Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

Efficiency in fly tying is a subject that comes up from time to time in books and magazine articles. The authors are often commercial tyers who want to share what they have learned in the course of their work. Speed is essential for the commercial tyer, for whom time literally is money. You can certainly get some excellent ideas from these sources. Perhaps, though, the hobbyist tyer should stop and ask, “How fast do I really need to go?”

One of the more common suggestions made in these discussions is that one should carry the scissors in one’s hand all the time rather than wasting time by constantly putting them down and picking them up again. I gave this idea what I considered a fair trial, and found it awkward. I have the habit of lining up my tools on my tying bench within easy reach of the vise and automatically put each one back in the same place after every use. When I need my scissors, my hand automatically goes to them. The fraction of a second lost in this process just doesn’t seem significant.

Commercial tyers utilize a variety of time-saving practices that make their operations more efficient and profitable. To me, though, much of it seems rather extreme and tedious for the hobbyist tyer. It’s a common practice among serious commercial tyers, for instance, to pluck and store separately by hook size all of the feathers from an entire dry fly cape. One professional tyer I knew plucked out a cape and not only sized but also counted the hackles. He could then determine how many flies he could get out of an average neck and calculate the cost of hackle per fly. He obviously got a big kick out of this project. I wouldn’t.

I’ve done just enough commercial tying to know that I don’t want to tie commercially. When I was still a teenager, my fly fishing mentor took me from our hometown of Point Pleasant, NJ on a drive north along the Garden State Parkway to visit a gentleman in the city of Fords. At the time this man was the one of the biggest wholesalers of flies and tying materials on the East Coast. He looked at my flies, and made an immediate offer to have me tie for him. He quickly added, “You know, you would have to tie a gross at a time of the same size and pattern.”

A vision of my possible future self, having spent years stooped over a tying vise peering through Coke-bottle eyeglasses, flashed through my head. As flattered as I was by the offer I knew this was not something I wanted to do—not then and probably not ever! Obviously not everyone feels this way, but for me commercial tying takes something that’s should be relaxing and fun and turns it into work and drudgery. I suppose that if I were desperate enough for funds I might have to reconsider. However, I can think of many other jobs I’d be willing to try first.

One concession I do make to efficiency is to try to tie in batches of at least half a dozen, more often a dozen, of the same pattern and size. Once the materials are out, why not tie enough flies to make it worthwhile? Also, I like my flies to be consistent in proportions. You can achieve this only by means of repetition. The fish, within reason, do not care about such things. However, I take pleasure in being precise and workmanlike with my tying—not because I have to but because I want to.

Another useful efficiency is to take a few minutes to prepare materials in advance for as many flies as I plan to tie at a sitting. If I’m tying a dozen size 8 Woolly Buggers, I’ll count out and pinch the barbs on a dozen of the correct hook. If I’m using a bead or cone, I’ll count them out and put them in a small dish with tweezers nearby to use for picking them up. Or I may mount the beads on all the hooks at once before I start tying. If I know I’ll need a three-inch piece of chenille for each fly, I’ll cut them all and put them in a pile on the bench. I’ll pre-select a dozen hackles. You get the idea. Once this advance preparation is done the rest of the tying process goes remarkably quickly.

I do put some effort into keeping my tying materials well-organized. It may sound strange, but my greatest motivation in this is that I’m a lazy person. I like things to be easy, and I hate it when I have trouble finding what I need. Everyone who ties flies has a collection of materials that may range in size from modest to outrageous. Obviously the more stuff you have the harder it is to keep track of it all.

In 50+ years of tying, including a long stretch as a fly shop employee, I’ve amassed a rather large quantity of tying material. I think I’ve got it fairly well under control. Yet finding what I want sometimes requires far too much searching among my “Teetering Tower of Shoe Boxes.” Maybe the item in question is in the box labeled “Misc. Synthetics.” Or is it in the “Tubes and Braid” box? Or is it in the basket full of items that I’ve pulled out for club tying programs and haven’t yet gotten around to returning to their proper place? Or did I use up my supply of that material and never remembered to replace it? These frustrating rounds of digging, poking and head-scratching make me want to pull my hair out!

Recently, I came up with a new strategy that is proving very helpful. It’s not going to solve the entire materials organization puzzle—nothing ever will. But it’s done away with one major source of frustration and wasted time.

I taught fly fishing for a number of years before I started teaching fly tying. The shop where I worked had a very experienced, highly-regarded and respected tying instructor of long tenure. No one would ever have dreamed of competing with him. When he could no longer continue teaching, however, it was clear that I would be his replacement. I had a lot to learn, and am still working on developing and refining my teaching skills.

In an effort to make preparation for my tying classes easier, and to help them run more smoothly, I decided to make up a separate bag of materials for each pattern I planned to teach during a session. After the class was over, I’d eventually return each item to its usual place in my materials storage area. I still take this approach for most patterns, since it’s unusual for me to repeat the same one often enough to justify doing it any other way.

Eventually, however, a light bulb went on over my head. Why not set up permanent pattern kits for my personal tying, for workhorse patterns I know I will tie in batches at fairly frequent intervals? I keep these kits in their own separate bin, so that I can quickly grab one and sit down and start tying. Digging and searching are largely eliminated!

I use gallon-size Slider bags for my pattern kits. These bags are large enough to handle almost any material I’ll be using. It’s of no particular consequence if I have to cut down long feathers like Pheasant tails or Peacock sticks to make them fit in the bag. While I’m at it, I high-grade these natural materials so that parts that aren’t perfect for that pattern are removed—to be discarded or stored elsewhere, as appropriate.

The slider-style closure is much better than a zipper closure for a bag that will be repeatedly opened and re-sealed. Because of my teaching, I have Pattern Sheets made up for many of the flies I tie. This consists of a brief introductory note, a recipe for the pattern, and abbreviated tying instructions. Into each Pattern Kit bag I’ll put a Pattern Sheet, a sample fly, and all of the materials needed to tie the pattern. If I need any of those materials for another purpose, I am likely to remember to check the Pattern Kit bin. There’s a good chance I’ll even remember which bag it’s in. And if I decide to purchase a duplicate of any material I’ve placed in a Pattern Kit, there’s no harm in having a back-up. I also like to include a packet of hooks and a bobbin with the correct thread, loaded and ready to go.

We can all benefit from giving some thought to the matter of efficiency in our tying, adopting any methods we find appealing and helpful to that end. I hope I’ve given you some good ideas here. Happy tying!


  1. Great article Mary. I can picture you writing it a taking that picture of your “teetering tower of shoe boxes”. Love the idea of permanent pattern kits! Never thought of it. Awesome article!

  2. Mary, thank you for defending all the many ways in which a hobby remains a hobby. I enjoy tying but no more want it to descend into assembly-line efficiency than I want my fishing to be about pounds of fish meat per hour (especially considering how dismal such a statistic would prove to be). It’s true that once I sit down to tie a couple of flies I don’t like to get up and scrounge for one of the materials, but that’s the price I pay for carrying my tying tools out to a TV-dinner table whenever I want to tie. It’s by nature grossly inefficient, by nature creative (I might decide impromptu that the 2nd fly will have palmered blue hackle or a marabou tail…as the whim strikes), and by nature unstructured enough to let the mind wander as it wants and needs. I’ll tie between two and four flies at a sitting before being interrupted to abandon the session in favor of addressing another family member’s wishes of the moment.

    The slider bags are good, yes, and for another reason: To save space in a box or bin, air inside those bags can be “burped” out of them without partially pealing open their seals, because there’s usually a tiny air escape around the slider.

    While unlike you I’ve never tied professionally (and have neither the patience nor the repeatability for it), and while my materials stash is surely a weak shadow of yours, a dozen plastic categorized bins comprising a “leaning tower of hackle” are still full enough that I have trouble thinking of anything else I could possibly ever need. But I get more stuff anyway because there are still dubbings I haven’t tried, and nature always serves up some amazing one-of-a-kind color, and because acquiring more materials is all part of the hobby. : )

    Thanks Mary for a thoughtful article.

    – Mike

    1. Thanks, Mike. The most important thing is to enjoy our tying, however we choose to approach it. I have to confess, I tend to be a methodical plodder with a soupcon of obsessiveness. I sometimes lament my relative lack of creativity. However, I admire my more creative friends tremendously and I think our relative strengths are of mutual benefit. Another confession? No matter how many tying materials I have I can always seem to find an excuse to buy a few more. When my days on this earth come to an end, I can only imagine what the person who winds up going through my belongings will think. But what the heck, if recreational shopping for fly tying materials brings me joy why not indulge? As vices go, it’s fairly innocent.

      1. “As vices go, it’s fairly innocent.”

        Yes, that’s the litany I keep chanting in my house…it probably buys me about as much extra tying time as one might expect.

        And I hear you on legacies left behind, Mary. When I finally go to that pristine stream in the sky, I think whoever goes through my stuff will not only find bins of quality materials but also hundreds of wads of fuzz and fluff harvested from sweater pockets and cuffs, and five-inch pieces of semi-sparkly string totaling a number of miles of total length, and bits of faded Christmas tree tinsel…all stuffed in shirt pockets and drawers and corners of top shelves on the off-chance that that exact color of chartreusie magenta-ish periwinkle-tinted neutral-noted grey might one day be just the ticket.

        I pity whomever it is.

        – Mike

  3. I’ve wondered about the commercial aspect at varying times. I’ve read about the ‘preparing” ahead of time to make things go faster. But for me, I won’t tie commercially for many of the same reasons mentioned in the post and in comments. But one thing I’ve never seen in the ‘time per fly’ calculations is where someone adds in the ‘prep’ times. Plucking whole necks to sort and such surely takes some time. So if you add in that prep time, I wonder how fast the tying really is? I think the real efficiency is simply ganging the early processes so the actual tying goes faster. So does that actually make the fly tying less time? I don’t know. Doing the same thing again and again makes the speed a skill. But then, my comments shouldn’t be taken at face value. I tie because I like to, and to get what I want. And little other reason.

    1. Hi Sam. We all find our own way in fly tying, and that’s as it should be. As my Mother-in-law so wisely says, “We can’t all like the same things and what a boring place the world would be if we did.” I would never pluck out and pre-sort a neck’s worth of hackle. However, if you are tying commercially in quantity I can see how it would improve efficiency. If you’re tying a half-gross or more of size 14 Royal Wulffs, for example, selecting two size 14 brown hackles, plucking and preparing them for each individual fly takes a fair amount of time. You would definitely save some time by doing this repetitive task for all the hackles needed all at once. It may amount to only a few seconds saved for each fly. But those seconds add up when a large number of flies are involved. Kind of like when huge companies round up fractions of pennies for tens of thousands of invoices–it adds up to some serious money. This is also why commercial tyers now, whenever possible, almost exclusively use dry fly quality saddle hackle rather than neck hackle–you can usually get multiple flies from a single feather. Fly tying factories in Sri Lanka and other, usually off-shore, locations produce flies in assembly-line fashion, with each worker putting one or two items on the hook then passing it on to the next worker. I don’t know for sure but I doubt that strategy would be of much help to a free-lance commercial tyer doing relatively small custom orders.

  4. Mary S. Kuss, I really enjoyed your article as I have your previous ones. We share similar experiences in fly tying. I also refuse to consider tying commercially, based on a mentor who tied professionally and became burned out. The joy of fly tying left him. It scared me and made me determined to never jeopardize the hobby I love by creating drudgery. I am retired now and tie every morning for an hour or two before my wife wakes up. Then, I get handed a list of honey-dos. Now, I tie, teach fly tying, and guide for Project Healing Waters. I tied flies previously for Casting for Recovery as well. But I find myself as an assistant lead for my Project Healing Waters program, which can occupy 40 hours a week, and I limit my time to the this program.

    I imagine fly tiers who tie a lot are forced to organize their hobby. When I started accumulating tying materials many years ago, I used large Rubbermaid containers and plastic bags. I’ve always been careful to safeguard my pricey capes, saddles, and pelts against infestation. I filled our rec room downstairs in our old house into a storage area of these containers. Once, my wife became curious what what I was storing and peeked into several of them while I was away on a business trip. When I returned, she told me she found my collection of dead birds and skinned animals in the rec room. She gave me a baleful look across the dinner table and asked, “Can we talk? I’m worried about you!” She seemed relieved when I explained what all those materials were for. Since those days, I had a hobby room built when I had our present house built with extra LED lighting, an exhaust fan, and porcelain tiled flooring. All of my many containers are stored on wheeled shelving.

    Since then, I store materials in the tighter fitting and more durable Snapware containers. As you have, I assemble materials for each fly in Slider bags. All containers and Slider bags are labeled with a label maker. Years ago, I adopted the efficiency of A. K. Best after I read his book, “Production Fly Tying.” I break down the tying steps of a fly to be tied, tie a dozen of that step, and go back to tying a dozen of the next step, e. g., tying on barbell eyes and coating and curing UV epoxy. The repetition allows me to catch a mistake sooner before I complete the fly and produces flies faster. (Of course, I wonder whether fly tiers might be afflicted with OCD.) Nobody sees a flawed fly I’ve tied, since it gets cut off the hook before it leaves my tying table.

    I appreciate your sharing of your experiences and methodology. Brava!


    1. Thanks for the kind words, Bob. And thank you for your volunteer work with Project Healing Waters and Casting for Recovery. Bravo indeed! It sounds like you may have more tying stuff than I do–quite an achievement. I can imagine how alarming your collection of dead animal parts might have been to your wife. My husband was well aware of my weird-seeming hobbies before we got married, so it came as no shock to him. Early in our marriage, I went on a trip with his Mother to visit friends and relatives in Cleveland, OH. I was still in my “Road Kill” stage of materials acquisition. I had never before seen live Fox Squirrels, and was amazed to see them running around people’s lawns right in the City of Cleveland. I spotted a nice freshly-killed and relatively un-squished Fox Squirrel along the side of the road. “Oh look!” I exclaimed, “A perfect Fox Squirrel!” My Mother-in-law gave me a level stare and said simply, “Mary, no.” Even she had learned of my fly tying obsession and all of its manifestations. ‘

  5. Mary, this is a wonderful article. I dig the idea of the project bags, as they’d be good for a road trip like our club trip to the Catskills to occupy hands during off-water time.

    I manage all of my material inventory on a Google Drive spreadsheet. Before I place things in my boxes, they’re added to the spreadsheets. I highlight things that are frequently used or that are low in stock. A second page maintains a shopping list. Before I shop, I double check my inventory list and add things I’m short on to to the shopping list. I also add on the shopping list the materials I know I’m missing from new patterns I want to tie (YouTube is good for that!) This process often saves me from ending up with duplicates.

    Tight lines!

    1. Keeping a digital inventory of materials is an excellent idea–if you’re willing to do all of the necessary data entry. I must confess that I’m not. While I can see the obvious advantages of such a system, I lack the discipline needed to implement it. After a while duplication does become an issue, especially when making impulse purchases at shows. Some years ago I noticed that I’d bring purchases home and find several more of the same item(s) when I put them away. After that I started keeping a benchside shopping list, which has helped a lot. Or at least it does when I remember to bring the list with me!

      1. Mary, I also keep a note pad and pen near my tying table. When I’m low on particular materials, I’ll jot down what I need to order or buy at fly fishing shows. Sometimes, I just can’t find a material and I look for a substitute. Right now, I’m searching for Glamour Madeira, which is used for a couple of Pat Dorsey’s midge patterns. Dorsey claims it can be found at any fabric shop. Nope, no fabric shop in my area or on-line carries it. I may have to email Dorsey about it. Another thing I try to list is fly tying or fly fishing books. I really hate to wind up with duplicates. When I go to huge fly fishing shows such as The Fly Fishing Show, I take my list with me. I am subject to impulse buying when it comes to materials and books.

        1. Robert Betts: I know my brother has recently purchased some through Amazon. A cursory search shows a selection of colors of Madeira Glamour Machine Embroidery Thread. The shipping is not cheap and appears to come from a company called Minerva Crafts and Fabrics in the UK. There’s also a bunch listed on EBay. The thread sets are ridiculously priced in the $99-120 range. Personally, I’d be finding something else to use at that price!!!!

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