Why Tie Flies?

Recently, I heard someone lamenting not having the fly-tying bug. The arguments against tying flies were that their home-tied flies looked downright ugly, and there was no joy in tying them. When we talk about fly-tying, these two arguments are often made, and appear in different formats. Then there is also the question of whether it is cheaper to tie your own flies? Or the relative sense of elation from catching a fish on your own fly?

Let us first look at the ‘joy’ factor. We only have to go back to the Greek philosopher Epicurious (342-270 BCE), who’s ethical hedonism instructs us that our goal in life should be to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. He would surely classify our entire pursuit of fly-fishing as ‘maximising pleasure’. And I would add, “Sure, if you don’t like tying flies, by all means stop tying!” But keep in mind, there can be great pleasure in mastering a new skill, so taking some short-term ‘pain’ (hardly!) for long-term gain (absolutely!) can be well worth it. I recall from leadership courses that people rarely tick, say, ‘binge-watched all episodes of The Office’ as their proudest achievement in life. However, gaining new skills and persisting to overcome a challenge? These placed high on the list. So if you are struggling at the vise, recall the words of old man Epicurious.

Beautiful, and useful too.

If we are pursuing the ideal ‘look’ in the flies we tie, we enter the world of aesthetics. Another field of philosophy, this one studies the art of beauty. Surely, a beautiful fly is the one you would tie on your leader any time, leaving the ugly flies firmly slotted in the box. (The trout are only indirectly asked for their opinion.) After a while, like insects on a cool stream on a hot summer’s night, very neat-looking flies will suddenly ‘hatch’ from your vise one after the other.

CDC mayfly hatch.

With the right instructions, patience and persistence, almost anyone can create a beautiful fly. Even if they are never exactly the same, filling a row in the fly box with CDC mayflies still gives me a sense of potential, achievement and adventure. But wait, I hear you say, couldn’t you simply buy beautiful flies at the shop? So what’s the benefit?

Some have suggested that it’s economics which should persuade people to tie flies. For this article, I did a bottom-up fixed/variable expense analysis of tying a chartreuse bead-head Magoo. I’ll spare you the assumptions and details; just know that for someone like me, with average fly-tying ability, I would roughly save about $2 per fly compared with buying one at the shop. Sounds alright? But then factoring in my time, that would equate to me earning about $11.50 per hour. That’s just under half Australia’s official minimum wage. I don’t know about you, but that does not sound like a strong business case to pick up fly-tying!

I finally tied a perfect LaFontaine caddis pupa… although I’m yet to catch anything on it. 

So, not only can fly-tying initially be challenging to learn, but on top of that, by strict comparison with the cost of shop-bought flies, you get paid roughly half the minimum wage to tie your own.

Perhaps then, it’s simply the joy of catching fish on your own fly which makes fly-tying worthwhile? This is an oft-quoted reason. However, I can tell you from personal experience that this specific dopamine hit diminishes rapidly after you have caught your first fish on a fly you tied. A bright spark of joy briefly reappears when you create a unique pattern and fool a fish with it… although that moment sometimes coincides with the realisation that the fish could have eaten a Royal Wulff as well.

There is, however, huge satisfaction and even some pride, in the realisation that nearly all the fish I caught in a season, were caught on my own flies. It’s also true that with fly-tying, one can achieve the state of being ‘in the zone’ when tying flies, which does have real mental health benefits.

And yes, you can make some cool patterns which suit your needs. For fish-catching, that’s where the real benefits are. You can match the right quality hooks with the perfect material to suit your fly needs for the next trip.

Scruffy or neat, you can adapt self-tied flies to suit your needs, and anticipated conditions.

In some cases, you may still tie generic flies, like Pheasant Tail Nymphs. But why not add a little orange UV hotspot on the head, or use UV as ribbing? Such modifications may make your fly stand out in water that is slight turbid. Little modifications like this mean you can create a versatile suite of flies which suit your style and the fishing conditions. Having problems seeing a dry fly in half-light? I found that yellow CDC posts are super-sighters, and they can be tied in a natural up-wing dun, combining beauty AND utility.

By thinking through the options and adapting them, you are making a mental model of the conditions you are likely to experience. And when you are out there in the wild and grab your fly box, you’ll know what flies will have your back at that particular time. Because you thought about this moment when you were at home, creating a fly for this occasion, on your own vise. For example, a few years ago, I made a trip to Swedish Lapland (Kaitum), and I spent months reading about, and then tying, flies in preparation. Those flies went on to catch grayling, char and trout. Some even out-fished the local guide’s patterns.

The patterns I made for Lapland worked really well – and the pre trip fly planning and tying was half the fun.

Summing up, if you can’t push through the pain barrier of fly-tying, rest assured: the number of flies in the modern fly shop far exceeds the number of patterns fish will eat in your own fishing lifetime, and there is certainly no shame in buying flies. If, however, you want to master a skill, and create something small and beautiful which also has utility for your unique style of fishing, then please persist. Just don’t do it for the economics, because our flyfishing goal in life is to maximise pleasure, not dollars.