Starting out in fly tying can be a bit daunting. You go into a fly shop and there is a bewildering array of tools and materials (don’t worry, we’ve been there too). So we’ve broken through the complexity and pulled together these two lists of the basic essentials you need to start divided into basic tools and basic materials.
If you’ve got all the items on these two lists – which is going to cost you a few hundred dollars ($100 materials/$200 tools) – you can start tying effective flies and experience the satisfaction of catching fish on flies that you have created.
Our fly tying tools list
- Whip finish tool
- Hair stacker
- A fine comb
- LED light/s
Our fly tying materials list
- Pheasant tail
- Peacock herl
- Deer and elk hair
- ‘Lead’ wire for weight
- Tailing fibres
- Dubbing wax
- Head cement
Fly tying tools list – the basic essentials
A good vise (check out our guide to the best fly tying vises available) is the most important tool in your set up. It is impossible to tie flies without a vise and the vise you buy needs to be able to hold hooks of a range of sizes firmly without slipping. If you want to tie flies on the road, it also needs to be portable and ideally it should rotate (called a rotary vise) to make tying certain flies easier. We recommend the Renzetti Traveler 2200 to beginners starting out but there are a range of alternatives at varying price points, which we break down fully in this article.
Bobbins, like this well-priced Dr Slick model, hold your fly trying thread and dispense it through a thin tube so it can used to tie the materials to the hook to create your fly. I’d recommend getting two bobbins and the key quality your bobbins need to have, in my view, is the ability to subtly bend the arms to adjust the tension on the thread reel. This is import as you want to avoid the bobbin slipping down at rest or the thread breaking because the tension is set too high. Certain materials (such as deer hair) require more tension on the thread than others. I think cheapish bobbins are OK, although pricier versions such as the Rite bobbins have an adjustable disc drag to precisely tension the drag.
I use a single good pair of Dr Slick scissors and these are my most frequently used tool. Some people favour using two pairs – a good pair for cutting feather and thread etc, and a cheap pair for cutting wire. I tend to sever wire by bending it rapidly and repeatedly rather than cutting it, so I am happy using the one good pair.
Whip finish tool
Although some tyers whip finish by hand for those starting out, a whip finish tool is an essential part of the kit. These are cheap and effective and easy to learn how to use.
A hair stacker is used to align the tips of deer hair fibres, which is essential for tying the myriad deer and elk hair patterns you can create from hoppers and cicadas to deer hair emergers and elk hair caddis and other popular patterns. Some people buy stylish brass hair stackers (which are not that costly) but you can get by with a cheap model.
A fine comb
The other bit of gear that is maybe not essential, but very useful, is a fine comb for combing out the under hair from deer and elk hair. You’ll see when you cut a bunch of deer hair out from your patch, there are some short, curly and ultra fine fibres mingled in with the thick straight fibres that we want to use. This underhair helps keep the animal warm, but we don’t want it to form part of our flies so we comb it out while holding the ends of the deer or elk hair fibres.
Unless you have great natural light and only want to tie during daylight hours, a light of some sort is one of those essential tools you will need. New LED lights are a cost effective and reliable solution. Make sure you get one with a flexible shaft so you can point it where you like.
Other basic tools you might consider for your own list of materials, but I don’t myself use are: hackle pliers (to grip feathers while you are winding them on) and a hackle gauge (used to size hackles for dry flies).
Fly tying materials list – the 11 basic essentials
Now on to the materials. Please note, this list of basic essentials is just that – the MINIMUM you need to start tying some of the classic trout fly patterns for fishing in lakes and streams. You’ll add to this over time, but this list is aimed at giving beginners a summary of what’s required to start out.
The hook is obviously the foundation on which all flies are built and it is important to have a variety of sizes and styles of hooks that suit the patterns you want to tie. Visit our online hook store and you can select what kind of fly you want to tie and it will return a list of suitable hooks that you can click on to buy.
Hook choice is critical in fly fishing and tying – it’s no good tying an emerger fly design to float in the surface film with a heavy wet fly hook as it will just sink; just as it is not good tying a streamer pattern on a short dry fly hook.
Hook sizing for trout flies is numerical with higher numbers indicating smaller hooks. Hook Ssizes 10 (larger) to 18 (smaller) will cover most mayfly and caddis patterns and the majority of terrestrials. Similarly for nymphs, hook sizes 12 through 18 will cover most patterns. And for streamer hooks, sizes 4 through to 10 are all that’s needed.
Top brands include Ahrex, Daiichi, Gamakatsu and Tiemco.
To find the right hook for the flies you are tying, or to find an equivalent for a hook listed in a pattern that you don’t have, we strongly suggest you visit our searchable online hook store.
Another ingredient that it is impossible to tie without. Thread rating is complicated, but basically there are two measures of the breaking strain or thickness of the thred – the aught system and the denier rating.
The aught system is probably the one most commonly recognised by fly tyers and uses numbers with the larger numbers indicating a thinner, weaker thread. Typically we would use a 8/0 for delicate dry flies, 6/0 for nymphs and streamers and even a 3/0 thread for spinning and stacking deer hair for hoppers or Dahlberg divers and cicada patterns and more.
The denier rating functions in reverse – a larger denier figure indicates a heavier or stronger thread. Denier is the weight in grams of 9000 metres of the particular thread.
Other things to watch for with thread the type of material (silk, nylon, polyester, spun-gel polyethylene, monofilament, and Kevlar), the structure of the weave (flat or continuous filament thread, simple-twist thread, rope twist, and round) and whether it is waxed or not (waxed can hold on to dubbing fibers).
For more information, I recommend this great article: https://globalflyfisher.com/tie-better/fly-tying-thread-options
But this all goes beyond the scope of what beginners need to know. I recommend getting 6/0 thread from a leading brand such as UNI in 6/0 in three colors – dark brown, grey and tan. This is enough to get started.
Again, another area with plenty of complexity that we aren’t going to go into here. We’ll just keep it simple by recommending beginners get two types of dubbing – Superfine Dry Fly dubbing for your dry flies and Wapsi Awesome Possum dubbing for nymphs, as it is a little more buggy. Try to get one of the dispenser packs with 12 different colors as this is much better value than buying colours individually. You can pick various synthetic materials for dubbing later on as you encounter flies that use these in your fishing.
Lot of nymph patterns – including the famous Pheasant Tail Nymph – use pheasant tail as the basis of the fly. Pheasant tail is a great material as the long tail feathers have tiny branches coming off them that make them ideal for tails, bodies and wing cases.
The majority of nymphs you will tie will be so-called bead-headed nymphs so make sure you get some beads in a variety of colors and sizes. To keep things simple, I only use tungsten beads. These are heavier for an equivalent size than brass beads and hence sink quicker. You need to adjust for this by using smaller beads if you want a nymph that sinks but not too quickly. Beads are the first thing that goes on the hook and effectively form the head of the fly. Colors I would recommend are copper, black and orange (for lake fishing streamer patterns and special attractor nymphs).
Hackle is used to wrap around the hook or post to simulate the legs or wings of the fly and is a vital component of many patterns in trout fishing.
Hackles come from specially bred chickens and come in two different types (neck and saddle) and a range of colors (brown, grizzly, black and more).
Saddle hackle is a section of the chicken’s hide that comes from its rump of the chicken. Saddles are a good “general purpose” material for tying nymphs and dries and some streamers.
Neck hackle has longer feathers with barbs of a more consistent length.
If you are going to start out tying mainly streamers, a saddle hackle is a good choice. But if you see yourself tying lots of dries in the 12-16 range, then a good quality neck hackle is better.
Personally I started out with dry fly neck hackle in three colors – brown, black and grizzly – and that allows me to tie a wide variety of dries including Parachute Adams, Black Spinner, Elk Hair Caddis and many others that I use frequently while fishing.
Alongside pheasant tail, this is probably the other essential feather you need when starting out. Peacock herl is a vital component of many nymphs (including the pheasant tail nymph) and dry flies. The irridescent colors of the individual barbs of the peacock tail feathers add a realistic bug-like sheen to the body and thorax of flies and it is no surprise that peacock herl (as the individual barbs are known) is another of the essential materials every fly tyer needs.
Deer and elk hair
Good quality deer hair is the building block of a huge variety of patterns. Deer hair fibres are hollow and highly buoyant and don’t absorb water – all great qualities in a material for dry flies. It can be died and coloured in a range of different shades, but for starting out it is fine to just go with a high quality patch in the natural colour. This colour happens to match a variety of hatched aquatic insects including many mayfly and caddis species so it is suitable for a wide range of patterns. Elk hair is less commonly used, but it is worth grabbing some to tie one of the world’s most popular and versatile dry fly patterns – the Elk Hair Caddis.
Copper wire is used to ‘rib’ both wet and dry flies. Buy some in fine or ultra fine in a selection of colors – copper, brass and red. [Buy some here]
We often wrap nymphs with ‘lead” wire to provide a bit more weight to get them to sink. This technique is also useful to bulk up the thorax too. Because lead is environmentally damaging, we use a synthetic lead wire that is soft and heavy but not harmful to rivers.
Most dries and nymphs have a tail of some sort. When you are starting out it is enough to simply buy a few paintbrushes and use the fibres from these as tailing fibres. The other alternative is to use a tailing fibre such as Microfibbets – I use black for spinners and a yellow or grey for some emergers and caddis flies. [Buy some here]
Controlling dubbing to produce a smooth, slender body on your flies is one of the biggest challenges for the beginning fly tyer. Get synthetic dubbings such as Glister (similar to ice dub) or Antron, or even natural fibres such as hare’s ear, to grip on the thread is easier with the addition of a small amount of dubbing wax.
So there you have it, a list of 11 essential materials to get you started. As you progress as a tyer you’ll pick up a range of different materials enabling you to tie a much greater variety of flies.
This is material for another whole article as I wanted to keep this one tightly focused on essentials for the beginner, but some of things you’ll consider as your skills develop include:
Finally, when you start tying you should get into the habit of adding a dab of head cement to the head of the fly to prevent the thread unravelling after it’s been eaten by a few trout. Head cement adds to the fly’s durability and means you get more captures per fly.
- CDC – arguably the most important element of many patterns
- Foam – good for terrestrial patterns
- Synthetic dubbings – Glister, Antron and more
- Rubber/silicone legs – for hopper flies, Chernobyl Ants etc
- UV resin – great for forming heads and thoraxes
- Marabou – essential for Woolly Buggers and other streamers
- Krystal flash – to dress up nymphs with some sparkle
- Floss – same
- Soft hackle feathers – to tie a wider range of nymphs and ‘spiders’
See the video below where I expand a bit on these essential materials.