By nature, kayak fishermen have to have a strong DIY ethic. If you look at the progression of fishing kayaks, you see innovation through experimentation - folks cutting holes, gluing, screwing, and assembling a pile of parts into a fishing machine. Fly tying can be like that.
But let's get one thing straight: DO NOT start tying flies to save money. You won't. I could have bought a few kayaks for what I've spent on tying materials in a few short years. In fact, the only more damaging myth I've ever fallen for was that women dig guitar players. That one got me at age 14…
That said, you SHOULD get into tying if you want to extend your sport off the water, if you aren't completely satisfied with the patterns that are available to you, or you want the pleasure of catching fish on a fly you've tied yourself. I've spent long winter nights at the vise tying flies that I'll throw for redfish the following spring on vacation. Catching my first 18" rainbow trout on a fly I designed myself was an awesome experience. Teaching women dealing with breast cancer to tie flies as part of the Casting for Recovery program has been very rewarding.
If you've gotten this far and want to continue, where do you start?
It seems very easy to buy one of the kits sold at large sporting goods stores. They come with "everything you need to start tying your own flies". Understand that these kits often have low-quality tools. The materials that come with them are often small pieces or in colors that don't sell well. You're normally much better off assembling a kit yourself based around the flies you're more likely to fish with.
In truth, you don't need any of the specialized tools to tie flies. Historically, people have tied flies using their bare hands and a spool of thread. I've actually tied flies (simple ones, mind you) on a fishing trip using a pair of locking pliers, sewing thread, and a pair of embroidery scissors we "borrowed" from my sister-in-law's sewing kit. The flies weren't pretty, but they worked. The specialized tools just make tying easier. We'll start with the most sticker-shock inducing tool, the vise:
Forgive me for my vises….
The base function of the vise is to hold a hook securely. A vise has to hold the hook tightly enough to counteract the torque being placed on it by the tier, and do so with a small enough set of jaws to allow easy access to the hook for attaching materials. Everything else is just gravy. Vises range from $5 imported copies of the old Thompson “Model A”, up to the mighty LAW vise, a handmade $750 masterpiece. All of them will probably work. So how do you choose?
First, realize that every vise is a series of compromises. You compromise on price, size, weight, functions, and aesthetics. Most vises have a range of hooks they hold really well. Some can use different jaws to extend that range either smaller or larger. I sold one vise because it could not securely hold one of my most-used bass and saltwater hooks in either the standard or saltwater jaws. Anything bigger or smaller - it was great. My current bench vise (a Dyna-King “Barracuda Indexer”) has an issue holding a specific hook – fortunately, one I don't use too often. It helps if your local shop will let you tie a few flies (or at least demonstrate the vise) before you buy it, so you get a feel for how it works and how it holds a hook.
Any time you get a new vise, there is a learning curve as you get accustomed to it. Over time, your style will adapt to match what you tie on. If it doesn't, you'll be shopping for a new vise. Remember - they all work. The question is whether they will work within your tying style. For example, there are specific techniques that I use on my Dyna-King Barracuda that don't work as well on my HMH “Spartan” - simply because there's not as much space between the jaws and the vertical support. The HMH does a few things better than the Barracuda (such as being a travel vise!), but I have to tie differently on each of them.
What about rotary function? Lots of vises advertise their rotary action. Rotary action means that you can spin the hook along the axis of the shank (or at least parallel with the shank), to help you wind materials faster/easier. Companies make a big, big deal about this. At least while you're starting out, it's not quite as big a deal. As you progress, you may find that a rotary vise really helps you work. But know that there are very gifted tiers that never use a rotary function vise. One thing a rotary vise does help you with is to look at different angles of the fly. A rotary makes it easier to tie the bottom portion of the fly, particularly with a fly like the Clouser Minnow.
Certain vises to seem to be more popular with different fly fishing groups. Probably the most popular vise on the market is the Renzetti “Traveller”. I see dozens of these every time I go to a show. Dyna King “Professionals” and Barracudas are other popular choices. The classic Regal “Medallion” is very popular with trout fishermen. Those probably make up the majority of vises used by demonstration tiers, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are the best for everyone.
How do you choose the right vise for you?
Choosing a vise can feel very difficult. High quality vises rarely wear out. Any vise you buy will likely be with you until you sell it or stop tying altogether. Having a local fly shop that stocks the vises you're interested in helps a lot - they will often let you try them out in the shop for a bit. Taking a class at a fly shop can be a great way to test drive them - you will tie a number of flies in a day on that vise, and really see if it works for you.
If you know in your heart of hearts that you want to tie flies - you're driven to do it - buy a great vise from the get-go. Examples would include the Jvise, Snowbee-Waldron, Dyna-King Professional or Barracuda, Renzetti “Presentation”, Nor-Vise, or Regal “Revolution”. These will start at about $300, and go up quickly. If you're pretty darned sure you want to tie, a vise like the Renzetti Traveler, HMH Spartan, Regal Medallion, Dyna King Barracuda Trekker, or Peak vise will be a bit more affordable, and still give good performance. If you're just wanting to try out tying, spend under $150 and get a Griffin “Superior 2A”, Danvise, Regal “Inex”, HMH “SX”, Renzetti “Apprentise”, Anvil “Atlas” or “Apex”, or Barracuda “Kingfisher”.
Look at the accessories available for the vise. Some vises offer different jaws to expand your capability to tie very small or very large flies. Vises may offer other options, such as bobbin holders. All of these things may play a part in your decision. Also, vises come in pedestal (where the vise is freestanding on a table) or C-clamp (where the vise clamps to the edge of the table). Both have advantages and disadvantages. Think about where you're most likely to tie, and get the base that makes most sense. One thing to remember - pedestals are heavy. Most people who tie while traveling use a C-clamp to save weight. Whatever you do, your best bet is to buy your vise from your local fly shop. They'll remember it, and will help you get started on your tying adventure.
If I'm asked to pick a vise for someone just starting, I normally go with the Griffin Superior 2A. This is a low-cost, lightweight vise that is very simple to operate, and holds a good range of hooks securely. Most people won't tie on this vise forever, as it's kind of small. But it also makes a fantastic travel vise, so they still get used as you progress in your tying. Best of all, they are available for about $65 from most shops.
In the next portion "Getting started in fly tying part 2 - Other tools", we'll talk about the next necessary tools for tying, scissors and bobbin holders.