Sunday, November 13, 2011

Do you have what it takes?

What is it that makes a good fly tier?  What makes a good fly tier a top notch fly tier?  And where do the great tiers fit in?   

I am blessed to live in an area of the country where I believe we have the greatest concentrations of notable fly tiers.  All along the Front Range of Colorado, there are fly tiers galore.  From Ft. Collins to Pueblo, Colorado, walk into any fly shop and chances are, you will run into someone who can tie.  Not only can they tie, but most of these people have been featured in magazines or books or are local fly tying celebrities.   But, just because they have been featured in a book or in a magazine, does not guarantee they are at the top of the fly tying world.  As in any sport, there are levels that these tiers are in.  I’ll get to that in a bit.  
But what do I consider makes a good tier?  I know a lot of good tiers and I tie with a lot of them.  To me, a good tier is one who can tie most patterns and can make the adjustments to the pattern as needed to trick those picky fish on their local water.  Back when I was a newer tier, I would go and fish and there was always a couple of fish that turned down my offerings.  My best examples were during a BWO hatch.  The fish were eating, but not always eating my patterns.  Sure, presentation had some to do with it, maybe more so than the pattern, but after a few tweaks to popular patterns, the hook-ups increased.  A good tier can adjust to their needs.  But in the fly tying world, being a good tier is more than just producing a good looking pattern.  That person has to be able to tie each one of those patterns consistently.  Most good tiers tie dozens of flies per year.  They tie patterns of their own and have great looking fly boxes.  They may be local legends in their own fly tying world and may provide flies to their buddies.  They can tell you the difference between tying a pattern with deer versus elk hair.  They understand the differences in tying materials and the tools needed to produce quality flies. You may know a few of these guys.  They may be you fishing buddy that you depend on to provide flies for your yearly Montana trip or maybe it is you.  

A top notch fly tier is a different beast.  While having the same abilities as a good tier, the top notch guys just have a knack for tying.  It seems, as you watch them tie, that their hands and movements just seem natural.  The patterns they tie are well thought out.  Their thread wraps are calculated.  Every wrap of thread has a purpose.  To them, it is an art, creating the prettiest fly they can.  While still fishable, most other people would never think of using these pieces of art, but the fly tier doesn’t care, they’ll just tie some more!  Usually, these guys have, at one time, tied commercially and that repetition has helped them to count every wrap of wire and every whip finish.  These guys will still tie hundreds of dozens of flies per year for shops, clients, or other customers.  It’s what they do.  Within that top notch group of tiers, there are some that just stand out.  They are the Payton Mannings and Tom Bradys of fly tying.  A couple of these guys pop into your head as you read this.  They may be well known both locally and internationally. They have paved the way for others and we all incorporate their tying ideas and techniques into our tying.   Next, there are the Ben Rothlisburgers and the Drew Brees of the fly tying world.  These guys are right up there but not the guys you think of immediately.  Some have written books, some have web sites on the subject.  
Then there are the Michael Vicks and the Matt Ryans.  No books or magazine articles to their name, but still, they are top notch.  And just because they haven’t written a book doesn’t mean they can’t be in that upper level of tying greatness. 
 At the lower end of the pyramid, there are the other tiers who are good enough to be considered “top notch” but really don’t care to move up in the levels.  In this group, you usually find a lot of guides.  These are the guys that can tie, but really don’t want or care to tie realistic scuds and baetis nymphs that clients will break off on a fish or lose in that tree behind them.  They need to crank out a well tied fly that is durable and catches fish.  They make their money on trips and tips.  A poorly tied fly that doesn’t last is worthless.  Who wants to tie more than they have to after a long day on the water when they have to do it all over again the next day?  These are the guys who drive pattern design.  An edge over the next guy can mean building a long term relationship with a client.  
The guys you see at the upper levels are usually current or former guides who have had plenty of time on the water and now, may be doing something else other than guiding.  With more time to sit at the vise, they can work through a particular problem and try to solve it.  Their creative minds are able to run as needed without having to worry about when their next day off from guiding will be.  The guys in this level can tell you how and why you want to use elk hair on their pattern instead of deer.  They can tell you what type of elk hair to use on the pattern and why.  They can tell you from what area of the hide you want to use.  They can explain to you the differences in thread weight, thread twist and have a way to make that thread lay down like on the hook like you’ve never seen.  They have “touch”.  

As in art, a tier has their own tying style.  This is what I think makes me appreciate that tier more than anything else.  There are top notch tiers that are at the top of their game, but I prefer someone else’s tying style over theirs.  Most of the time, I see unknown tiers who’s tying style I like, but they are just tying for the fun of it.  Their tying style is one that I wish I could match.  These are the guys I think are great tiers.   Maybe they are not guides or involved in the industry, but they fish and have a bit of what the top notch guys have.  They are somewhat perfectionist, but yet they tie flies to fish.  Most of these tiers are Average Joe’s who don’t tie at the local fly tying shows, but occasionally you see one of their patterns online somewhere.  The great tiers I know don’t seek out the attention or the limelight.  They are perfectly fine tying to meet their fishing needs.  Occasionally, you might see their patterns show up in a corner of a fly tying magazine as a hot guide fly.  More often than not, they never show up in Fly Fisherman magazine or Fly Tyer as a featured article.  

The fly tying business is a tough one to make it in, espically if you hope to make it to the top.  Just like those NFL quarterbacks mentioned earlier, it takes a lot of passes and hard work to just get noticed.  A lot of flies also have to be tied just to get noticed.  More hard work and even more time at the bench, as well as on the water, are needed to get into the mention of good tiers in Colorado.  Even more time and a handful of effective patterns are needed to get mentioned with the best.  If you want to be one of the best, you have to be willing to put in the time, to get overlooked but keep tying because that is what you enjoy, not the notoriety that so few will ever have.  Remember to give a nod to the no-namers the next time you are at an event, or come across their blogs, because that is, indeed, how they will become the next best.  

There are a lot of up and coming tiers across the world.  Some are regional favorites, some are just locally known.  With that, I'd like to give a shout out to these tiers and their blogs.  Take a look and get to know some of their work.  They just might have that "style" that you really like.


  1. My opinion, a great tier is one who shares his knowledge with others. They dont ask for money to help tiers that are just starting out.

  2. Angelo,

    Good point, something I missed mentioning. Thanks!

  3. A great tyer changes the sport through his insight to the fish being pursued, insects and other food sources available and materials used to effectively imitate these food sources. If you look at a historical who's who of fly fishing they all will have met this definition. Gordon, Wulff, Whitlock, Borger, LaFontain, Meck, Humphries, Swisher, Dalberg ... the list goes on and on. Must one be famous to be a great tyer? Not really, but the likelyhood of becoming famous increases with each successive breakthrough. The common thread is the love of the sport that drives all great tyers to their next discovery.

  4. Great read Juan and honored you would throw my blog on there!

  5. Thanks Juan-- honored by the shout-out and that reminds me how long it's been since I've posted a fly...


  6. Great read Juan an honered to be put on the list below.


  7. Great read Juan, you hit it out of the park