-spinner shape.

Note the slim profile of the body, how the dubbed shank is almost the same diameter as the bare hook. This is my Free Range Dry Fly dubbing, natural floatation combined with fibers so fine as to make a fly tyer drop to both knees and weep aloud …

No, you can’t have any … yet.

More on the hooks and their qualities after this season …

A drab fly among many drab flies

F-18E Bobbing away in some nameless lake last summer, I’d attributed my lack of success to a poorly designed floating midge imitation, and if I combined the air intake of an F-18E Super Hornet with a bit of deer hair, I could  produce a better imitation that could showcase the body color to best advantage.

… that idea turned into me setting the fly fishing world on fire with a new take on dry flies, which in turn spawned other great ideas that sputtered mightily, suggesting the entire branch of thought might not be as great as first assumed …

Dutifully I catalogued each of the truly-great-yet-untested ideas for later development, and refocused on the midge dilemma. Yet after some four months of fiddling I’ve dismissed most of the promising starts as they don’t translate to the small hook as well as envisioned.

… and after another weekend of eliminating even better ideas, I’m back where I started, yet undaunted and utterly convinced there’s still a better mousetrap.

This type of self inflicted pain is a result of fly fishing’s fourth dimension, the freedom and expression that comes with knowing there’s nothing special about a fly pattern. Give any fly a few local successes, and share a handful with pals and you’ve invented another Hare’s Ear, a drab fly in a box filled with similarly drab flies.

Fly fishing being typified by the phases of the angler, how skill is acquired in lockstep with other unsavory habits …

The First Dimension of fly fishing involves listening in bewilderment to the thirty-seven hundred sacred principles of fishing from your initial mentor. Of all those topics only two really take hold; water is cold and bushes eat flies, and everything else showcases your too-limp wrist.

The Second Dimension of fly fishing being the snootiness that comes with clean fingers. How you’re suddenly a scientist amid a parking lot of other scientists, none of which admit to using anything other than flies their entire lives – and half can say it in Latin.

The Third Dimension of fly fishing is the angler as gear whore. Suddenly a kerchief has to be a fly fishing kerchief, clothing labels matter, as does titanium, rare metals and a disc drag shared with the space shuttle, actually fishing being secondary to possessing stuff …

While most anglers make it through the first three dimensions easy enough, few make it to the fourth dimension …

"I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it."

… largely because after many years of fishing, we’re all experts. Patterns are too ingrained, and we’ve enjoyed many successes attributed to flies with no thought as to whether an Adams was necessary or any gray-bodied dry fly would work.  Compounding the issue is our skill with the third dimension, oodles of flies chosen by name or reputation, whose very presence is a safety net, assuring good fortune.

Most patterns can be successfully replaced by any fly that contains similar attributes. Lots of deer hair assures high floatation regardless of other components used, as does lots of Pink, or a down-wing surface film presentation – versus upright and divided. There’s nothing about an Elk Hair Caddis that can’t be turned into hundreds of other variants save angler-superstition and its aura of past successes and reputation.

As a guide and commercial tyer, I ran into this paradox more often than most. Nothing being as confounding or as memorable as an angry angler whose fortunes and trip of a lifetime are tied to custom flies he’s ordered, yet rejecting them because I used natural black versus dyed black hair …

“ … that’s not black, that’s a really, really dark brown, and the sample I gave you had black …”

Or the angler that refuses assistance from his guide with the admission that, “I catch all of my trout on an Adams” – and should double as a fortune teller given it’s the only fly ever to grace his tippet.

Whether skunk hair is black when compared to dyed black bucktail is the angler’s perception that a fly’s greatness rests in its unique pattern, which can be larger than the sum of its attributes.

Us forth dimension types don’t see it that way, but we’re so far gone few listen to our plaintive bleating.

It’s unclear what percentage of fly fishermen tie flies, what is certain is unfamiliarity with “rolling your own” adds to pattern mystique. Likewise with age, how a fly invented a couple hundred years ago must also be a fish killing legend to have survived for so long.

Beginning fly tiers frequently substitute materials as they don’t yet possess them all. Their audience of pals will quickly remind them how a Pheasant Tail can’t be called a Pheasant Tail without the pattern being intact. Later, an accomplished tier can add a pink thorax and the same group will nod sagely as it’s a “Pink Thorax’d Pheasant Tail” a separate and distinct variant that’s untested – yet due to its roots, equally as worthy.

It’s still simply a little brown fly, whose name is well known and therefore enjoys a truly unique power as a retail oriented, angler catching juggernaut.

Six Hundred Things edited out of Fly Fisherman because the Zip Code wasn’t exotic enough – No.256

When tying on hackle tip wings you can save yourself grief if you take the time to prune the duff that is part of the tie-in area created when the tips were mounted.

The dreaded hackle wing fiber duff

Most tiers simply leave the fibers trapped by the thread, lifting and pushing them back towards the wing when the hackle is wound forward. In most cases that forward-facing tilt will be caught by later turns of the hackle and all those fibers will wind up intermixed with thread, head cement, and the eye of the hook.

Trimming the duff fibers away

Instead take a moment to pull the wing tips back exposing the duff material and removing it completely with a few snips of your scissor. This simple step almost ensures the eye of the fly will be free of fiber when it’s time to finish it off with a whip finish.

Hackle duff fibers removed

With the extra fibers cut short, nothing is left to impede the hackle, roll the stem into an odd position, or is long enough to be bound down by the hackle stem and combine with head cement to block the eye.

This simple step allows the wings and their angle to set and locked into position, less likely to be moved by the subsequent steps of the fly and any accidental materials forced into their path via torque.

Six hundred things edited from Fly Fisherman because the Zip Code wasn’t Exotic enough – No 321

“Feelers” and Latin have gone hand in hand with one another for the last half century. Each time we get enamored over insect science via the teachings of some new prophet, we tiers feel compelled to add them to everything that floats, sinks, or simply drifts fetchingly between the two …

… and us fishermen think the idea is doubly grand until we get the first pair intermixed with our Clinch knot and sever both of them with one great yank and the oath to match.

Ditto for counting tails and matching the real insect fiber for fiber.

What’s not shown in Fly Fisherman, is the editor received the flies in a padded envelope where they were hooked into a business card and mussed, and the fellow that dreamt the concoction had them tucked into his fleece path for a fortnight …

Figure 1: Feeler fibers tied in

Figure 1: Feelers tied in and forced upward due to material under them.

So those beautifully draped feelers that follow the curvature of the hook shank are as artificial as Pamela Anderson’s better half, and now you’re mouthing obscenities because you can’t reproduce either pert or up-thrust.

Use the Ribbon-Scissor trick to induce a more concise and compact edit of the original, and in so doing, tame any unruly and misguided fibers so they point where intended – versus the drape induced only by a damp fleece.

Figure 2: Induced ribbon curl to fibers

Figure 2: Feelers scraped over the scissor blade like curling ribbon

Simply anchor the feeler fibers well with thread, put the scissor blade under the feeler and press the material against the edge with your thumb. Pull the material over the scissor edge like you were curling ribbon to induce a light or heavy drape to the fibers. Repeat until you’ve got the curvature you desire.

Magazine and book plates don’t always reflect the abuse the fly has received, especially on older flies that may have been fished many times. Us poor tiers are left to guess what elements were made by Man and which were caused by misfortune – and it’s not always obvious.

Six Hundred things removed from Fly Fisherman because the zip code wasn’t exotic enough No. 443

Whether you’re following the teachings of some past master or merely becoming enamored of steelhead fishing, at some point you’ll enter a tangled web of materials poorly suited to fly tying – all of which will be proof against brute force or coaxing …

Most Atlantic Salmon tiers will admit to being frustrated by many aspects of the “olde flyes”, but endure their complexities to remain authentic, knowing so many tiers before them have given up in disgust.

Whether it’s the tail on a steelhead fly or the topping on a salmon hairwing, pheasant crests have always driven tiers to drink, as they’re a three dimensional tie whose bend has to be matched to hook size.

Packaged Pheasant Crest After the bird is scalped these feathers hang forgotten for a couple decades until moth damage requires someone replaces their supply of Royal Coachmen tailing – by then the golden crest is warped into a number of odd directions which we hope will tie flat but know better. 

Subdue the unruly by licking the offending feathers onto a beer can and allow them to dry. They will retain both the shape and drape of the can diameter – as well as all point in the same direction.

 Drying Pheasant Crests

If a sharper bend is needed, simply wet the crests and use a smaller diameter bottle like a pill container. To ensure the crest is perfectly straight, pull the stem once it’s affixed to the beer bottle via spittle. The fibers will pull themselves perfectly straight as a result of your yanking on the stem.

Fly tiers are no strangers to licking beer bottles nor are they reluctant to nurse the leftovers once the cigarette butts are removed. It’s all part of the same downward spiral.