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A Beginner’s Guide to Fly Tying – Essential Fly Tying Tools

Imagine a simpler time, legendary fly angler, Lee Wulff, is standing on the bank of the Miramichi squinting on a mayfly hatch on a cold New Brunswick morning.  As a healthy Atlantic Salmon rises on an unsuspecting mayfly, Mr. Wulff grins and decides it’s time to tie up a Royal Wulff the only way he knows how – by hand.  

While the traditional method of tying flies by hand is inspiring, today we have a host of helpful tying tools that make the task much easier and adaptable to different applications – from tying the tiniest size 24 zebra midge to the monstrous eight-inch patterns designed for pike.

As a beginner fly tyer, the numerous, almost dental-looking tying tools can be quite intimidating.  In this Beginner’s Guide to Fly Tying, we will demystify the most essential tools to help you get started and well on your way to tying your own flies.

Fly Tying Vises

The function of a vice is both simple and critical to fly tying – it keeps the hook secured in a fixed position so that materials like feathers or dubbing can be tied-in with greater precision to form a more uniform fly.  To use this tool, simply place the bent part of the hook shank between the vice jaws and tighten the vice so that the hook sits secure.

A good vice has quality components and craftsmanship and will put a solid grip on the hook shank.  The best vices also can be adapted to hold a wide variety of hook sizes for different kinds of fly patterns.

Most vices are equipped with a C-clamp that may be attached to a table or workbench.  Others use a heavy, pedestal base to keep the vice upright. To find a great value in a vice, look no further than the Togens Self-Locking Vice.  This vice features many sought after qualities at a price that is an excellent value.

Bobbin

A bobbin is used for holding the thread spool and for wrapping thread around the hook shank to tie in materials that form the body of the fly.  The benefits of using a bobbin include enhanced control over the amount of tension applied when adding materials to the hook shank. When used effectively, a bobbin will help the fly tyer create a fly that is more durable and realistic in appearance.  

To ready a bobbin for use, first place the spool into the bobbin cradle and insert the thread through the bobbin thread tube.  Now, to begin wrapping thread, hold the bobbin in one hand and pull out a small length of thread from the bobbin’s thread tube.  

While holding the tag end of the thread stationary at a 45-degree angle to the hook shank, use the other hand to hold the bobbin and wrap thread around hook shank to tie in materials. Using this angle will help the thread wrap uniformly around the hook shank, resulting in less wasted thread.

Scissors

Unlike your ordinary household scissors, the scissors used in fly tying are generally smaller and are razor sharp.  Fly tying scissors are all about making cuts in closer corners where exactness is key. Depending on the types of materials you are cutting, you may want to have a curved scissor with thinner blades to get a cleaner cut.  

These days, most fly tyers utilize at least two pairs of scissors while fly tying – one pair for precise cuts where the material is quite fine and soft (think hackle or nylon thread) and a household pair of scissors for courser materials (like monofilament or dear hair).  

Whatever you do, don’t let your family members use your tying scissors for other kinds of household crafts or projects.  These scissors are specially designed for precision cuts and using them for other, more heavy-duty application will dull the blade and render it a less effective tool.

Hair Stacker

Inevitably in the world of fly tying you will want to tie up a fly like the Elk-Hair Caddis.  The problem is, when hairs are taken from a deer or an elk hide, they are not usually uniform or even in height.  The hair stacker takes care of this issue.

To use a hair stacker, simply place the hair in the funnel section of the hair stacker.   Tap the stacker a few times on a hard surface. When you remove the upper section of the stacker, the hair tips should now be “stacked”, or aligned and ready for tying.

Hackle Pliers

Soft hackle is a delicate material and can prove challenging to wrap around a hook shank by hand.  Enter the hackle pliers, which make working with hackle a piece of cake.

To use this tool, tie in your soft hackle near the base feather stock on to the body of the fly.  Now, squeeze the sides of this tool to open the pliers and attach the pliers to the end of the hackle feather.   Wrap the hackle around the hook shank as desired.

Whip Finisher

Before you complete a fly, you need a way to secure the thread to the head of the fly with a knot.  The Whip Finish is the technique and the Whip Finisher is the tool used to accomplish this. Like many things in fly fishing, this technique takes a good bit of practice to master.  

To whip finish, first, hold the whip finisher tool in a stationary position (as pictured above).  Now, use the bobbin in your other hand to pull the thread towards you and place the hook (top end) of the tool over the thread.  

Next, wrap the hooked thread around the bend (bottom end) of the tool and release the rotary ball to allow the tool to spin. Now, raise the bobbin above the hook so that your hand rests on the vice (the bobbin will be held close to this position for the remainder of the technique) - the tool will spin one time, so that the hook section of the tool will be nearest to the jaws of the vice.  

Keeping the hooked thread perpendicular to the vice, wrap the tool around the hook shank three or four times.  Next, push the tool towards the vice so that the thread releases from the bend on the butt section of the tool.  Pull the bobbin away from the vice jaws to tighten the knot and pull the hook end of the tool out to finish the knot.  This completes the whip finish.