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First Three Steps To Better Fly Tying

By Davy Wotton


If you have a fundamental understanding, you can apply the knowledge.

This really sums up fly-tying techniques, and never more so than when it relates to your understanding of how fly-tying thread is used in relation to the materials and methods for producing a certain fly.

If you are unable to master control of your tying thread, you will never become a top-class fly-tyer. Those who fail in this respect lash it to the hook: better to tie it!

When I first learned to tie a fly, I did so using Pearsall's Naples or Gossamer thread, precise placement of which was essential to make a job of the whole pattern. Nowadays, we have very fine, pre-waxed materials at our disposal, and these make for easier control of all operations, without the bulk associated with the old-style threads.

If you watch a top-class fly-tyer at work, you will be surprised how very few turns of thread are needed to produce a tight, neat, solid fly. At one stage, I used to count the turns of thread I made to tie the various fly patterns; then find ways to eliminate excess turns. You need only about two turns of thread to correctly place any material. Further turns are then made to add security, set the material in the required position, or provide a foundation for the next stage of operations.

Most tyers will vary the amount of tension given to the thread as it is taken around the hookshank. Usually, such tension is applied as the thread is taken over the hookshank, away from the tyer, and then brought back again, under the shank. This results in uneven tension at the near and far side of the hook. The most usual time for a thread to snap is at the point when it is brought below the hook and towards the tyer. How many times have you tied a wing on your fly, only to find that it slips around the hookshank, the result of improper thread control?

There are times, in tying procedure, when you need to have what I would call a "soft" tension to your thread, when bringing a material down or into position. But more of that later.

If you do not think what I have said so far is relevant to tying a fly to catch a fish, then do not bother to read on. But I hope it is your intention to improve your ability to tie a better fly, so opening up a far greater potential in the craft. I could not have achieved the standard I have, had I disregarded the fundamentals.

I you cannot finish it, there is no point in starting it. So the first step in learning to tie a fly is to be able to carry out the whip finish. Hopefully, you have learned that.

The spigot bobbin is indeed a valuable part of your armoury, allowing three separate operations to take place.

To enable this to happen, the thread exit point of the spigot tube must be smooth, so that in no way does it damage the thread. If it does, bin it. I built a bobbin of my own, about 20 years ago, with a removable glass bead in the spigot head to avoid the continual problems posed by the bobbins then available: I still use it today.

Nowadays, you are able to buy a high quality ceramic-lined bobbin, and I would strongly advise you to do so - they make the world of difference.

Second, and very important, is the tension applied to the spool of thread by the bobbin retaining arms. If it is too tight, you will apply far too much pressure during the tying operations. Too slack, and the weight of the bobbin and thread spool will allow the thread to unravel of its own accord, and you will have little control over tension.

The perfect bobbin is one that allows the thread to bee drawn almost to its limit of tensile strength. Just before this point is reached, the spool of thread will turn to release its loading.

My method of control is, I grant you, unusual. The spool is very slack in the bobbin arms, just below the point of self-release. I control my thread tension with my little finger. Far more sensitive than relying on a gadget, no matter how good. You can now by bobbins with tension-adjusters, which are more than adequate. With a stemmed bobbin, tension may be applied by bending the arms in or out, appropriate to the size of thread spool.

Whatever else, you must know the limits of tensile strength of the thread you use, and you can do so only by that indefinable human quality of feel. Then you will be able to work with your thread as near as possible to the point of breakage.

The third factor is the size of bobbin. I do not favour the ultra-small type, which do not afford me the required measure of control. Some first-class tyers swear by them, however. Even so, I have watched many tyers at work and been convinced that many of their problems stem from the use of such a bobbin. Large or small, the one you find most comfortable will suit you best.

My bobbin is about four inches in total length. It carries a fair amount of weight, allowing me to spin it to open or close the spirals of thread for a flat or a tight twist as required. This gives me flexibility with my dubbing methods. This particular bobbin also carries weight "on the dangle," a crucial property.

One further point: wide-diameter spigots are of little use for tying thread. The fine-bore spigot provides far better control of the thread en route to the fly hook. Pre-waxed threads are a boon for the fly-tyer, but may cause a build-up of wax at the point of thread entry into the bobbin spigot.

I am indebted to Darrel Martin for his tip on how to overcome this problem. Bend the arms of the bobbin at an angle, so the thread travels from the spool more or less straight down the spigot tube. There may still be a slight offset, depending on the thread load on the spool, but it is a great improvement. You want the waxed thread to come direct out of the spigot end, not scraped off at the entrance!

Straight draw

GIVEN the above, you can place the thread spool into the bobbin only one way to achieve a straight draw-off, ensuring that the twist factor remains constant as the thread leaves the spool.

Probably the most common cause of complaint about tying thread is that it is always breaking.

If this is your problem, have you taken into account all I have said in relation to the bobbin? This may be the cause of it all. It may also be that you lack thread control or even that the thread you are using is rubbish. Some so-called fly-tying threads are no use at all.

In deciding on a good thread, the following criteria are useful:

  1. Strength, full stop.
  2. Strength in relation to diameter.
  3. Whether it is waxed or not.
  4. Is it prone to rotting?
  5. Colour.
  6. Flat or round profile.
  7. Tensile strength.
  8. Price per yard.
  9. Size of the spool it comes on.
  10. Will it tie deer-hair patterns, as well as dry flies?
Most important element to consider is tensile strength in relation to its diameter. By "tensile strength," I mean its ability to carry a certain amount of elasticity: and does it wind flat or round, or allow me to have some say in this matter.

All other factors are variables.

To be fair, you have to tie very many flies to fully understand the characteristics of different brands of thread.

Modern thread

MODERN tying threads are manufactured in various ways, depending on the type of fibres used. Some are made from continuous fibres, some are not.

There are, too, differences in the way those fibres are twisted together to obtain the strength/diameter ratio. Some manufacturers include substances to help bond the fibres together, and there are several waxing processes.

Threads fall into two quite separate categories: those that wind flat and those that lay down in a round section. Saying this, one brand of thread will give you the best of both worlds. Danvilles 6/0 Fly Master pre-waxed is, in my opinion one of the best all-rounders. Mounted on the hook with the bobbin rotated in a clockwise direction, it will open up the strands of fibre, allowing it to lay flat on the hookshank. If the bobbin is rotated in the opposite direction this will tighten the fibres, which now take on a round profile.

Danvilles also manufacture threads that will lay very flat indeed. Monocord, or a very good, flat thread by Thompsons, called Monobond, both have their devotees. New in the UK is the Canadian polyester-based Uni-Thread, which is very strong. I highly recommend it.

If you want an exceptionally strong thread for deer-hair or saltwater patterns, Uni-Kevlar will take some beating.


HERE is a resume of some good tying threads. I am biased towards the US products, simply because I have used them for so long. Danville's Fly Master and Uni-thread 8/0 take some beating.

Others are Danville's Fly Master pre-waxed 6/0; Danvilles Monocord (flat section); Danvilles Spider Wet (very fine for the tying of tiny flies); Thompsons Monobond 3/0 flat section Uni-Thread 6/0 and 8/0 round section (pre-waxed or plain); Uni-Thread Mono 3/0 regular (wraps very flat) and Uni-Kevler (very strong indeed).

My basic recommendation is to obtain a good-quality bobbin with a ceramic spigot, teamed with a good quality 6/0 thread. This will certainly put you on the right track to start learning about thread control, as this will be the thread I will use for my instructions on tying procedures.

The first stage to tying a fly is to mount the hook in the vice with, I hasten to add, the point and barb exposed from the vice jaws. Otherwise, you can damage the hook; besides, with point and barb clear, you have more area to work around. The worry that I will catch the thread on the hook point is irrelevant - if I have proper thread control. You will very soon learn to avoid that pitfall. One main reason for catching the thread is too great a distance from the end of the spigot to the hook. You need only a very short run of thread, no more than half-an-inch to 1 1/2 inches most of the time. This distance will be extended only when a dubbing rope has been formed on the thread.

Have you ever tried that game when you have to maneuver a metal gadget attached to an electrical base around a bent wire frame? If you touch the frame, a bell rings. To win at this game you have to control the gadget in your hand at right angles to the wire frame. Treat a hook the same way, and the bobbin as the gadget in your hand. For 95 per cent of all thread control, you will wind at right angles to the hookshank.

Why should I be so pedantic about bobbins, thread, and how it is wound on the hookshank? The reason is simple: in the hands of a skilled fly-tyer, more or less any material may be spun, laid on, twisted or trapped around or between tying thread, to form a rope or chenille effect to the fly body. However, these dubbing methods are probably among the most difficult skills for the fly-tyer to master, and very few really succeed. Knowledge of the materials to be used is, of course, one aspect; but more so the importance of your thread control with those materials. In future issues we will build on these fundamentals to enable tyers to produce better flies with ease.

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