Buying & Tying

Chris Beech says to look beyond the specials bin when seeking true value in flies

No matter how you cut it, that concoction of fur, feather and steel at the end of your line is what gets the bite. Sure, you have the greatest fly rod known to mankind, and hanging off it is the very latest in ultra light machined fly reels. You have several fly lines from which to choose, based on where you will be fishing and for which species. Your leader is poetry in motion, able to turn over anything and at any distance. You’ve spent thousands on gear and even more on getting to where you’re going. You even forked out a small fortune on fly-casting lessons to hone your already superior skill set. That two-dollar fly is surely going to do the job, right? Maybe… Maybe not. Let’s consider what you need to look for, in saltwater and warmwater flies. It’s no secret to readers of FlyLife that I’ve been around for a while — tying commercially now for 30-odd years. In addition to that, I have been contracted to some fly factories in Asia and Africa to improve their productivity and to teach them how to tie some saltwater patterns. So I have seen what goes on behind the scenes. And I can tell you categorically that in this world, you will get what you pay for. Firstly, I will confess that I took up fly tying at 17 years of age in order to — cough — save money. That didn’t work, and it’s safe to say that this whole fly tying thing soon got well and truly out of hand for me. But fly tying is a wonderful skill that we will hone for the rest of our natural lives if we take up the challenge. More importantly, as anglers, it teaches us another level of observation. Not just of insect hatches or the behaviour of saltwater prey, but also of the materials that we use in, or on the water. How the hook balances or keels the fly. How effective the fly is at hooking up, or avoiding hooking up on snags. Will it retain the right profile in the water, will the tail foul on itself, and will the fly float and behave as you want? Will it make enough disturbance to attract a predator, or alight as delicately as a feather so as not to spook? Things like stiffness of materials, tying method and the very pattern itself can be critically important for the fly to perform correctly. It can come down to the difference between EP Fibre or Neer Hair, genetic hackle or domestic hackle. But they all look similar in the photos in online catalogues, and there are tens of thousands of fly patterns on the market, so how do you choose what is right for you? THE HOOK The very first thing to check is the hook. Without a quality hook, that fly is worthless no matter how much you paid for it. Stop making excuses for yourself and don’t be tight. A two-dollar price tag is a dead giveaway — they may look like quality hook brands, but they will more than likely be cheap copies, maybe more brittle or softer than the original. Sure, catching flathead you’re probably safe. Then again, they could break or straighten when an unexpected salmon shows up, or they could snap when that tuna takes its last run. You’ve done your dough and wasted the opportunity to land that fish. How much did you spend on that trip again? So what do you need to look for in a hook? Firstly, it has to balance the fly. Every fly designer starts with a foundation, and that is the hook — it has to keel the fly to ride correctly, and form the base on which the pattern is built. Check for quality name brands (like Gamakatsu, Mustad, Owner etc). Next, make sure there is some hook exposure! Surf Candies are no good at all if the gape is half filled with epoxy — anybody can tie a Surf Candy, but it takes experience to tie a Surf Candy well. Make sure the wire gauge of the chosen hook will suit your target species. You don’t want to buy fantastic deerhair bugs for Murray cod, only to find they have been tied on light wire stinger hooks meant for bass. The hook eye is often overlooked, and needs to be large enough to take the tippet (or shock tippet) that you intend to use. It should also be closed, with no edges from the end of the wire that could catch or nick your knot. Also consider whether you want stainless steel or high carbon steel. The latter takes more care after use, and you need to make sure your fly box remains dry so you don’t end up with rusty hooks. Is stainless steel the answer? Not always. High carbon steel is much stronger than stainless, so hard fighting and hard-mouthed species don’t mix well with stainless hooks. But you can re-sharpen a stainless hook with ease — not always the case with high carbon steel that often has a special spade or cutting point ground in. Your trip, your call. MATERIAL MATTERS Next consider the materials. Your fly has to look like something the fish will eat, and the materials help make that happen. It should have profile, colour and the right amount of flash. Or no flash at all if your quarry happens to be a spooky fish in shallow water. The colour should be right, and the flies should all be consistent. Natural materials should be straight, nicely tapered and vibrant. Many naturals are very mobile in the water — those flies breathe life, and have been catching fish from the beginning of time. They should not look dull, moth eaten, bent or otherwise out of shape. Then there are the synthetics. Thousands of them. Check the material is not unnaturally bent, and that there is a nice taper to any synthetic wing. Make sure your fly appears to be in proportion to the hook and actually looks like the prey that you want to imitate. Heading up north to chase some permit on the flats? Beware of crab flies designed for the Bahamas: they are usually way too small, too light, and on hooks that are too weak for our fish. BALANCING ACT When you start looking at eyes, whether they are the stick-on type or dumbbell style, make sure the things are securely fixed into place! There’s nothing worse than dumbbell eyes that spin on the shank, or nicely profiled flies that lose an eye on the cast. Or my pet hate, aren’t square to the hook — Ugh! Check out where those weighted eyes are tied in too, and think about how it will affect the action. Clousers with eyes tied way forward will provide a pronounced nose-first-diving action. Put those eyes back a third of a shank, and the action changes completely to a much more sinewy and more natural interpretation. Does the fly perform some kind of magic act like ‘walk the dog’ (a side to side swimming motion popular for some species)? Will it sink like a stone and get in the zone, or will it float like a boat? You should be able to cast it with the appropriate rod weight, without twisting the leader or your knickers. It should be balanced both in flight and in the water during the retrieve. Symmetry in motion. Just like your casting. Will your crab fly sink straight, or will it flutter? How will it land — with a splat, or softly? Hook point up, or down? Size and weight? I get it — too many questions, right? But these are all points to consider when stocking the fly box. Truth be told, you should already know what you need, and not have to make do with whatever is in the specials bin! TRUE VALUE There are many cheap imported products and they appear everywhere from the internet to your country service station and every tackle shop in between. Often times, they are copies of tried and proven patterns, but rarely, if ever, does the originator get any recognition or royalty. Some people think these flies are great because they are cheap. You get two or three for the price of one, so that must be good — and it won’t matter if you lose a few? Then there are budding local fly-tiers who seem content to join in a race to the bottom, competing for the value market. Value… there’s a word with meaning that truly is in the eye of the beholder. Trying to compete with imported product and Third World labour is a sure way to go broke. Or at least, to de-motivate your passion and divert your attention to better paying jobs. Here’s a tip if you’re thinking of becoming a commercial tier — don’t under value your efforts. Then there are a few large companies that are seriously into commercial production on a global scale. Think names like Fulling Mill, Umpqua, Montana Fly Company, Orvis, Turell, Fishient Group and Spirit River to name a few. These companies have been in the game for years and have proper factory training and good supply chains in order to make large volumes of quality commercial flies. These are the flies you will see in most specialty fly shops. They are what I call mid-priced, look the goods and are usually on sound hooks. They offer an effective way to top up your fly box with the staple fly patterns, at a reasonable cost. They will have their proper names, and in many cases the originator of the pattern will be receiving a trailing royalty or some other benefit. These companies are seriously in the business of delivering quality commercial flies and are being socially responsible in doing so. While most maintain factories in Third World countries, the employees are in most cases well rewarded by local standards. And you get to buy great flies at reasonable prices – it’s a win, win. At last count there were 35 commercial fly tiers in Australia alone that cater to saltwater and warmwater flies. I haven’t counted the guys tying trout flies, but there are plenty of those crazy buggers as well. There would be a dozen in Tasmania alone. People like us tie custom flies, variations or new creations that are crafted to suit local fish species, habitat and conditions — or the whims of the client. Our materials are often sourced locally, in smaller volumes than those of the big offshore fly factories. Sometimes the material is something special and locally made, like the late Muz Wilson’s Fuzzle Dub or Tiewell’s Sparkleflash. Our leisure time is spent tying flies that you can buy and take with you on your trip of a lifetime, because the bulk of us have day jobs too. Naturally, these flies are going to be more expensive but you will generally be buying a premium product developed just for your region, and the designs will be the most up-to-date cutting edge products available. On occasion a few tiers will work together and collaborate to unlock new species, techniques or fisheries, in a way only Australians and New Zealanders can. This happens a lot with guides as well, who are often pretty good tiers themselves. They know what works in their fishery, and if they don’t tie their own they will know where to send you. Listen to them. If you want to immerse yourself further into this lifestyle we call fly fishing, I heartily encourage you to take up tying flies if you haven’t already done so. It adds an extra layer of satisfaction to the experience, even if you only tie a few Seals Fur Scruffies or Clouser Deep Minnows. The catch starts with that first turn of thread on your fly…

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