Fly Tying Basics

Getting started

What is a fly?

Let’s have a more technical look at flies and break them down into components.

Every fly is constructed around a hook. Based on the target species, the fly tier chooses a hook appropriate for the job. Size and shape should support the fly design. It helps to scribble a little sketch of the intended fly, even a beginner benefits from this simple trick. It does not need to be a draughtsman standard technical drawing, this little sketch is for you – the fly tier – to understand the proportions and elements of your construction.


Let’s look at the basics – the techniques and concepts used to wrap thread around a hook or tube.

The basic, common function of the thread is to hold the material in place on the hook (or tube). This is achieved by winding the thread onto the hook. Sounds simple? It is …. and IS NOT.

The first obstacle is to fix the thread to the hook so it does not slide off and sits tight. This requires a certain pressure which needs to be maintained.

So how does the thread actually hold on the hook? I think that the thread grips onto microscopic surface roughness of the hook metal. However it actually works, the main point is that your fly will only be as good as your first wrappings. The right pressure needs to be applied when winding the the thread around the hook.

The first wraps of thread around the hook are your fly’s lowest load bearing parts. A sloppy foundation results in a bad fly which starts to rotate around the hook and eventually coming apart. In accordance with Murphy’s law, this will of course happen while you are trying to catch your personal best. No fun really.

Even pressure wraps

It helps to imagine the hook being in the centre of the rotation (which it actually is) and rotate the thread around in 4 zones. Upwards, forward (away from yourself), downwards, backwards (towards you).

It is pretty much the same idea cyclists apply when training their leg-motion. Try to have even pressure. Play around and try to break the thread in all 4 directions (not advised with Dyneema® or kevlar threads) so you know how much pressure you can apply. Watch what happens to the hook as well. Try not to bend it.

I told you this will get nerdy, but this is fly tying and we will go into detail here. Now to the practical part.

The start

– explained for right hand tiers tying clockwise –

Hold the end of the thread in your left hand and the bobbin holder in your right. If you have difficulties holding onto the thread you can wrap it around your left index finger 4 or 5 times. While holding the bobbin holder in your right hand, cross the thread over the hook in about 45 degrees angle (preferably close to the hook eye). Make two or three wraps forwards towards the hook eye and then go back over these first wraps towards the bend. 6 to 8 wraps should be sufficient. Cut off the waste / tag end. Pull hard to check if the thread stays on the hook.

Counter spinning – twist in the thread.

In the “good old days” flies were tied with a given length of thread. This has changed. Nowadays, one leaves the thread on the bobbin, which is then kept in a bobbin holder. This prevents the the thread coming off the bobbin.

This is very practical and nifty but has one disadvantage: the thread fixed to the bobbin is twisted around itself when wrapped around the hook. This is not too big an issue when one is aware of that and counter-twists the thread. This is quite a simple movement. Just let the bobbin holder hang down from the hook by the thread and give it a counter clockwise spin. This has been explained for right hand tiers tying clockwise. Should you be using your left hand or tying counter clockwise, you need to reverse the directions explained above.

Keep repeating this “counter-spinning”. Make it a habit. It pays off. Tiers often complain about the thread breaking right when they are about to finish the fly – a strange coincidence? No, far from it! The breakage is caused by all the turns in the thread breaking the individual strands.

Offering materials onto the hook

This is a little trick that will help you to hold and present material onto a hook. It is a tiny movement which can make a big difference to your tying.

By simply stretching your forefinger and thumb you can move the material by an inch (2,5 cm). It is also useful to separate underfur from guard hair.

The knot – finishing the fly

The fly is typically finished by tying a knot. One possibility is doing a whip-finish and the other is the half hitch. You can also secure the thread by using a knot as an intermediate step.

Whip finish

Basically there are two ways of doing the whip finish; with your fingers as shown in some of the videos, or by using a whip finisher tool. That is really up to you and a matter of personal preference.

Half hitch

The other knot used is the half hitch. This knot is done by using a so called half hitch tool. It looks a bit like a pencil. This method is also used in some of the videos in this book.


Dubbing techniques

Dubbing is used to give the fly more volume. For this task a variety of fluff is used. Synthetics, fur, chopped feathers (CDC), wools … whatever really.

One of the most interesting dubbing materials I have come across is seal’s fur. If this is not available, mohair wool or Davy Wotton SLF is an acceptable substitute.

It is important to understand what the chosen dubbing should do and what effect you want to achieve.

Even though the main aspect is to give the fly’s body the right shape, dubbing can add to the ability to float. Another goal is to add “life” to a fly through the tiny movement of the fibres or trapped air bubbles etc that can help the illusion along.

These goals are achieved by selecting the appropriate material and the associated tying technique.

There are three different techniques for applying dubbing to the thread:

a) Touch Dubbing

This technique is very good with using very finely chopped dubbing. The thread
is lightly covered with wax, which works as a sort of “glue”. The tricky bit here is to use a wax which is not too soft and not to use too much of it. I use ski-wax. Apply a tiny amount of the wax to the thread and touch it with a small clump of dubbing. Think of “painting” the dubbing onto the thread.

b) “Standard” Dubbing

This method can be applied to pretty much all types of dubbing. One lays the dubbing one needs (remember – less is more) on to your index finger. Take the dubbing with your material hand …

Hang on – here are terms we have not used before; the material hand and your thread hand. I will try to keep this consistent, it makes it easier for left hand tiers to understand. Take the dubbing between your thumb and index finger of your materials hand. (left hand for right hand tiers). Now loosen up the little clump (less is more) and distribute it over your index finger with your thumb.

At this stage, we need to talk about the shape of the body. Generally speaking, a fly looks best with conically shaped body or abdomen. This means it becomes thinner towards the bend of the hook so there is more material at the front (front meaning hook eye or close to it). This shape can be prepared prior to twisting the dubbing onto the thread. To achieve that shape, the dubbing material is placed on the index finger tip of your materials hand. The base of the dubbing triangle is placed on the very tip of your index finger, and the the rest is spread downward on your index finger. That way there is more material at front part of the hook. The conical shape is a natural result of winding the dubbing onto the hook shank.

Be aware of your tying direction. Most books show a method which starts applying dubbing at the bend of the hook. I turned this around pretty early when I started tying.

It was much easier to start at the front part of the hook and tie towards the hook bend, ending up with the thread at the hook bend. To continue tying the front bit or making the whip finish at the hook eye one has to “bring” the thread back to the front. I do this by making open turns at about a 45 degree angle. This adds stability to the fly and the body looks more realistic with the segments this method creates.

c) dubbing loop – trapping material in the thread

When going for very scruffy bodies the dubbing loop technique comes into play. There are two approaches: forming a loop or splitting the thread.

Once you have learnt to split even the thinnest thread, your fly design and construction will take a leap forward.

Remember – we talked about the twist in the thread before. So the first thing one has to do is to counter the twist in the thread. This is pretty simple. Simply let the bobbin hang from the hook by the thread and rotate it counterclockwise. This is for a right hand tier winding “away” from the body.

c.1) dubbing loop – splitting the thread

Flatten the thread with your bodkin needle. Let the bobbin holder rotate freely. Observe the thread and watch out for it untwisting by becoming wider. Now push up the thread with the tip of your index finger upwards. Set the needle in the middle of the now flattened thread and pierce the needle through it.

Split the thread further by pulling the needle towards you. Open it further with the fingers of your left (materials) hand. Keep it open and with your other hand you can now insert the dubbing in between the thread.

Once all the material is trapped in between the thread, lift your index finger above the hook level. Let the bobbin holder and thread hang off from your index finger. Make sure to keep the thread with the trapped material under tension all the time.

Now twist the bobbin clockwise. Get hold of the bobbin and stop it from twisting when there’s sufficient twists in the thread. Lift the bobbin and take your index finger down at the same time. Now transfer the twists over to the thread part with the trapped material.

The result is a microscopic brush, the longer the fibres of the dubbing the “fluffier” it gets. It helps having practiced the material distribution in the “standard” method.

This technique can also be used with CDC or guard hair fibres from hare or squirrel. This is referred to as hackle brush or hackle, when the fibres are longer than dubbing.

Wind the dubbing brush / hackle brush onto the hook shank or around a wing-post. The details of this vary from pattern to pattern.

Continue tying with your working thread finishing the fly. Remember to untwist the thread before though. A heavily twisted thread breaks very quickly.

This technique can also be used with CDC or guard hair fibres from hare or squirrel. In this book this is often referred to as hackle brush or hackle.

c.2) dubbing loop – thread loop

For a thread loop a dubbing spinner is needed. This tool takes over the function the bobbin holder has in the the split thread method.

For a dubbing loop you form a loop with your tying thread (no surprise here) by bringing the thread over your index finger and back to the hook. Close the loop at the hook shank, otherwise it can come undone too easily.Insert the dubbing twister into the loop and trap the material in the loop. Close the loop once all the material is in between the legs of the loop. Make sure to keep tension all the time. Give the dubbing twister a whirl and observe the dubbing brush forming.

Wind the brush onto the hook shank or around a wing-post. The details of this vary from pattern to pattern. Tie off the dubbing loop once it is wound onto where it should be, think of it like a separate material.

The benefit of a dubbing loop is that you can clip it, should you find out that it is a bit too long.

Wire dubbing brush

Not all dubbing loops are made with tying thread. Dubbing brushes can be made with copper or steel wire. The benefit is that wire does not come undone once twisted. Dubbing brushes are mostly pre-made. Making them on your vice is possible, but a rather fiddly affair.

Jan Šiman from Czechia has developed the dubbing brush block “turbo” which he makes and sells along with dubbing materials. These dubbing brushes are also sold ready made so you save the hassle and investment in a special tool.

Hackle brush

Another use for the split thread or dubbing loop technique is to generate hackle brushes. The difference to a dubbing brush is merely the length of the fibres used.

The most famous use of the hackle brush is using CDC as material. One can use paper clips for getting hold of the feathers. The stem of the feather is then cut off and the fibres of the feather are inserted into the dubbing loop.

This method has created an ever growing series of fly patterns. However, not only CDC can be used in a hackle brush. Guardhair from a hare or squirrel pelt is equally usable. You can even mix different materials.

Fly Tying at Skålestrømmen

Fly tying classes are part of the inclusive packages we offer at Skålestrømmen. You can learn to make these all these flies yourself. Tying materials and tools will be supplied if cannot bring your own.

The fly shown works very well in Skålestrømmen (and around the world). There are of course many other, mostly more complicated types of flies that also work, but we like it simple and efficient.

This fly and video are part of “Fly Tying – Modern Classics for Trout and Grayling – by Thomas Züllich” Fly Tying by Thomas Züllich is a digital book available on the apple bookstore and also via the Skålestrømmen online store. You can order and download a pdf version, which you can use in conjunction with the instructional videos on YouTube.

The book includes 90 minutes of video, over 100 pages of text and a many interactive graphics. The beauty is that you can read and learn about fly tying techniques at your own pace and then use the videos on your computer.

The intention is to make the fly angler understand and fabricate effective trout flies and also being able to improve and simplify the flies he’s been tying so far. The approach is to use old techniques and take them further to modern flies. While the reader can learn semi realistic nymphs and extended body flies, as well as patterns just based on one or two materials.

Staying true to his German craftsman roots, the author approaches fly tying in very efficient way. Thomas Züllich is a well respected fly tier known for his engaging and fresh approach.

The book features crisp interactive graphic content, videos and over 100 pages of informative and entertaining text. The book’s glossary explains over 100 fly fishing specific terms. To even learn more and discuss the fly patterns in the book the author maintains a facebook group. –

ALSO AVAILABLE AS IBOOK The book is available for download with iBooks on your Mac or iOS device. Multi-touch books can be read with iBooks on your Mac or iOS device. Books with interactive features may work best on an iOS device. iBooks on your Mac requires OS X 10.9 or later.

THIS MATERIAL IS PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT. Excerpt From Fly Tying by Thomas Züllich available on Apple iBooks
THIS MATERIAL IS PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT. Excerpt From Fly Tying by Thomas Züllich available on Apple iBooks

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