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Fly tying: where do I begin?

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

Fly patterns for the beginner fly-tier

trout candy

I began my fly-fishing experience approximately 25 years ago in Scotland. On my first excursion I fished a Scottish loch (lake) from a rowboat using a crane fly – known here as a ‘daddy long legs’. Our ghillie (guide) had an unusual technique of tying a live crane fly to a length of ‘floss’ (fishing line) and “dapping” the insect on the top of the water, while my fishing companion and I sent artificial flies of a similar pattern out on the water with soft casts. The live fly was meant to be a decoy - cause a commotion on the surface and stimulate interest, with the hope that this would fool fish into taking our flies. We spent a long day in harsh conditions with little to show for our work, but it was intriguing.

So I spent the next two years thinking that fishing ‘flies’ were actually meant to be a top-water flying insect. Then I visited the Lake District in the U.K. and learned about ‘buzzers’ (nymphs), which were fished under the surface and generally suspended from an indicator (bobber). So with this experience I learned that flies could be flying insects, but could also represent an immature underwater insect…hmmm? And then there is the emerger fly – so it started getting complicated for this very novice fly fisherman!

caught on a 'buzzer'

Over these past 25 years I have learned a lot about how to fly fish, but managed to avoid immersion in the etymology of aquatic insects and other critters that trout feed on. These were finer points of the sport I never really had time or motivation to master, even though I knew it would enhance my skill. I was even more averse to learning to tie flies on my own, as it was infinitely more efficient (for me) to stop by the local fly shop and drop a few dollars on a pattern or two that the fishing manager suggested might work.

Flies by Two Brothers fly-tying

So now that I am on the water a lot more (maybe three to four times more in a month than when I was working a full-time job), it starts making sense that I expand my skill set, not just by learning more about what patterns I should be using and why, but also taking pride in having tied those patterns myself. So I turned to a pair of brothers who are fellow members of my local Trout Unlimited (TU) chapter for inspiration on tying basic patterns for our local waters in Northern Virginia. Palmer and Mason are young entrepreneurs who own a fly-tying business called Flies by Two Brothers and they were delighted to share some wisdom with me about how to embark on fly-tying.

Mason's 'polar shrimp'

The Polar Shrimp and Laserbug fly patterns

Mason’s first fly pattern was a ‘polar shrimp’, a classic streamer used for salmon and steelhead fishing, which his parents used on a fishing trip they took to British Columbia. Palmer, on the other hand, demonstrated the initiative that led to their current business by tying his own interpretation of a ‘laserbug’, a streamer pattern similar to a wooly bugger. I wasn’t expecting to be as ambitious, so asked them to recommend simple patterns that I could use on Virginia streams in the coming months.

Palmer's 'laserbug'

Tying a hare's ear nymph fly pattern

Mason suggested that if I were to tie a pattern for early spring trout fishing, then a traditional nymph might be a good start, such as a pheasant tail or hare’s ear. The latter imitates a mayfly nymph or caddis larvae and are fished as wet flies below the surface.

soft hackle hare's ear nymph

Tying a neversink caddis fly pattern

Later in the spring, according to Palmer, would be a good time to focus on top-water, dry flies such as terrestrial (like beetles or ants) or caddis patterns. A yellow, neversink caddis is a dry that imitates an emerging caddisfly or yellow sally mayfly and works particularly well on the streams of the Shenandoah National Park.


Tying a wooly bugger fly pattern

For year-round fishing, Mason and Palmer both agreed that a wooly bugger is an excellent pattern that is also a good beginner fly. The advantage with this streamer is that the fly-tier can be inventive, mixing colors among the tail and body, as well as adding flash and/or rubber legs. This pattern is versatile as it imitates a variety of things trout feed on, such as leeches, crayfish, large nymphs or baitfish.

classic wooly bugger

After this excellent guidance, I expect I will be planting myself in front of a tying vice soon and giving it a try. I have already picked up a starter kit and additional materials for a few nifty patterns that I personally like to use on local waters. I have also recently been to a few tying clinics sponsored by the local fly outfitter. For readers of my blog who reside in the DC metro area, Tidal Potomac Fly Rodders organizes a ‘Beer Tie’ on the second Monday of each month in Clarendon and I recommend checking out that event as you will meet lots of fly fisherman and maybe tie a few flies.

Please also visit the shop on Palmer and Mason’s website and support their efforts to raise awareness of Virginia fly-fishing. Or find them at one of the local fly-fishing shows in Northern Virginia.

I am not being compensated for my mention of Flies by Two Brothers. I am simply a supportive fellow member of TU and have caught trout using their clever fly patterns.

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