Pretty Fly: The Art of Tying
The trees and bushes surrounding Utah’s Weber River are full of bugs—elk hair caddis, zebra midges, and prince nymphs—hoppers, muddler minnows, and wooly buggers. I know this because I put them there, not on purpose of course.
Above photo by Matt Ebbers
My interest in flies started as purely utilitarian, catching fish and replacing what was missing from my box, but I soon learned to appreciate the artistic beauty of these bundles of feathers and thread, and the people who sit over the vise tying them. My fat fingers struggle to tie a rainbow warrior onto 6x tippet, so I of course admire those with the dexterity and wherewithal to tie those minuscule works of art, in intricate detail, over and over until a fly box row is full of identical pieces.
I talked to several prominent tyers—brand ambassadors, guides, podcasters, fly tying video hosts, and fly shop owners—people who make tying look easy. I asked about what got them into tying, what advice they have for beginners, and what it feels like to fool a fish into biting something that you made with your own hands the night before.
I basically asked them all the same questions, and the real surprising thing was just how much their answers differed. The biggest thing I learned is just how broad this seemingly niche hobby really is.
For many of these tyers, their interest, like mine, stemmed from utility. Others, like Loon Outdoors brand ambassador, Matt Ebbers, began tying because of the beauty of it. After seeing someone tying at a Trout Unlimited event as a kid, he began tying flies with worm hooks, a feather pillow, a spool of sewing thread, and a shop bench vise. He tied flies for a year before ever casting for a trout.
Ebbers still enjoys the creative aspects of tying but recognizes that there is far more to it than that. “You can tie some wild flies that look really cool,” he said, “but if they don’t resemble something the fish will eat, well then they just look nice. It’s the fly tyers who have an understanding of what fish eat and can create a good looking imitation of that; those are the true artists.”
Everyone I talked to mentioned the gratification of catching a fish on a fly they tied themselves, the concept of completing the circle, of being as intimately involved with nature as possible.
“I enjoy catching fish period,” said Loon Outdoors brand ambassador and commercial tyer, Pat Cohen, “but when you stay up late doing research and creating a fly based around that information and it works, and continues to work, and works for other people as well, that feeling is amazing. It’s like you’ve solved some great riddle.”
Cohen enjoys blending art and science in his fly designs. “I love the research into feeding behaviors, triggers, and habits,” he said. “I really enjoy playing with materials and figuring out how to make something move a specific way based around the science of fishing.”
Like Cohen, Matt Callies, who hosts livestreamed video series Loon Live, also enjoys the scientific aspect of it. “I love…trying to match insects from the river bed,” he said. “I do admit to snorkeling rivers and flipping rocks over—kind of a science nerd at heart! My season never really stops; I go 12 months out of the year. I change species, tactics, flies to match the changes of the rivers surrounding me. It’s really just a big cycle and keeps me interested.”
Curiosity seems to be a theme among all of the tyers I spoke with. Loon Outdoors brand ambassador and tutorial host on his site Fly Fish Food, Curtis Fry dates his inquisitive nature back to childhood when he caught brookie after brookie on black ant patterns he had tied from his mom’s stash of knitting yarn and some nasty spade hackle from his first tying kit. “…upon reviewing the contents of a couple of fish I kept for dinner,” he said, “I realized ants were a big part of their regular diet on that lake. There’s a primal feeling of a sort of connection when you tie or even design the pattern with which you end up fooling the fish.”
Part of the appeal of tying is also the past-time aspect of it, the year-round connection to a typically seasonal passion. It’s easy to imagine a tying bench next to a crackling wood stove as the snow falls outside, a glass of single malt next to the vise.
Filling gaps between time on the water is what led Patagonia brand ambassador and fishing podcast host April Vokey into the world of fly tying. “When I was a teenager, all I wanted to do was fish and be on the water,” she said. “Tying flies helped to ease the anxiety of nightfall when I was stuck indoors.”
For Vokey, whose passion is fishing for steelhead and salmon, it isn’t necessarily about the specific fly, but is rather about how the fly is used as a tool. “In the salmon/steelhead world,” she said, “I genuinely believe that a fly fished with confidence will out-fish one specific pattern, color, or profile. Nowadays there are so many materials on the market, I feel as though we overdress our flies with the ‘latest and greatest,’ often forgetting that these fish aren’t actively feeding on anything except for something fished thoroughly and strategically.”
While much of what these experts told me differed, many ideas came up time and time again with everyone I talked to, and most of this dealt with advice for beginning tyers. It’s no surprise that each of these experts placed the most emphasis on the importance of practice.
“I think the point where new tyers veer off track is when they become frustrated with excessively difficult patterns or disappointed with their own creations that don’t catch fish,” said fly tying author and teacher, Loon Outdoors brand ambassador, and salt water specialist Drew Chicone. “I often get the question, ‘how do I become a better tyer?’ The simplest answer is just keep tying flies. Like anything else, you’re not going to start out an expert. This craft takes a lot of patience and practice to see results. After a few hundred flies you should have a pretty good idea of basic techniques…After about five hundred, your flies will look dramatically cleaner…I know it sounds like a lot, but you will be surprised on how fast you get and how much better your flies turn out over time.”
In talking to these prominent tyers, I was also struck by the sense of community and camaraderie they all emphasized and their willingness to teach and bring new people into the activity. Many of them suggest taking classes at local fly shops, watching videos and live-streamed tying demos, and not being shy about asking for advice. Other points that came up over and over include the importance of starting small with simple and proven patterns like wooly buggers, pheasant tail and prince nymphs, and elk hair caddis, tying one pattern over and over until you’re confident and proficient at it before moving on to another.
“Having a good picture or idea of what you’re trying to mimic is a good staring place,” Chicone said. “Being able to create nearly exact replicas of shrimp or baitfish on a hook is a great skill to have, but those picture perfect imitations don’t always catch fish. Oftentimes a fly is not designed to look exactly like one particular prey item, but its appearance could be easily mistaken for a number of common foods.”
In addition to elaborating on one of his favorite parts of being involved in the fly tying community, which is teaching others, and watching his students evolve from technicians into artists, Chicone perfectly summed up an idea that all of his colleagues touched on as well:
“For me the true gratification comes more from the process of solving a constantly changing puzzle with infinitely different rules. Whether it’s an existing pattern or one you just created, there is a different level of satisfaction when the fish you catch is on a fly you tied.”
Drew Chicone. Photo by Michael Owen