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December 11, 2016
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Learning to Tie a Fly; ‘Up’ your game

This Comparaemerger fly, in the vice, is in the process of being tied on a hook. You can see the antron shuck and deer-hair wing tied on.
Photo by Jeff White

When I first moved here in 2001, I’d never picked up a fly rod, let alone knew what fly fishing was, or what “matching the hatch” meant or other fly fishing lingo. Fast forward 13 years. I now know a lot more, but still felt I was missing a piece of fly fishing—tying my own flies. The Beaverkill Angler’s spring fly-tying class was the perfect opportunity to learn. What better place to learn how to tie your own flies than in the official Trout Town USA—Roscoe, NY?

Matt Nelson, our instructor, has been teaching fly fishing and fly tying for 20 years and managing the Beaverkill Angler for four years. Patient, knowledgeable and helpful, Matt says there are two reasons someone wants to learn to tie their own flies. One is the pride of catching a fish on a fly you’ve tied yourself. The second reason is to save money. Although as Matt pointed out, once you’ve learned to tie, you may not save much, because you’ll be buying lots of materials, such as feathers, hooks and tying tools, as you expand your repertoire.

As it was once explained to me, tying your own flies will help you “up” your fishing game by helping you pay more attention to the bugs and to the fish and how they eat the bugs. This makes perfect sense to me. I thought I knew a lot about fishing until Matt explained the differences in each pattern we were tying and how to use that particular pattern to catch a fish.

The fly-tying course I took was offered over three Saturdays in March for three hours per day, which seems like a long time to devote, but it really went by quickly. Matt had laid out the course very thoughtfully. Each session started with a handout with step-by-step instructions illustrated by drawings of each step. He demonstrated the steps in tying the fly and then walked us through each step. He gradually built our skills by increasing the complexity of the flies we tied.

Matt took us through the paces with the following flies: Woolly Bugger, Pheasant Tail Nymph, Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, Peaking Caddis Larva, Elk Hair Caddis, Poly Wing Spinner, Comparadun, Parachute Style Dry Fly, and Traditional Upright Wing Dry Fly. We started out with a fairly easy fly, the Wooly Bugger, a streamer fished underwater that is tied on a large hook using just a few materials and simple techniques. By the third session we were tying the Comparadun Style Fly, a versatile fly that, while simple looking, requires precise technique to be presentable, durable and well balanced.

There are a few tools you will need to get started with fly tying: a tying vice, which holds the hook while you build the fly; a thread bobbin, which holds the spool of thread that ties the fly’s materials onto the hook; and scissors. Most flies are tied with the same materials, which might include feathers, animal hair, wax, glue and other natural and artificial components. The Comparadun Style Dry Fly we tied was an emerger, also known as a Comparaemerger, which imitates the mayfly as it emerges from its aquatic state to become the adult airborne insect you might see in the air or sitting on the water surface. It uses a dry fly style fish hook (hook size is dependent on the fly you are trying to imitate); dubbing (often rabbit hair, which is used to build the fly body); thread to match the dubbing; coastal deer hair for the wing; and some antron fibers (polyester yarn), which is used to imitate the trailing shuck or exoskeleton of the bug as it emerges from its aquatic form.

For every fly you tie, your first step will be to place the hook in the vice. Next put your thread on the bobbin and tie some thread on the hook. Each fly has a specific order in which to tie on the materials to optimize the finished product. For a Comparaemerger, you tie the antron shuck on first by taking a small amount of antron and tying it onto the hook near the bend. Then you cut some deer hair, and in order to stack it neatly you might want to use a deer-hair stacker. Tie the stacked hair onto your hook in front of where you tied on the antron. The tricky technique here is to get the deer hair to splay out into a fan (to imitate the wings of the mayfly) by properly tensioning the tying thread.

Then you place some dubbing onto the waxed thread and begin wrapping the thread and dubbing from the back of the fly towards the eye of the hook (away from the actual hook), ending right before the eye of the hook. The final step is to build up a small head of thread and then tie your fly off. There are two methods of tying off the fly—one is called the half hitch and can be done by using your fingers, and the other is called the whip finish, requiring a special tool called a whip finisher. Once you’ve mastered these techniques you will be able to tie just about any fly out there.

For me, this course was just the right setting to learn the techniques needed to continue tying my own flies. The setting was small and intimate, consisting of 11-year-old Dan Flynn, brought by his grandfather Bill, and myself. Dan has been fishing for about seven years and had tied flies before but was able to perfect some of his skills. I just know that Dan, a quick learner, will be tying flies and fishing for years to come. We joked that Dan picked up fly tying so easily that he would be tying flies for his father and grandfather in no time.

While I am not yet a master fly tyer, I will continue to improve my tying skills thanks to what I learned in this course. If you are looking to get started tying your own flies, I can recommend Matt at the Beaverkill Angler. You can also visit them in Roscoe or find them on the web at

[Kristin White has lived in the Upper Delaware River region for over 10 years and currently calls Callicoon, NY her home. She is the director of the Western Sullivan Public Library and enjoys spending her free time near or on the river.]