Fly Tying Tricks to Quickly Fill Your Boxes

The spring fly-fishing season is upon us, so wrap up your winter fly-tying sessions with these simple trout patterns

clouser winter fly
If you’ve spent all winter tying flies but still have some empty boxes, use your remaining time to tie simple, generic flies that work anywhere. Ben Romans

For me, there’s no better inspiration for tying flies than procrastination, and so every year, just as the days start to get longer, I remember my fly boxes are empty and I need to whip up some patterns—fast. I always start off with a list of tricky, proven flies, exotic recipes I’ve always wanted to try, and creative recommendations from friends, but I end up culling my list to the bare essentials—flies I can tie quickly, that still look good enough to actually catch fish.

This year, rather than try to narrow my list to a few simple-and-speedy patterns, I turned to a few fly-tying experts to learn their go-to recipes and tying routines. They responded in spades, and I’m happy to say I’m tying flies faster than I ever have before. Here are a few of their recommendations coupled with some easy, and quick, tried-and-proven recipes.

Tie Classic Patterns Without Tricky Steps

New Hampshire fly dresser Peter Simonson silenced my inner fly-tying perfectionist when he told me flies tied quickly (ie: poorly) still catch fish.

“If they’re not perfect, nobody cares,” Simonson said. “The goal with any fly you tie is to simply follow the recipe as close as possible. If you’re short on time, look at well-known patterns and see what you can remove from them, without sacrificing the fly’s effectiveness. If you’re fishing especially fast water, the fly only needs to be the right size, and either light or dark. If you cast it in the right place, it will work.”

Partridge & Orange

HOOK: Mustad S82-3906B, sizes 10 to 16
THREAD: 8/0 orange, light tan, yellow, or white
RIB: Fine copper wire
BODY: Orange fine natural or synthetic dubbing
COLLAR: A dark Hungarian partridge feather

All four of Simonson’s last-minute fly patterns take less than two minutes to tie. “It’s about using the fewest materials, but materials that really work. It’s a minimalist approach,” he said.

Simonson’s batch of fast patterns includes a simpler Copper John variant he calls the Copper Pete (a size 10 to 16 copper-wire bodied fly that looks similar to a Copper John, sans the tails), a tiny streamer, a soft hackle, and a Reduced Elk-hair Caddis.

“All the materials are easy to find, and nothing is exotic or expensive,” he said, “I can tie a dozen of each pattern at a time, in different sizes, and colors.”

holding a trout in a stream
If you want to tie proven flies like the Copper John but are short on time, remember you can cut some materials from the recipe and still produce a fly that catches fish. Ben Romans

Tying easy patterns in a variety of colors and sizes means you can fill your fly box quickly, without sacrificing size and color options once you get to the water. The patterns Simonson recommends cover the spectrum for what you might need during a typical day of trout fishing. If you lose a fly to a tree or a fish, you’ll realize the other advantage of tying simple patterns in bulk.

“These patterns require the least amount of work, and you don’t need a special vise or tools to make them, so I don’t care if they get stuck in trees, ” Simonson said. “But, one piece of advice I always offer is that if you want to tie durable flies that don’t unravel, fast, then always use a whip finish tool. It’s easy to use and it really works.”

Partridge Soft Hackle

HOOK: Mustad S82-3906B, sizes 10 to 16
THREAD: 8/0 color of choice
RIB: Fine gold tinsel
ABDOMEN: Fine natural or synthetic dubbing (color of choice)
THORAX: Fine natural or synthetic dubbing (contrasting color to the abdomen)
COLLAR: Hungarian partridge or quail feather

“For my time and money, i don’t think you can beat soft-hackle patterns. Traditional combinations are partridge and yellow, grouse and green, starling and purple, but there are also modern adaptations that use Krystal Flash bodies,” said Simonson. “This fly can be cast across a pool and swung in the current, in slow to moderate water. You’ll feel the take, but it is typically gentle.”

Elk Hair Caddis

HOOK: Mustad 94833 or R30, sizes 12 to 20
THREAD: 8/0 medium tan or brown
BODY: Rabbit & Antron blended dubbing (color of choice)
HACKLE: Grizzly, brown, or barred ginger saddle feathers, or feathers from a quality neck, one size smaller
RIB: Extra small wire (color of choice)
WING: Deer or elk hair

The standard Elk-hair Caddis is a pattern where you can vary the body dubbing color, the elk wing, or the hackle colors, in sizes from 12 to 20, and still crank out dozens in no time. To that effect, Simonson has his own variations.

“I remove the rib, and use Antron-rabbit mixed dubbing because the Antron adds just enough sparkle,” he said. “I prefer buggy grizzly hackle, but you can use any color. It’s very effective on my home waters in New Hampshire, where caddis are the dominant insect.”

Badger Streamer

HOOK: 4x-long streamer hook, size 4
THREAD: 6/0 black
TAIL: Two matching badger saddle hackles
BODY: Yarn, dubbing, or mohair (color of choice)
RIB: Fine wire (color of choice)
WING: Two matching badger hackles
COLLAR: A few turns of the remaining hackle from the tail and wing

“Look for an inexpensive badger neck from India—not the pricey name brand hackles,” said Simonson. “Either cast into the current to swing the fly, make short line strips, or tease it in and out of the rocks from upstream.”

Create a Production Line

You may dream of throwing mouse patterns to giant, nocturnal trout, but if you only have a few minutes to crank out a fly, skip the deer hair. “I saw a guy tie a mouse once that took at least an hour to finish,” said Lisa Sheppard, of Ultimate Angling, LTD, in Fairfield, Connecticut. “I don’t have that kind of time.” Most anglers don’t, especially with the spring fishing season upon us.

Sheppard recommends sticking to patterns you know you can tie fast, which are the same flies that work well in late winter or early spring: small flies.

Midge

HOOK: Caddis or scud hook, sizes 16 to 24
THREAD: 10/0 color of choice
BODY: Goose biot (color of choice)
THORAX: Fine synthetic dubbing (color of choice)

“Small flies at this time of year, like small midges, are an excellent fly to use because that’s always hatching and because they’re so small, they’re quick to tie,” said Sheppard. “Basically you’re just using thread or a biot for the body, and choosing the type of wing you want depending on whether the fly is an emerger, a nymph, or a mayfly.” Sheppard says it’s alright to skip the dubbing for these last-minute patterns, so you can tie them even faster. “You can probably pop out a midge every minute and a half,” she said.

These small flies work so well in late winter and early spring because anglers are still ahead of most major hatches. “In the spring, you typically don’t expect to encounter the big mayflies you’ll imitate later in the year, so winter fishing and tying is all about the little stuff, mostly subsurface midges,” said Sheppard. Keep in mind that small flies don’t mean small fish. Sheppard recently used a midge to catch a 20-inch trout on Connecticut’s Farmington River.

fly tying desk
Arrange the materials and tools on your tying bench so you can crank out flies, one after another, like cars on a production line. Lisa Sheppard

To start tying small flies fast, organize your fly tying bench into a fly factory. “Tying faster means aligning your tools and materials almost like a production line; lay out materials that are trimmed and prepared so all you have to do is pick them up,” said Sheppard. “Then keep your materials in the same order as your tying steps. The key to tying in semi-production is to have your fly-tying table clean and perfectly set up for what you need, because if you have to keep looking for stuff, then your table gets messy, and then you just lose time.”

Choose one pattern to tie at a time, and then keep tying it until you complete the batch. “If you want to get a bunch of flies done, then pick a pattern and go. Tell yourself, ‘I’m going to tie 100 of these, this week.’ Some people don’t like the monotony, but then you have your stash for the year. I tie one entire fly at a time,” said Sheppard.

Beadhead Flashback Pheasant Tail

HOOK: Tiemco 5262, sizes 12 to 18
WEIGHT: Brass bead, matched to hook size
THREAD: 8/0 red, black, or olive
TAIL: The tips of the fibers cut from a ringneck pheasant-tail quill
RIB: Fine copper wire
ABDOMEN: The remaining portion of the tail fibers wrapped over a tapered thread base
WING CASE: Four to six tail fibers cut from a ringneck pheasant-tail quill under a piece medium Wapsi Pearl tinsel
THORAX: Peacock herl
LEGS: Fibers from the wing case divided in half and trimmed to proportion

Tie in Stages

While Sheppard finishes a fly before she starts the next one, Karen Royer of Custom Flies by Karen Royer (flytyingbykaren.com) increases her tying speed and consistency by tying her flies piecemeal. Even though Royer is known for tying intricate, ultra-realistic flies, simple flies work better when she needs to fill her boxes quickly.

“If I tie flies in sections or stages, my flies look more uniform because I’m not having to switch up to find a new material to add for the next step,” said Royer. “It makes everything go faster because you’re not searching for material all the time, and stopping to prepare things.”

Copper John

HOOK: Tiemco 5262, sizes 12 to 18
WEIGHT: Brass bead to match hook size
UNDERBODY: A few turns of thin lead wire slid up to the bead
THREAD: 70-denier black
TAIL: Two dark brown goose biot tips
ABDOMEN: Copper Wapsi UTC Wire
THORAX: Peacock herl
WING CASE: Black Thin Skin under Pearl Flashabou under a drop of 5-minute epoxy
LEGS: Hungarian partridge
NOTE: Complete several flies and then add epoxy to all the wing cases at one time in an assembly line before placing the flies on a drying wheel.

Not only does tying in stages help Royer tie quickly, it also helps her stay organized. “Your work area stays cleaner,” she said. “Right now, I have a group of bees that I’m working on, so I have all of the bee abdomens done. When I complete a step on a fly, I just tie off, cut the thread, and set the fly aside.” To continue the flies, she prepares her fly-tying desk for the next stage and then completes that step for all of the flies she set aside. “It helps a lot to have all of your materials prepared—that goes for anything you need to complete the next step. I use feather quills for most of the bee legs, so I sit and strip a bunch of those to have them ready to go. It’s a huge help.”

Read Next: How to Fly Fish ith Deer-Hair Flies

If you’re searching for a pattern that you can tie quickly, remember to think “simple.” “If you’re going to try to fill a fly box in a few days, make sure the pattern that you choose is basic, like an ant,” said Royer. “A fly recipe with no more than three or four materials is faster and easier to tie than one with a dozen. Even if you decide not to tie in stages, limiting the number of materials still helps, and you won’t have a huge pile of materials to dig through on your desk,” she said.

Black Ant

HOOK: Standard dry fly, size 12
THREAD: 8/0 Black
ABDOMEN: Black fine dubbing
LEGS: Black saddle hackle feather
THORAX: Black Fine Dubbing
INDICATOR: A white tuft of CDC (optional)

No matter how neat your desk, or how well your materials are laid out, you’re the one sitting there tying all of the flies, which means your comfort is just as important as good tools and techniques. “Have something comfortable to sit in,” said Royer. “I have a podium and a bar stool, so I can either pull out the drawer to put my vise there and sit, or when I get tired of sitting, I can put it on the podium and stand up to tie.”

Standing up to tie flies is another reason Royer loves tying in stages. “There are certain steps on some flies that I like to sit for and certain parts I like to stand for,” she said. “When I get to the next part, I know where my vise is going to be setup, and that keeps me from getting fatigued. Getting tired is the last thing you want during your last minute rush to fill a fly box because then flies start looking all sloppy.”

Shep’s Trout Catcher

HOOK: Tiemco 2487, sizes 14 to 20
THREAD: 8/0 olive green
BODY: A blend of Hends Hare Dubbing and Dark Olive Spectramized Fur Dubbing (colors of choice)
TAIL: Rust Brown Darlon
WING: Two matching premium grade CDC feathers

Before you put away your vise for the season, take a moment to learn how to tie a few simple patterns that work anywhere, and then see how fast you can whip up a few dozen, and remember, they don’t need to look perfect. You might be surprised at how a fly box full of last-minute patterns that look good enough to make a fish eat can keep you happy all season long.