Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Naturally the enlightened approach to fly tying materials (not to mention the “Semper Paratis” approach and the kid-in-a-candy-store approach) is to stock up on everything under the sun. One usually begins by acquiring the materials needed for the first must-tie pattern that catches the eye, then expanding to what’s needed for other patterns of the same type (nymph or streamer or what it was that first inspired), and finally end up at the mentality of, “Hey, there’s a new kevlar flash winking eyeball thingie…the day I need one will surely come…” followed by a quick bulk purchase along with a new materials cabinet since the one you have is already full.

And that lifelong odyssey is no better served than to create a mutually appreciative partnership with a great tying materials outfit like J.Stockard, from whom you can get practically anything you’ll ever need.

But what about the need you didn’t envision? What about the bug you see on your shirt cuff that inspires a tie no one has tied before? What about the addition of Feature X or Y or Z to a classic pattern–an epiphany that occurred first, out of billions across all of time, to you? What if your biggest annual fishing trip coincides with the time of year of everyone else’s big annual trip, and the wing case material you need is temporarily out of stock? Or imagine the guy you’re going to the Frothy Rapids River with tomorrow morning calling you up tonight to say, “Oh, forgot to mention…make sure you have a dozen Carl’s Crazy Cashmere Caddis in your pockets tomorrow, because that’s the main thing they go for on the Frothy….”

The point is that at some point we’re all going to need to ad-lib. The DIY gene demands it, for one. And in truth, the one thing more electric than successfully tying one’s first great Royal Wulff Dry and using it with success is making up a pattern out of your head that, however bohemian it may seem to your buddies, fools wild fish as well as do the classic ties. Ultimately, creativity is where it’s at; creativity is what puts each of us in the shoes of the chalk-stream-prowling pioneers of fly fishing lore.

And creativity and substitution go hand in hand. Who decided, after all, that turkey quills hang together best for adult caddis wings? Or that seal fur is the end-all dubbing for delicate dries? If you live in a town where there are few seals oinking along the frontage road, maybe that used sweater in the thrift shop of about the right shade could be used in a pinch…? Etc. The bench players you send into the game aren’t likely to outplay stars such as Mr. Aussie Possum or Ms. Ostrich, but when you need something quick or want to prove a concept, having material that might suffice right now is worth its weight in tungsten.

So this article is an open invitation to share emergency substitution tips. I’d bet a nickel on there being a lot of “ho hum” materials around our houses or towns that have been cleverly pressed into service as good temporary fly parts. (I recently read a great tribute by Jack Gartside to a fly that as a kid he used to call “The Flipper” because it was made from a pigeon feather and hair from his pet cat Flipper…who had also supplied him with the pigeon. Now that’s some DIY action, there.)

I’ve mentioned in the past how to thin out Shoe Goo with mineral spirits and use it to tame a streamer’s leading edge hair, and we’ve all used plenty of “origins unknown” feathers for wing case material on nymphs. We’ve all snuck a dab of fingernail polish onto a fly head when the real stuff ran dry. Although it’s hard to recall all the interim shortcuts we’ve all employed until real recruits could be enscripted and delivered, I’ll mention just a few of mine:

  1. This one is obvious and we’ve all done it: When I lacked the right color or strength of thread for a big fly (saltwater or big freshwater streamer) I’ve not hesitated to run down to the sewing store and grab a spool of general purpose thread. The bulk of it can be a benefit, and the strength, and availability of the ideal color, are never in question. (The only thing is that the small cylindrical spools are slowly going the way of the dodo…and the larger sewing spools don’t fit our bobbins. But just tie the sewing thread in as you would a dubbing loop and hold it with hackle pliers.) And shiny gold and silver and copper-ish thread is also readily available in these places, and can sub nicely for gold, copper or silver wire.
  1. A very fine solder works for weight-wire at times, although I’ve only done that once. A flux core won’t be a detriment, either—just coat the whole blob with head cement after you wind it on–a trick that seals in not only flux but lead too. And many solders are mostly tin anyway, but check local anti-lead laws just in case.
  1. Trying to find just the right wing material can be tricky; products abound but sometimes don’t quite match Mother Nature. One day I almost threw out a plastic bag at home, and suddenly realized it differed slightly from other transparent plastic bags. It was “frosted,” much like so-called invisible tape. Wasn’t this just about the closest thing I’d get to the wispy wings of so many adult insects…such as the Golden Stonefly? I tucked it into my tying kit and later put a couple of tiny strips to good use. There are real fly-tying products that precisely mimic this or that kind of wing, but one’s chances of having stocked every perfect look in time for your fishing trip can be slim. And this household material moves in the breeze like the bug is fluttering. In short, plastic bags may not be ready-cut into wing shapes but they’re good in a pinch.

  1. Craft stores (or your child’s craft table) have foam “make it yourself kits” for everything from doorknob-hanging name cards to sugarplum fairy cottages. This foam cuts easily, comes in tond of colors, and floats. When you need an emergency high-bobbing indicator dry for the next morning, your child will never notice the back gable of that fairy cottage is an eighth inch shorter. (Well, mine hasn’t yet, anyway.)
  1. Hardware stores sell balls of plum-bob string made of polypropylene…for pennies. It can be unraveled and small strands of it used. Polypropylene floats—it’s lighter than water. Visibility posts and bodies can be made from it. (I even use a six-inch section between fly line and leader as the ultimate “high-floating line tip” when I need it.)
  1. This is more of a household add-on than a substitution: When I tie dry flies, I give the on-stream floatant an early helping hand: I soak the completed flies for ten minutes in a little bottle of Angelus silicon shoe treatment, dangling them into the bottle by a piece of mono. They dry the same color and suppleness as before, but are then very hydrophobic, and are just that much better at staying afloat on the stream.
  1. A long time ago I bought a “doughnut” of toilet bowl install wax for a couple of bucks. There’s enough there for eight hundred years of what I really use it for—I melted a lima-bean-sized hunk of it and dribbled it into a tiny vial. For really fine dubbing and threads that aren’t the greatest for making dubbing noodles, and when my high quality dubbing wax is still way too much, I run my finger across this smooth fine wax once before spinning the dubbing noodle, and it’s ideal.
  1. Mylar flat-foil for winding onto hooks: Where are you going to find more great colors than on various candy bar wrappers? When you see the perfect Caddis Green on a granola bar or spy a rich nymph-brown mylar coffee packet, stuff that wrapper into your kit and use a snip when the need comes up. (And this helps you justify buying those snacks, too….)
  1. A great vise nearly always has a materials holder. My little old travel vise does not, and sometimes the holder is too far back for something short you still want held. A little piece of the kind of painter’s tape that’s guaranteed to come off easily can do the job. (When I was younger and had only one cheap vise, I once even used a piece of Bazooka Joe!)
  1. Another raid of your little girl’s craft table can score you a few Rainbow Loom rubber bands. Little bigger than o-rings, they make slightly-too-fat (but still servicable) rubber legs. If you lack the color you want on your tying table, distract her while you take a look at what she’s got in her bracelet-making kit. And red or pink ones can stand in as San Juan Worms that you can even hand-tie streamside if needed.
  1. Tiny drink-stirring straws and square-cross-section miniature plastic hobby extrusions can be pressed into service as caddis worm cases. Mind the color, or use paint or markers. I use oil paint for its ultimate water impermeabilty, although it takes awhile to dry. But I’ve made cased caddis worms that may look ridiculous but readily draw toothy appreciation from the only critics that matter.

  1. Some product packaging is actually very thin vinyl. If thin enough, it makes serviceable wing case cover material and shiny scud and crawdad backs, when you run out of the real stuff.  Can be mottled with permanent markers–mottling that lasts awhile although generally not forever.
  1. Some cotton ear-swab stems are hollow plastic. Very, very light, even compared to foam. They can make little abdomen extensions for damselfy and dragonfly patterns of your own design.
  1. I know we all spend much of our time in cosmetic stores, so this isn’t news to most of you guys…they have these mascara stations where people sit to get various kinds of goop applied to their eyes, and they use little free throw-away toothpick-sized “eyelash brushes” that cost maybe a thousanth of a cent each. These little things are absolutely terrific for roughing up the dubbing on nymph patterns to make them look buggy. Complement their own baby-blues and the staff will happily gift you a couple.
  1. But don’t be tempted to buy your fingernail polish there, guys; leave that full-service boutique and go to one of those one-dollar stores, where you can get fifty shades of fingernail-targeted head cement, chartreuse and purple for your saltie streamers, dull oranges for crawdad backs, white and black and ivory and indigo…stuff with holographic glitter in it…all for a buck a color. It ain’t the French designer stuff, but fish aren’t snobs.

I began my fly tying life scavenging ad-lib materials like this. A few of those flies became memorable from a fishing perspective. I did migrate to better materials when experience dictated and when resources allowed, and with good reason–the good stuff works easier and results are significantly better…but only when it exists or is on hand. Again, when I find myself subbing in an “unofficial” material, I always make a note of it and add good stuff (if it exists) to my next JS order. Little by little I stock in everything under the sun, in the higher made-for-fly-tying quality. But meanwhile I’m never left hanging. There’s always a boring household thing I’ve been discarding for years that’ll make a perfect something.

So this is an invitation to share your own tricks. It all furthers the tying hobby. Tell us your favorites in a comment!


  1. Mike

    What you’ve described is very much what it was probably like for fly tiers in the 17th and 18th century. What can I find around the cottage and local shops that can be affixed to a hook to catch some trout? One might think that the fly tying materials manufacturers have thought of and packaged everything the fly tier might need. But such is not the case for at least two interesting items. Drew Chicone’s Disco Shrimp requires 4-6 mm gold sequins. Got to go to the fabric store for those. Then there’s the wine nymph which is tied with small strips of the heavy foil seals from bottles of wine. If you want a good color selection, then the purchasing of a variety of wine is essential. Of course the more wine you buy, the more you can drink to unleash your innovative spirit.

    1. I agree, Mike–the early tyers had to be do-it-yourselfers, not only in material acquisition but even in imagining what might work. Will a piece of hide be good, or is a bit of glass or sliver of metal better? What would catch a fish’s eye? I imagine it’d take a lot of imagination, not to mention trial & error and sharing of lore, to even begin to put a list together…much less to find a source for the stuff.

      And that imaginative pioneering spirit continues to serve us well today, not only in collecting materials because we’ve run out, but in putting ourselves in a frame of mind that unlocks new discoveries. Materials available from JS can be utilized in as-yet-unheard-of ways. There are surely plenty of discoveries yet to be made. Plus the DIY gene is just so much fun, and so gratifying, to put into play. it’s part and parcel to tying.

      But Mike: Is there a beer label pattern I might start prepping for? I’m ready.

      – Mike

  2. Mike,
    You could cut those tiny little propellers from beer cans and add them to your streamers. The sharp edges might be good weed cutters.

    1. Funny you should mention that Mike…half a decade back I “invented” a wetfly pattern I thought would resemble a june bug or a bee. It had twin teardrop-shaped plastic bag wings either side of a fat brownish yarn body. I was sure it’d work.

      Well, it did work, but not as a fish-catcher. I drifted it down, let it swing, and stripped it slowly back. In that one drift & retrieve it twisted the leader so much I had to cut it off with a knife. Twisted the fly line too, to where it kinked and wouldn’t come in through the guides. Those nice wide wings had tilted in the flow like impellers; the thing had been whirling at an appalling rate the entire time it had been underwater.

      So it worked not as a fly but as a knot-maker. Thanks for the beer tab idea…I’ll gladly do the can-emptying part, but I swore I’d never tie anything that looks like it might include prop blades again. 🙂

      – Mike

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