Hank-of-Hair Fly

Hank of Hair Fly
Hank of Hair Fly

Guest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody WY, former National Park Superintendent
Do you have to be able to tie flies that look like the perfect flies tied by professionals to catch fish? Absolutely not. One of the finest fly fishermen I know who fished the waters of the world from Scotland to the Rockies and Alaska is one of the worst fly tiers I have ever known. The flies that come off his fly tying vise look like one of your most productive flies that have been chewed on by dozens of trout. This expert fisherman catches fish regularly in spite of the fact his flies look like they had been chewed on for a week by a goat. He refers to those ugly tied flies as “hanks of hair.” What are his secrets? They are his combination of knowledge of where trout hang out, his ability to read the water, and his casting presentation and line management ability. He was a seasonal park ranger for more than twenty-five years. This college English professor produced a film on fly fishing for his PhD dissertation. He worked for me at the Madison Sub-district in Yellowstone National Park and later at Denali National Park. As a recently trained “Buck” ranger right out of the three month academy I was assigned to the Madison Sub-district of Yellowstone in the summer of 1968, because Jack Anderson, the park superintendent, discovered I was a fly tier. Jack was one of the legendary superintendents of the National Park Service.
I am a lot better fly tier than the professor’s “hank of hair” flies. But, I never catch as many fish as he does. I am not an expert fly tier. My best looking flies are not as good as what you might find in professional fly fishing shops. I could never become a professional fly tier. I am too slow, and do not have the patience to tie multiple numbers of patterns. If I tie three patterns of the same fly, I switch to some other pattern. When I retired in 1994, Tim Wade, owner and guide of North Fork Angler’s fly shop in Cody, Wyoming, and frequent contributor to Fly Fishing Magazine and the fishing channels on television; asked me to tie flies for his shop. He wanted twelve dozen grasshoppers. What! I can’t tie a single grasshopper pattern that I am proud of….twelve dozen of the same fly would send me to the funny farm.
My brother is a fly tier. He is eleven years younger than me I was born before WWII and Tom was born after the war. I taught him fly tying, but he apparently didn’t have the best teacher. He describes the flies he ties today look like they came off a car’s grill. However, he is an excellent fly fisherman because I also taught him how to read the water, fly presentation and line management to minimize drag
You do not have to be a great fly tier to be a successful fly fisherman. Just do it. With practice you will get better results. Beautiful, well tied flies catch fish also. Tie the best flies you can and practice the important skills of reading the water, presentation and line management. Those are the skills of the best fly fishermen I know. I learned that from that English professor who tied the ugliest flies I’ve ever seen, but catches more fish than anyone else I know.


  1. Nice points Clay, and sounds like there’s hope for some of us! Like you, I tie very slowly–so slowly that I can only get through two or maybe three flies at a sitting, before I have to put the satchel of tying stuff away. So I average maybe…well it’s an abysmal number of flies tied in a year’s time.

    #22 and smaller are always a problem, especially if they need dexterity-based features like upright wings. With age the fingers and eyes refuse to cooperate fully. But after years I’ve gotten to where I can tie my favorite patterns down to #18 well enough that I’m not ashamed of them. At size 20, 2x-long and 3x-long shanks help a lot too. I tend to tie subsurface stuff.

    I also get bored with crunching out a bunch of the same pattern. I’d rather look at a photo of some real bug and make something up, or if I follow a recipe then by the second hook I find myself changing it around. Creating something personal makes fishing it more fun.

    So now that you mention it, I’m going to start checking the car grill–might get some good ideas!

    – Mike

  2. Hi Clay, you nailed it. A beautiful fly is secondary. The question is always will the fly catch a fish. I have tied my share of ugly flies, yet, as you point out, they catch fish if you get them in front of a hungry fish. Besides, it seems like once a “beautiful fly” gets roughed up by a few fish, it becomes even more effective. I have a stimulator that is barely recognizable – but it still catches fish!


  3. The ugly fly on the end of the line will always catch more fish than the perfect fly in the box. The world of fly fishing has already been made too complicated and intimidating. This contributes to the problem on enlisting new people into our ranks. A mentor made it more approachable by making it is simple as possible. If you put some natural material on a hook and put it in the water, at some point a fish will take it. As we grow in experience and our product gets better so will our success rate. Just get out there and start!

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