Beginning Flytying Equipment
This FAQ is divided into several sections discussing the recommendations of
members of @FLYFISH regarding flytying equipment. It cannot substitute for
a a course in flytying. For instruction in flytying, seek out your local
flyfishing club or organization such as Trout Unlimited or the Federation
of Flyfishers. These are organizations are your best source of local
information. If there are no classes, visit your library for books on
flytying and a local video store for rental instructional videos. Try the
flytying videos by Gary Borger, Jack Dennis, and Orvis.
Introductory books which are recommended are "The Art of Fly Tying" by John
van Vliet, "The Fly Tyer's Primer" by Richard W. Talleur, "The Beginning
Fly Tyer by Jim Brainbridge, and "Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple" by Skip
Morris. You can then move onto combined pattern/tying books. Examples are
"Tying Dry Flies" or "Tying Nymphs" by Randall Kaufmann, and " Western
Trout Fly Tying Manual Vols. I and II" by Jack Dennis. Pure pattern books
are "The Best One Thousand" by Randle Scott Stetzer, the The Orvis Fly
Pattern Index" by John R. Harder, and the patterns books by Dick Stewart.
"AK Best's Production Fly Tying" by AK Best is an excellent book of tips
for advanced tyers, but I think beginners can learn from it as well. It is
highly recommended if you are serious about tying,
Some of you may have already purchased a "flytying kit" containing both
tools and materials. Most such prepackaged kit are generally of substandard
quality, and it is recommended that you return it for credit toward
individual purchases of quality materials. These kits usually come in a
cardboard box with a nice picture on the front and sell for about $29.99.
There other kits (such as the Thompson "Regency" kit) which are built
around a Thompson vise and tools. These kits are more expensive and the
tools are of acceptable quality for a novice flytyer.
The purchase of flytying equipment is very different from the purchase of
flyfishing equipment. Flyfishing equipment, particularly rods are
constantly improving, and it is not unusual for a serious flyfisher to buy
a new rod every three to four years. Very few flyfishers are using the same
rod they used 10 years ago. The same is not true of flytyers. Flytying
equipment changes very little, and it would not be unusual for a flytyer to
use the same vise for over 20 years. Therefore I would recommend that you
purchase the best equipment you can afford because it is likely that you
will be using it for years to come.
Having said that, I realize that most beginners cannot purchase the
ultimate in tools. For these beginners, there are two companies, Sunrise
and Thompson, that specialize in basic tools. Thompson tools are generally
of higher quality. Griffin and Matarelli are two manufacturers who make
high quality tools with Materrelli having the best reputation.
I have split the equipment into several categories. The first three
categories are basic equipment, materials, and hooks. Basic equipment
along with materials, and hooks are the absolute minimum needed to tie
flies. I placed hooks into its own separate category because they deserve
some additional discussion. Entire books have been written about flytying
materials alone. Only the common materials are listed here.
You should be able to purchase the basic equipment kit for under $100 from
Sunrise or Thompson. The hooks and materials can run into several hundresds
of dollars if you were to purchase everything at once. There is no need to
go out and purchase all the hooks or materials listed below. Buy only what
you need. You will have to decide what hooks and materials are needed for
the flies you will tie. Just as you chose which flies to purchase, now you
will have to choose which hooks and materials to buy to make those flies.
After each item is a description. Some of the items will have a recommended
manufacturer. These recommendations are the popular favorites of the
flytyers on the @FLYFISH list. At the end of each category is a comment
section to help clarify the choices.
The final catergory, miscellaneous, is self explanatory. These are items
which you may want to consider as you become a more advanced flytyer. They
are listed for your consideration.
You will find no recommendations on where to purchase equipment or what to
pay. The retail market is dynamic and any information would soon be out of
date. This is one area where you might pose a question to the list prior to
Another option is to purchase used equipment and materials particularly at
garage or estate sales. It is best to take a flytyer with you to look at
the equipment. There are some bargains available particularly with hooks,
and sometimes, you can find rare materials. Post your questions to the list
if there is no friend to whom you can turn for advice.
One final note before we start - It is impossible to answer or to
anticipate all the questions you may have regarding flytying with this FAQ.
Our motto is that there are no stupid questions. If you you have a question
which is not answered in this or other FAQ's, do not hesitate to post it to
the list. However, you are encouraged to read all the FAQs to help keep
common questions from being reposted.
Flytying Vise - At a minimum, a vise should hold the hook securely in a
wide range of sizes from saltwater size hooks 2-0 to tiny midge hooks size
22. If it cannot do that with a standard head, then there should be
interchangeable heads to cover all the hook sizes. The recommended starter
vise is the Thompson model "A". Somewhat more expensive are the Regal vise
and Renzetti "Traveler". The "Traveler" is the least expensive true rotary
vise (see discussion below). The Regal and Renzetti are the two most
popular vises as tyers move up from the Thompson vises. Lefthanders may
find some vises easier to use than others. You should try the vise to see
if the vise is truly ambidextrous. Check to see if the maunufacturer has a
Bobbin - The bobbin holds the spool of tying thread or floss. There are
"thread" bobbins and "material" bobbins. It is recommended that you
purchase at least one of each. As you accumulate different colors and
diameters of thread, you will be switching the spools every time you need a
different thread. Therefore, it is suggested that you purchase several
thread bobbins if you can. If you are going to tie with Kevlar thread it is
recommended that you purchase at least one "ceramic" bobbin to keep the
bobbin tube from being scored and ruined by the thread.
Hackle Pliers - This tool is used to hold the hackle tip as you wind the
hackle on the fly. The classic "English" designs tends to slip. I can
recommend two brands. The Griffin tear drop design works well, but I think
the E-Z Hackle Plier is the best. The E-Z product holds the hackle
tightly, has a small head for the tiniest flies, and a large ring so it can
rotate on your finger. Best of all, it is cheap. If you already have an
"English" design hackle plier that slips, try dipping the tips in melted
wax and then squeezing out the excess. It will improve the grip of the
Scissors - Buy Fiskars Model 4301 Sport Scissors. If they are unavailable,
the 3 1/2" embroidery scissors will work. They have fine tips, are sharp
and inexpensive. Have a second pair of "trash" scissors available to cut
wire and such.
Gem Single Edge Razor Blades - To shape spun deer hair heads and bodies.
Bodkin - Make your own by sticking a sewing needle into a piece of wooden
dowel. Flatten the sides so it doesn't roll off the table. If you want to
purchase a bodkin, both Sunrise and Thompson make inexpensive models.
Whip Finisher and/or Half Hitch Tool - You can either whip finish or half
hitch the head of the fly. Both can be done by hand or you can purchase a
tool. If you need a whip finisher, buy a Matarreli standard length whip
finisher. There is also an extended body model.
Hair Stacker - There are many models and several sizes to choose from. You
can use rifle or pistol cartridge casings as a substitute.
Dubbing Wax - There are many brands with no clear favorite. It is used to
provide a tacky surface on the thread so that the dubbing will stick to it.
Personally, I learned to dub without wax, but most beginners find it
useful. The tackiness of the wax is a personal preference depending on your
needs. You can substitute cross country ski wax.
Head Cement - Buy Sally Hansen's clear "Hard as Nails with nylon"
fingernail polish. You can trim the brush or use the bodkin as an
applicator. It needs to be thinned before use. Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK)
from a paint store is used as the thinner.
Dave's Flexament - A flexible cement for stiffening feathers and other
materials. It can also be substituted for head cement if you do not need
the high gloss of head cement.
Thread - Buy prewaxed thread. Danville Flymaster Plus is the most popular
6/0 thread and Monocord is the most popular 3/0 thread. Thompson also makes
a thread - called Monobond in 6/0 and 3/0. These are the standard threads.
There are now superstrong threads made by Unithread, Benecchi, and
Dynacord. Unithread and Benecchi specialize in the thinner sizes 6/0 to
12/0. Dynacord is the recommended 3/0 thread and should be used instead of
Comments - You can purchase a vise as a C-clamp or Pedestal model. The
C-clamp models are less expensive and require you to clamp your vise to the
edge of a table. The pedestal model has a heavy metal base which holds the
vise down. However, if you are going to tie deer hair flies which require
heavy thread pressure, even the heaviest pedestal will move. The post of
the pedestal vise is shorter than the C-clamp. Therefore you cannot just
buy the pedestal to convert a C-clamp to a pedestal vise. You will need the
shorter post as well.
The Regal and Renzetti vises deserve some additional discussion. The Regal
Vise has a patented springloaded head, which you will automatically hold
the hook as the handle is released. This unique feature accounts for its
popularity. The Renzetti is a true rotary vise. When the head is rotated,
the hook will rotate along its shaft which makes placing and winding
materials on the hook much easier. The Regal can be bought as a "rotary"
meaning that the head turns but the geometry of the head does not allow the
hook to rotate around the axis of its shaft. The Renzetti head is also
smaller making it easier to tie the very small flies. The @FLYFISH list is
split as to whether the Regal or the Renzetti is the "better" vise. There
are also other fine vises including the HMH, A.K. Best, Nor-vise, Waldron,
Head cement serves two purposes. One is to seal the head and protect the
thread wraps so that they do not unravel. For this purpose the head cement
needs to be thinned so that it penetrates the thread. The other is to make
a glassy coating on the fly head especially on streamer patterns. Eyes may
be painted on later. For this purpose the Sally Hansen's is ideal but
unthinned, it is a poor penetrator. My solution is to finish off the fly
with a whip finish rather than half hitches. A 5 turn whip finish does not
need head cement, and it will not unravel. I only use head cement when I
need a glassy coating.
Use the thinest thread possible to tie your flies. This is particularly
important for dry flies to reduce the bulk of the fly. Match the color of
the thread to the body of the fly. This will hide the thread and prevent it
from "showing" through the dubbing when the fly is wet with water or
floatant. It will also help hide your dubbing mistakes. A basic thread set
would be the colors black, olive, brown and yellow in 6/0 and 3/0 sizes.
Dubbing - This is the material which is "spun" around the tying thread and
then wound on the hook to form the body of the fly. It can be split into
natural and synthetic, fine and coarse. In general, the fine materials are
used to tie dry flies and the coarse materials are used to tie nymphs. You
can choose to buy individual packages as the need arises or to buy a
spectrum of colors at the outset. The various colors you buy can be mixed
to get an intermediate shade.
Hackle - These are the feathers from chickens. It is recommended that you
buy "genetic" hackle meaning feathers from birds raised especially for
flytying. The two major suppliers are Metz and Hoffman with the Hoffman
being of higher quality. The hackle can be from a hen or a cock, but the
term "hackle" generally refers to the feathers of the cock unless specified
as hen hackle. Furthermore, the hackle can be from two areas of the body,
the "neck" or the "saddle". The "neck" has the smaller and finer hackle and
is more expensive than the "saddle". The hackle is further separated into
three grades - grade 1, grade 2, and grade 3 in order of descending
quality. The best buy is generally grade 2, and it is recommended that you
start with this grade of hackle if you can afford it. Commercial flies are
generally tied with grade 3 or poorer hackle.
Deer/Elk/Moose hair - For wings, bodies and tailing.
Bucktail - For streamers
Calf (kip) body hair or tail - Used for wings on the Wulff patterns.
Cul de Canard (CDC) - Feathers from around the oil gland of a duck used to
imitate the wings on emergers and dry flies.
Chenille - Used for the bodies on many flies.
Marabou -Soft under feathers from a turkey used in streamers and nymphs.
Goose or Turkey biots - Used to wrap dry flies, and for tailing or winging
Misc feathers - Grouse, partridge, duck, pheasant, turkey, etc. The soft
body feathers are used in soft hackle flies to imitate insects legs or
emerging wings. The flight feathers are used for winging material or wing
cases on nymphs. Tail feathers can be used for tailing on nymphs or for
Peacock herl - An irridescent feather material usually used for nymphs and
some dry flies.
Antron or Zelon - A trilobed synthetic fiber used to add flash to dubbing.
Used also for winging.
Floss - Comes in single strand or multi-strand. Buy the single strand.
Flashabou or Krystal flash - Synthetic mylar like strands used for
streamers. Buy the Krystal Flash.
Microfibbets - A synthetic tailing material which is great for small flies
and will take color from a pantone pen. Highly recommended.
Lead wire and lead eyes - To weight the flies. The diameter of the wire
should match the diameter of the hook.
Metal beads and eyes of brass, copper, etc - Used to weight nymphs and
Copper wire - 3For nymphs.
Tinsel or Tubing - Used for ribbing or bodies. Comes in metallic or mylar,
silver or gold.
Comments: Materials need not always be purchased. Many of the bird feathers
and animal furs are readily obtained from hunters. You can sometimes trade
flies for materials. Be sure to treat them for bugs, and keep them in
separate zip lock bags. Use moth crystals if the materials are untreated.
The feathers can be zapped in the microwave to destroy insect eggs. 20 Mule
Team Borax can be used as a preservative for bird and animal skins. You
must first remove as much fat and meat as possible from the skins, coat the
skin with borax and allow it to dry.
You can tell what animal furs are good for dubbing by examining the
traditional fly recipes. For example, the adams will call for grey muskrat
fur. You will then know that muskrat is a good source for grey dry fly
dubbing. Similarly, red fox provides a good pale cream dubbing for the
light cahill. From the hare's ear nymph pattern you learn that a hare's
mask makes good grey nymph dubbing.
The most plentiful furs for dubbing are rabbit and squirrel. Rabbit is good
for fine dry fly dubbing and squirrel for the coarser nymph dubbing. If you
have a source for white rabbit fur, it can by dyed. Natural squirrel comes
in various shades of the grey and fox squirrels. Other sources of materials
are taxidermist shops and furriers, who often have scraps of fur. Oldtime
"Rendevous" are also becoming popular, and they are a source of animal
Regular knitting yarn is a good source of dubbing. Use a comb to comb out
1" -2" fibers of the yarn. Cut them off, and then when you get a pile of
fibers, work them with the comb until they form a pile of dubbing.
Dazzleaire yarn is a source for "sparkle yarn" and Aunt Lydia's rug yarn is
a source for the coarser yarn that can be used for nymph patterns. Your
local craft and yarn shops are a good source for flytying supplies.
The hackle necks and saddles will be the most expensive materials you will
purchase. Brown and light to medium dun will be the most popular colors
followed by grizzly and then ginger. If you tie adams, you can substitute a
cree hackle for the mixture of grizzly and brown.
If your finances are limited, it is best to only buy the materials for the
flies you currently need to tie. You can gradually add patterns and
materials as your skills improve. Don't hesitate to substitute materials in
a pattern if you feel they will work. This type of substitution works well
if you are working within the same materials group, for example,
substituting a grouse soft hackle for a partridge, deer for elk, zelon for
Flies are tied to imitate living creatures. Hooks are the skeleton upon
which you will build that creation. You would not start with the skeleton
of a horse to make a dog. Similarly, you cannot build a proper fly on the
Perhaps a few definitions are order before we go further. Hooks are defined
in terms of their gap (or gape), their length, and the shape of the hook
bend. The hook size is the width of the gap. This is the distance from the
shank of the hook to the point. The length of the shank of a standard hook
is 1 1/2 times the gap. The shape of the hook is defined by the bend. They
carry names such as sproat, aberdeen, perfect, etc. You have to memorize
There are two other descriptors - the diameter of the wire and whether the
hook is shorter or longer than the "standard" length. These descriptors are
directly related to the wire diameter, length and size of the mythical
standard hook series. If the diameter of the hook is thinner, it is is
noted by an "X-Fine or X-Light"; if it is thicker, it is noted by a
"X-Heavy or X-Strong". Similarly, the length of the hook is described a
"X-Long" or "X-Short". These designations are related to the other hooks in
the standard series. For example a size 12 2X-Fine 2X-Long hook has the gap
of the standard size 12 hook but is made from the wire of a size 14 hook (2
sizes lighter wire) and has the shank length of a size 10 hook (2 sizes
longer hook). Confused? Don't worry, the patterns will tell you what hooks
to use. In general the X-fine hooks are used for dry flies and the X-heavy
for nymphs. The X-Short are used for small flies and the X-Long for
streamers, grasshoppers, etc.
Having said that, I must warn you that there is no "standard" between
manufacturers for sizing hooks (gap size). The gap measurement in
millimeters of a size 12 hook from one manufacturer will be different than
that from another. It is as if the shoe industry had no standards for
length and width of shoes. The hook industry has no standards for length
and gap. You must do what we would have to do with the shoes - you must try
them on and learn what sizes fit from experience.
At this point, let me digress, so as to avoid confusion over fly size and
it's relation to hook length and gap. Hooks are sized by the gap and not
the length. However, as fly tyers and fly fishers, the insect we imitate is
sized by the length. When we commonly refer to a size 18 BWO, we mean the
fly is tied on a hook length of a standard size 18 hook. It is the length
of the hook that is important in the imitation and not the gap. The length
and shape of the hook will determine if the pattern looks like the natural.
This is what I meant by trying the shoes on to see if they fit.
You will find descriptions of hooks which are "chemically sharpened" and
have "mini barbs". Purchase these hooks if you can. Barbless hooks are also
an option but are not available in all models.
There are three major hook manufacturers. They are Mustad, Tiemco and
Daiichi. Tiemco and Daiichi have the broadest assortment of flyfishing
hooks, with Tiemco being Hertz to Daiichi's Avis. Mustad had fallen behind,
but now they offer a series of chemically sharpened and minibarbed hooks in
their "Accupoint" line. These are designated by the letters "AC" before the
model number. Partridge of England makes the most expensive fly fishing
hooks, and they are known for their salmon hooks. They are excellent hooks,
if you can afford them.
Hooks and hackle will be, on a per fly basis, the most expensive parts of
the fly. You can save money by purchasing only dry fly hooks and using them
for your nymphs as well. Just add lead wire to the nymphs to compensate for
the lighter hook. Similarly, multipurpose hooks such as the Tiemco 200R or
Daiichi 1273 can be used for streamers, grasshoppers and nymphs. It is not
possible to discuss all the individual hook shapes and models available.
There is a hook chart available which cross references the hooks from
various manufacturers. (ADD A LINK TO THE HOOK CHART HERE)
Material Clip - Some vises come with a material clip to temporaily hold
materials. If yours doesn't, you can purchase one separately.
Hackle Guard - Used to keep hackles out of the way and prevent them from
being caught as you the whip finish the fly.
Parachute or "gallows" tool - Keeps tension on the upright parachute wing
during winding of the hackle.
Dubbing Twister - For making and spinning dubbing loops.
Dubbing Teaser - Roughens the dubbing on nymphs. Just buy a nylon 22
caliber cleaning brush to do the job.
Hair Packer - Tool for packing deer hair bodies. It saves your fingernails.
Hackle Guage - For measuring hackle length for dry flies.
Waste-Trol - A waste basket that clamps to your vise or table and catches
Bone or shell comb - A nonstatic comb for getting the underfur out of deer hair.
Bobbin Threader - Buy some Butler dental floss threaders instead.
Super Glue - To secure materials or windings in critical areas.
Tying lamp and magnifier - For those small flies.
One of the best suggestions I can give you is to take a flytying course,
preferably where the equipment and materials are supplied. Ask your
instructor for purchase suggestions in light of the information I have
provided. During the course, you will be taught how to ties both nymphs and
dries. The materials the instuctor uses are those you will want to purchase
so that you can practice these flies. Since the rest of the members of the
course will also need materials, perhaps you can get together and split the
cost of some of the expensive materials such as hackle, eg, buy a neck and
split it in half.
Use only the finest quality materials for your flies. You cannot construct
a good fly out of poor materials. Quality materials have two benefits - not
only will the flies be better, but they will be easier to tie. Whenever you
are faced with the choice of getting more of a poorer quality material or
less of a higher quality, choose the higher quality. The most expensive
part of flytying is the time you put into it. Make it enjoyable and less
frustrating by using the best materials possible.
It will take you several flies before you will tie a decent looking
pattern. This is to be expected. You have two choices for what to do with
these substandard flies. Either fish them - surprisingly, they will catch
fish, or you can cut off the materials and reuse the hook. Just slide a
single edge razor blade along the top shaft of the hook, and you will have
a clean hook. There is no need to remove the hook from the vise, and this
will prevent you from cutting yourself.
On occasion you may see a fly for which you cannot find tying instructions.
Purchase two samples of the fly. Take one of the samples apart by
unraveling the tieing thread. You can reverse engineer the fly by carefully
taking it apart. Write the instructions down. Then use your second fly as
your "museum" copy so that you can compare your flies to the original.
Finally, remember that the list is available to answer your questions
either through the archives or by posting a question.
Copyright 1995 by Henry Kanemoto.
No reproduction, electronic or otherwise, is allowed without permission of