trout flies- tie or buy?
Trout Flies

Trout Flies- Tie or Buy?

Within the sport of fly fishing, one may pursue a number of avenues beyond the fishing itself. One may choose to build rods, explore the vast fly-fishing literature, or travel the world in search of streams and different fishing cultures. But the most commonly pursued avenue is the tying of flies.

After dropping a hundred dollars at a local flyshop for a handful of flies, many anglers think that tying their own flies will save some money. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There is a significant start-up cost, and always new things to try. As John Gierach put it in “Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers“- “And of course more often than not, trying out new and different patterns meant buying new hooks, materials, tools, and books, or, later, instructional videotapes, all of which kept the day when I’d start saving money by tying my own flies perpetually out in front of me like a carrot on a stick”.

trout flies- tie or buy?
the investment!

But there are good reasons to tie our own flies. Some take fly tying to an art-form, producing flies truly worthy of framing and mounting on a wall. But lacking both the skill and patience to do so, I tie my flies to fish ’em. And I believe that doing so has made me a more observant, better angler.

There is nothing like a frustrating day of fishing, filled with refusals by fussy trout, to cause one to critically reassess everything from the presentation to fly selection. If the analysis leads one to think it’s the fly, then one needs to either buy or tie some different flies. I think that tying allows me to tweak refused flies more readily than searching for alternatives in the fly-bins of the nearest flyshop.

Surface Flies

Tweaking is so much more than simply size, shape, and color. In the case of dry flies, I begin by assessing how the fly lands on the water, upright or on its side? If the latter is often the case, how should the wings and hackles be changed to correct this?  Is the tail better tied to imitate the hatched dun’s tail, or as an attached shuck? What shade of dubbing best approximates the natural’s color? Does a bit of flash in the dubbed abdomen or thorax draw more strikes? Should the abdomen be ribbed, and with what? Does the shape suggest vulnerability? How visible is the fly to me, so that I can readily track it during the drift?

trout flies- tie or buy?
parachute patterns ready for “stream testing”

Subsurface Flies

In the case of subsurface flies, I begin by assessing where the fly is drifting in the water column. If imitating emergers, is the fly staying in the upper 1-3 inches of water, just below the water’s surface? When fishing wet flies, does the fly drop a bit lower in the water column, and does the hackle flutter to give a life-like presentation? If fishing nymphs, is the fly weighted adequately to reach the stream bottom? If fishing streamers, does the weight keep the fly in the middle of the water column, allowing it to be jigged? And does it have plenty of “wiggle” to simulate a live, swimming fish?

Additional considerations for subsurface flies include body color, body material, ribbing, flash, eyes or no eyes for streamers, color and shape of weighted heads for nymphs and streamers, and cast-ability.

trout flies- tie or buy?
nymph patterns ready for “stream testing”

Putting it Together

I try to answer these questions by tying a chosen pattern with variations of some of the characteristics noted above. Then I fish them rigorously, watch their behavior in or on the water, and of course, note the trout’s receptiveness. Eventually, I settle on a pattern, which becomes a “go-to fly”, until the trout seem to be ignoring it. Then the whole process begins again.

Every tier of flies goes through this process, which results in a tier’s unique box of “go-to flies”. Usually they are not unique enough to carry a tier’s name, but they are stream-tested, and fished with confidence. There is also the pleasure of landing a fish with one’s own creation.

For me, tying flies is a nice way to pass some time in the evening, especially when getting ready for a day of fishing. But more importantly, it causes me to be critical of my fly fishing, which in turn helps me become a better fly-fisher. If still buying flies, but wishing to advance your game, try tying your own flies. It is a rewarding aspect of fly fishing.

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Written by Al Simpson, February, 2022.

One thought on “Trout Flies- Tie or Buy?

  1. Love your stuff. 60 years ago I tied. Now I buy where ever I go. Seeing as I never have the “right fly, my guide always has one for me

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