My sophomore year of college, I took a fly fishing leisure skill course. At the time I was working in an outdoor store. We were expanding to be an Orvis dealer, and have a small fly shop. My familiarity with fly fishing was limited to trout in Western North Carolina, and one-off trips I had heard about from friends and family. So, for me, the class what just an opportunity to learn more about the sport.
I learned about rods and reels, and how to tie a nail knot, or double surgeon’s knot. We went over the basics of fly lines, leaders and tippets, and even did some casting. All of this was enjoyable, but my life was forever changed on a rainy day, when we stayed in the classroom and tied flies. The patterns were simple; a Wooly Bugger and a Clouser Minnow. After the class that day I asked my professor if I could check out one of the class vices for the remainder of the semester. He agreed, and I was hooked!
Since then, I have amassed quite a collection of tools, thread, feathers, fur, hooks, beads, foam, and rubber legs. I have a dozen fly boxes at least, filled with flies that I have tied. Saltwater flies, freshwater flies, trout flies, bass flies, shark flies, flies that look like wet socks, and even some flies that don’t look like flies at all. It is the best hobby and truly my favorite part of fly fishing.
I want to provide a short list of my favorite tools and materials for fly tying, to help you get started and hopefully sustain a love for tying your own flies.
For most beginner fly tyers, I recommend buying a starter kit. These kits come with a basic vise, a few tools, head cement, thread, hooks and material. Starter kits can range from $50 to $200. Orvis, Scientific Anglers, Loon Outdoors, Bass Pro Shops, and even Amazon have decent starter kits. This list is my “starter kit” for tools to get started fly tying. Start small and basic, but don’t skimp on the scissors and the vise. You can always build upon what you start with, but a bad vise and bad scissors can ruin the experience.
This is going to be the most expensive tool you purchase to begin fly tying. The vises included in the kits can get you started, but if you’re serious about fly tying, get a better vise and buy other budget friendly tools. There are a couple options on Amazon for rotary vises that mount to a desk, I recently bought one as a travel vise and it works well. My recommendation would be a solid pedestal vise like a Peak Rotary or Renzeti Traveler. Sometimes you can find a used one on Facebook Marketplace and save some money.
2. Thread Bobbin
This is the tool that holds the thread. Get one that feels comfortable in your hand. It’s like the steering wheel on your car. You will have a bobbin in your hand more than anything else. I like bobbins with a longer stem, like the Ergo Bobbins from Loon Outdoors, or bobbins made by MFC. But I have a few basic Dr. Slick bobbins that work great. Make sure that you can adjust the tension on the bobbin arms. This will be critical in keeping your thread wraps tight on the hook shank and for securing material to the hook.
Scissors are a very important tool, and I recommend you have at least two pairs. One that is very sharp, and another that is dull. The dull pair can also be accomplished by a set of small wire cutters or snips. The sharp scissors are used to cut thread, feathers, fur, trim deer hair or EP fibers, etc. The dull scissors or wire cutters are for cutting mono, bead chain, wire brushes, lead wire, etc. I have a pair of Loon Ergo All-Purpose Scissors, and a set of Kobalt wire cutters from Lowes.
4. Silicone Bead and Hook Mat
This next one is less of a tool, but is very helpful when tying and prepping. The silicone pad has divots that hold beads and keeps them from rolling around the table when you’re tying. It also is a very neat prep space or drying area for flies that have been completed. Hairline Dubbing as well as Amazon have these silicone pads.
5. Whip Finisher
You don’t have to whip finish every fly, but at least two half hitch wraps at the hook eye will secure material in place before you use glue or head cement. Learning to use a whip finishing tool is a little like witchcraft, but it becomes second nature once you get the hang of it. I recommend one with a cutting edge at the base of the tool, that way you can whip finish and cut your thread with the same tool.
Some honorable mentions would be a set of hackle pliers, longer length scissors to cut hair and big material, hair stacker for deer hair, and a lice comb or bristle brush to fluff out material on finished flies.
If you have ever been into a fly shop and ventured over to the fly-tying material section, it can be both overwhelming and over stimulating. Walls and racks covered with fur, feathers, foam, silicone legs, braided fibers, beads, and so much thread! It’s hard to keep it all straight! I will break it down into just a few materials needed to get started. I am going to skip over hooks and beads, to just focus on the main materials.
Thread comes in a range of colors, brands and sizes. For starting out I recommend a 140-denier or a 6/0 veesus. These threads are right in the middle of thicknesses and won’t break easily by tightening down on the hook shank or nicking the hook point. Start with white, black and red. You can use colored sharpies or pens to make any color from the white thread.
Marabou is the most common material used in streamers. These down feathers come from the underbelly of turkeys and chickens. They are soft, light and are dyed in a variety of colors. The material slims down when wet but expands and pulses in the water. It can be tied to the end of a fly as a tail, or palmered around a hook to make up the body of a baitfish. The most common freshwater marabou fly is a Wooly Bugger, and saltwater fly is a Tarpon Toad. Fluorescent colors work well for larger predator flies, while natural colors are best for baitfish imitations.
3. Deer Bucktail
Another very common material is Bucktail. Taken from deer tails, these hollow hairs can be dyed a variety of colors. Commonly used as the body and tail material in deceivers and clouser minnows, it can also be spun and stacked for hair bugs. Bucktails are relatively inexpensive and can usually be purchased in a pack with other colors.
4. Pheasant or Turkey Tail Feathers
Pheasant and Turkey Tail Feathers are dark and stiff, and used for the tails and wing backs of nymphs and wet flies. Turkey feathers are stronger and stiffer than pheasant tails and can be used as a minor variation to common flies like Prince Nymphs and Pheasant Tails.
Dubbing is a material that can be both natural and synthetic. Dubbing is used in dry flies, wet flies, foam hoppers, streamers, and nymphs. This material comes in a variety of colors and densities. Assorted packs can be purchased to offer a variety of colors.
6. Saddle Hackle
Saddle hackle feathers come from the long feathers of chickens. They are commonly used as tail feathers in streamers or palmered to make dry flies. Saddle hackles can be plain colored or barred, in natural colors or died. The most common dry fly is an Adams, and streamer is a Seaducer.
7. Craft Fur
Craft fur is a synthetic material that tapers in density and is dyed in a variety of colors. Craft fur can be used as tail material in fresh and saltwater baitfish patterns or stacked to make bulky heads of streamers. This material can also be used as a variation to bucktail flies or spun into brushes.
8. EP Fibers
EP fibers are one of the most common saltwater synthetic materials. Used as a variation to craft fur and bucktail material, these fibers do not absorb water, and are stiff. The fibers come in a variety of colors and can also be spun as wire brushes. EP Fibers are most commonly used in flies like EP Crabs, EP Shrimp, and EP Baitfish.
9. Sheet Foam
Sheet foam is a very basic material, commonly used for hoppers, terrestrials, frogs, and other topwater flies. This material ranges in color and thickness, and is usually purchased in sheets. Foam can be cut into strips and stacked, or it can be folded to make heads. The most common topwater fly is a gurgler, which can be used in both saltwater and freshwater. Hoppers and terrestrials are common foam flies as well, and are simple to tie for use on rivers and small ponds.
10. Rubber Legs
Rubber legs are a silicon material that can be used to imitate legs, tails, and antennae. They come in a variety of colors, stripes and thicknesses. Utilize the legs on basic flies to add more movement, or to give bug flies and nymph flies a livelier presentation. Rubber legs are used in terrestrial flies, crawfish flies, shrimp and crab flies, as well as streamers.
I am not sure if glue or head cement counts as a tool or a material, but it is necessary for finishing flies. Head cement products are standard in most fly shops and come with a small brush for application. I use glue like Zap-A-Gap or Loctite Super Glue, because the bottles have small application nozzles, and it is easier to control how much glue is being added.
Get busy tying, and tightlines! If you have any questions about this article, let me know below in the comments: