Re-Discovering the Wool Fly

Re-Discovering the Wool Fly

Get ready to pull the wool over the eyes of every trout you meet

  • By: David Rini
  • Photography by: Richard Procopio

Wool is a once-ubiquitous element of the fly that has all but disappeared in 21st Century American fly-fishing. While feathers have flourished in the fly tier's repertoire since Izaak Walton's time, most modern anglers would consider a wool fly to be quaint. Walton unfortunately did not describe in much detail beyond color, the precise kind of wool most suitable for the flies he tied. And it's understandable that today we think of wool only as yarn-limp and variable in thickness, color and texture-better suited for the making of sweaters and scarves.
Today's fly tier might not be aware that other forms of wool-specifically raw or "grease wool" or wool "roving"-are ideal for dryfly bodies, wings, tails and even "hackle." And most important, compared with other materials, wool is a joy to use. Developing a wool-fly universe invites unique possibilities for tying and fly-fishing; it's a marriage between fiber and method.
The fact is, most fly patterns readily translate their life-like essence into wool, creating a platform for entirely new classes of flies designed for trout, bass and other freshwater species as well as saltwater fly-fishing. Often I'm asked, "Why wool?" One answer is that wool has broader applicability within the bounds of traditional fly-tying than any other material known. It is ridiculously inexpensive, it adds a practical dimension to the fly tier's bag of tricks, and it provides the welcome challenge of simplifying a practical art that can sometimes drift into mind-numbing complexity. Further, the wool-fly universe-should the fly tier be so inclined to follow its precepts-is characterized by phenomenal success on the stream, creativity at the fly-tying bench, a respect for tradition and a satisfying harmony between the fly fisher and the rest of the natural world. Especially with the advent of catch-and-release fly-fishing, a wool-based perspective celebrates the vital connections that make our sport what it is.
My initial experiments with wool, which took place about a decade ago after I had poached a handful of the stuff from the floor of the Harris Tweed factory on the Isle of Harris, in Scotland, were serendipitous. This original sample, destined for a fine coat or throw, was predominantly brown with subtle highlights of cream, red, blue and green. I made buggy-looking nymphs from it. And when a 20-inch brown trout from a Pennsylvania freestone pool struck hard, I too was hooked.
The effectiveness of these flies-dressed only with wool-over the next several years was more than promising. I tried woolly nymphs, terrestrials, streamers and dry flies. I was astounded to find that wool is forgiving, malleable and downright pleasing to work with, even if unheralded by fly fishers and tiers. The vast majority of fly patterns today lend themselves to translation into wool flies. It is an environmentally friendly material, as it breaks down faster and more completely in the outdoors than epoxy, polyester or plastic. Further, for some fly fishers who aren't keen on using spare parts of squirrel, pheasant, etc., wool can be a welcome alternative to traditional tying recipes. Whether it's the wool dry fly's inherent bugginess or the wool streamer's minnow-like undulations in water, wool flies consistently create impressions of good things for fish to eat. Ewe Have Nothing to Lose…
The investment needed to gear up to make wool flies is minimal, since a few ounces of wool amounts to pennies when compared to a chicken neck. A little bit goes a long, long way. All the other paraphernalia on the tying bench remains the same-except that you can use the hair stacker as a toothpick holder and give your other dubbing supplies away to a friend.
The wool fly tier exercises more physical control over the fly in the vise than can tiers using other materials, and he or she can easily vary the amount of material for different sizes. Just think about trying to spin a deerhair head on a size 20 hook. It can't be done, because the diameter of the deer hair is too large. And, even on larger flies, deer hair can be a nightmare to work with. Wool fibers, on the other hand, have a finer diameter that allows the tier latitude and adaptability in artificial fly design. A spun wool head on a small fly is not only possible, with a little practice it's downright simple. In this manner the use of wool opens up the possibility of radically new fly designs. What is Wool? Raw Wool Raw or "grease" wool comes straight from the sheep with no washing or processing. The natural lanolin feels "greasy" to the touch and it sheds water well, making it super for dry flies.
Grease wool is undyed. Grease wool usually contains minute bits of vegetable matter-tiny pieces of sticks, seeds, bits of leaf, etc. which are easily removed by tweezers at the bench. The color of grease wool reflects the color of the sheep that donated it, ranging from a natural white cream or ivory, to brown, gray or black. Close examination of grease wool will reveal a spectrum of natural color similar to the colors of the insects fly tiers seek to imitate.
The character of wool may best be revealed in its grease-wool form. Unlike dyed wool, which creates a uniform coloration throughout, grease wool allows the tier to pick and choose color to suit specific needs. A dozen dry flies, for example, from the same lot of grease wool display subtle variations not unlike the small shades of differences found among populations of hatching mayflies. Roving Despite the home-spun satisfaction found in tying with grease wool, probably the most versatile form of wool for the tier is known as "roving" or "roping." Roving is wool that's been washed (removing much of the natural lanolin), carded (metal bristles turn on a rotating drum to align the fibers), combed and dyed. Large machines process the wool into a soft "rope" that a spinner fashions into yarn. Two- or three-inch tufts of wool pulled from roving are surprisingly strong. Because it's usually dyed (excepting for natural white or ivory) roving is consistent in color and strength. The wool fly tier will want to accumulate white, black, brown, yellow, red, green and ivory, and shades in between.
Must-have off-beat colors include purple, teal, burgundy and orange, and are great for bass, streamers and saltwater flies. Yarn Commercially-produced yarn is available in an infinite variety of sizes and shades. Wound yarn fly bodies aren't ideal for the dry fly because the yarn tends to hold water when wound tightly around the shank of the hook, but yarn does make a versatile fly body suitable for nymphs or terrestrials. Tough, single-ply yarn completely eliminates the need for dubbing. Staple Long, uniform fibers of grease wool are termed a "staple." Staple length varies from three to five or six inches. This is the length of the fiber when the sheep is sheared. Individual fibers comprising the staple are identical in length.
Shades of color vary across the length of the staple, with the wool closest to the sheep having a slightly different hue from the end exposed to the sun and elements. Tying in a wool tuft from a staple makes for a strong, durable fly, ideal for large bass bugs or streamers. Making Twisted Tuft Yarn Each wool fly is started by making a twisted tuft. A tuft is a piece of fiber pulled (not cut) from a larger sample of roving or grease wool. Pull a small amount (the "tuft") and test the strength and alignment of the fibers. You can make a yarn by twisting the tuft between the thumb and index finger of each hand. Tug on each end to ensure that the fibers align for maximum strength. They should not pull apart easily. Twisting the wool tuft creates a yarn several inches long and makes it more manageable to work. The tuft will "relax" once you secure it to the hook. The larger the tuft, the thicker the yarn; the thicker the yarn, the larger the hook. A small tuft yields a fine, yet strong, yarn hardly thicker than a spider thread; a larger tuft makes a heavier yarn the diameter of a number-two pencil.
With a little experience you'll be able to judge the correct size of the tuft to pull for different hooks. A twisted tuft yarn can be virtually any diameter, from just a few fibers for a size 24 dry fly to a 2/0 saltwater fly using a tuft the size of your finger. It also has a number of uses besides being wound around the shank of the hook. Twisted tufts are ideal for wings, streamer bodies, visibility posts and wool collars. The tier uses the untrimmed tufts as long handles to adjust and proportion the different parts of the fly. Sources of Supply Finding roving or grease wool means a trip to a weaving supply store or farm show. The diameter of roving is roughly that of a garden hose. It usually is rolled into the size of a soccer ball. From roving, the hand-spinner makes yarn and the imaginative fly tier discovers an extremely versatile, economical material. A few ounces represent enough for years of normal fly-tying; a pound is enough to last a lifetime.
Ten dollars will buy enough to make flies for every angler on the planet. A Sample Wool Dry Fly This following pattern is a generic wool fly that can be adapted to suit dozens of different patterns. The more fibers you use, the bushier the fly; for a gossamer wing use less wool. Floating characteristics are outstanding because of residual lanolin and the hard, water-resistant exterior surface of wool fiber. Use flotant if you want. Wool dries quickly and never gets soggy, unlike spun deer hair or CDC. A wool collar serves the same function on the dry fly as hackle. A simple wool dry fly consists of tail, body and collar made out of one or two tufts of wool.
More complicated patterns (Coachman, Hoppers, etc.) may require tying several smaller wool "tufts" into the design. One secret to the success of the wool dry fly is that the fibers are tied parallel to the hook shank, trapping as much air as possible.
These fibers will not "hold" water but release it on the back cast. Material Hook: dryfly, size 12 to 20 (or smaller)
Thread: 6/0 or 8/0 Tail, Body&Collar: grease wool or roving Tying time: 3 or 4 minutes 1. Selecting the wool Choose grease wool or roving the color you wish (white, brown, black, gray) for the tail, body and collar. Pull out a tuft of wool and hold it between thumb and index finger of each hand. Try to pull the fibers apart, then successively re-align them. Repeat until the aligned fibers are too strong to pull apart easily and they form a strong yarn. Twist the yarn between your thumbs and index fingers and inspect for color, texture, strength and diameter. After the twisted yarn is tied onto the hook it will "relax" and soften. Although this might seem obvious, for a tiny 24, use a very small tuft; a 14 needs proportionally more material. With a little practice you'll be able to pull the right size tuft to dress the hook you've selected. 2. The Visibility Post Few among us have eyes that improve with age. That's the main reason why I like to tie in a white or light-color post to serve as a visible indicator. But another reason is that the visibility post can serve as an upright wing useful in an emerger or dun pattern by trimming it higher and allowing it to stand above the rest of the fly the way a natural insect would float. The tag end of the post also provides fiber-one or two wraps ought to do it-to imitate the slight bulge of the thorax. Leaving space on the hook for the collar and fly head, tie in the post just behind where the collar will sit. (Figure A) Wrap the excess around the shank to create the effect of a thorax. Now work the thread to the bend of the hook. Dab the threaded shank with head cement or clear nail polish. 3. Tying in the tufts Take a 3- 4-inch twisted tuft and cut it in half. This ensures that each tuft contains equal amounts of fiber. Tie in one tuft on one side of the hook (Figure B) and the other half on the other side. The twisted tufts will form an "X" with the center of the X on top at the bend of the hook. (Figure C) Leave trimming until later. 4. Segmentation At this point the bobbin should be directly below the bend of the hook. You can choose between an unsegmented or segmented body. An unsegmented body floats better. Work the thread to hang just beneath the post. Pull the fibers (the two twisted tufts forming the leading edge of the X) to stretch the tufts on both sides of the hook; secure the visibility post and the tufts on each side of the shank. Then, take each tuft in hand, bend them back to expose the eye, stroke the tufts to point downward, secure them using a figure-eight wrap, and wind the thread head. To create segments, leave the bobbin hanging at the bend of the hook, stretch the two tufts beyond the eye, and tie a proportional spiral until you reach the thorax and wrap both to the right and to the left of the visibility post. 5. Collar "Hackle" is defined as a long, slender feather from the neck or saddle of a domestic rooster. I've resisted the temptation to call a wool hackle a "wackle," preferring instead the term "collar." The collar helps to create a realistic silhouette of an insect. It also sits the dry fly high on the water. The fibers in the collar provide many points of contact to the surface, helping to support the weight of the fly. The collar may be fashioned from the same twisted tufts that begin at the tail, form the body along the hook shank and end just below the head. The tier shapes the wool to form a crescent-shaped collar beneath the head for an emerger or dun, or teases it to stick out at right angles to imitate a spinner. The visibility post serves to fill in the collar on the topside of the shank. Another technique to achieve a collar is to tie off the wool body just below the head, pull a fresh tuft, twist, wrap a figure-eight to secure it from the bottom of the shank. That takes care of the underside. Pull another tuft and repeat the process of securing it on top of the shank. The result will be a circular collar with the fly head in the middle. This method is particularly good if you want to add color or highlights that are not already in the fly body. Again, tie the tufts in first and trim after everything else is finished so that the tied-in wool doesn't get in your way. 6. Trimming Invest in a high-quality pair of scissors. I find it best to let trimming go until last, after the whip finish and the head cement. Maybe this is because the different parts of the fly can be adjusted more readily when they're longer. Tufts can be positioned to be out of the way while the tier is working on other parts of the fly. Prior to trimming, the fly is in its "ugly duckling" stage. Trim the collar (by grasping both tufts downward or perpendicular to the shank as desired), visibility post and tail. Remove from the vise, fluff and trim. Inspect the fly regularly on the stream. Trim errant fibers when they get a bit shaggy. And give a nod to the sheep the next time you see one.