Few hobbies complement one another as well as fly tying and fly-fishing. A fly-fisherman can outfit himself with the finest and most expensive tackle available, but success on the water ultimately depends on those bits of feathers, fur, hair or other material deftly wound on a hook by a pair of human hands.
When I started fly-fishing and fly tying nearly 50 years ago, I would say the majority of fly-fishermen tied their own flies. Back then, tying your own flies was somewhat of a necessity for any fly angler who fished a fair amount because flies were not as readily available as they are today. If you wanted to have an adequate supply of flies, you learned to tie and keep yourself supplied with the fly patterns you needed.
All that changed in the late 1980s and 1990s as a flood of "casual" fly anglers took up the sport. In order to supply the increased demand for flies this created, tackle companies set up fly-tying operations in South America, Asia and Africa. Taking advantage of the availability of cheap, third-world labor, they trained crews of production tiers to craft all types of fly patterns. Over the next decade, supplies of these imported flies saturated the market, ensuring that the fly bins in most tackle shops were well stocked.
Although tying your own flies is no longer the necessity it once was, fly tying remains as popular as ever. Not only does it provide a productive hobby during the off-season, but tying flies also allows you to experiment, possibly improving upon some favorite fly patterns or even creating your own special patterns.
Learning to tie flies really isn't too difficult. If you can tie your shoe, you should be able to learn to tie a fly that is good enough to catch fish. Like any mechanical skill, however, fly tying does take a certain amount of practice and dedication in order to become proficient.
For fly anglers who have the time and desire to tie their own flies, there has never been a better time to take up fly tying. When I started tying, the options for learning the craft were somewhat limited. Nowadays there is almost unlimited information available for a budding fly tier. Hundreds of books and videos are available on virtually every facet of fly tying not to mention a glut of information, both good and bad, on the Internet. Many fly-fishing clubs organizations and fly shops also offer fly-tying classes for those who prefer personal, hands-on instruction.
I usually advise folks who are interested in getting into fly tying to avoid buying an inexpensive fly-tying kit for several reasons. That's not because fly tying needs to be an expensive hobby, but rather that so many of the kits I've seen were just not a good value for the money. Many of the materials included tend to be a hodgepodge of stuff that would tie few if any really practical fly patterns, and whatever tools are provided are often little more than outright junk, which even an expert tier would find difficult to impossible to work with.
A better way to start is to buy a basic set of good quality tools. At the very least, you'll need a reliable pair of fine-pointed scissors, a bobbin or two to hold spools of tying thread, hackle pliers and a whip-finish tool.
The most important piece of equipment in any fly-tying setup is the vise. Lower priced vises range from $20 to $50, and the functionality of such tools can vary from satisfactory to useless, so test one before you buy if at all possible. A vise that won't hold a hook without slipping is totally frustrating. Every serious fly tier I know has eventually made the move to a top-quality vise. Premium vises currently cost from around $150 to $300 but will also last most tiers for a lifetime, making it a worthwhile investment.
Most fly-tying material is relatively inexpensive, especially if you consider how many flies you can tie from one individual package or piece of material. A practical way to build a startup assortment of tying materials if you are on a budget is to pick five or six of your favorite fly patterns and buy all the hooks and materials necessary to tie them.
Later, pick another group and add the materials for them to your inventory. Be warned, however, that once you have acquired a bit of tying skill, accumulating all sorts of fly-tying material can become somewhat of an obsession. I speak from much personal experience regarding that.
Of course, possessing a vast inventory of tying materials allows me to indulge myself when crafting my personal fly inventory. I'm about to get started with my wintertime tying, and looking over some of my notes from last season, I have a bunch of new ideas I want to try. I'll try to share a few of them in another column or two in the coming weeks.