How to Tie Small Flies

Fly Fishing Expert Robert Levin explains how to tie small flies for hooking those elusive trout, including step-by-step instructions and a materials list!

A trout is held in a winter glove. There is ice in the river that the trout came from and a fishing net is visible in the frame.

Photo by Jack Murrey

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If you are just getting started with fly tying, a size 14 hook may seem tiny. However, those who pursue wary trout year-round will come to learn the value of going ultra-small. Hooks down to size 24—or even smaller—can often be the difference between going home empty-handed and landing the fish of a lifetime. When the fish won’t turn for a big, bushy, dry fly, make sure you have some small imitations in the arsenal.

Those looking to venture out in the winter may only find success with the smallest of offerings. Although these patterns can be daunting, there are some things you can do to avoid some serious frustration.

The Materials

Six different types of thread for tying flies are pictured along with two wire bobbins holding two other kids of thread. The threads are a range of colors including green, red, tan, and black.

Photo by Robert Levin

One of the most common mistakes anglers make when tying small flies is using the wrong thread. 8/0 thread is perfect for your typical size 4-18 fly, but size 20’s and smaller require a thinner diameter thread. It is easy to underestimate the difference proper thread size can make on your pattern. If you’re tying a dry fly, think about using materials that enable a small profile but will keep your pattern afloat. Small dry flies often sit in the film of the water, so adding some bright polypropylene or calf tail can do wonders when it comes to visibility. Choose dubbing (such as ultrafine) that will absorb floatant and can be applied in small quantities.

You'll also want to make sure you get a ceramic bobbin instead of a metal one when working with these small flies so that you don't find yourself breaking the really thin thread that's required for these smaller flies!

Proportions, Proportions, Proportions

When tying small flies, every wrap matters. One of the most common mistakes new tiers make is failing to back off of erroneous wraps. Be deliberate with every turn of the thread; every rotation should serve a purpose. Small flies typically eliminate the need to secure bulky materials, so keep it tight and pay close attention to the proportions of the fly. If your finished product seems lumpy or unnatural, practice on a larger hook and pay close attention to the proportions. The thorax, body, and head should occupy the same ratio as they would on a size 10.

Don’t Crowd the Head

When you are attempting to tie on a size 28 midge in freezing cold conditions, there is nothing worse than a glob of head cement blocking the eye of the hook. Take the time to think through the number of wraps each material will require and don’t hesitate to back off when necessary. If you are having trouble keeping the eye of the hook clear, consider using a small glass bead to provide a buffer for your wraps. These beads can also be very effective as they can imitate an air bubble on an emerging midge or mayfly.

Tie in Batches

The best way to progress your fly tying skills is to tie patterns in batches, ideally a dozen or more. If you are tying a bead-headed pattern, put the bead on all 12 hooks before starting. This will do wonders for your efficiency. New tiers will quickly realize a fly looks significantly worse twenty minutes after tying compared to the first glance. Tying a dozen or more at a time helps unearth the nuances that make a fly a winner.

Pretty Flies Catch Fisherman, Not Fish

Despite all of this talk of technique or materials, don’t take things too seriously. Fly fishing is a luxury that few get to enjoy. The reality is that nature does not reflect perfect lines. Oftentimes the more chewed up a fly is, the more likely a trout is to eat it. Practice as much as you can, but keep in mind the rusty zebra midge in the bottom of your cup can still sting some lips.

The Vice Setup

When going small, a rotating vice can be a huge help. The ability to palmer small hackle or wire can be much easier with a rotating vice. Adjust the jaws carefully so you grip the hook firmly but don’t damage it. These hooks are made with fine wire that bends more easily.

While we are on the subject of hooks, buy good ones. Bargain hooks may help the budget, but they often fail the reliability test. How do you know which hooks are good? Check the suggested materials list at end of this article.

Tying a Zebra Nymph

Nymph flies are probably the most popular of the small size variety. A simple-to-tie example of this is the ubiquitous Zebra Nymph. It can be tied in various colors and will be the fly I use in our tying images.

A container of beads for tying flies. There are several colored beads in blues, greens, oranges, and browns. There are a few silver ones sitting outside of the box in different sizes.

Photo by Robert Levin

The classic example uses a metal bead for a head. These beads can come in a variety of metal types and sizes. Most are round, but they also come in a cone shape.

Metal beads are appropriate when fishing in fast-moving water. They help sink the fly down to where the fish are feeding. However, they are much more costly than a glass bead. Instead, some folks use a glass bead head and place a small split shot on the line about a foot or so above the fly. This gets the fly down in faster water, and you can always take off the split shot in still or slow-moving water where a glass bead sinks the fly fast enough.

I often use glass beads as they are far less expensive than the metal beads. In the image above, tungsten metal beads are in front of the box of glass beads.

Step One

A fishing hook with a bead is held in vice jaws. There is a thread hanging off the hook.

Photo by Robert Levin

Start your fly by placing a bead on the hook and sliding it forward to the hook eye. Place the hook in the vise so the hook point is just covered. Fasten the thread to the hook, starting just beyond the bead as it rests on the hook eye.

Step Two

The same hook and bead from above are pictured in the vice jaws with more thread around the hook.

Photo by Robert Levin

Wrap a covering of close-wound thread all the way to the bend of the hook and back up again. Next, you will fasten the length of wire to the hook as shown above.

Step Three

The same hook and bead and thread from above is pictured in the vice jaws but now there is even more thread and the fly looks almost complete.

Photo by Robert Levin

Once the wire is attached, you can begin to build a tapered body by wrapping thread along the hook in successive layers, starting at the bead head and going toward the bend. As you add layers, make the layers shorter so a taper is formed. All layers start at the edge of the bead head.

Step Four

The same fly as above is pictured but now has the ultrathin wire wrapped around it. There is a thread and a wire hanging from the fly still and it is still being held in the vice jaws.

Photo by Robert Levin

When the body is complete, it is time to wrap the wire forward to simulate a segmented body. Before starting the wire wrap, fasten the thread just behind the bead with a half hitch or whip finish knot. This will allow you to use both hands in guiding the wire wrap as some tension needs to be kept on the thread to keep it from unwrapping.

After capturing the wire just behind the bead, whip finish and trim the tag ends of the thread and wire. Apply a small amount of head cement or UV glue. The fly is finished!

A fly resembling a zebra nymph sits next to a quarter to show the size. The fly is tiny compared to the quarter.

Photo by Robert Levin

This simple set of steps is all you need to tie any number of nymph imitations! Some variations may include a collar behind the bead, which will be an easy addition usually done just before finishing the fly. Some also may include a tail or wings. A small sample is shown below.

Several different types of flies for fly fishing sit in a fly box. There are three rows with some brown flies, some black flies, and some green flies.

Photo by Robert Levin

Keep in mind that small flies are stored best in a fly box designed for them. These boxes are designed with closer slits and can accommodate more flies without jumbling them all together or poking new holes in the fly supports.

A larger photo of the same fly box showing two sides of the fly box this time. On the left there are several flies on the right it is a bit more empty but one section where the rows are closer together. On the side where the rows are closer together there are some small flies pictured.

Photo by Robert Levin

A concern for some of us is threading these small flies onto the end of the leader or tippet. You may want to consider having a few threading aids with you in a handy place. You might also want to have a flip-up magnifier on your cap peak when using these small flies.

Suggested materials for Zebra Nymphs

Hooks

  • Tiemco (TMC2488 - TMC2499SP-BL)
  • GAMAKATSU (268302-25)

Wire

  • UTC Ultra Wire by Wapsi (Size XS for anything smaller than a size 20)

Thread

  • Danville’s Flat Waxed Nylon
  • UTC Waxed 14/0

Beads

  • Sized for hooks (follow the recommendation if listed in fly recipe)

To find the gear above or to ask a question about your fly tying gear, reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated. Tight lines! Have fun out there!

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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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