Top Fly Tying Tips for Beginners - Because nobody knows it all
This months guest blog is compiled by full time fly tyer and Soldier Palmers team member Mark Mckeown. Mark runs Comp Candy Trout Flies, a company that is so serious about quality that he prepares all his materials and ties all the flies himself – a genuine artisan brand. In this edition Mark uses his hard-earned experience to provide the top fly tying tips for beginners that will help you quickly progress your skills and make the right purchases.
Youtube is your friend
When I first set about learning the basics of fly tying I tried several books which unfortunately I found to be quite dated or containing patterns that weren’t quite suited to either UK waters or my chosen Loch Style discipline of fly fishing. By chance I came across some fly tying content on YouTube and was off and running. The social media of today has vastly expanded in content with a variety of accomplished tyers who cover basic techniques and patterns to suit beginners through to experienced veterans. Not only was I able to follow these videos step by step but they also gave me a greater insight into the different types of materials and brands available. Here’s a few of my favourite channels to follow, it’s no coincidence they are Scottish:
Buy cheap, buy twice
We as anglers can be guilty of purchasing top end rods and reels but scrimping on essential terminal tackle such as good quality fluorocarbon, flies or investing poorly in cheap fly tying materials, hooks and tools. Good quality materials come with a high price tag for a reason, they are the best you can get and rightly so. When it comes to fly tying tools there are a few that I personally have as my top three. Firstly the vice itself, probably the most expensive piece of kit as a beginner, yes you can get some cheaper alternatives but I believe if you pay that bit extra you will have a vice that will last you a lifetime. Secondly, the bobbin, if there is any part of tying of fly that will frustrate you more it will be the inevitable snapping of thread, this can be in part by applying too much tension but will be for the most part caused by a poor quality bobbin fraying at the thread as you tie. My favoured bobbin is the Tiemco heavy or any with a ceramic insert. Lastly a set of good quality sharp scissors, I prefer the Kopter range that will probably last longer than me.
Repetition, repetition and repetition
Whether you are an experienced tyer or beginner I feel strongly that the process of repetition is key. Repetition is a key fundamental in education and in learning a new skill or honing a skill or process. As a new fly tyer I was told to choose one pattern and tie as a minimum 20-30 of that pattern. The first few would be expectedly poor but by fly 10-15 I could see a marked difference in quality and consistency. I break each pattern down into sections or steps and by repeating these steps I find this helps fine tune my tying. Give it a go and you will be amazed at the difference repetition can make.
Prior Planning Prevents P*ss Poor Tying
Ideally when you sit at the vice you want to at least have a rough idea or a vision as to what you want to tie. Are you topping up empty spaces in your box from go to patterns, have you seen a social media post or YouTube video that has given you inspiration or are you tying for a specific venue? I like to have a clear vision of what I plan to achieve before a session at the desk, creativity is great but can lead to confusion, uncertainty and at times a wasted session. I have a process that I go through, I identify what I’m going to tie, identify if I have all the correct materials, lay out the materials in order of use i.e hooks first, varnish last, tie one fly and then assess the outcome, decide if I need to change anything or adjust the proportions. Then and only then will I tie the required amount of that pattern.
Time is Precious
Putting enough time aside is also really beneficial in aiding successful fly tying. We put a lot of time into learning to fly fish, so why then would we want to rush our fly tying? Our flies are one of the key elements of having a successful and rewarding day on the water and deserve the time invested in them! Try and plan sessions and dedicate the time required, Winter aside when we have that extra time for fly tying this can be difficult in the milder months when the fishing is at its best but it can be the difference between a red letter day or a complete disaster! I always go through the same process on the lead up to a fishing trip and it is as follows, identify venue, gather up to date info on said venue, identify patterns that are currently working, check my fly boxes for any spaces that require topping up, make a list of pattern, check I have all the materials required and then dedicate the time required to tie the listed patterns. Once I have finished all the planned fly tying it is then and only then that I will pack the car ready to go.
Organisation and Storage
Having a dedicated tying area with heaps of storage can be really difficult depending on your current living arrangements but even with the smallest of spaces or a mobile tying setup, being organised and correctly storing your equipment and materials will pay dividends. Again its just another part of the fly tying process, having materials at hand in good order is beneficial as opposed to searching through bags of materials which have lost their labels and looking a bit worse for wear. It’s understandable that its not possible for everyone to have a dedicated tying space but there are still good organisation and storage options available. I find breaking my materials down into small drawers or storage solutions with clear labelling really he. There are lots of inexpensive options available from generic retail stores as well as specialist tying storage solutions from fishing brands, but shop around to find what’s best for you. These can be small enough that they can be stored in a cupboard out the way or put on shelving. I don’t always tie at at my main desk and at times have a mobile setup which I will travel with or use even if I just want to sit on the sofa, fly tying can be achieved anywhere. I use a mobile tying desk which I had made for me, it has the vice fitted to the desk with an LED light attachment and enough storage to keep me organised whilst at home or on the move.
Light it Up!
A good quality light with ample illumination is another essential piece of fly tying equipment. This piece of equipment doesn’t need to break the bank and there are some great hobby or craft lights available that can be found on amazon, eBay or versions from Hareline designed specifically to fit your vice stem. I find that good lighting really helps with those intricate patterns, it can also prevent eye strain and some lights are also available with added magnification options. I find tying in a darker space with only the vice illuminated to be beneficial by reducing external natural or artificial light.
Every Day is a School Day
Do not be discouraged if you hear fly tying terms you haven’t heard of or come across materials that are new to you. One of the things I love about fly tying is that I’m continually learning, fly tying techniques are continually evolving and new techniques and materials emerging. As previously mentioned YouTube is your friend, take the time to research new patterns, materials or techniques and most importantly get hands on and give it a go. Learning new fly tying tips, tricks or techniques can be hugely rewarding and keeps us invested in such a rewarding craft. It might also be worth investigating if there are any Fly Dressers' Guilds or shows in your area such as the fantastic British Fly Fair International.
Walk Before You Run
Fly tying unfortunately isn’t always about instantly great results or gratification, it can at times be equally frustrating and disheartening. Do not be discouraged, if you get the basics right first, follow the processes and suggestions above then you are at least on the road to setting solid fly tying foundations. The rest will follow with good work practices, practice, practice and more practice. Just try to enjoy it as a hobby and set sensible achievable goals.
There Are No Stupid Questions
Finally if your not sure ask! I was very fortunate when I first set out to learn fly tying that I was surrounded by some extremely talented fly tyers, to name a few, Lindsay Simpson of iFlyfish, Gerry Rattray of Gleneagles and Eyebrook Fishery manager Jim Wright. I would quite literally pester them with regards to fly tying, I would take pictures of my flies and share the results. More often than not they would tell me that they weren’t very good, but they wouldn’t just stop there, they would tell me why they weren’t very good and more importantly what I had to do in order to improve my overall end result. On looking back now it was exactly the type of education that I needed and has stood me in good stead. Social media has become the platform of choice for fly tyers to share their wares these days, join the groups, ask questions and don’t be afraid to post your own finished articles. We are very fortunate to be part of the fly tying community and it is most definitely a resource that you should be utilised by fly tyers of all levels of expertise.
Interested in purchasing Mark’s top quality patterns? Visit his webstore at