Guest Blogger: Eunan Hendron, Eunan Blogs @ Addicted to Vise

Jungle Ghost
Jungle Ghost 1 8xl – Tied in Hand

Tying in hand is the art of tying flies without a vise or bobbin. Not many folks tie their flies this way any longer; it is a dying art, often practiced only by those who tie classic Atlantic salmon flies. However, some of the greatest tyers of the 20th century tied all their flies by hand, prime examples being Ms. Carrie Stevens and many of the famous Catskill dry fly originators. These days there are a smattering of tyers, particularly in the Pacific Northwest who tie fishing flies in hand for steelhead and salmon, and there are those of us who tie in hand, purely for the fun of the challenge. I’m in no way an expert at the craft, but I’ve enjoyed the little bit that I have done so much that I wanted to share the experience.

Assasin
Assassin 1/0 – Tied in Hand

It is true that tying in hand is a skill most would never think to venture towards, but after tying Rangeley Streamers and Atlantic salmon flies in the vise, tying in hand was a natural progression of the fly tying art. For me, it is an art, as the majority of the classic flies I tie will never see water. Nonetheless, learning how to tie in hand has also helped with tying flies in the vise.
The principle techniques are the same: secure the hook to wrap the thread around it and attach the materials with said thread. Homemade cobblers wax is an essential component in the whole process as it provides an adhesive by which to aid the attachment of your feathers, floss and tinsel. Not only that, but using well waxed thread also aids in reducing the number of thread wraps required to hold a specific material in place on the hook. Two or three wraps of waxed thread is sufficient to hold any material securely, after which you can set the hook down on the bench to prepare the next material for tie in. Some folks liberally use half hitches to prevent thread from unraveling, but I’ve found it unnecessary with waxed thread.

Golden Doctor - Tied in Hand
Golden Doctor 7 – Tied in Hand

The manual dexterity afforded you by holding the hook in your hand allows you to manipulate the fly in ways that a vise held hook simply cannot do, even with a high end rotary vise. There are some vises out there that permit adjustment of the angle of the fly as well as rotation of the hook about a single axis, but those still do not come close to the adjustments that can be made by a hook held between finger and thumb.
Of course, there is the limitation of a beginner learning techniques for tying flies in hand, ‘the stop’ and ‘the catch’, being the primary two. But believe it or not, these can be picked up quite quickly with a perusal through some of the salmon fly angling classics including Kelson’s The Salmon Fly and Pryce-Tannatt’s How to Tie Salmon Flies. Both these titles are available for free download (expired copy write) via links in the literature tab on my blog or at www.archive.org. Of course, having some knowledge of material selection and manipulation will greatly aid an adventure into tying in hand.

Hammer 1 8xl - Tied in Hand
Hammer 1 8xl – Tied in Hand

To date, I’ve tied less than 10 flies in hand. The first, a mixed wing salmon fly called Assassin from EJ. Malone’s book Irish Trout and Salmon Flies, was tied in March 2014. Once I knew I could manage to complete a whole fly, I then tied a few Rangeley style streamers including the inimitable Gray Ghost and its sister, the White Ghost, both essentially the same fly except for the color of the wing. To increase the difficulty I subsequently tied a segmented bodied fly veiled with jungle cock nails, a fly known as the Jungle Ghost.

Fenian - you guess - vice or hand?
Fenian – you guess – vice or hand?

Completion of that fly sent me on a path back and forth between salmon flies and streamers, and even some winged wet flies at size 7. Obviously, different hooks – long vs. short, large vs. small, present different challenges, but the end goal of tying a presentable fly by hand has been one of the most rewarding fly tying experiences I’ve encountered, and something I’ll continue to do throughout my tying career. I’m still a young pup at 34 years old, so hopefully I’ve a few years of tying still in me!

Another Fenian - vice or hand?
Another Fenian – vice or hand?

I’ll end with two flies, the same pattern, Fenian from T.E. Pryce-Tannatt’s How to Tie Salmon Flies. While they have structurally different wings, they were both tied with exactly the same materials, one in the vise and one tied in hand. Can you tell which one?
Much like tying classic flies, tying in hand is definitely something you should try at least once in your tying career. Even if it’s only a little hare’s ear nymph and even if you only do it one time!!

All flies tied and photographed by Eunan Hendron. Learn more from Eunan @ www.addictedtovise.com.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Eunan,
    The tyings look impressive! Tying by hand is not something I would do routinely, but maybe more for ‘fun’ rather than a fishing fly.
    Do I get the impression that hand tying is easier with large flies, so that you can easily see and handle large materials? This maybe ‘cheating’ but could some materials be ‘glued’ onto the hook and then tied on to complete the tying. Please don’t take this the wrong way – I am simply exploring options!
    Many Thanks
    John

    1. Hi John.

      In my (limited) experience, and with my (again limited) knowledge of the subject, I would say it is actually marginally easier to tie on smaller hooks, simply because there is less material to be attached to the hook. The amount of force required to secure a small bunch of fibers to a size 10 hook (smallest I’ve tied on in hand) is significantly less that that require to tie a larger bunch of fibers to a larger hook. The is particularly evident when tying on wings. The rest of the fly – body, tail, hackles, ribs, etc – are about equal in terms of difficulty.

      As for glue, I’m pretty sure, at least for salmon flies in the Victorian era, there was no ‘glue’ as we know it, i.e. cyanoacrylate. The primary fixative was head varnish, or cellire (which is still manufactured, and can be done at home, if you’ve got the right ingredients). It has been observed on vintage or antique dissected flies, that underbodies, etc. were flooded with head cement prior to continuing with the tying of the fly. Also, the use of very sticky wax was a must.

      As I indicated above, wax will do the same job as any ‘glue’ in terms of holding materials to hooks. When I tie in hand, I rarely tie a complete fly in one sitting. I leave the fly overnight, with nothing but waxed thread holding the previously tied components in place; if you have a vise held hook, a hanging bobbin does the same job. I don’t even use half hitches on my flies, either vise tied or hand tied – wax is your best friend. Wax is easily made – on my blog there is a detailed step by step. You can make lifetime supply of good cobblers wax for about $20 – literally a lifetime supply!

      I hope this answers your questions. I don’t use glue, but there’s no reason you can’t.

      Eunan

  2. Thanks Eunan,
    I guess with a smaller hook it is easier to hold everything in place than with a larger one.
    There was an article on hand held tied Salmon flies in a recent edition of Fly Fishing and Fly Tying magazine (UK) by one of the original fly dressers who tied for Hardy’s. He was tying on large salmon hooks and it showed an almost exact sequence of the whole process with pictures of the left hand securing the hook and materials. It’s not something for the faint-hearted!
    My particular interest in salmon flies is with brass brooches, which have to be mounted in a vice. But I usually tie the first fly on a salmon hook, to get the measurements and process right.
    Apologies for late reply – had some communication problems!

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