Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Despite having tied flies for some 50 plus years, I still marvel at the artistry some tiers achieve.  The J. Stockard Pro Tyers produce some beautiful flies that in my mind are the envy of us amateur tiers. Looking back to the early 1960s when I started tying, things have changed quite a bit. Today the patterns we tie are significantly different due to the increased use of synthetics, specialized hooks, new tying tools and the expansion of fly fishing into species other than trout and typical warm water targets.

Back when I started you learned from the few available books at the time or if you were lucky like I was, from some old timers who shared their 40+ years of experience tying fancy wets and Catskill style dry flies. You can still get some hands on tying experience at clubs and fly fishing shows as well as learning from the plethora of books out there, but it’s the online video that has taken over the role of fly tying professor. Despite the change in how one learns to tie flies or tie new patterns, the fact remains that fly tying is a locus of some basic tying skills and techniques, a variety of material handling techniques, the proper application of quality materials and the dexterity and ingenuity of the tier. The pro tiers who produce those artistic, well-proportioned and beautiful flies like the fly at the left by Pro Tyer Luke Stacy have taken that locus to its pinnacle.

But, you can’t learn these things all at once. Even if you understand and can execute the basic skills of fly tying, using those skills all together in the right sequence and with the right materials takes some practice. When you see a beautifully tied, well-proportioned fly you want to emulate it. But it’s one thing to “want” to emulate it, it’s another to actually accomplish it.  And one of the first things you need to emulate is proportion. Many fly tiers, especially in-experienced tiers struggle with proportion in their flies. Although there’s plenty of advice out there (See the Skip Morris chart as an example), achieving those proportions takes practice.

When I have the urge to tie a new pattern or even a tried and true pattern to try on the water, I’ll typically hit the pattern books and watch a few online videos. The biggest advantage of the videos is that you are observing the tier actually go through the motions of tying the fly. One of the insights I’ve taken away from really thorough tying videos is how many times the tier “unwinds” the thread to reposition or adjust materials.

Assuming you have all the correct materials, the right hooks, thread, tools etc., constructing the fly to achieve the desired proportions takes conscience effort. Any one of many things that can go astray can ruin as otherwise well tied fly. A tail that’s too long or too short, uneven body wraps, wings too tall or too short, crowded hook eyes, etc., can render an ill-proportioned fly.  When I tie a new pattern, I try to find as near as possible an image or even a real example to emulate. Couple that with actually watching a skilled tier construct the fly and you improve your chances of tying that well-proportioned fly you want to emulate.  After each step in the tying sequence, evaluate your progress against the example you are trying to emulate. If the tail is too long, to short or rolled around the hook—unwind and do it again until it is right. Practice that approach for every tying step. A rather famous quote epitomizes this approach:

“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this, you haven’t.”― Thomas Edison

I will never be as skilled as J. Stockard’s Pro Tyers but every year I learn a few more tying skills and employ new materials.  Some come naturally as I tie new patterns and watch skilled tiers weave their craft. Other skills prove difficult, but when I do work on them, I consciously unwind a lot until I get it right.

3 Comments

  1. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My dad taught me fly tying 60 plus years ago. All the friends we fished with marveled how the flies he tied caught fish. His flies were rather “ruffled” to put it nicely, but they almost always caught fish. His proportions were a bit off, to say the least. No one ever asked to get a fly from him for a pattern, but still, he rarely ever got skunked. Often the fly that caught fish would look disheveled and coming apart, but he was often playing a fish when others were barren of fish. I later learned that the fly that looked so iffy, was a fly that was in transition from a nymph to an adult. Apparently, the fish agreed. My father always told me to give the fish what they want and how they like it. I get skunked sometimes, and I try to tie to the basic standard, such as the tail is equal to the body, the hackle is 1 and half the width of the gape of the hook, etc. But the words he spoke so long ago still rings true to a large extent. Give them what they want and how they like it, turns out to be a winner more often than not. This was back in the 1950’s and ’60’s. That was the baby era of the nymph. The popular fly was either wet or dry, or a streamer. In reality, he was a step or so ahead of the others. The rod he loved was a Browning Silaflex (?). In 1954, he and 2 other friends spent a week in Nova Scotia and unbelievably, he was the only one to catch an Atlantic Salmon. The other 2 were the ones that were critical of his artistry, LOL. BTW, my dad was a Millwright by trade, and the other 2 were Machinists. Their friendship lasted a lifetime. The memory of those “artists!”

    1. Gotta say I love that “ruffled” fly look Jim…and ruffled flies (especially wet flies) rarely seem to let me down. The great Cal Bird of Northern California always tied his patterns a bit disheveled and “in the round” rather than perfectly proportioned top-vs-bottom, and his creations remain highly productive classics. I tend to tie my soft hackle just a little long compared to the reigning wisdom, and my dubbing just a little ratty…and given that one never knows exactly what such a fly is thought to be by a fish, I just go with that because it works. The times I’ve tried to adhere to very precise dimensions I haven’t seen a positive difference. But then admittedly that’s a small sample set. As you said, probably the “eye of the beholder” rule remains the best, because ultimately the fly’s look has to please the tier or it won’t end up on the tippet getting its chance to shine. : )

  2. “You can still get some hands on tying experience at clubs and fly fishing shows as well as learning from the plethora of books out there, but it’s the online video that has taken over the role of fly tying professor.” While the Internet may have taken over as the new fly tying professor, it can not fully replace the fly fishing club. When I was having problems executing a “Pinch Wrap” after hours of watching videos, I spent 15 minutes with the Guru at my local fly shop and I was doing the pinch wrap like an expert plus several additional techniques. My local club members have shown me how to make multiple flies and fish on local rivers for everything from Brookies to migrating Shad and saltwater Redfish. And I am learning from everybody from 15 year olds to 85 year olds, they all have something to show me.

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