Fly Design and Material Selection
One of the Most Fun Parts of Fly Fishing Is Designing and Tying Flies.
As a fly tying instructor, I often have clients who have designed and tied a new pattern, but there is some flaw in the design (e.g. the wrong hook, articulated when it is not needed, too big, or too small) or material selection.
These are integral parts of fly design. The large cunning fish you'll be targeting know how their food choices move and will shy away from flies that do not move naturally.
Choosing materials for your fly
There are several thought processes on this topic. I generally choose materials based on:
- How the insect or prey I'm imitating moves when it is in the water
- Where in the water column the fly needs to be fished
- The overall shape of said food source
Nymph-Head Evolution tungsten beadheads are a great option for adding weight and realism to nymphs.
When tying nymphs such as stoneflies and mayflies, I use stiff materials such as goose biot, turkey biot, and hackle fibers for tails. Mayflies and stoneflies do not typically wiggle and move/swim. They more often than not are found on the bottom crawling around or getting pushed down by the current. There are exceptions to this rule as some species of mayflies are swimmers, but I still prefer a stiff body on these flies.
There are a few nymphs that do swim such as damsel flies and dragonflies. Damsels can be articulated due to their length and the swimming motion they present in the water (try using the Nymph-Head Articulated Wiggle-Tail Shank). Although dragon flies swim, their short length of body is not conducive to articulation. Dragonflies propel themselves through the water by force water out of their bodies in a jet-like fashion.
Material selection in streamers can get complicated and take a little more thought than nymph material selection. Streamers can be tied with soft materials (i.e. marabou, arctic fox, or Icelandic sheep) or stiff materials (i.e. bucktail, Fish-Skull Faux Bucktail). This is the fly tyer's choice. I prefer softer materials on many flies simply because of the movement it gives the fly.
One thing to take into consideration when fishing for toothy critters (musky, pike, dorado) is that stiff materials hold up to their teeth better than soft materials like marabou. Recently I was tying some flies for Bolivian golden dorado (AKA fly shredders). With these fish flies only last one to two fish, but as a challenge to make my flies last for three to four fish I went with Fish-Skull Faux Bucktail as a main material in these flies. It held up beyond my wildest thoughts. Synthetic materials are extremely strong and do not absorb water, so they stay light and easy to cast.
Soft materials can be extremely effective in designing streamers, rabbit strips (zonkers), Icelandic sheep, yak hair, and cashmere goat are a few examples of soft materials that work well and can take abuse. These materials have amazing movement in the water, swim, and appear to “breathe” when stopped under the water. The main drawback to using soft hair materials is they absorb water, and tend to gain weight; rabbit strips are notorious for this (feel like casting a wet sock). However, when using rabbit strips, articulation is rarely needed, due to the side-to-side movement and length of the rabbit strip. Choosing soft lightweight materials can make a fly move in a lifelike manner, but the longevity of the fly might be less than flies tied with stiffer materials.
Streamer tied with a Fish-Skull Articulated Shank and Baitfish Head.
When deciding on whether or not to articulate your fly, think about what movement you need out of your fly. Articulation adds side-to-side movement or swimming motion to the fly. If the food source you're imitating does not move in this way, you don't necessarily need to articulate your fly.
Articulated flies do not have to be big six-plus inch streamers. Charlie Craven’s Baby Gonga is articulated, but it is tied on a #6 hook and is a total of three inches long. In my opinion, flies of this length are quite effective with both cold and warm-water species. I do not tie many articulated flies and the ones I do tie are small compared to a lot of what I've seen lately. I typically fish for bass and trout, which typically hunt down baitfish between three and four inches.
There are lot of people who fish for musky and pike, and these fish like meat and a lot of it. Flies for these monsters can be well over eight inches. Multiple articulations are generally needed to achieve this length.
Poppers tied with Surface Seducer Double Barrel popper and slider bodies.
I've always said there are no rules in fly tying, but the one thing we've all learned throughout our lives is there can be exceptions to every rule. My rule for poppers is more of a rule of thumb than an actual rule. I learned to tie deer hair divers and poppers from Dave Whitlock. Dave Whitlock and Lefty Kreh have always said you don’t tie the body of any popper or hair bug past the point of the hook. This is for good reason, most fish, birds, and animals are heavier in the lower or back half of their body therefore they float at an angle on the water’s surface and fish that are dying typically sit at an angle with their head out of the water.
Surface Seducer Howitzer baitfish popper heads are designed to be fished at an angle.
When you use a floating material over the entire shank of the hook the fly will not tilt and will have an unrealistic action and profile in the water. I start my thread of any popper whether it be cork, foam, or deer hair at the point of the hook, then I add my double weedguard (yes, I use a double weedguard) because I think they are more substantial in avoiding snags, but still allow for solid hook sets. I then add any tail material once again stopping at the point of the hook. Then either attach the popper body or spin the deer hair for the head.
When using cork or foam popper bodies it is up to you whether you attach your popper body and then tie in your tail, or if you tie in your tail and then attach the popper body. I prefer the latter due to the fact it makes it easier to hide thread wraps, especially when you are using the Surface Seducer Double Barrel popper and slider bodies. The thread wraps if fine enough will actually slide inside the body and be completely hidden.
Designing Your Fly
Photo by Gunnar Brammer.
Now that we have discussed materials and articulation, it is time to pull it all together. I do not expect everyone to do things the way I do them. I am a bit of self-proclaimed nerd — yes, I email college fisheries professors and ask questions about specific species of fish and their diet.
There are many ways to achieve what you want with your fly pattern. When using articulation it is important to remember the friction and weight needs to be at the front of the fly, and it needs to be sleek and lightweight at the back. Using this technique makes the front stop faster than the rear and swings the rear of the fly forward simulating a wounded baitfish.
You also want to achieve the basic profile of the fish or insect. When designing baitfish patterns, I like to use hackle or schlappen for the body of the fly to give volume without adding bulk or weight to the fly. I also like to use polar fiber or Icelandic sheep as my wing and head. These things combined give the fly lifelike movement when stopped in the water between strips of the fly line.
When I am designing nymph patterns, I try to imitate their silhouette as much as possible. With my stonefly patterns (tied on a 3x long hook), I bend the shank slightly to give it a more lifelike appearance.
Play with your design and materials and then test and retest until you have your fly design how you want it — rarely does a fly design come out perfect on the first try. If the fly looks how you want it look, moves how you want it to move, and catches fish, you have a successful fly design!
I have had the privilege of gaining knowledge from great fly tyers such as Charlie Craven and Dave Whitlock. Don’t be afraid to ask demo tyers at local and national shows why they do things in the way they do them and why they choose certain materials. Typically, they will tell you exactly why. True professionals will share their knowledge and experiences with you.
Good luck and happy tying!
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About Lee Blanton:
Lee grew up in North Alabama fishing the not-so-famed Wills Creek, as well as the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. He first grabbed a fly rod at the ripe old age of 11 and soon began tying flies for any innocent sunfish or bass that would fall for the trick. This continued on through high school where he began performing aquatic entomology assessments on local streams which further drummed up his knowledge on aquatic insects, and how to imitate them with flies.
Comments on this post (16)
Thanks for info, just started tying.
— Mike Klatt
Good info. Would like more. Thanks, good job.
— Nicholas L Robertson
Artistry is good, lam seeing beautiful flies. At 89 years I stay with basics that may produce results ,because it’s all about presentation not articulation.
I enjoyed the article. Keep ‘em coming.
I began tying several years ago. Now I’m learning that I usually fish about 10-15 flies per year with four to six types of rigs. I think it is time to start making some flies or adjusting the favorites to be ever so slightly different but still just as effective. I believe is an edge in pressured water. If you’re looking for a good reason to tie, there it is. If you’re throwing what everyone else is throwing – chances are good you’re missing fish. Unless that pattern is as natural as it gets. I’m new to this blog….so it’s time to start digging into the archives. :). Make it a great day!
— James Durden
Great article. I just started seriously fly fishing again the weekend after Thanksgiving. I’ve always wanted to tie but never got around to it. Articles like this are good motivation.
— Lee Stallard
Great information. For me, fly tying is as much about the almost meditative quality of fly tying (apart from when a biot slips, perhaps) as producing something that catches a fish. But when I change something slightly or build something different, and that fly catches a fish – well, that adds a rewarding new dimension to fishing, for sure.
The avenues of learning that have become available in recent years through the internet have made it much easier for motivated people to progress. While some may term them ‘short cuts’, I don’t. To me, information sharing by generous folks such as yourself is a great service to the rest of us and helps evolve the sport – but the hard yards are still there to be done, and so they should be.
Taking your lead, I find it very rewarding if I can assist someone else learn a new fly, tie a new knot, learn to cast, etc etc. This is why it’s called ‘sport’.
Great article. Always look forward to anything Flymen Fishing in the ‘In’ box. Really intrigued with the discussion about tying poppers. Looking forward to tying and fishing poppers using the Seducer popper heads.
— Michael Horst
Great article, been tying for years and love to see and hear what other tiers are doing and tying…
— Pete Lab
Just wanted to make sure that I remain on your maililng list. LA
— Lonnie Allison
Awesome article! Great read.
— Bobby Tedder
Excellent information for someone like me new to flytying!!
— Michael Gleeon
add me to the mailing list. Love your material
— Jerry Wallace
Glad y’all are enjoying the article. It is something I take great pride in.
— Lee Blanton
— Andre Giroux
A lot of sound advise here, thanks for sharing this article.
— Paul Shearon
Very informative and interesting article. I was a long time member of the San Jose Fly Fisher’s Club in California and taught their beginning tying class. The one thing I learn after 35 years of teaching math at the college level that help me in the teaching fly tying was to proceed slowly and keep everything simple.
— Jack Pease