I watched “Mysis Mike” Kingsbury throw a cast upstream to a pod of feeding browns. Mysis Mike’s dry fly disappeared in a swirl, and he waited a full count before firmly lifting his rod, driving the hook point home. His rod buckled and bounced, and I waltzed upstream to see the fish. Blue-winged olives hatched in earnest all around me.
“What fly are you using?” I asked Mike, once he pulled the hook free. He knelt and cradled the big brown — a nice 21-inch trout — in the water, admiring the fish’s pale yellows and bright blues.
“A hook,” Mike replied.
Mike’s not the type to make smartass comments, so I asked to see his rod. Sure enough, secured in the hook keeper was a size 18 dry fly hook. A few strands of black thread clung to the otherwise bare shank.
“It used to be a Griffiths gnat, but it got chewed up and I don’t have anymore,” Mike explained, not taking his eyes off the fish. He held it lightly, supporting it in the water while it gathered the strength to swim off. “They don’t want anything else in my box.”
Mysis Mike said he’d been fishing that “Griffiths gnat” for the better part of an hour. I shook my head and grinned, because Mike’s the kind of guy who pulls off feats like that on a regular basis, completely unaware of just how uniquely talented he is.
I tied on a Griffiths gnat and got into some fish, but I learned quickly that the flies I’d tied weren’t up to the job. I’d get a few fish out of each one before it devolved into a thread-and-hook affair. Despite trying, I couldn’t catch fish with that, although Mike didn’t change his fly again until the hatch ended.
Since then, I’ve spent a fair bit of time trying to tie flies that will last longer. When I started guiding three years ago, that need for durable flies grew more pressing. Cobbled together from tips from the guys at Fly Fish Food, my local fly shop, and experiments of my own, these are five things I do that help my flies last longer.
Use GSP Thread
On dry flies, the material that fails first is usually the hackle. Often, that’s due to fish chomping on it, or grabbing it with forceps or hemostats when removing the fly from a fish’s mouth. Often, however, hackle fails on a fly because it slips free from the thread wraps that are supposed to lock it in place. For a while, I attributed this to me failing to bind the thread down tightly enough. However, as I tried to add more pressure to those hackle-securing wraps, I kept breaking thread. At the time, I exclusively used UTC Ultra 70 denier thread.
Then someone handed me a spool of Semper Fli Nano Silk, and I never looked back. This new gel-spun polyethylene (GSP) thread lays incredibly flat, but is h4er by almost an order of magnitude than any other traditional fly tying threads. I know one professional tier who switched to GSP thread when it first hit the scene, and he told me he’d broken hooks in his vise while trying to get his thread to break.
Is that an exaggeration? Maybe, but I can vouch for it. Since switching to GSP thread, I haven’t had my thread break once while tying. I’m able to crank up the pressure when cinching down hackle. And while my hackle still succumbs to fish, I’ve noticed a distinct decrease in how often hackle slips free of the thread wraps.
And it sure is nice to not deal with thread breaking on me while at the vise.
I do my best to support local fly shops. I buy as many of my fly tying supplies as possible from them, but I’ve tried every kind of head cement and resin on the shelves and have yet to find something as effective at keeping thread locked down as good ol’ superglue.
My go-to is the Brush-On Krazy Glue. This glue is thin enough you can brush it on thread and whip-finish your fly before it dries. While there are plenty of fly-tying specific glues with brush-on applicators, you usually have to thin the glue before use. Krazy Glue is ready to use right out of the bottle, and it’s cheap.
In addition to using it on thread just prior to a whip finish, Krazy Glue works wonders in securing normally-fragile bodies and materials to the hook. Remember how quickly my Griffiths gnats fell apart? After that trip, I started laying down a base of Krazy Glue, then wrapping the peacock herl around the shank. The glue binds the fragile peacock herl to the shank almost instantly, and I’ve actually found the hackle getting chewed off my flies before losing any of the peacock herl.
Use Forceps and Pliers Correctly
With the mountains of instructional materials online, you’d think most fly anglers would have better skills when using forceps to remove flies from a fish’s mouth. Sadly, that’s not the case. Often, I see people just grab the fly with their forceps and yank and pull and tug, trying to rip their hook free. Even more often, I catch fish on my local tailwater that are missing mandibles, or have severely deformed tongues, thanks to improperly removed hooks.
The proper way to remove hooks with forceps is to roll the hook slightly side-to-side, then gently rotate the hook out in the opposite direction from which it stuck the fish. If you’re using barbless hooks, you won’t even need to roll the fly. A simple turn with your forceps will free the fly.
But what does this have to do with helping your flies last longer? Well, when I watch people grab and remove flies, I often see them grab the delicate bodies of flies. Even a superglued zebra midge won’t last long when it’s yanked on by serrated steel jaws.
Instead, make sure you’re grabbing the fly by the bend of the hook, or any other bare part where you can easily clamp your forceps. This not only helps improve your catch-and-release efforts by increasing the control you have of the fly as you remove it, it extends the life of your flies.
Overhackle Your Dries
Unless you’re specifically trying for a sparse look (maybe you’re tying emergers or spent-wings) with your dries, I recommend using more hackle than you think you need. I actually picked this trick up from my grandfather, who tied commercially for 27 years. He always put tons of hackle on his dry flies, and I’d balk at his defiance of the instructions in my fly tying books (books he’d given me!). When flies called for no more than four wraps of hackle, Grandpa used a dozen.
His flies rarely lost their hackle, though, and I finally quit following instructions to the letter. I still don’t use as much hackle as Grandpa did — it’s a lot more expensive now than when I learned to tie — but I definitely use more than most tiers I know. Over the years, I’ve observed that adding more hackle seems it stay intact longer. It helps flies float higher for longer, too.
Resin Isn’t A Fad
Earlier, I said I’d never used a resin that helped keep my thread locked down as effectively as superglue. I also mentioned that you can coat thread-based flies with superglue to increase their longevity.
That’s all true, but superglue doesn’t work on the body of every fly. Adding a layer of superglue to a hare’s ear, for instance, would negate the free movement of the material that’s part of the fly’s appeal.
Resin doesn’t allow for the free movement of material either, but it differs from superglue — or any other head cement — in a crucial way: it doesn’t soak into and through fly tying materials.
You can easily add a coating of resin on the back of a scud, hare’s ear, pheasant tail, rainbow warrior, or virtually any nymph, and the resin stays in place. It doesn’t soak through the dubbing, onto the hook, and out the other side. The advent of UV resins is one of the best innovations the sport has seen in decades, because it really changed how we’re able to tie and produce long-lasting flies.
When UV resins started to get really popular a few years ago, I wrote them off as a fad. They were more expensive than superglue, and the UV lights weren’t cheap, either. I kept on with my same-old methods, until I finally admitted to myself that there might be something to the frequent use of UV resin in the fly tying world.
These days, I use resin on nearly every nymph I tie. It’s a fantastic coating on zebra midges, and works to lock down the ribbing on a hare’s ear. It extends the life of a Frenchie, and creates a smooth wing case on mayfly nymph imitations. Resin accomplishes this all without inhibiting the natural movement of fibers in the water, which is critical to fly performance.
Over time, you’ll develop your own strategies to help your flies last longer, but these five tips should serve as a good jumping-off point. At the very least, they should offer something new and interesting to try next time you’re at the vise or on the water.
If you have tips of your own, please leave a comment and help another angler out.