How to get started Materials, Suppliers, and Advice
From the Fly Tying Forum & Classic Salmon Seminar
Types of Fly
There are a number of basic types of true ‘classic’ Salmon fly, each easily identified by several basic features, though often a fly may be a combination of one or more of the styles (it should also be noted that there are a few more variants we will not touch on here):
1] Spey Fly
A type of fly developed primarily on the River Spey in Scotland during the early-mid 19th Century, usually characterized by a short, thin woolen body with very long, soft hackles (often of Heron or ‘Spey Cock’ – which is basically cockerel side tails), multiple ribs and wings tied very low and short over the body so they look like beetle wing cases (almost always Bronze Mallard) – looks very shrimpy in the water.
2] Dee Fly:
Again a fly style developed in the very early 19th C in Scotland, this time on the river Dee. Widely confused with the Spey, the Dee has many similar features, but is different in that it is tied long on a long shanked hook (known as a Long Dee), with wings that are a little up off the body and spread form a distinct delta shape. In addition almost all Dees have 2 or more distinct body colour sections and feature Jungle Cock eyes tied to droop BENEATH the hook shank.
3] Simple Strip Wings:
These are basically the same as classic wet trout flies, only bigger. They feature wings made up of just one or two materials – not generally of interest to the ‘Gaudy’ Salmon Fly Tyer as they’re just too simple! The Dreadnought or Sweep are good examples.
4] Grubs and Shrimps:
Rarely tied today, Shrimps are plain hackled flies, sometimes with 2 or 3 little ‘wings’ made of Jungle Cock feathers, and are the forerunners to modern shrimp patterns. Grubs often feature chenille bodies, also often with Jungle Cock and hackles at the tail , midpoint and head or alternatively they sometimes feature a hackle paltered along the whole length of the body.
5] Whole Feather Wings:
Typified by the Durham Ranger, these are flies which feature wings with whole feathers as the principle component (though a variety additional elements may be added), common feathers used are multiple Jungle Cock eyes tied in line (‘doubled’), Golden Pheasant Tippets, several toppings or striped Woodcock underling feathers.
6] Mixed Wings:
This is the first of the two really fancy jobs, in the ‘mixed’ wing pretty much all the elements of the wing are married together and tied on (giving a wing with stripes of lots of different colours and textures). Except in the ‘true’ Kelson mixed wing where everything possible is married together, there are usually a number of finishing bits put on over the top. These may comprise shoulders; the sections of teal, barred wood duck, grey mallard etc that lie up the SIDES of the wings, next the sides (usually Jungle Cock); the roof, almost always bronze mallard and placed to cap the wing (funnily enough just like a roof!); the cheeks (small, bright feathers on the sides of the base of the wing, usually ‘blue chatterer’ and/or ‘indian crow’). Next goes on the topping; almost without exception a golden pheasant crest; and finally the ‘horns’ – long single fibers usually of blue and yellow macaw tail that run up the sides of the wing and finish by crossing at their tips just above the wing just before its far end.
7] Built Wings:
Often confused with mixed wings (partly because with the additions of shoulders etc mixed wings are often actually technically built wings). The built wing, is the hardest of all to do, but does look very similar at first glance to the mixed wing (many flies can also be tied in either style). This style is characterized by the fact that the key elements of the main wing are broken into sections and tied-in separately in a series; so you may start with white tipped turkey tail, then put on a section above it of married golden pheasant tail, Amherst tail and bustard, then a section made up of married strands of several colours of dyed white turkey tail, then a section of naturally coloured turkey tail, all followed by various shoulders, cheeks, roofs and so-on.
This BASIC materials list covers about 3/4 of all Classic Salmon flies. It IS long and obviously depends on what you want to tie. When starting out buying materials TAKE IT IN STEPS and get the basic stuff for some simple flies FIRST – and DO use substitutes (like speckled turkey in place of bustard for instance) whilst you’re learning. Finally ALWAYS BUY BEST QUALITY MATERIALS from a dealer who specializes in Salmon Fly stuff… Bad materials make tying a good fly almost impossible.
There are all sorts of flosses, Japanese silk is the best (but you MUST wear silk gloves to handle it), Uni or Danville’s Rayon are cheap and as good as any. Basic colours needed are Golden Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Light Powder Blue (‘Doctor Blue’), Black, Orange, Red, Highlander Green, Claret.
Hackles and Body Fur
You can use seal or SLF in place of all other dubbings like mohair, berlin wool and pigs wool (yes they look like snow white sheep with snouts and curly tails!) if you want. At the time the different dubbings were mainly used depending on the size of fly – Pig’s Wool being coarsest was for the largest Spring patterns, Berlin Wool or even floss being applied to small Summer flies. Good quality Salmon hackles can be purchased smallish quantities strung together quite cheaply. Basic colours you’ll need are: Hot Orange, Lemon Yellow, Golden Yellow, Light Powder Blue, Dark Blue, Red, Claret, Black, Highlander Green, Fiery Brown and Golden Olive, plus in hackles Grizzle (also, arguably, known as Irish Grey), Coch-y-Bonddu and Silver Badger and Silver Badger dyed Light Yellow. Guinea Fowl Hackles in natural and Light Blue dyed as a sub. for Jay, also Guinea Wing or Tail feathers. It’s well worth buying a skin – search on Ebay and you’ll find some at a fraction of the normal shop cost. Heron Hackles and Spey Hackles. Heron is illegal in the US, however there are very good substitutes like Blue Eared Pheasant. Spey Hackles are essentially the big, glossy, very webby side tails from roosters – schlapen hackle is an ideal substitute.
Oval Gold and Silver in Very Fine, Medium and Broad. Flat Gold and Silver in Medium and Broad. Medium and/or Broad in Satin Embossed (you can dispense either with the flat or the embossed and use one or the other exclusively if you want). Lace Twist, a rope made of 3 twisted strands of oval – you can buy it or make this yourself – or simply use wide oval instead. ‘Twist’ by the way is just round oval. It looks VERY similar on the fly and is almost never used nowadays.
Heads and Butts
FINE black ostrich and peacock. Plus red and black wool dubbing (mole or rabbit fur is very good for this).
Golden Pheasant Tippets and Crests are the most common feathers in Salmon Flies. You’ll also need a Golden Pheasant Skin minus head and tail (cheap and the best way to get the red and yellow body feathers you’ll need). The red Spear Feathers at the side of the tail are also used for underlings in a number of patterns like the Eagles and the Smith. A Kingfisher Skin (the dyed blue ones are incredibly close in colour to the Dark Blue Chatterer, Costing Mayana). Indian Crow Sub (there are some very good subs, however any old brilliant red-orange hen hackle tip will do to start with), Blue and Yellow Macaw Tail (can be bought cheap in 1″ sections from shops or cheaper still off Ebay). Finally Jungle Cock; buy a full cape NOT single feathers and buy the best you can and try to choose it in person. Splits can be mended from the back of the feather with ‘Soft Head’, ‘Flu-Glue’ or the like. Horns
Almost always Blue and Gold and Red and Blue Macaw Tail – centre or the much longer matched side tails, though occasionally Amherst Tail or Banksian may be used.
Golden Pheasant Centre Tail, Amherst the same, both are very hard to get hold of in best quality, though centres you will need matching pairs as one side is always shorter and scruffier than the other. Getting hold of really good examples of these tails is VERY difficult, occasionally Amgold; an Amherst/Golden cross; tails become available, these usually offer much better fibre quality when used in place of GP Tail. Peacock Speckled Wing feathers. These are almost impossible to get in sizes suitable for over 3/0, some speckled ‘Sweetgrass’ turkey tails are however indistinguishable when used in a wing. Bustard and Florican. Speckled (Kori) Bustard is a unique very dark brown or even black feather with fine, well defined light cream speckling (some speckled turkey tails are pretty close substitutes). Occasionally you will see mention of ‘Light Bustard’ in a pattern – this is either the much lighter shoulder feathers of the Kori or ideally the sandy coloured feathers of the extremely rare Arabian Bustard (Oak Turkey Tail can be used as a sub). Florican (also sometimes referred to as ‘English Bustard’) is a rich Tan feather with broad dark brown or black bars (Amherst Tail dyed orangy sand colour, GP side tail or Peacock wing make pretty good subs). ALL bustards are CITES controlled species. Blue Macaw, Green Parrot (lime green dyed turkey is an easy sub.), Red Parrot or Ibis (the two are almost identical – African Grey Parrot’s red tail feathers are easy to get hold of) are often also used in wings and tails. There are numerous other feathers used occasionally in patterns, rangingfrom things like Female Banksian Cockatoo Tail (lemon yellow blending into flame orange with black bars) and Peacock Wing and Light Speckled Turkey dyed different colours.
Dyed Turkey Tail
Dyed white turkey is the modern choice for winging as it provides a long fibre with minimal taper and good marrying properties. Swan was used originally; goose can be used too but, though easy to get hold of and because of its velvety texture great looking, is harder to work with. Basic Colours needed are White, and Dyed Orange, Yellow, Blue, Light Blue, Red, Green and Claret.
Natural Turkey Tail
The following shades are also commonly used; Dark Mottled, Light Speckled, Grey/Silver Speckled, White Tipped and Cinnamon.
Duck and Game Bird Feathers
Grey speckled Mallard, Bronze Mallard (the best is from Winter-shot birds), Barred and Unbarred Wood Duck, Teal for hackles (rump feathers from the Black Francolin are a alternative that look and tie much better) and Teal, or better still Pintail or widgeon for shoulders. Shoveller duck also features in some flies (Britannia) as do Barred Snipe underwing feathers (Major).
It’s best to start with about 3/0 blind eyed hooks (or 2/0 Partridge CS10/3 which are oversized and should also be shortened a little) as the materials are easier to get and cheaper, and importantly the smaller size teaches tying discipline (which will mean you do learn quicker and better in the long run). Good hook choices for the beginner are Sprite from Jens Pilgaard, Gaelic Supreme from FeathersMc.com or you may wish to treat yourself to some of Ronn Lucas’ superb handmade hooks. In actuality original Victorian salmon flies were very rarely bigger than 3/0. As an aside it’s actually much harder to put on the wing with a modern up-eyed style hook.
Gut is quite literally made from the gut of the Silkworm stretched into a long fibre. It can still be sourced fairly easily through Salmon Fly materials suppliers (the white Ken Sawada and Partridge is quite different from the original materials though) 2 or 3 strands of nylon monofilament twisted together also make a good substitute (warmed in the oven under tension to ‘set’ the twist). You can also often get old gut casts cheapo off Ebay or from antique tackle dealers. To prepare them all you have to do is soak them (adding a little bleach to remove the tint if present), loop them over a hook, and twist them with something like a hand drill, drying them under tension (do remember though that you will need to soak the section you’re tying on for a couple of minutes in your mouth to soften it otherwise it will crack when you put it on).
John McLain, feathersmc.com is most tyers’ first port of call – it’s a great site all round with numerous impressive friends sections, materials and flies slideshows and loads of background – PLUS the best materials at the best prices (John is also a real nice guy and has been very generous in his support of the Seminars). Other useful contacts are kensawada.com and flytyingdk.com (sells some superb substitutes for rare feathers as well as the real thing) and people like Creekside. Finally Ebay can also be an excellent source, especially for turkey tails and macaw, though be wary of cheap capes and ‘bargain’ packs which usually turn out to be junk.
FeathersMc.com – As previously mentioned – a great site from every angle, plus the best materials at the best prices.
flytyingforum.com – Essential reading for tyers of every hue – the Forum is of massive assistance in picking up tips and techniques.
flytying.sitestogo.biz – Superb flies by Paul Little, Marvin Nolte and Peter Dunne, also a useful source of pattern listings.
jpdessaigne.com – There’s some good tutorials on here as well as stunning ‘creative’ flies.
ronnlucassr.com – Again great tutorials from that fine gent Mr. Ronn Lucas, plus some supreme quality hand made hooks. bestclassicsalmonflies.com
classicflies.net – Wolfgang Von Malotkke’s flies ‘tied in-hand’ a useful source of patterns.
bas4sure.com – Stacks of Marvin Nolte flies on here – Marvin is the BEST of the BEST.
kensawada.com – Great choice of materials – though a little pricey.
flytying.dk – Jens Pilgaard’s site – amazing materials, though you’ll have to send cash or a banker’s draft.
– John Shewey is a supplier of supreme quality Turkey and Spey materials.
Ask lots of questions and post your flies on FTF – you’ll get an awful lot of hints that help sort out troubling problems. The pinned features on the Fly Tying Forum also have loads of useful stuff and you can get pretty much any question/query/problem answered by one of us lot. Michael Radencich’s book ‘Tying The Classic Salmon Fly’ is absolutely essential reading and is easily the best book on the subject (you can get it pretty cheap if you hunt around on the net). The gentleman has also just published a new book, this time dedicated primarily to materials which has also won universal praise.
DON’T be too daunted by the information above, if you’re a regular, fairly accomplished trout lure, wet fly or streamer dresser you’ll have a fair amount of the materials already and many of the skills too. However, and this is VERY important, you WILL need to PRACTICE A LOT. When you’ve completed a fly look at it carefully – identify what went well and what went badly and then consider WHY and try to replicate the good bits and try to improve rather than avoid stuff that proved awkward.
DON’T launch straight into something like a Jock Scott coz you’ll simply give it up as a bad lot. An important tip is to aim to keep everything on the fly smooth as possible as you go – this will make achieving a really good final result MUCH, MUCH easier.
ALWAYS use minimal thread, 2 or 3 wraps should secure most items initially (adding extra wax to the thread as you go helps hold items in place), don’t forget the additional wraps you use for the next step will help hold something in place too. Spinning thread with the bobbin holder to untwist it allows it to lie even flatter, though twisted thread should still be used for winging and tying down tinsel and hackles.
You should approach tying a complex fly like playing chess – thinking several moves ahead – for instance if you need a flat space to mount a tail you’ll need to ensure you don’t bulk out the area with excess wraps of uneven thread whilst tying off the tag. Personally I always recommend people learn by tying specific Classic patterns rather than inventing them when they first start. This gives you, and anyone who can offer help, a benchmark for comparison and so a start point to provide tips on how to do stuff. It also forces you to tie the awkward bits you inevitably avoid given a free hand and that will ultimately make you a much better tyer.
Finally – ENJOY your tying! Work at it and you’ll be amazed how great your flies look in just a few months (if in doubt save your early attempts for comparison).
One last thing – DO start with proper classics NOT ‘creatives’ – without the skills and feel for proportion you’ll develop in learning true classics you’ll be floundering trying to tie creatives that look anything more than a big brightly coloured lure.