Want to improve your flies? Three tricks for developing professional-level fly tying skills

Getting married, having kids, and working a full-time job had put a big dent in my fly tying and fishing time. Luckily I had enough flies tied from my days as a single for the times I could go fishing.

Even though it had been a long time since I had tied a fly, you can’t keep a dog from a bone for long. As the kids got older—and my time became freer—I was ready to dive into fly tying again. But by then my skills were rusty. I turned out some really rough looking-flies.

Now, that may or may not bother the fish. But I didn’t want a lot of rough-looking flies populating my fly box. I decided I needed a way to improve my skills in a short amount of time. Thankfully, all that time away from tying flies hadn’t been wasted. I had picked up some tricks for learning new skills, and now it was time to apply them to improving my tying.

Here are three tricks I applied immediately:

Trick 1: Copy to learn

Trick 2: Improve observation

Trick 3: Do it right three times

Here’s how you can use these tricks to improve your tying starting with trick one, copying to learn.

Trick 1: Copy to learn

One of the biggest mistakes I made when first starting tying, and one that I wasn’t going to repeat this time, was only working from pictures in a book. Books were a wonderful resource for new patterns and steps for tying patterns. But they had one huge drawback I didn’t realize then. I didn’t have a real-life model to compare my results to.

As a result, my wings were perpetually too tall, my hackle was way too sparse, and my tails extended far beyond where they should have. How did I discover this? Because I ended up buying a few flies while my tying was on hiatus. As soon as they joined their brethren in my fly box, the mistakes became glaringly obvious.

To avoid making the same mistakes in proportions I had made before, the first order of business was to secure real-life models to compare my flies to. I made a quick trip to the fly shop and bought five patterns I wanted to perfect. And I bought them strategically. Each had a specific purpose.

A Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear to dive in rebuilding my skills with the number one beginner’s fly.

A Pheasant Tail Nymph to perfect nymph legs and a smooth tapered body.

A Prince Nymph to work on biots and wet fly hackle.

A Parachute Adams to get post and parachute hackle positioned correctly.

A Stimulator to develop palmered hackle skills.

Once I had my models, I was ready to really work on redeveloping my tying skills. But to improve I needed to improve my observation and see my mistakes, which is trick number two. 

Trick 2: Improve observation

If I was going to perfect my copies of the flies I had bought, I needed to see the mistakes. And I needed to have them glaringly obvious. 

Now, I do wear glasses, but my sight isn’t really that bad. The problem is that trout flies are so darned small it’s hard to see mistakes in detail. But I knew a simple solution from a past job working in the fly fishing section of an outdoor store. We had sold magnifying lenses for vises, and I knew that was exactly what I needed now.

To achieve my purpose, I bought a combination 2X magnifying lens with light on a stand. As soon as I put a fly under the magnified light, any bumps or imperfections became impossible to hide. 

Under that merciless light I could see my bumpy bodies, crowded heads, and any other problems with technique. In addition, comparing my flies with the models became exacting.

Now that I had models and a good way to observe my technique, it was time to do the work. But I needed a strategy, which is trick number three.

Trick 3: Do it right three times

Because my goal was to tie consistent quality flies, one perfect fly wouldn’t cut it. Also, I didn’t want to end up with a box full of mediocre flies, so I wasn’t focusing on quantity. To develop my skills and create quality flies, I decided to use the measure of three nearly perfect copies in a row. 

Why three? Three would force me to slow down and focus on each step to get it right. Any more and I’d risk trying to be too fast. Any fewer and I wouldn’t put in the repetitions to really learn the techniques. And if a fly did go off track, I’d either backtrack a step and redo, or clean the hook by cutting off the material with a razor blade, then start over. Starting over was a strong incentive to get it right.

By using this incentive to get things right, I became more purposeful at each step. This pushed me to practice doing things correctly throughout the whole process. The end result was a smooth workflow of well-developed skills.

At this point, you may wonder if you really need to buy a magnifying lens

Why not use only tricks one and three? After all, it will take effort to adjust to tying with a magnifying lens, it’s another piece of equipment on your tying desk, and it costs money that could be spend on other tying materials.

Those are valid objections, but I’ll make a strong argument for why it is worth buying the magnifying lens. Seeing our work up close reveals many things that get overlooked with the naked eye. To develop your tying skills, you need to take a good, up-close look at the flies you produce. Compare them with the models and spot the tiny differences that add up to a less than perfect copy. The magnifying lens reveals all.

And what if you already tie well?

You can still use these tricks to develop your skills. Pick up a new pattern at the fly shop and use the three tricks to learn to tie it. 

In doing so, you’ll learn to tie a new pattern well and practice your skills with an unfamiliar pattern. That newness will keep your mind interested as you hone your skills—and perhaps even learn some new skills—while not getting bored.

That’s how I plan to keep growing and developing as a tyer. Now that I have these five patterns down well, I have my eyes on the next set of flies I want to perfect: a midge to conquer tiny flies, the Brassie for wrapping a well-tapered body with copper wire, a CDC Emerging Caddis Pupa for tying CDC, a Sparkle Pupa for Antron body bubbles, and a Dave’s Hopper for dealing with dear hair. 

So, follow these three tricks to improve your tying skills

Use them and watch as the quality of your flies improve and become more and more consistent.

Trick 1: Copy to learn. Get a set of flies you want to learn to tie to a high level of quality, use them as models to compare your flies to, 

Trick 2: Improve vision. Get a magnifying lens with light to see your mistakes and imperfections.

Trick 3: Do it right three times. Each time you tie, work to create three nearly perfect copies of your models.

With just a few focused sessions, I think you’ll be well-pleased at your improvements. 


© Philip Riggs 2014