Steelhead Fly Tying Tips and Tricks by Sean Dahlquist
“Practice makes perfect.”
This old adage should always be in the back of the fly tier’s mind.
Although most of us may never achieve “perfection,” we should always be aiming to improve our tying. Whether your goal is to tie faster, to construct stronger and more durable flies, or to create works of art fit for framing, achieving success requires putting time in at the bench.
I’ve been tying flies for 12 years now, and have had countless hooks in the vice. Along the way I have amassed a large collection of rejected flies that I keep in a drawer to eventually be razored so as to reclaim their hooks. Every once in a while, I grab some of these scrap flies out to examine. I am often a little embarrassed at these crude old ties. It is easy to notice the poor techniques used or proportional errors, but this is actually encouraging. It means that my tying has been improving over years and inspires me to keep at it.
The majority of my time tying flies has been devoted to Northwest style steelhead flies, in particular Steelhead Speys. These are slim, sleek patterns that require specific materials and techniques in order to help achieve their signature profile, the one that makes you say “that looks fishy!”
I am often asked about the approach I use when tying in hackle tip wings that allows them to lay low over the body. When tying these patterns, it is important to remember that all preceding steps can either help or hinder each following step.
While constructing your fly, reducing material build up when nearing the head of the fly is crucial.
Managing one’s thread wraps is also of great importance. It is critical to use enough wraps to ensure that the materials are securely tied in, but there comes a point when continuous wraps will only add excess bulk as well as hindering your chances of tying a neat, tidy fly.
When working with collar hackles I always tie them in by the tip and generally find that 3 to 5 wraps is plenty to hold them in place. To ensure the hackle has been properly secured you can use wraps over top and directly behind the stem to lock it in place.
Having a few wraps of thread laid down as a base to tie over and using a well waxed thread can also be helpful. I always grab the butt end of the hackle and give it a pull to make sure that it doesn’t unseat from the tie in point. It is especially helpful to tie the collar hackle in by the tip on the far side of the shank, taking a turn and a half, and then tying it off on the near side of the shank. This gives the desired fullness to the underside of the fly while leaving less fibers and hackle stem on top which can interfere with your wing set.
At this point the tier has several options in front of them when choosing the components and look of their hackle tip wing. How long the wing is and how wide the hackles are is a matter of personal preference. I like a wing that is not too skinny nor too wide, with tip ends reaching just shy of the bend of the hook. Wings typically consist of 4 hackles. 2 rights and 2 lefts. I prefer to use hackles from rooster capes rather than saddle hackles.
The ideal winging hackles come from the right and left side of the skin as they have a complimentary curve, but straighter center feathers can be trained to curve in the desired direction by gently running your thumbnail through the feather along its stem. There are innumerable ways to seat hackle tip wings and many work great.
The technique I use is a simplified version of the “Z” bend which involves crimping a Z-shape into the hackle stems at their tie-in point, to allow them flow up and over any lumps of hackle stem or body material to keep them low and lying flat. Instead, I simply group the wing hackles together firmly and run my thumbnail along the bottom of the stems and slightly up into the first few fibers at the base of the wing. This creates a small curve at the tie-in point and forces the wing to ride down along the body when secured.
Remember to rotate your vise to view the fly from directly above to make sure the wing is set straight on top of the hook so that it will swim correctly. For more durability you can fold the hackle stems back or even down through the return eye and lash them under with further thread wraps to ensure that they are firmly secured. Adding a coat of thin penetrating head cement guarantees your fly will withstand a hard day’s fishing.
Another method that I sometimes use allows for an easy, low wing set while simultaneously adding an extra dynamic to the fly. By tying in a small bunch of bucktail, calf tail, or even flashy synthetic material before the hackle tip wing is tied in, you provide a base along which the hackles will lie nicely. This allows for the hackles to be easily held in place and the underwing will give added color to the wing and have a separate action in the water. This can also provide a stabilizing effect to the fly as it is fished; with more material on top of the fly, the better overall balance of materials and less tendency for it to lay over on its side as it swings through the current. You may choose to use only a single hackle tip on each side of the underwing to accentuate translucency.
Not only do flies with hackle tip wings fish well, they look striking and offer the tier innumerable opportunities to experiment.
The rooster neck hackles used to create these wings possess a shine that both the fish and fishermen find very attractive, and in addition they take dye beautifully. Hackle tip wings can consist of several pairs of hackles, so by layering badger or grizzly patterned hackles in amongst the dyed hackles one can come up with some truly eye-catching patterns.
Step 1: Spey fly ready to be winged.
Step 2: Tie in a small bunch of translucent hair.
Step 3: Select 1 or 2 neck hackles tie them in to envelope the hair.
Step 4: Hackle tip laying properly along underwing.
Step 5: Ensure the wing is set correctly over the body.
Step 6: Finished Fly.
Unique Fly Design
When I first started tying steelhead flies, I found it difficult to tie without copying a pattern from a book and following its recipe exactly.
Today, if I am not tying one of my own patterns, I am tying variations of favorite old flies. Taking a classic pattern and changing its characteristics by utilizing different materials is a fun way to experiment and build on one’s creativity as a fly tier.
An excellent way to find inspiration is to look over your various skins, particularly pheasant and waterfowl, searching for interesting feathers not typically used in steelhead flies and then making a point to tie with them. Another great motivator is to study the patterns of favorite tiers. I’ve highlighted a Syd Glasso style wet fly as a perfect example of inventive pattern revitalization. One of Syd’s favorite fishing flies was the tried and true Polar Shrimp, which he tied in a number of variations.
The original pattern calls for a tail of red hackle fibers.
Hackle Tip Wings
Step 1: The collar hackle is ready to be tied in.
Step 2: Attach the collar hackle on the far side of the hook along the shank.
Step 3: Take 1 and a half turns and tie the hackle off on the near side of the shank.
Step 4: Match up 4 neck hackles.
Step 5: Run your thumb nail along the under side of the wing stems and slightly up into the base of the wing.
Step 6: Ready to tie in.
Step 7: Insert the hackle stems into the eye and bind down the wing.
Step 8: The wing is set.
A Syd Glasso tail could consist of varying lengths of Golden Pheasant tippets with a few orange or red hackle fibers mixed throughout.
In place of a standard body of orange chenille, Syd might wrap a fine silk body, splitting his silk half way up and inserting hot orange seal fur for the second half, and then spiral over it a few turns of flat silver tinsel. A collar of brightly colored Golden Pheasant flank would replace the typical orange saddle hackle, and in place of a white bucktail wing Syd would strip off long white rooster hackle fibers and tie them down in a bunch, creating a free-flowing wing that would have great action in the water. The end result is a unique wet fly that holds true to the overall nature of a Polar Shrimp but has a life of its own. Syd’s innovations knew no bounds and he seemed to always be looking for new ways to utilize feathers and furs.
Fly tying for me has everything.
Creating, experimenting, studying, and collecting. You can never have enough feathers and furs, or books and magazines on tying and fishing. You can never tie enough flies!