An Expert Guide to the Gear You Need for Fly Tying

Fly Fishing Expert Robert Levin deep dives into all of the tools and materials you need to tie a fly.

The hands of an older man work on flying a tie with feathers on it.

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

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Welcome fellow fly fishers. Fly tying has been a fundamental part of fly fishing since its inception. It has evolved over time into a pastime and hobby enjoyed by many, including those who do not actually fish with their creations! For those of us who do, fly tying has its own special rewards. There’s nothing quite like fashioning an insect-like imitation made of tidbits of fur and feathers and fooling a fish into biting it.

For those getting started in fly tying, the process can be challenging. I am going to take you through the first stages of fly tying in an organized, step-by-step fashion that will save you the cost and frustration of doing it experimentally. I will explain just what you really need to know in order to do this comfortably and efficiently. Before you know it, life-like creatures will be coming out of your fly tying vise and catching you fish. Fooling a fish is easier than you might think!

To help make all of this information easier to comprehend, included in this article are links to video clips that illustrate in more detail the items we are discussing in the article.

Tools

The first place to start is to become familiar with the tools and materials used for fly tying. Let’s begin with the tools.

Fly Tying Vise

An image of two simple vises clamped onto a piece of plywood. The text reads: "Your start vise should look something like this. It's not a big expense if you don't enjoy fly tying."
An image of a rotary vise above the plank of wood it's clamped to. It reads "This is a rotary vise. The hook shank stays on the centerline. This one is mostly plastic and not expensive."

The centerpiece of your tool collection is the fly tying vise. They come in a wide variety of configurations, and all are adjustable in some fashion. Some are designed to rotate the hook in a horizontal plane, allowing you to feed material onto the hook as it is being rotated. Many hold the hook in one position as you feed the material onto the hook by rotating your hand around the stationary hook. The bottom line for all of the vise designs is that it holds the hook firmly rigid and does not damage it. Just about all hooks are tempered hard and hold up well to being grasped firmly in a vise, but keep an eye out for the point of the hook as it’s the weakest part and can be damaged. You must also be aware not to stick yourself!

Adjustments to the vice are covered in the video below.

Bobbins

An image of five bobbins and two dental floss threaders on a white background. The text reads "Bobbins come with metal or ceramic tubes. The blue loops are for threading the tubes. Look for them where dental floss is sold."

The most used tool, other than the vise, is the bobbin. The bobbin is used to hold the tying thread, wire, and weighting material, like tin wire (lead wire was formally the standard but it is now frowned upon because of its toxicity), and some decorative materials like Mylar.

Learn more about bobbins in the video below.

Scissors

An image of eight small scissors on a white background. The text reads, "Scissors come in many sizes. Make sure the finger holes fit your hand! Some are available with carbide cutting edges."

Next, you will need several scissors. You need at least one pair of sharp-pointed scissors to get into tight spots to clip threads and other easy-to-cut materials. You should also have heavier utility scissors to cut things like feather stems, plastic fiber materials, and other harder materials. For metals, use a wire-cutting clipper or diagonal pliers.

I discuss scissor choices more in the video below.

Other Tools

Half Hitch Tool

The author displays his half hitch tools and bodkins. The text reads "Half hitch tools" above the half hitch tools, "Bodkins or needles on a stick" above the bodkins, and "This has one of each" for a half-bodkin, half-half hitch tool.

Photo by Robert Levin

When you are just getting started in fly tying, you will need a half hitch tool to finish the fly.

Bodkin

Next, you need bodkin, which is essentially a needle on a stick. This is used to place a spot of glue or head cement in place.

Hackle Plier

An image of hackle pliers and an assortment of tools on a white background. The text reads, "Hackle pliers come with handles or without for winding. Red and black gizmos are test lead tips from Radio Shack."

Photo by Robert Levin

The last item on the intro tool list is a hackle plier, used to hold hackles or feathers while you wind them around a hook.

Materials

Now, let’s consider the materials you need to start tying flies.

Hook

The author displays three clear boxes with compartments full of hooks. The text reads, "After a while, you will have a collection of hooks. Use stainless steel hooks for saltwater flies."

Photo by Robert Levin

The starting point is on the hook. OK sorry, I could not pass that one up! Hooks are, of course, where you start a fly. They come in a great number of styles, sizes, and configurations.

Consider first the species you are going to pursue and the average size of that species in the region where you’ll fish. We all like to be prepared for that monster specimen that we hope will notice and attack our fly, but in reality, too big a hook size will prevent you from catching the more modest-sized fish, which can be a lot of fun to do battle with.

Hook sizes are the reverse of what you might expect. The larger the hook number, the smaller it is, up to 1 which is a mid-sized hook.

Above 1, there is a .0 added and the scale goes like this: (Tiny fly) 22, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, 1 (Mid-sized fly) .01, .02, .03, .04, .05, .06 (Very large fly).

A fish hook with text added, pointing to the eye, shank, bend, barb, point, and gap, with the title "Anatomy of a Fish Hook."

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

There are three measurements to be considered: the gape of the hook (the distance between the hook shank and the point), the length of the shank, and the diameter of the hook wire.

The number of the hook refers to the gape. A #8 hook has about a ¼-inch gape, a #22 hook has about a 1/16th-inch gape. Start your hook collection with #10 or #12 hooks for trout dry flies. You will use larger sizes for bass, depending on the type of fly you are tying. Fly tying material recipes for a particular pattern will always include hook type and size. These recipes can be found in an online search and, of course, in books.

Hooks come in packs of 25, 50, and 100. More expensive hooks are typically sharper and more uniformly tempered. They are worth the extra cost. Buy good hooks or lose more fish!

Thread

The author's rack of thread. He has 10 different spools. The text reads, "Start with one spool of black and one light color, like tan or white."

Photo by Robert Levin

The next item to consider is the thread you tie with. This is another item you will eventually have a collection of. Don’t consider the cotton sewing thread you may have around the house because it is simply not strong enough. You create a lot of pressure on the thread while fly tying, much more than when sewing a button back on a garment. Instead, seek out fly tying thread, which comes in a variety of synthetic materials that are much stronger. You’ll find that it comes in endless colors and different diameters, and the size to use depends on the size hooks you are tying. The fly pattern you intend to tie will have a material recipe indicating the best thread and hook size. These recipes can be found in books, articles, and by doing an online search.

The first fly to practice tying is the classic Wooly Bugger. This pattern can be used for just about any sought-after species that swim in U.S. waters. It is tied in both dry streamer fly and weighted wet fly configurations using a variety of common inexpensive materials.

Feathers

Three tufts of feathers sit on a white background. On the left, is a red tuft. In the middle and above the two others is a speckled black and white tuft. On the right is a deep purple tuft. The text reads, "Here we have half a chicken next, called Grizzly, Red Marabou, and Purple Saddle Hackle."

Photo by Robert Levin

Chickens are indispensable for fly tying. Fortunately for us fly tiers, we only use their feathers for fly tying and we typically remove them anyway before we eat the chickens. My apologies to any vegetarian fly tiers out there! You are excluded. Special flocks of these birds have been bred specifically for fly tying. Their feathers have unique characteristics that make them very valuable. These characteristics are discussed and demonstrated in the Materials Video.

Fly tiers are really into poultry! We do not leave turkeys out. Several of their feathers contribute to the fly tying industry as well. The one most frequently used in flies is called marabou. They are the soft, down part of the turkey. The tail feathers, particularly of the wild variety, are also sought-after.

Yarn

A collection of the author's yarn, in variations of pink, orange, red, rust, and black. The text reads, "Chenille makes great fly bodies."

Photo by Robert Levin

Various yarns, commonly available in notion and fabric stores, are a frequently used material in many fly patterns. One, in particular, is called chenille, which comes in many colors and sizes. This is a great material to wrap on as a body, and therefore it is a very commonly used fly tying material.

Fur

A collection of the author's fur choices - a whole rainbow of color. They are each in their own plastic baggie. The text reads, "Synthetic fiber choices are endless."

Photo by Robert Levin

The next class of materials coming from the natural world is fur. Endless synthetic substitutes for animal fur are now part of our fly-tying material lexicon. Materials from rare and endangered species are no longer commonly offered. Instead, synthetic fibers have become the mainstay for most of the patterns that call for these materials, and rightly so.

Synthetic fibers are very prevalent in saltwater fly patterns and in many dry fly patterns as well. They are covered in detail in the video. You can pause the video and come back to this article as needed.

Artificial Eyes

A lot of species are attracted to flies that actually have eyes as part of the fly pattern. From using a plastic, synthetic-looking eye or cutting from a length of bead chain, there are various options that you can tie onto your fly and paint to look like an eye. They also function as a weight that helps bring the fly down in the water.

Organization

An image of a tool pouch with the text, "Keep your tools organized — they have a habit of hiding from you!"

Photo by Robert Levin

Staying organized is paramount in the fly tying realm, too much time will be spent looking for tools and materials as you need them otherwise. Your tool kit should include a pouch or stand to keep things together.

Like so many things, practice makes perfect. Start tying with a pattern like the Woolly Bugger. It is a productive fly everywhere in the world. Stay tuned for the next episode of this series: Tying Your First Fly, where I show you how to use all of these materials and tools to make your first fly!

If fly tying is something that you want to try, reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated. They can help you find all the right materials and put together the perfect, personalized fly tying kit for you to use.

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Written By
Robert Levin
Robert Levin
Fly Fishing Expert
I have been an avid fisherperson since my teenage years. Caught the bug from my dad who fished exclusively with a fly rod. Not that he ever fished with a fly on that rod, he trusted the weight of the fly line as it would not break when he pulled a five foot Chain Pickerel out of the lily pads in the...
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