The Art of Tying Classic Salmon Flies

A Beginner’s Guide to the Fascinating World of Classic Salmon Fly Tying

By Robert Verkerk, Revised in 2021

Joining the world of classic salmon fly tying is an exciting and rewarding adventure. Just like a student with a beginner’s spirit, we are all eager to learn and driven by enthusiasm. The discovery and challenges that come with being a beginner in this craft make it a truly enjoyable experience. With dedication and effort, rapid progress and results await you.

The Enigmatic World of Classic Salmon Flies

Classic salmon flies, which have been meticulously crafted over centuries, are a true embodiment of functional art. These fishing lures reached their pinnacle during the late Victorian era when aesthetics and marketing played a vital role. The evolution of winging techniques introduced complexity and set specific rules for these flies. However, not every fly found online adheres to these rules. Thus, to delve into this fascinating world, it’s crucial to seek truth and facts.

Embracing the Journey of Learning

As a beginner, it’s important to realize that understanding the various techniques and qualifications necessary to recreate classic salmon flies takes time. Like any purposeful creation, these flies follow basic principles of weight, proportions, volume, color harmony, and natural materials. Within these boundaries lie ample room for personal preferences.

This is a guide for those embarking on the exciting mission of classic salmon fly tying.

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What Defines a Classic Salmon Fly?

A classic salmon fly is a legendary fishing lure that evolved over centuries before synthetic materials became dominant. The late Victorian era witnessed its peak, with influential figures like Kelson and Hale revolutionizing fly dressing with new winging techniques. These flies are beautifully illustrated and documented in books, representing hundreds of years of experience and development.

The Intersection of Functional Art and Artistic Renditions

It’s important to distinguish between American Feather Art and Classic Salmon Fly Tying. While both are admirable in their own right, there are fundamental differences. To truly learn how to dress classic salmon flies, it’s crucial to focus on historically verified facts. Glue is unnecessary when wax and clever principles can create durable flies capable of withstanding the toughest conditions.

Once you become acquainted with the techniques, you’ll have the opportunity to perfect your skills and join us in creating functional art. The goal is to achieve aesthetic beauty and artistic quality in flies specifically designed for the river.

Essential Reading Material

For those eager to delve deeper into the art of classic salmon fly tying, investing in a few key books is highly recommended. Eric Taverner’s book on salmon flies offers valuable insights into the overall perspective of this craft. J.H. Hale’s tying manual is a favorite among enthusiasts, providing clear instructions to prepare you for tying late Victorian classics.

Getting Started: Understanding Proportions

Before diving into tying an actual fly, it’s essential to develop a solid understanding of traditional salmon fly proportions. Familiarize yourself with the anatomy of a classic salmon fly, from the starting point of the tag to the length of the tail.

Take your time to read about the various techniques and practice them individually before attempting to tie a complete fly. Mastering silk floss application, hackle palmering, and winging techniques will give you a solid foundation. The more experienced you become with different materials, the better you can focus on proportions and the overall tying process.

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Gradual Progress and Material Selection

As a beginner, it’s tempting to acquire a wide variety of materials swiftly. However, it’s advisable to take it step by step and only purchase materials as needed. Seek advice from experienced individuals, whether they are friends or knowledgeable shopkeepers. Patience and practice are key components of learning classic salmon fly tying. Begin with simple fly patterns that aren’t overly complex, such as Kelson’s Sherbrook or the Doctor and Rover series. This approach allows for a gradual learning curve.

Classic salmon flies come in various sizes, and starting with a medium-sized hook (3/0) is recommended. This size offers ease of handling and matching feathers with the required size and fiber length for married wings. Hooks with gently raised angles for the eyes are preferred, as steeply bent eyes can hinder the attachment of tippets or married wings.

Golden Pheasant crests are essential feathers used for both tails and toppings in classic salmon fly tying. Other crucial materials include oval and flat tinsel, dubbing, silkworm gut, “blind eye” Salmon irons, and tippets. While swan feathers are preferred, dyed turkey feathers are stiffer, and goose feathers offer a softer option. Each type of feather comes with its own unique characteristics and challenges.

Your First Fly Patterns: Black Ranger, Sherbrook, Green Highlander, and Silver Doctor

Begin with the Black Ranger, a beautiful classic fly that will introduce you to the concept of “married wing” flies. Simplify the pattern by excluding the tail veiling, cheeks, horns, and wool head. This initial version of the “Ranger” fly consists of a tip/tag, tail, butt, ribbing, body hackle, floss body, throat, wing, crest, and head. It may seem like a lot of material to handle, so repeat this pattern several times before moving on to the next.

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Next, explore the Sherbrook pattern as described by T.E. Pryce-Tannatt. It incorporates tippets for the underwing, with a married wing on top. Similar to the Black Ranger, omit the tail veiling, cheeks, and horns. The transition between the tag and body floss in this fly is considered “butt-less,” which makes it challenging even for advanced tiers. Throughout the process, remember that thread control and discipline are essential for smooth transitions and appropriately sized heads.

When you feel ready for a new challenge, attempt the Green Highlander or Silver Doctor. Keep alternating between these patterns, or their variations, to practice and enhance your skills.

Your Shopping List

To begin tying the Black Ranger, Sherbrook, Green Highlander, and Silver Doctor patterns, the following materials are recommended:

  • Hooks, preferably sizes 1/0 to 3/0
  • Black and clear head cement/varnish
  • Dubbing wax
  • Tying wax
  • Tying thread for material application
  • Small silver tinsel
  • Medium or large oval tinsel
  • Flat silver tinsel
  • Black, light blue, light yellow, and dark yellow silk
  • Green seal’s fur or substitute
  • Golden Pheasant crests, tippets, and tail
  • Black ostrich herl
  • Black, green, yellow, and light blue cock hackles
  • Jungle Cock nails
  • Dark mottled turkey tail
  • Turkey tail dyed green, yellow, and light blue
  • Gallina hackle (speckled feathers from the hen Guinea Fowl)
  • Mallard flank
  • Peacock wing (substitute for Kori Bustard)
  • Scarlet wool

Share Your Progress

Once you’ve tied a few flies to your satisfaction, share your work with experienced tiers to receive helpful feedback. Posting clear photographs of your fly on a simple, uncluttered background will allow others to see the details and provide valuable insights.

When you feel ready to take on new challenges, consider adding cheeks, horns, and tail veils to your flies. Natural substitutes like Asian Kingfisher and red Ibis for Blue Chatterer and Indian Crow, respectively, can be explored. Gradually move on to more advanced patterns, such as those found in Pryce-Tannatt’s book, if you began with Kelson patterns.

Enjoy the journey and good luck in your pursuit of classic salmon fly tying! Remember, patience and practice will be your greatest allies.

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