Frederic M. Halford, 19th Century English fly tyer

Fly tying (also historically referred to in England as dressing flies) is the process of producing an artificial fly used by fly fishing anglers to catch fish. Fly tying is a manual process done by a single individual using hand tools and a variety of natural and manmade materials that are attached to a hook. Although the recent history of fly tying dates from the middle 1800s, fly tyers were engaged in tying flys since at least 200 AD.

Helen Shaw, an American professional fly tyer, defined fly tying as the "simple process of binding various materials to a hook with thread".[1] Fly tying is a practical art form that many individuals are able to practice with reasonable success and tie flies which produce results when fly fishing. It is also a hobby that benefits from the fly tyer's knowledge of the insects and other food sources that fish consume in the wild.[2]

Fly tying requires some basic equipment; a vise to hold the hook, a bobbin to dispense and provide tension on thread, scissors, pliers and the appropriate materials for the particular fly pattern selected. These materials consists mostly of feathers, fur/animal hairs, threads, and various synthetic materials.

Fly tying equipment enables the fly tyer to efficiently and effectively assemble and secure the materials on the hook to produce a particular type of fly. Fly tying materials were originally limited to various furs, feathers, threads and hooks. Since the mid-1900s, many more natural and synthetic materials are available to use to tie flies.[3]

Fly patterns are the instructions or recipes required to create the fly. They specify hook sizes and types, the materials and colors to be used, as well as the sequence to be followed and the assembly methods. There are thousands of possible fly patterns available to the tyer.


Some view fly tying as an art form. E. C. Gregg, in his 1940 publication, stated that "The object of this book will be throughout its entirety to teach in a practical manner the Art of Fly Tying in all its branches."[4]

In contrast, A. K. Best suggests practical ways to streamline the tying technique.[5] Best emphasizes that fly tying is not only a handicraft but also a science rooted in carefully observing fish and their prey, and then designing and tying artificial flies to replicate that prey in order to catch fish. One of the first contributions to this approach was made by Preston Jennings in his A Book of Trout Flies.[6]


Ogden's improved fly vise (1887)[7]
The fly dresser's tools from The Trout Fly Dresser's Cabinet of Devices or How To Tie Flies for Trout and Grayling Fishing (1919)[8]

The history of fly tying (and fly design) reflects the evolution and history of fly fishing. Basic fly-tying methods have not changed dramatically from the mid-19th century to the present. Most changes resulted from the introduction and adaptation of new materials, especially synthetics, and new hook designs. Images from the early literature devoted to fly tying and fly construction do not show processes significantly different from those used today. The tools associated with fly tying today have, however, evolved along with new technologies. In the mid-19th century flies were tied without benefit of a hook vise. Instead, the hook was held by the fingers as the fly was constructed. The following is from Rod Fishing in Clear Waters (London 1860):

Your materials being now in a state of readiness, the hook must be first tied on with waxed silk to the finest end of the hair or gut left after cutting off the curled end, in this manner (Plate vii. No. 1): Take the bend of the hook between your left finger and thumb, the shank projecting; place an end of the waxed silk, which should be about six inches in length, and the end of the gut along the underside of the shank; pass the silk over until you have wrapped it down to the end of the shank, and two or three turns back for the head of the fly; take the feather or hackle as prepared (Plate vii. No. 2), put the point of the feather from where it is turned back with the outside next the hook, and hold it there with your left finger and thumb until you pass the silk over it, just where you left off, wrapping it twice or thrice on its downward rounds to the bend of the hook; take your scissors and cut off the root of the feather, and the superfluous gut under the bend of the hook, leaving it not quite so long as the body of the fly has to be made; take the thick end of your feather in your tweezers or pliers and wrap it over three or four times close together, following the silk wrappings until it is all, or as much as you deem sufficient, twirled on; then take your silk and pass over the end once or twice; cut off the superfluous part of the feather and wrap up the shank with the silk, evenly and regularly, to form the body of the fly, and fasten off by a loop-knot or two; or, if you want a thick-bodied fly or one of flossed silk, turn down again and fasten off at the shoulder; cut off the silk left, set the feather right with your needle and finger and thumb, and the fly is made or dressed. This is the simplest method.

— Henry Wade, 1860[9]

One of the earliest references to the use of a fly-tying vise is in Ogden on Fly Tying (London, 1887). Other fly-tying tools—scissors, hackle pliers, tweezers, bodkins, etc.—have remained remarkably similar since the late 1800s.[7]


Tying artificial flies has always been about imitating some form of fish prey. Significant literature on the concepts of imitation exists especially for trout flies. A Book of Trout Flies – Jennings (1935),[6] Streamside Guide to Naturals & Their Imitations – Art Flick (1947), Matching the Hatch.. Schweibert (1955),[10] Selective Trout - Swisher and Richards (1971),[11] Nymphs - Schweibert (1973),[12] Caddisflies - LaFontaine (1989),[13] Prey - Richards (1995) are a few 20th-century titles that deal extensively with imitating natural prey. From a human perspective, many fly patterns do not exactly imitate fish prey found in nature, but they are nevertheless successful. A successful or "killing" fly pattern imitates something that the target species preys on. This has resulted in fly tyers and fishers devising additional terms to characterize those flies that obviously do not imitate anything in particular, yet are nevertheless successful at catching fish. These additional terms are inconsistently but commonly associated with trout-fly patterns because of their huge variety, both historical and contemporary. The term Attractor pattern has been applied to flies which resemble nothing in particular but are successful in attracting strikes from fish.[14] Dick Stewart characterizes these same patterns as General Purpose.[15] Dave Hughes describes the same flies as Searching flies and characterizes three levels of imitation: Impressionistic, Suggestive and Imitative.[16]

Paul Schullery explains that although much has been written about imitation theories of fly design, all successful fly patterns must imitate something to attract the fish to strike. The huge range of fly patterns documented today for all sorts of target species—trout, salmon, bass and panfish, pike, saltwater, tropical exotics, etc.—are not easily categorized as merely imitative, attractors, searching or impressionistic.[17][18]

Tools and materials


Fly tying workbench
Illustrative selection of modern fly tying tools
Whip finisher
Hackle plyers

Various tools enable and optimize fly tying. Skip Morris, a professional fly tyer, lists the essential tools as being a vise to hold the hook of the fly to be tied, bobbin holders, hackle pliers, hackle gauges, work lights and magnifying glass to better see the fly as it is tied, hair stackers, scissors and tweezers. Other optional tools are pliers, toothpicks, bodkins,[19] dubbing twisters, blenders, floss bobbin holders, whip finishers, wing burners and bobbin threaders.[20]


Foam Beetle with buggy dubbing
Black and Brown Wooly Worm with bead head
Elk Hair Caddis

Fly tying material can be anything used to construct a fly on a hook. Traditional materials were threads, yarns, furs, feathers, hair, tinsels, cork, balsa and wire. Today's materials include not only all sorts of natural and dyed furs, hair and feathers, but also a wide array of synthetic materials. Rabbit, mink, muskrat, fox, bear, squirrel, deer, elk, and moose hair and other furs are commonly incorporated into artificial flies. Synthetics have allowed fly tyers to replicate rare and sometimes endangered furs and feathers as well as create completely new types of flies. Synthetics such as rubber legs, foam bodies, plastic wings, transparent plastic cords, chenilles, and all sorts and colors of flashy materials that can be incorporated into the wings and bodies of today's artificial fly are available to the fly tyer. Whereas lead wire (11.34 gm/cm3) was the traditional method of weighting flies, today's weighting materials include beads, cone heads, and lead-free wire (made from a nontoxic heavy alloy). Silicone, epoxy, kevlar materials are regularly incorporated into modern artificial fly patterns.[22][23][24][25]


Early color plate showing fly tying steps (1860)[29]
The Parachute Adams Dry Fly has a down eye and a parachute wing with hackle wound around the parachute[21]

The fly pattern is the recipe for any particularly named fly. In older literature, especially prior to the 20th century, fly patterns were referred to as dressings. The pattern specifies the size range and type of hook to be used, materials including type, color and size, and in some cases specific instructions on the order of application of materials and how to achieve a particular effect or configuration. Fly patterns allow tyers to consistently reproduce any given fly over time. A Light Cahill dry fly produced by one tyer will look remarkably similar to the same fly produced by a completely different tyer if the pattern is followed with reasonable accuracy and with comparable materials. Patterns may also lay out alternatives for different materials and variations.

Traditionally, fly patterns have been found in fly-fishing and fly-tying literature and periodicals. Although fly patterns do provide some consistency, different writers may publish patterns with small to moderate differences across pattern descriptions for the same fly. In many cases, greatest differences are in the tying technique rather than in the form, color or materials. Fly patterns may or may not have an image or drawing of the finished fly to guide the tyer. Historically, fly patterns have been included in texts that discuss fishing with a particular genre of fly, fly-fishing technique or fly-fishing for specific species or genre of gamefish. There are, however, texts that are pure fly pattern and tying references with little or no instruction on how to fish them.

The Internet has made available new avenues for fly tying instruction, especially with step by step illustrated instructions with tying recipes published on websites and YouTube videos. In-person fly tying instruction and observation is another valuable source for learning fly tying.

Typical parts of a Salmon Fly. The hook eye can be straight, sloped down, or sloped down and turned 90 degrees for a jig eye.[30] * A – Tag * C – Tail * D – Butt * E – Hackle E2 – Throat Hackle * F – Under Wing * G – Over Wing * HH – Horn * J – Side * K – Cheek * L – Head

Salmon flies have historically been the one of the most complex and elaborate artificial flies to tie. Texts describing fly tying techniques often use an image of a salmon fly to describe all the parts of an artificial fly.

The typical fly pattern appears something like one of the illustrative patterns below for the Adams dry fly (without tying instructions) or the Clouser Deep Minnow (with tying instructions). Based on the fly pattern, a knowledgeable fly tyer can reproduce the fly with the materials specified.

Typical Fly Pattern Descriptions
Fly Pattern
#10 Adams dry fly
  • Hook: Size #10–#18 standard dry-fly, e.g. Tiemco 100
  • Thread: gray 6/0
  • Wing: grizzly hen hackle tips
  • Tail: mixed grizzly and brown hackle fibers
  • Body: gray yarn or dubbing (fine dry fly dubbing)
  • Hackle: brown and grizzly hackle sized to hook[31]
Clouser Deep Minnow Streamer
  • Hook: Size #2, #4, #6 or #8, Mustad 3366, For a saltwater fly, a tinned or stainless hook should be used.
  • Thread: white 3/0 or 6/0
  • Eyes: a 1/50 or 1/36-ounce metal dumbbell painted with vinyl jig paint
  • Belly: white bucktail
  • Flash: holographic silver Flashabou, silver Krystal Flash, pearlescent Flashabou, and pearlescent Krystal Flash. Use only four to six strands of each.
  • Back: gray bucktail topped with a little hair from the brown portion of the tail[32]

Historically, fly pattern types have evolved along with fly fishing itself and today there are generally recognized pattern types. However, none are absolute, as there is much crossover in patterns and pattern types. Typically the fly tyer will encounter patterns classified as dry, wet, soft hackle (wet fly with hackle collar), emerger, nymph, scud (freshwater crustaceans), terrestrial (hoppers), streamer, salmon (Atlantic), Steelhead trout and Pacific salmon, bass, popper, panfish, Carp, saltwater, Northern pike, Bonefish, or musky fly patterns. Even within these categories, there can be many sub-categories of imitative and non-imitative fly patterns.

Commercial market

A production fly tyer's bench and materials
Custom flies for sale at Parks' Fly Shop in Gardner, Montana

Hand-tied flies on the commercial market sell for under a US dollar to several US dollars each. Fly tying is a challenging and rewarding hobby for some, a money-saving strategy for others, and a profitable commercial enterprise for the professional tyer. The professional or commercial fly tyer may produce upwards of 36 thousand flies annually, whereas the amateur fly tyer may tie only a few flies each season for personal use.[33]

Notable fly tyers

See also


  1. ^ Shaw, Helen (1963). Fly-tying—Materials, Tools and Techniques. New York: The Ronald Press Company. iii.
  2. ^ Leonard, J. Edson (1950). Flies-Their origin, natural history, tying, hooks, patterns and selections of dry and wet flies, nymphs, streamers, salmon flies for fresh and salt water in North America and the British Isles, including a Dictionary of 2200 Patterns. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company. p. 33.
  3. ^ Wakeford, Jacqueline (1992). Fly Tying Tools and Materials. New York: Lyons & Burford Publishers. p. reface. ISBN 1-55821-183-7.
  4. ^ Gregg, E. C. (1940). How To Tie Flies. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company. vii.
  5. ^ Best, A. K. (1989). Production Fly Tying. Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Company. ISBN 0-87108-781-2.
  6. ^ a b Jennings, Preston J. (1935). A Book of Trout Flies. New York: Crown Publishers, Derrydale Press.
  7. ^ a b Ogden, James (1887). Ogden on Fly Tying, Etc. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington. p. vi.
  8. ^ McClelland, H. G. (1919). The Trout Fly Dresser's Cabinet of Devices or How To Tie Flies for Trout and Grayling Fishing. London: The Fishing Gazette. p. 63.
  9. ^ Wade, Henry (1860). Rod-Fishing in Clear Waters By Fly, Minnow and Work With a Short and Easy method to the Art of Dressing Flies. London: Bell and Daldy. p. 132.
  10. ^ Schwiebert, Ernest G. Jr. (1955). Matching The Hatch-A Practical Guide to Imitation of Insects Found On Eastern and Western Trout Waters. Toronto, Canada: The MacMillan Company.
  11. ^ Richards, Carl; Swisher, Doug (1971). Selective Trout-A Dramatically New and Scientific Approach to Trout Fishing on Eastern and Western Rivers. New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN 9780517521335.
  12. ^ Schwiebert, Ernest (1973). Nymphs-A Complete Guide to Naturals and Imitations. New York: Winchester Press. ISBN 0-87691-074-6.
  13. ^ LaFontaine, Gary (April 28, 1989). Caddisflies. Lyons Press. ISBN 0941130983.((cite book)): CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  14. ^ Brooks, Joe (1972). Trout Fishing. Harper Row. ISBN 0601053230.
  15. ^ Stewart, Dick; Allen, Farrow (1993). Flies for Trout. New York: Lyons & Burford. ISBN 0-936644-14-1.
  16. ^ Hughes, Dave (1999). Trout Flies-The Tier's Reference. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-8117-1601-7.
  17. ^ Schullery, Paul (1996). American Fly Fishing-A History. Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press. pp. 85–99, 228–234.
  18. ^ Schullery, Paul (July 7, 2006). Rise, The: Streamside Observations on Trout, Flies, and Fly Fishing. ISBN 0811701824.((cite book)): CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  19. ^ A fly tying bodkin is a version of a sewing needle, which is usually mounted in a handle.
  20. ^ Morris, Skip (1992). Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple. Portland, OR: Frank Amato Publications. ISBN 1-878175-13-0.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Craven, Charlie (July 15, 2008). Charlie Craven's Basic Fly Tying: Modern Techniques for Flies That Catch Fish. Headwater Books. ISBN 978-0979346026.((cite book)): CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  22. ^ Wakeford, Jacqueline (1992). Fly Tying Tools and Materials. New York: Lyons & Burford Publishers. ISBN 1-55821-183-7.
  23. ^ Morris, Skip (1992). Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple. Portland, OR: Frank Amato Publications. ISBN 1-878175-13-0.
  24. ^ Clarke, Barry Ord (1996). The International Guide to Fly-Tying Materials. McGraw Hill. ISBN 0070119430.
  25. ^ Leiser, Eric (1973). Fly-Tying Materials: Their Procurement, Use, and Protection. Crown Pub. ISBN 0517503506.
  26. ^ "Fly Hook Sizes". Riverbum. Archived from the original on October 26, 2020. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  27. ^ Cravin, Charlie (27 June 2017). "Understanding thread sizing and construction materials". Fly Fisherman. Archived from the original on February 28, 2021. Retrieved February 26, 2021.
  28. ^ "Fly tying feathers". Fly Tying Company. Retrieved March 8, 2021.
  29. ^ Wade, Henry (1860). Rod-Fishing in Clear Waters By Fly, Minnow and Work With a Short and Easy method to the Art of Dressing Flies. London: Bell and Daldy.
  30. ^ Kelson, George M. (1895). The Salmon Fly-HOW TO DRESS IT AND HOW TO USE IT. London: Wyman and Sons Ltd. pp. 17–18.
  31. ^ Stewart, Dick; Allen, Farrow (1993). Flies for Trout. New York: Lyons & Burford. p. 2. ISBN 0-936644-14-1.
  32. ^ Clouser, Bob (2006). "The Original Clouser Deep Minnow". Clouser's Flies. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. pp. 31–39. ISBN 0-8117-0148-4.
  33. ^ Best, A. K. (1989). Production Fly Tying. Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Company. Forward. ISBN 0-87108-781-2.
  34. ^ Staples, Bruce (2002). Trout Country Flies from Greater Yellowstone Masters. Portland, OR: Frank Amato Publications. p. 62. ISBN 1-57188-248-0.
  35. ^ "Megan Boyd, salmon fly-tier". Edinburgh: The Scotsman. December 4, 2001. Archived from the original on 2014-12-23. Retrieved 2014-12-01.
  36. ^ Levin, Dan (November 24, 1969). "Lures, Lines And Philosophy Are The Stock-in-trade At Jim Deren's Angler's Roost". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved September 9, 2013.
  37. ^ "Federation of Flyfishers Awards-Past Recipients". Archived from the original on 2010-06-20. Retrieved 2010-03-30.
  38. ^ Halford, F. M. (1886). Floating Flies and How to Dress Them. A Treatise on the Most Modern Methods of Dressing Artificial Flies for Trout and Grayling with Full Illustrated Directions and Containing Ninety Hand-Coloured Engravings of the Most Killing Patterns Together with a Few Hints to Dry-Fly Fishermen. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington.
  39. ^ * Randy Berry (American, September 13 1945–June 11, 2011, Inventor of the Teton Valley Chernobyl Ant) "Fly Fishing Hall of Fame". Fly Fishing Center and Museum, New York. Archived from the original on October 8, 2019. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  40. ^ "The Past and Present of Fly-Fishing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming: An Interview with Jack Dennis". Annals of Wyoming. 76 (2). 2004.
  41. ^ Rhead, Louis (1919). American Trout Stream Insects-A Guide to Angling Flies and other Aquatic Insects Alluring to Trout. New York: Frederick A. Stokes and Co.
  42. ^ Ronalds, B.F. (2022). Alfred Ronalds: Angler, Artisan and Australian Pioneer. Medlar Press.
  43. ^ Sawyer, Frank (2006). Nymphs and the Trout. Salisbury: Sawyer Nymphs Ltd.
  44. ^ Hilyard, Graydon R.; Leslie K. (2000). Carrie G. Stevens-Maker of Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. p. 134. ISBN 0811703533.
  45. ^ Bates, Joseph D. Jr. (1970). Atlantic Salmon Flies and Fishing. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. p. 266. ISBN 0-8117-0180-8.