Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Get Your Head in the Game! Five Tips to Better Fly Tying

I have always been possessed with the question of what lies beyond the next mountain. An innate desire to explore burns from deep within, perhaps fulfilling the very existence of my soul. This feeling is part of being a McDonough, as it’s easily seen in the personalities of both my father and his father. I’m sure this same question played a large role in my ancestors making the move to America from Ireland generations ago.

"What lies beyond the next river-bend?"
Naturally, the desire to explore carries over into my fishing. A big part of being an avid fly fisherman is embracing the curiosity of what lies around the next river-bend. I love looking at a new piece of water and deciding on how to attack it with a fly rod. I’ve been skunked on new water time and time again, but what comes after the skunk has made me a better angler.

Processing everything on the way home- “Was I fishing the right flies? Was I fishing the right water? What changes will I make in my plan of attack for the next day?” Whether it’s after a thorough skunking, or several months prior to a trip, it’s the task of figuring out these questions that really gets my head in the game. In the end, “getting ‘er dialed,” as we say, is the best feeling of all. This satisfaction is the very root of why I fish and guide.

An exploratory float deep in the wilderness of British Columbia
I find that the prep-work for an upcoming trip is almost as fun as the trip itself. It’s a way to come into the trip with my head in the game and really attack a new fishery. This mentality is easily applied when I narrow things down and use flies as my starting point. You need flies to catch fish on a fly rod. I am very passionate about flies and all aspects of tying and creating them. It’s easy to do a bit of online research or go into a local fly shop and purchase flies for an upcoming trip. Not that I’m trying to discourage this approach, but I find that I get more into the game if I tie my own flies. I also enjoy tying new patterns, whether it’s mine or those created by other tiers.

While not in Alaska, chasing steelhead across much of the Pacific Northwest has kept me from doing a whole lot of flats fishing. A quick trip to Mexico with my wife a few years back was more a vacation-vacation than a fishing vacation. We spent a few days down south on the Yucatan and had fun figuring out the bonefishing. I had nothing more than an 8 wt. rod and a small box of loaner flies- like I said, it wasn’t really a fishing trip. All in all, we caught plenty of little bones, had a couple brief shots at permit, and developed a fascination with fishing the flats. I vowed we would return for a “fishing-fishing” vacation to a flats destination somewhere in the world, only this time we would do it right.

The next chapter...
Here I am, a few years later spending much of my free-time in the evenings power-tying for an upcoming saltwater trip. As the Alaska season quickly approaches, I should be tying flesh and sculpin patterns. Instead, my fly tying table is crowded with packs of E.P. fibers, Tiemco saltwater hooks, and artificial crab-eyes.

McDonough's Tarpon Toad
The decision to take the plunge and tie most of the flies I will use on the trip was a big deal, as I’ve never tied any saltwater flies. Although crossing over into this genre of fly-tying was inevitable, it has taken some time to get the hang of it. As usual, learning some patterns has been easier than learning others. Frustrating at first, figuring out the process has inspired me to write this blog with a few basic tips on becoming a better tier.

Got crabs?

McDonough's 5 Basic Tips to Better Fly Tying

1. Tie a lot- When you struggled after ditching the training wheels on your bike, what did your parents tell you? “Practice makes perfect.” I can’t stress this enough. You can’t reach the next level in your tying ability by only tying a few times a month. My life is as busy as that of anyone I know, and I still manage to tie several nights a week (Being young with no kids helps). Even if it’s a quick thirty minute session, tying several times a week will make you a much better tier.

2. Cross genres- Like my recent situation learning saltwater patterns, tying different flies and different styles of flies will go a long ways in making you a better tier. I know a lot of people, guides included, who only tie certain types of flies. If you’re most confident tying dries and nymphs, spend some time learning to tie streamers. If you’re a “meat-chucker” and you enjoy nothing more than tying big juicy streamers, take the time to practice tying small emergers. Learning hand-eye coordination while working with different sizes and styles of materials and hooks will really help you tie all your flies much better.

3. Step out of your comfort zone- This plays on tip #2. Crossing over into new genres and learning to tie different styles of flies is all a part of stepping out of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself with learning new patterns. Set a goal to get to a point where you can look at a fly, dissect the materials and techniques used, and tie it on your own. When you reach this goal, challenge yourself with new materials.  If you are uncomfortable spinning deer hair, spend a few weeks tying mice, bass bugs, or sculpins. Look for patterns that use a material you haven’t used much and go for it. When you get comfortable with one material, challenge yourself with something completely different.

4. Use quality materials- Do some research and buy quality materials. I’m all about supporting your local fly shop. Generally, these guys could use the business and most are all about helping you figure out what you need or don’t need. Fly shops are often staffed with at least one or two decent fly tiers who will offer good first hand advice on buying and using certain materials. Choosing this option versus ordering online also allows you to look over the materials prior to making your purchase. Not all feathers are created equal. Buying from your local shop provides you the ability to assess the different grades and sizes of materials and figure out what is best for you.

5. Buy quality tools- I have tied on the full gamut of setups, from the most basic jerry-rigged improvisations in Alaska to the top-of-the-line benches found at most shops. I’ve been stuck at remote river-camps in Alaska using a set of vise grips in place of a vise for several weeks at a time. It took me a long time to admit that buying quality tools would help me tie better flies. By quality tools, I don’t mean the industry fad or the latest and greatest. By no means could I ever justify spending $600 on a vise, or $50 on some fancy retractable bobbin. However, spending a little extra on quality tools will help you crank out better flies in the end.

Ceramic bobbins, although a bit more expensive, help prevent accidental thread-cutting on the sharp edge found at the tip of a cheaper bobbin. Buy good scissors! It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of good scissors, and several types of good scissors. Buy a good set of hackle-pliers that actually hold the hackle. There are many different styles of hackle-pliers on the market today. What you choose should be based on personal preference, but one thing is for certain- they need to actually hold the hackle as the tier applies a fair amount of pressure. Go to your local shop and test out a few sets on their bench to find out which works best for you.

I plan on doing a lot more on this topic (tip #5) in the future, but the bottom line is- spend a little extra coin on tools. You don’t need the best that money can buy, but having quality tools will help you tie better flies and it will make your tying experience more enjoyable, which will ultimately lead to you tying more often.

I will get into more specific fly tying tips in future posts, but these five pointers have really helped me become a better tier. My father was a great teacher of basic fly tying back when I was a young boy. Although he continues to be a great mentor, figuring it out from there was up to me. I've learned to appreciate these five tips through my own journey that has molded me into the tier I am today.

Get your head in the game! October on the Klickitat

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate your idea and creating this articles! Thank you so much!

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