By Miles Nolte
Ask the Google machine, “Should I tie my own flies?” Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Did you see that? Everyone on the internet agrees, you should tie your own flies! Having tied for more than twenty years, I think the internet may be leading you astray this once. I know, I’m shocked too. While there are good reasons to spin your own bugs, most of the common ones listed are embellishments, justifications, or outright lies.
Let's interrogate some of the common claims about the virtues of tying vs buying.
1. Tying your own flies will save you money.
False! While it’s technically possible to save money by spinning your own bugs, I don’t know a single tyer who has actually achieved this goal in the long run. Let’s do a little math. Say you fish a lot of pheasant tails. You’re sick of buying them at $2.50 a pop and losing them by the dozen to rocks, sticks, and trees. So, you figure you’ll start making your own and save a bundle. First, you’ll need some hardware. A quality vice and basic tools will set you back about $200. Sure, you can get a cheaper setup than that, but crappy tools make for a crappy experience, and you’ll eventually end up spending more money in the long run when you get frustrated and upgrade your setup.
A fly selection like this will have you questioning your budget.
Next, you’re going to need materials. Quality hooks cost about 35 cents apiece, or about nine dollars for a pack of 25. If you hunt pheasants or know someone who does, you can get a tail for free, otherwise a couple feathers will set you back about five bucks. You’ll also need thread, wire, peacock herl, leg material, flashback or other wing case, and bead heads—bare minimum to tie one single pattern in one single size you’re investing at least $250. For that price, you could buy 100 quality flies from the shop.
Now, factor in your time. You’ll have to put in long hours to learn the basic techniques, and you’ll burn through a decent amount of that material you bought on really shitty bugs, so you’re going to have to buy more hooks and beads, which are the most expensive parts. Oh, and say you want different sizes, you’ll need to buy more hooks and beads. If you decide to tie anything other than a pheasant tail, you’re going to need to buy all the materials for those patterns.
The point is, I don’t know anyone who has saved money by taking up fly tying. Most of the websites making that claim are trying to sell you fly tying materials. If your goal is to save money on flies, walk or float along the banks of popular brushy streams and pick out all the snagged-up rigs other anglers leave behind. Don’t take up a new expensive hobby.
2. Tying your own flies gives you better quality bugs.
Maybe. Eventually. And also, it depends. Commercially tied flies are not all created equal. Big box store bargain bin bugs fall apart after one fish (or sometimes just a cast), but flies from reputable manufacturers are usually pretty solid. You’ll need to become extremely proficient to do better than what you can get from Galloup’s Slide Inn or Charlie’s Fly Box but if you’re willing to put in the time and pay for the best raw materials, you will probably come out with more durable ties. Or, you could just add an extra drop of glue to the thread wraps on good quality store-bought flies and achieve nearly the same result.
3. Tying will allow you to create unique patterns, so you won’t fish the same bugs as everyone else and will therefore catch more fish.
Partially true. You can invent all the flies you want, hell my 4-year-old loves inventing things no fish has ever seen before. That doesn’t mean his pink and purple bead chain eyed monstrosities do anything more than scare the scales off everything that sees them. In other words, you probably shouldn’t assume that whatever you cobble together will outperform a vetted, tested, professionally designed pattern that’s known to catch fish just because it’s “different.” I know a handful of anglers who possess the skill, craftmanship, knowledge, and creativity to consistently come up with unique, effective patterns. I am not one of those people. Those people are geniuses, and I pilfer their fly boxes whenever I get the chance, both to steal their flies and blatantly rip off their designs. While tying your own flies will allow you to experiment with your own concoctions, the vast majority of them will not work, at least not very well.
Custom streamers for the win.
4. Tying will allow you to customize your flies to best work for your fishing.
100% true...once you figure it out. Whereas I’m always skeptical of people who think they’ll invent new flies the fish have never seen and unlock a secret door to piscatorial Valhalla, tweaking proven patterns to fit your needs really is one of the best reasons to tie your own flies. To go back to the pheasant tail example, I find most commercial PT nymphs too bulky (this is true for other flies as well). When I wrap my own, I cut down on materials and use thinner thread resulting in a slimmer profile. I think mine work incrementally better than the store-bought ones. Is that slight advantage worth all the time and money I’ve pissed away? I’m not smart enough to work that equation. That said, customizing your flies to suit your needs and circumstances can offer significant advantages in certain fishing situations.
5. Fish caught on your own bugs provide more satisfaction.
Um ... maybe? I’m not here to tell you, or anyone else, how to feel, so I can only speak for myself. I love fishing. I love catching fish. I do get a sense of satisfaction when a fly I tied gets munched. I also feel a sense of satisfaction when a fly I bought gets munched. Furthermore, I feel satisfaction when a fly I was given gets munched. Does the fish caught on my own tie bring more satisfaction? Again, I don’t know how to do that math. If so, I may be justifying the thousands of hours (not to mention dollars) I’ve spent sitting alone at my desk, wrapping shit on hooks, to fool creatures with tiny brains.
Sidenote: I have a handful of friends who refuse to fish flies that they didn’t tie. Even if you’re crushing fish and they're struggling, they won’t take a fly from your box because it did not originate from their vices. That’s a personal choice I would never make, but I don’t mind rubbing in my success on the rare occasions when this happens. I also have no qualms about fishing out of their boxes when the roles are reversed. Perhaps this makes me a bad person.
6. Tying flies is fun!!!
Subjective. Tying flies requires many hours of repetitive, monotonous, highly detailed fine-motor effort while focusing your eyes on a tiny point, inches from your nose. Most of us endure repetitive failure before achieving any success, and success is defined as dressing a small hook in layers of overpriced crap until it kind of looks like a bug that most people wouldn’t want to touch. Yay! Fun!
Fun isn’t a word I would use to describe fly tying. Satisfying, deeply-engrossing, challenging—these are appropriate adjectives. But like me you’re a fly angler, which means you’re drawn to complex, difficult, time-consuming and (let’s face it) pointless hobbies. Fly tying and fly fishing are both impractical: you don’t get into fly fishing to feed yourself, and you shouldn’t start tying flies to save money, make money, or invent some kind of fish catching hack. If, however, you want to extend your immersion in fly fishing beyond the time you have on the water, then tie your own flies.
I hope you are picking up the sarcasm and hyperbole in this post, because I’m laying in on pretty thick. My point is that we don’t need “practical” rationalizations for tying our own flies. Tying isn’t practical and that’s okay, because neither is fly fishing. They both bring us joy and satisfaction. That’s plenty of justification for me.
Or how about this: if you’re looking for an excuse to avoid your family by sitting alone in your basement watching YouTube videos and drinking bourbon, tying flies is definitely for you.
About the Author
Miles Nolte probably burned your favorite spot in some fishing publication or another over the past couple decades. He also made a living pimping out the rivers of Southwest Montana and parts of Bristol Bay, Alaska for much of his adult life. He was the cohost of the fishing podcast, Bent, which pissed off fly anglers and bait fishermen alike. In his twenties, he waited tables at a country club, which is why he hates golf and golfers.