Flyology: Experts share advice for young tiers

Much like fly fishing itself, the art of learning to tie flies requires about five minutes for the basics, but much, much longer to master.


However, beginners and the experienced seem to agree that no matter where a tier is in his or her development, keeping an open mind to learning new techniques and absorbing advice always benefits the end result.

“The individual techniques involved (in) tying certain flies do take a while to master,” said Lee Kuepper, guide and co-owner of Alaska’s Angling Addiction. “The best thing is though, like fishing, you can never stop learning. There always are new ways to accomplish your tying goals.”

Once a fly fisher has enough on-the-water experience under their belt, purchased the basics — vise, bobbin, hackle pliers, thread, fur and feathers — he or she needs to learn the tying techniques from an instructor, book or other avenues like online video.

But what many books and videos lack is the general advice of tiers who tackled the same mountain that intimidates many beginners, especially in a place like the Kenai Peninsula where trout and salmon can hit on a variety of flies depending on location and time of the year.

Start simple

Nick Ohlrich, guide for Alaska Drift Away Fishing, suggested beginners start with a simple pattern. On the Kenai Peninsula that means a flesh fly.

“You are just making it look like a piece of rotting salmon flesh and there’s technically not a right answer,” he said. “Like if you are doing a dry fly it has got to look like a bug. But to make it look like a piece of dead salmon flesh, well there are a million ways to do that.”

Dave Atcheson, a local fly fishing instructor and author of “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” agreed, adding brightly colored salmon flies, leech patterns and wolly buggers to the list of easy starter flies.

“Don’t try to start with really small dry flies or really detailed nymphs,” he said.

Learning the basic techniques of fly tying takes time and starting simple will help your hands understand how to wrap the thread, know what ingredients compose flies, where the thread needs to be and most importantly how to think four or five steps ahead.

When a beginner first sits down to tie a fly, he or she will likely have scores of feathers, hackle, fur, thread and other materials surrounding the vise. Organizing these materials from the beginning is a must.

Tiers should also be prepared to make a mess in the process — often much of the feathers and fur required to tie a pattern end up scattered on the desk, on the ground and on clothes.

“When you trim stuff, it gets all over,” Atcheson said. “A lot of people have a big desk set up and a floor that’s easy to sweep or vacuum up because you get feathers and hair all over.”

Pace yourself

Learning to tie flies often creates obsession, Atcheson said, as many tiers consider it more of an art form than a means to the end of catching a fish. However, fly tying can get expensive quickly.

Kuepper suggested beginners purchase a basic kit that comes fully stocked with materials and then adding and upgrading as experience dictates, he said.

“The costs start adding up when you purchase the nicer tools and materials,” he said. “For learning though you do not need anything fancy.”

Ohlrich suggested beginners start by tying what’s easy first, then advancing only to patterns he or she knows will catch fish during the winter — to those tried and true patterns. He said he often lets fishing trends dictate what and how many flies he ties during the summer, not during the long winter.

“I think one of the biggest things I see is newer guide do this, they say, ‘Oh, I stayed up all winter and tied 18 billion different patterns,’ and you are going to use a fraction of them,” he said. “You are going to get on the water and be like, ‘This is too big, too small, wrong shape, wrong color, I wish I would have put a little more of this, or a little more maribou or a little less flash.”

Prepare to trash a few

When learning a new pattern or technique, it is important not to get hung up in chasing perfection. Rarely can a beginner tie a fly perfect the first time.

It is best to realize the mistakes made on the fly, take a deep breath and accept it for what it is and either stick it in the back of the box or throw it in the trash.

“Especially if you are beginning, but as you go you’ll have less of that,” Atcheson said.

But, if the creation isn’t simply hideous, however, save it and fish it.

“You’d be surprised because some of those catch fish,” Atcheson said with a laugh.

Kuepper agreed.

“Do not get frustrated when your flies do not turn out like the picture,” he said. “It will take a while to perfect techniques and the look of a well-finished fly.”

Be creative

Much of the appeal of tying flies comes in the freedom to experiment and the feeling when a fish hits a fly that came from your vise. Those feelings are amplified when a pattern is of the tier’s own creation.

Ohlrich said he likes to look in fly tying magazines, pick a pattern with several variations and combine or improvise to create his own unique fly.

“That way you are kind of keeping it in the same realm, but you are making something a little bit different than what’s out there,” he said.

He also suggested tying with different materials.

“Experiment a little bit, but don’t get caught up in tying up a bunch of new stuff because then you have to go fishing to see if it works and you might just be wasting time and material,” he said. “It is a fine line.”

Kuepper said he enjoys taking a fly, breaking it down into its main components and then finding a way to improve it — each material provides a different action and profile when in the water, he said.

“They even change with varying degrees of current speed,” he said. “Each fly in my box has been tested in a swim tank and performs exactly how I need it to. That is my favorite thing. Designing a fly to do what I want it to do and imitate what I want it to imitate is my favorite aspect.”

Keep it simple

They are just fish, after all.

And, a fly that cost three times as much to tie, took the tier years to learn and master and is considered artistically superior is just as likely to get caught in a tree, snagged on rock or shredded by a veracious trout.

It boils down to two schools of thought, Atcheson said.

“It’ll still catch fish if it looks close,” he said. “... There are people that might tie for other tiers and make it look good for other tiers, and then there are people who fish totally utilitarian.

“So they say, rather than for show, it is for go.”

Ohlrich shared a similar sentiment.

“Some flies are more technical just because of the nature of the beast, but it needs to appeal to the fish and not the fisherman,” he said. “I have flies that I have tied that I have put a lot of time into that I think are super cool and I’ll fish it next to a fly that I’ve tied that really is super simple, well sometimes the super simple one will out-fish the super cool one.”


Brian Smith can be reached at


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