Fly Tying for Beginners
This is a complete guide to fly tying for beginners.
Here is an overview of what you’ll learn:
- Introduction to Fly Tying
- Fly Tying Tools, Overview / Definitions
- Fly Tying Materials for Beginner Fly Patterns
- The Best Fly Tying Kits to Get Started
- Beginner Fly Tying Patterns
Lets get going!
Updated on September 3, 2020
Note: The table of contents below is clickable to the corresponding section below
Introduction: Getting Started
There is no better feeling than catching a fish on a fly, which is a big reason why we all fly fish.
Catching a fish on a fly that you tied makes those moments even more special. Learning to tie flies can be a daunting task and visiting any fly shop’s tying section can feel overwhelming—with rows of feathers, furs, fabrics, and fluff, it can be hard to know where to start.
Our fly tying for beginners guide will break down the essential tools and materials needed to start tying several easy but integral flies that everyone should have in their box. Additionally, by increasing your knowledge and practice of tying, you can improve your understanding of the stages and behaviors of these aquatic insects—making you a better angler.
So…What the heck do I purchase!?
We list out the main tools needed below, however because the purchase process is such a daunting, but important part of fly tying for any beginner we have a couple of resources below that we find help immensely.
If you are looking to purchase fly tying tools and/or materials our “Best Fly Tying Kits” and our “Best Fly Tying Vises” are packed with info! We review the top 6 starter kits, as well as review tools, materials and vises separately.
KEY POINT(s): Learning to tie flies can be a daunting task, and visiting any fly shop’s tying section can feel overwhelming—with rows of feathers, furs, fabrics, and fluff, it can be hard to know where to start.
Fly Tying Tools
The Fly Tying Vise
The first tool that you absolutely need is a vise. The vise is what holds the bare hook as you attach materials and form your fly. There are two main types of vises—the first are pedestal vises, which attach the vise to a heavy base allowing for easy setup almost anywhere.
The second are c-clamp vises that attach to the ledge of a table or desk. C-clamp vises may not be as versatile as the pedestal vises but allow for better stability and easier height adjustments.
What the heck is a Bobbin?
Another essential tool is a bobbin. Bobbins are used to hold the thread firmly to create wraps and apply materials. Bobbins hold the thread by two adjustable metal arms. These metal arms have rounded ends allowing the thread spool to set firmly in the bobbin, but loosely enough to unwind or rewind thread as you’re tying. The thread feeds into, and exits a thin metal tube allowing for easy and precise placement.
Note: A ceramic bobbin can help to protect your thread, which is helpful when just starting to figure out thread pressure.
Do I need special Scissors?
Yes. Special fly tying scissors are needed and used for cutting thread and materials.
A good pair of tying scissors will be comfortable to hold yet small, sharp, and accurate to cut off materials in hard to reach places. Your average pair of kitchen shears won’t do the trick.
Overtime, you will likely gather multiple pairs of scissors. As you upgrade you also gain backups. Backups are good for cutting materials like wire, which save the blades of your newer primary tying scissors.
What is a Bodkin?
A Bodkin is essentially a fancy word for a thin metal stick with a point on the end. The Bodkin’s purpose is to apply head cement on the finished fly after you have tied off the thread. Bodkins can also be useful in applying other resins and epoxies for certain flies.
Half Hitch Tool / Whip Finish Tool
A half hitch tool allows the user to easily tie off their thread; it consists of a metal tube with a hole on the end—big enough to fit the eye of the hook. The thread is wrapped around the tubing allowing for easy half hitch knots to finish the fly.
Alternatively, a whip finish tool is often supplied in most beginner tying kits. There is a steeper learning curve to use this tool, but once mastered it creates stronger and longer-lasting knots.
Overall it is possible to learn both the half hitch and/or the whip finish tool, but it could be useful to understand how to tie off your thread without having to use them.
What is head cement?
As mentioned earlier, head cement is applied to the thread to secure the final knot in your fly. Using a small drop or two of fast drying head cement gives added protection from your knot breaking or unraveling.
Wax is rubbed onto the thread creating a sticky finish to attach dubbing. Wax is optional, since the oils in your hands may offer enough moisture for the dubbing to adhere. If you suffer from dry hands, wax may be more important and necessary to place a uniform layer of dubbing on the thread.
KEY POINT(s): The first tool that you absolutely need is a vise. The vise is what holds the bare hook while your attaching materials and forming the fly.
Beginner Materials: What you need to get started
Fly Tying Materials: Overview
Now that we have reviewed the basic tools, let’s explore some simple materials to get you started tying your first flies.
The fly tying materials we will be looking at are essential for tying beginner fly patterns like: midges, San Juan worms, hare’s ear nymph, pheasant tail nymph, brassie, and bead head caddis.
Getting a kit with materials is debatable as some are not good quality. With that that said there are some good ones and they have their advantages. Check out fly tying kits for more info.
The first things you will need are hooks. Without the hook, you will not have the necessary base for attaching materials. Selecting the right hook can be confusing since there are a variety of styles and sizes. For the beginner learning to tie some of these basic flies, we would recommend using size 12, 14, or 16 nymph hooks.
Thread is used to affix all of the materials to the hook.
Thread comes in a variety of colors and widths. The standard thread width is measured 6/0. For smaller flies like PMDs or Tricos a thread size of 8/0 is preferred. Larger flies like streamers or big stoneflies require thicker thread such as 3/0.
Thread comes in just about any color you can think of, but fly tying for beginners—let’s stick with black, brown/tan, and red thread in size 6/0. This is enough to get you started.
Wire is often used in tying to create the appearance of a segmented or ribbed abdomen that many nymphs possess. It also provides useful weight and flashes of shine to the fly. Like thread, the wire comes in a variety of colors and sizes—starting out; fine copper wire will be enough.
Beads on flies have increased in popularity of the last 20 years and some people refuse to fish bead-less nymphs. Beads mimic the nymph’s head and supply the fly with needed weight.
Beads are usually made from brass or tungsten and generally come in gold, silver, and brass—but it is possible to get beads in more vibrant colors like pink or green. For beginner flies, a gold bead in size 3/32 will be suitable.
Dubbing is the primary material in many flies. It is usually made up of synthetic nylon fibers but does come in natural blends, such as hare’s ear.
Dubbing varies in texture from smooth to coarse depending on the look you’re wanting to achieve. The smoother the dubbing, the flatter and more level the dubbing will lie on the hook. Coarser dubbing will provide less uniform application and a “fuzzier” look.
Dubbing comes in many colors and can be mixed with other colors providing a unique look. To get started, grey hare’s ear, tan, and caddis green dubbing will be a good enough.
One of the most popular flies, the pheasant tail nymph, lends its name to the pheasant tail used in the majority of the fly. Pheasant tails are often used to create tails, bodies, and wing cases.
Pheasant tail remains a staple fly material as its tiny fibers give the fly a natural look and subtle movement to mimic aquatic insects. Most fly shops will sell the individual feathers or packs of cut pieces.
Peacock herl is one of our favorite materials to use. It is a vibrant green that shines and fish can’t resist. Peacock herl is most often used to create the body and abdomen of certain flies.
The one downfall of peacock herl is its fragility—it can break easily while applying. You can purchase full peacock plumes or spun herl; we prefer the spun peacock herl as it is quicker to gather and apply.
Chenille is similar to pipe cleaner without the metal core. Red or orange chenille is the main material used for San Juan worms. They also come in black, brown, and green making them perfect material for the body of woolly buggers and Pat’s rubber legs.
San Juan worms are very easy to tie, and for beginners we recommend tying several of these to get used to working with the tools and materials.
KEY POINT(s): Thread comes in a variety of colors and widths. The standard thread width is measured 6/0. For smaller flies like PMDs or Tricos a thread size of 8/0 is preferred. Larger flies like streamers or big stoneflies require thicker thread such as 3/0.
Fly Tying Kits
With fly tying becoming more accessible (think Youtube!) and popular, several companies have been creating their all-inclusive tying kits. A lot of tyer’s will suggest to stay away from these kits, as the materials tend to sacrifice quality and the tools are basic. Meaning you will likely want to upgrade if you enjoy tying.
With that said –I started off with a kit and I dont regret it. Although arguably more expensive in the long run, fly tying kits can be good for the beginner fly tyer.
In my experience:
- It got me tying quickly
- Saved me from product freeze (SO many products and materials I didnt know where to start)
- Downloaded me with a good baseline of materials on the cheap
- Provided back up gear as I do upgrade (scissors turn intro wire scissors, bobbin is a spare/2nd bobbin etc.)
There are a variety of kits available:
- Beginner tools with no materials
- Material kits with no tools
- Complete material and tool kits
- Some kits on the market that come with storage and management systems.
Fly tying kits range form about $39 to $250
For more information on fly tying kits, feel free to explore our “Best Fly Tying Kits” for an in-depth look.
KEY POINT(s): Although more expensive, these kits are good for the beginner fly tyer, as they can meet all your tying needs, and are actually cheaper than buying everything separate.
Fly tying for beginners: some basic patterns
Now that you have an understanding of essential tools and materials you’re ready to start tying your own flies! Starting out tying can be frustrating at times, but as with all new things, practice makes perfect.
We chose several flies to discuss that are great for beginners and can be fished in almost any trout stream across the country.
San Juan Worm
The easiest fly to tie is a San Juan worm. San Juan worms get their name from the famed San Juan River in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Here these small aquatic worms are abundant—but almost every body of water in the country holds some type of Annelids.
San Juan worms are also the perfect fly to use when no bugs are hatching or you’re just not sure what to put on. These flies vary in size from 12-18, and are commonly tied using red, orange, and pink chenille.
How to tie the San Juan Worm
Zebra midges are a staple for fish, especially during those colder winter months. These tiny flies require little material and very few steps—making them the perfect practice fly to tie. They can be tied in size 16 to 22, and smaller if you have the eyesight. Black and red with silver wire are the most common colors but this fly can be tied in virtually any color thread you have.
How to tie the Zebra Midge
We feel this is one of the most underrated flies out there. Brassies imitate midge and caddis larvae, and are a good fly for winter months or during a caddis hatch. These little bugs are traditionally tied in size 14 – 22 with a copper/brass wire body, and peacock herl for the thorax. You can tie them with or without a bead head, and you can use different colored wire; I like tying them in red wire.
How to tie the Brassie
Bead Head Caddis
Bead head caddis are simple, straightforward, and often produce fish when other flies aren’t working. This is also the first fly that we discuss that requires dubbing.
Traditionally, they are tied using green ice dubbing and grey hare’s ear dubbing. I have found mixing other colors, instead of just green, can be useful too. These caddis larvae can be tied in size 14-16, with a bead head to give this buoyant fly some weight.
How to tie the Bead Head Caddis
Hare's Ear Nymph
If you have ever fly fished you know that hare’s ear nymphs are one of the most popular flies out there, and every fly shop carries tons of variations on this bug. They are used to imitate a wide range of mayfly nymphs, caddis larvae, and scuds. The versatility of these flies makes them a great searching pattern.
These flies, most commonly tied in size 12-18, use hare’s fur to create the bushy tail, and synthetic or natural hare’s ear dubbing for the body and thorax. Some types offer wire or tinsel to create a ribbed body and can be tied with a beadhead or not. Other color and material variations exist, making this fly great for matching specific hatches.
How to tie the Hare's Ear Nymph
Pheasant Tail Nymph
The pheasant tail nymph was created in the 1930s and continues to catch fish year after year. These insects emulate a wide range of mayfly nymphs, and like the hare’s ear, the pheasant tail has been changed and modified by tiers for years.
As their name states, pheasant is the main ingredient for this fly, and includes pieces for the tail and abdomen. The thorax is generally tied in peacock herl with either pheasant or turkey for the wing case. This popular fly is tied in sizes 12-18 with a preferred gold or copper bead.
How to tie the Pheasant Tail Nymph
One final tip is to utilize your local fly shop for tying lessons. Most fly shops will offer some fly tying for beginners training, especially during the winter or less productive fishing times.
We hope this article has been helpful in starting your practice of fly tying, and has alleviated some stress of getting started. As you continue to practice and develop your tying abilities, you will also develop a better understanding of the aquatic insects that trout are eating. Besides getting an increase in knowledge, you’re cultivating a fun new hobby to complement your fishing. Some of our favorite moments on fishing trips come from tying flies back at camp after a day on the water.
We would love to hear from you—brag it up by uploading a picture of one of your flies below!
- What did you find most useful?
- What could we change, add or do better?
- Let us know what worked and what didn’t…
Until next time—Have FUN!