by Ted Leeson
Fly-tying is a natural, and for some of us even inevitable, extension of fly-fishing, and like fishing can be as simple or complex as we choose to make it. But like fishing, tying somehow seduces in the direction of ever more fanatical involvement, and those who tie understand why. You don’t need to rely on fly shops for the patterns you need; you have the liberty to explore your own ideas about fly design; tying keeps the fishing flame burning even when you’re not on the water; and there’s the deep pleasure of making a thing by hand. The economics can go either way. For those sufficiently disciplined to limit themselves to the essentials, tying can be cheaper than buying. But matters do have a way of escalating, and as a friend likes to say, tying flies to save money is like having children for the tax deduction.
But then nothing in fly-fishing pencils out in quite those terms. The whole point is to enjoy yourself, and with the staggering availability these days of tying instruction, tools and materials, that enjoyment is easier to realize than it’s ever been.
In the interests of both prospective and experienced tiers, I recently rounded up a variety of tools, put them to work, and culled what I found best in each of two categories—a selection of basic tools for the beginning tier, and an assortment of more specialized tools for experienced tiers who’d like to try something new.
I settled on these tools for two reasons: They’re reasonably priced, and they can quite satisfactorily serve a new tier beyond the beginner stage. You might eventually wish to upgrade, but there’s no reason at all that you’d have to.
Standard (Non-rotary) Vise: The Regal Inex Vise ($150) has much to offer new tiers in particular. It’s the simplest of all vises to operate: squeeze the lever to open the spring-loaded jaws, insert the hook, and release the lever. The jaws are self-adjusting—no fiddling with gap-adjustment screws or collars, no risk of damaging the jaws by overtightening. Most important, they hold hooks with an unremitting, snapping-turtle grip. Small hooks are held in the tips; big irons are seated in a grooved recess farther back. Neither will slip nor shift.
In a redesign for this year, the Inex head rotates 360 degrees. While not suitable for rotary tying, it lets you view the back or underside of a fly, and it can be removed to accept specialty heads (midge, big game) and accessories. www.regalvise.com
Rotary Vise: As an alternative to a standard vise, a rotary vise, among its many advantages, allows the application of material to the hook by spinning the jaws rather than wrapping the thread; it can be used just like a standard vise as well. The Renzetti Traveler 2000 ($164.95 pedestal or C-clamp base) is a basic but fully functional rotary design. The cam-operated jaws operate easily, and they securely hold hooks from size 28 to 2/0. Jaw rotation is smooth and consistent, with no wobble or chatter. Everything that should adjust, does: rotary tension, jaw height, bobbin rest.
Because of their greater mechanical complexity, rotary vises tend to be more expensive than the standard type, and the Traveler is nicely priced for its quality. www.renzetti.com
Utility Scissors: As every tier eventually discovers, often enough the hard way, you don’t use precision tying scissors to cut wire, coarse hairs, synthetics or thick materials that will quickly dull the blades or force them apart and eventually render them useless. A workhorse scissors, like the Anvil Ultimate Straight Accu-Tip Scissor (Model 70-A, $16.95), is called for. Sharp (and ice-tempered to keep them that way), the blades are micro-serrated to prevent materials from slipping during cutting. These have longer blades and finer points than many other utility scissors, making them more versatile, particularly for working around the hook shank. www.anvilusa.com
Tying Scissors: Apart from a vise (and then only perhaps), precision scissors are the heart of a fly-tying tool kit. You don’t need the best, but you do need good ones, and the Dr. Slick Razor Scissors ($28.95) are good ones. The blades are among the sharpest I’ve used, and they cut cleanly to the very end of the very fine tips for close, precise trimming. The blades taper down from a fairly wide, thick base, making them nicely rigid and stable when cutting. An adjustment screw controls blade tension to accommodate materials of different thicknesses (though I confess this is a feature I don’t use much). The 4-inch length fits comfortably in your hand, and the big finger loops make them easy to use. www.drslick.com
Bobbin: A bobbin is a fairly simple animal, so it’s appalling how poorly made some of the cheaper ones are. The Tiemco Standard Ceramic Bobbin ($27) costs a bit more, but will save the time and frustration that come with tubes that fray or break thread, spool hubs that bind, or overly large barrel ends that impede accurate thread placement. The glass-smooth barrel is thin enough to work close to the hook, the hubs pay out thread evenly, and the spring arms are easy to adjust for tension. It’s well made and pleasing to use. www.umpqua.com
Whip-Finisher: Chief among the tiny battles waged among fly tiers (usually with bodkins at 10 paces) is whether to whip-finish by hand or with a tool. I think that, for new tiers especially, a tool does a faster and neater job. The Dr. Slick Stainless Steel Whip Finisher ($9) is modeled after the now-unavailable Matarelli finisher, a design that’s easier to use and places thread wraps more precisely than spring-arm whip-finishers. The wire arm is polished smooth, and the handle sleeve rotates freely. That’s all you need, but it even has a half-hitch tool built into the end. Go for the 4-inch size. www.drslick.com
Hackle Pliers: Not long ago, a tying friend turned me on to the unusual but superbly functional Tyflyz Hackle Tweezers (about $12), and I’ve used nothing else since. The textured surface on one of the jaws grips even small, fine-stemmed feathers better than any pliers I’ve tried, and the jaws have less tendency to cut or break the quill. These are simple, lightweight and easy to use, with small, narrow tips that allow you to work with precision very close to the hook wire. www.hareline.com
Hair Stacker: There are some elegant hair stackers on the market, but the basic, utilitarian Griffin Hair Evener ($9) does just as good a job. The knurled aluminum body won’t slip in your fingers, the brass tube slides freely, and a rubber pad on the bottom prevents nicks and dents in your bench top. It’s a bit short for very long hair, like bucktail, but nicely sized for deer and elk, and it has a bit of heft to it, which makes for easier stacking than you’d get from a very lightweight tool. www.griffinenterprisesinc.com
Beyond the Basics
I chose these tools because they can enlarge your repertoire of techniques and fly styles, improve efficiency at the bench, and produce more effective patterns.
In my tying life, I’ve had to face up to my share of wrong-headed opinions, among them my belief that tube flies were a minor niche style, of interest only to snooty European salmon fishermen. I now recognize their worth for a wide range of species, and the only hardware you need to get going is the HMH Starter Tube Tool ($24.95). It mounts in the jaws of any vise. Slide a piece of tubing over one of the two steel pins provided, clamp the pin in the tool, and start tying just as you would on a hook shank. The tool is simplicity itself, functions beautifully, takes no room on your bench and not much cash from your pocket. www.hmhvises.com
The Marc Petitjean Magic Tool Clip Set ($40) opened up new tying possibilities for me, allowing the preparation of complex combinations of materials to spin in a dubbing loop—almost any kind of feather barb, fur, hair, dubbing, synthetic strands like Flashabou, even rubber legs. Inserting the materials into a clothespin-like clamp forces the fibers upright; grasp them with a wide clip, trim the butts to length, and put them in a loop or use the Magic Tool Stacker ($28) to form a bundle for tying wings and tails. The new Micro Tool ($27.95) is sized specifically for CDC feathers. These are a bit on the expensive side, but they function well and let you fashion flies that simply aren’t possible with other tying methods. Check out any of several YouTube demos to see what I mean. www.petitjean.com
Experienced tiers can get finicky about bobbins, and I’ve been using a couple that are a cut above the crowd. The Norvise Automatic Fly-tying Bobbin ($45) automatically shortens the tying thread without tedious manual rewinding. It’s superb for rotary tying, when you must draw out thread to drape over the bobbin rest for rotary techniques, then shorten it again for conventional tying. Just lift the bobbin from the rest, move it toward the hook shank, and the thread rewinds as you go. The mechanism is ingenious and works flawlessly. I use it in non-rotary tying as well for the speed and efficiency it gives. www.norvise.com
The Thumb Grip Tungsten Tube Bobbin ($49.95) from Hareline is the precision tier’s bobbin. The super-smooth tungsten tube tapers down to the thinnest-diameter barrel I’ve ever seen. It lays down thread wraps surely and accurately, and lets you work extremely close to the hook shank even on tiny flies. Tubes are radiused on both ends to eliminate thread nicks and frays, and the tungsten won’t groove or wear. Brass ball-type spool hubs give a smooth thread feed, and the ergonomic thumb rest is comfortable. This is the best conventional bobbin I’ve ever used. www.hareline.com
Cohen’s Original Fugly Packer ($29.95) is one chunk of a tool that compresses spun deer hair tighter than the airlines pack passengers. Unlike conventional brass stackers, this one has jaws that close right down on the hook shank for a tight pack, it won’t sever the thread or hair, and it doesn’t bend. It’s made of 1/8” steel bar stock so you can really lean on it, and formed risers on the handles protect your fingers from hook points. If you spin hair, you should check this beast out. www.rusuperfly.com
The Hareline Blend Your Own Custom Dubbing Kit ($99.95) brings a very old technology—the wool carder—to tiers who appreciate the virtues of dubbings mixed from different colors and textures. You place the dubbings on the blending board, draw the hand brush over them several times, and the steel-fingered surfaces thoroughly mix the fibers, no matter what they are—long, short, coarse, fine, natural, synthetic. It’s faster than blending by hand, less messy than water mixing, won’t chop everything into short fibers like a coffee grinder will, and does a better job than all of them. Packaged with a selection of 12 dubbings. www.hareline.com
I was instantly intrigued when I saw the Fish-Skull Fly Tester ($285) at the industry trade show last year. This acrylic tank with variable-speed water pump lets you observe the behavior of your flies in the current, and what you see can help you design patterns that behave underwater like you think they should. I set this up one morning hoping for revelations about fly architectures and materials. I wasn’t disappointed, but I was unprepared for the lava-lamp mesmerization of just watching the undulations of a five-inch Intruder. Suddenly, it was dinnertime. The unit doesn’t come cheap (and needs periodic cleaning), but it has much to teach streamer and fly-swinging freaks. www.flymenfishingcompany.org