Fly tying has been a hobby of mine going on six years now. It started, as it does for many, as nothing more than trying to catch a fish on something you made, something that was your own. Since the first fish I landed on my hand tied San Juan Worm I've been obsessed with the art of fly tying and sport of fly fishing. I was recently moving my fly tying gear to another room when it truly dawned on me the amount of materials and tools I own. I thought about the actual monetary aspect of fly tying. I clearly saw I had invested hundreds if not thousands of dollars already into the art. This prompted me to ask a friend of his thoughts on tying versus buying flies not just for monetary reasons but the social aspects as well.
When Tom asked recently for some thoughts on tying versus buying flies, it caused me to reflect on nearly 50 years of enjoying a hobby that has brought and continues to bring personal joy to do and to share with others.
Before I share my thoughts on fly tying, I’m going to share some thoughts about this young man, Tom DeHart, who edits this website. Tom and I met at a fly tying event in Mt Home AR about a year ago, where fly tiers from across the country come to share their skills and learn new techniques. Tom was one of the featured fly tiers, and despite his youthful age I was impressed by both his tying skills and his engaging personality. The fact that he has developed a website to share and encourage community among fellow tiers is awesome, and the level of detail in which he writes and photographs is great. I believe he is and will continue to be a great encouragement and information source to those who seek to advance their fly fishing and tying skills. It is my greatest hope that his efforts will encourage many fellow youth to pursue the great sport of fly fishing and the art of fly tying. Tom’s efforts should be applauded and encouraged.
Countless fly fishers have considered the decision of whether to learn to tie their own flies, and their specific reasons vary. One of the initial thoughts for many is, “it might be less expensive to tie my own flies instead of buying them”. With the average price of retail purchased flies being in the three to six dollar range, it’s a natural part of the thought process.
Well, let’s put this thought into perspective. First, about every fly tier I know would laugh at the notion that tying your own flies is more cost effective than buying them. Most would admit that they would never take the time to calculate their investment in the tools and materials they have accumulated over a period of
time. They can tie an infinite variety of patterns, have nearly a lifetime of materials collected, but are constantly seeking the latest greatest tool to buy, along with the constant flow of new tying materials and hooks that come out each year. Enough said, overall cost efficiency is not a reason to tie your own flies. However, in the very rare case that one might have a relative who wills them their collection of good (not a bunch of junk like tools and moth eaten old materials) fly tying tools, hooks and materials, then most or all of the initial costs are eliminated and the cost of tying flies would be very minimal. Few people are fortunate in this regard.
So, what are some other reasons people seek and pursue the art of fly tying?
I believe for most the biggest single reason they got “hooked” on fly tying is the notion that they constructed something from fur and feathers on a hook that a fish was fooled into reacting to as natural food in their environment.
For those of you that tie flies, think about the first few (probably) poorly constructed flies you tied that actually caught fish, and the thrill that resulted. Everyone’s experience is different, but it is a personal milestone in their fly fishing autobiography.
For me, those first pathetic looking #12 woolly worms were tied using a large garage workbench vise that still sits in my mother’s garage to this day. It’s almost unthinkable that huge vise could properly hold such a small hook. But you know what? Those flies caught trout at Bennett’s Spring and panfish at my neighborhood lake. And I can tell you that I was absolutely hooked on tying my own flies from the first successful use of those crude ties.
Decades later, it is still a thrill to know that my flies catch the fish I seek, but probably an even greater thrill to see newcomers to fly tying experience that connection for the first time. It is also great fun and an opportunity to learn to advance one’s tying skills by attending a fly tying event like the Sowbug Roundup that is held in Mt. Home AR every spring. There are perhaps 100 fly tiers who share their knowledge and experience, tying everything from the tiniest of trout flies to very large freshwater bass and saltwater flies.
There has never been a better time to learn to tie flies than now. With the learning process facilitated by clubs and fly shops that offer classes on fly tying, as well as resources like YouTube on the web, one must simply dedicate some time and energy to learning and polishing the techniques. The old adage, “practice makes perfect”, certainly applies to the art of fly tying.
Dave Whitlock, a longtime friend and mentor, says “fly tying is the other half of fly fishing”, and I totally agree. Not that you have to be a greatly skilled fly tyer to fully enjoy the sport of fly fishing, but it makes the total experience more rich and complete.
When my father finally decided to learn to tie flies, I know it made his overall fly fishing experience more rich. He was a very average fly tier related to his skill and techniques, but I know he enjoyed it tremendously and I was also impressed
with how much time he spent encouraging and helping others learn to tie.
In conclusion, I will share a true story that Dave and Emily Whitlock related several years ago that occurred with a student in one of their fly fishing schools in Arkansas. Their multi-day schools included hands on classroom learning, casting instruction on their pond, tying some basic flies, and on the water fishing experience both on the pond and the White River.
In their school one week was a dentist and when it came time for the fly tying experience he sat disinterested. When asked why, he told Dave that he had no interest in learning to tie because he could afford to buy the flies he would need for his fishing. But, with a little coaxing from Dave, he agreed to tie a few simple Woollybuggers.
A short time later, the students had the opportunity to fish their personally tied flies on the pond. After a while, Dave approached his student that had begrudgingly tied some of his own. The student was standing with an empty tippet. When Dave asked if something was wrong, the student replied that he had broken off the last of the flies he’d tied. So, Dave pulled out a box with lots of flies and said not to worry that he has plenty of flies. But much to Dave’s surprise and delight, the student refused Dave’s flies and said he was going back into the classroom to tie some more flies of his own. And so, it was obvious at that moment that he became “hooked” on fly tying, too.