Tying flies is easy; making them last long enough to catch a fish or two is a different story. From fish teeth to forcep jaws, flies are put through the ringer on each and every fishing trip. Even before they can be eaten by a fish, they must battle the rocks and rough gravel of the streambed, powerful conflicting water currents, and often an unintentional encounter with a log or two. What we can learn from these numerous hardships is that flies need to be built to last. If your fly begins to unravel after just one or two fish, you were successful at tying an enticing fly pattern, but failed at an equally crucial component of tying: durability.
Thankfully, there are a number of ways to make our flies more enduring, and none of them cost more than a few bucks. If you’re searching for ways to elevate your fly tying game to the next level, look no further. Durability is a commonly overlooked aspect of fly tying, but once mastered, it can make your time on the water far more productive without the need to change flies every few fish.
1. Use Durable Materials. Ever have a peacock herl body unravel, or a pheasant tail fiber tail bitten clean off? While it may seem obvious, flies that utilize delicate natural materials will never stand up to the durability of those tied with synthetics. Common examples of delicate natural materials include peacock herl, pheasant tail, biots, and soft hackles. These materials are either brittle or soft, and with the slightest nick from the teeth of a fish or the sharp edge of a rock, they could destroy the structural integrity of your fly.
While there is no denying the effectiveness of these materials, synthetic and hardier natural materials substituted in their places can increase the productivity of your time on the water tenfold. Some common substitutions include dubbing for peacock herl, pheasant tail, and biot bodies; coq de leon for pheasant tail tails, polish quill for stripped peacock herl or biot bodies; and spikey dubbing in a dubbing loop for soft hackles. No one of these substitutions is perfect, and many leave much to be desired, but there is no denying their relative durability.
2. Make Weak Materials Stronger. To build off the last point, if you absolutely need to use a delicate natural material (and there are many times that you do), it is best to do everything you can to make it as durable as possible. With a few tweaks and tricks, these otherwise brittle and soft feathers and fibers can be made to last.
Before even tying in some materials, many tyers opt to soak them to increase their flexibility. One material that really benefits from a good soaking in warm water and a little hair conditioner is stripped peacock herl. Within a few minutes of soaking, the herls become noticeably more flexible and far less likely to split or break.
Another classic way to improve the strength of wrapped body materials is counter wrapping. If materials are typically wound in a clockwise direction away from the tyer, counter wrapped wire, thread, or similar materials go counterclockwise, helping to lock in susceptible body materials like peacock herl, pheasant tail fibers, and stripped hackle stems. While it is difficult to describe through writing, this video describes the process and its benefits more clearly.
A final safeguard to keep delicate body materials from unraveling when nicked is superglue. A light dab of brush-on superglue applied to the thread wraps just before wrapping the body will keep the body material secure through even the sharpest of fish teeth (don’t quote me on that, though).
3. Use Dubbing to Prevent Slippage. Fibers that slip around the hook during tie-in aren’t just annoying, but can also make a fly less durable. Slippery materials like bucktail, squirrel, biots, and certain synthetics can be tough to tie in, and have a tendency to pull out during casting or fishing. While some tyers use an ungodly amount of thread wraps and super glue to temporarily fix the problem, there are other ways to solve the problem while also producing sturdier, cleaner-looking flies.
By wrapping a very thin layer of dubbing before tying in slippery materials, additional friction is created during tie-in. This prevents materials from slipping around the hook, and also allows thread wraps to hold them more securely by increasing surface area. Any type of dubbing you have on-hand can be used, although finer dubbings that produce thinner dubbing noodles are preferred.
4. Make Each Wrap Count. One of the biggest mistakes made by novice fly tyers is using too many wraps when tying in or off materials. Not only does this produce bulky, messy flies, but also does little to better secure the material to the hook shank.
A better way to tie in or off materials uses just three wraps: a setting wrap directly over the hook shank, a wrap made diagonally towards the bend, and a wrap made diagonally towards the eye. Tied in this manner with constant, even pressure applied throughout the tie-in process, materials are unlikely to slip (but see the previous suggestion for even more slip protection).
5. Save Your Progress. Like clicking save on a Word document, half hitches used intermittently throughout the tying process save your work as you go. Half hitches, tied either with a half hitch tool or your fingers, prevent thread from being unraveled, and as such keep finished flies from completely unraveling in the event of a whip finish failure. And as a great fly tying instructor once told me, “one half hitch doesn’t do you any good”; in order to properly save your work, two or more half hitch knots must be made.
There are a couple caveats to using half hitches, though. For one, on flies you are unfamiliar tying, it can be difficult or impossible to redo a step that doesn’t look the way you’d like it to. When tying new fly patterns, I tend not to use half hitches, but save them for when I become more experienced tying that fly. Secondly, half hitches create some bulk, so on Euro flies that go “thin for the win”, half hitches aren’t the best option for increased durability.
6. Whip Finish Twice. While it may seem unnecessary, whip finishing twice has saved countless of my flies from a failed whip finish. I frequently whip finish with corded thread by accident, which is prone to catching while tightening the knot and subsequent breakage. Additionally, if I cut my excess thread too close after whip finishing, the tag is prone to slipping free and unraveling the knot. Using two whip finishes with fewer wraps ensures that if the top knot breaks, there will be a second one for safety underneath.
7. Befriend Adhesives. Never before have fly tyers had such a wide array of adhesives available to them. Adhesives like UV cure resin and head cement ensure thread wraps don’t unravel, fibers don’t break, and materials don’t slip out. UV resin, when used sparingly, can even increase bulk where it’s needed, such as wing cases and shellbacks. Don’t ask me why, but I prefer to use head cement on wing cases made out of natural materials like pheasant tail, and a thin UV cure resin on wing cases with flash. Perhaps it’s the opalescent tint UV resin gives flashabou and pearlescent tinsel, but it simply looks better to me.
The Bottom Line: Our flies will never be perfect; there will be times when peacock herl bodies will unravel, bucktail will pull out of streamers, and pheasant tail wing cases will break. Still, there are a number of techniques and tools we can use to make our flies last at least as long as our day of fishing, if not for multiple seasons. I consider it a success when I’m able to fish a fly into complete and utter disrepair without having to replace it because of malfunctioning materials. Using these tips and techniques, not only will those successes come more frequently, but you’ll also become a better tyer along the way.