Saltwater Fly Tying: Introduction

I have tied flies for something over five decades, but until recently I tied relatively few patterns that could properly be classified as pure Saltwater Specialty flies. Being predictably unpredictable, I stepped away from my usual range of flies about a year ago and resolved to dig deep into the Saltwater fly world. Oh my, what an adventure.

This blog post represents a quick update on what I’ve been up to in the fly tying universe, and an effort to share my enthusiasm and a few learning moments related to tying saltwater flies.

I’ve been tying flies like Decievers, SeaDucers, Surf Candy flies, Clousers, Gurglers, Poppers, Crabs, Shrimp, Trolling Bucktails, Baitfish tubes, and a wide range of baitfish patterns on hooks, with finished flies that range from 2” to 6”. I’ve also been fishing these flies in the ocean and in estuaries, seeing how they swim, how they hold up to fish teeth, and whether in fact fish will eat them.

I’m going to get the ball rolling with this post to most briefly introduce the world of Saltwater flies to people like me – a year ago – who had but little experience with these weird critters.

Here we go.

Are Saltwater and Freshwater fly tying different? Yes, yes, and yes. Over forty years tying traditional flies in the trout, steelhead, and salmon section of the Fly Shop were a good introduction to tying saltwater specialty flies, but I still had a big transition to make before my saltwater flies looked right and fished properly. If you want to learn how to tie saltwater flies and have fun yourself , why not give it a go?

Vises for Saltwater fly tying: My current fly vises (NorVise and Regal
Full Rotating Vise
) are the standard models and are marginally acceptable for 3/0 and 4/0 hooks. Plenty of Saltwater flies are tied using hooks in the #1/0 – # 8 size-range, so you may be fine with your existing vise. In my case, I want to tie a lot of 3/0 and larger flies, so I have purchased a specialty head for each of my vises. Chances are good that your current vise will perform just fine for most of the saltwater flies you might want to tie; I suggest that you experiment to find out if your existing vise is really able to accommodate the hooks you will be using (it probably is), and be prepared to purchase an additional head for larger hooks if you decide to tie on 2/0 and larger hooks.

A rotating vise is essential. OK, maybe not essential, but really handy. You’ll see.

Saltwater hook styles. I never appreciated the Mustad 3407 hook before. Now I love the hook. Sure it must be sharpened before use, but it looks nice, and the fly swims well on the hook. Other great SW hooks include the Gamakatsu SC 17; Gamakatsu SC 15; Gamakatsu S 12 S; TMC811-S, and TMC 811. The Daiichi X-Point DX452 and Daiichi Saltwater D2546 are very good hooks too. There are others good saltwater hooks including Mustad and Eagle Claw brands, but this list is a start and these are hooks I have personal experience with to date.

Why use big hooks? I always thought that saltwater tyers used hooks far too large, but then I tried actually fishing these flies and it all came together that I was in fact not smarter than the cadre of striper, Snook, tarpon, and redfish fly tyers. Big bulky baitfish flies swim better when tied on large heavy hooks than when tied on smaller lighter wire hooks. It is so simple, and now I get it. Yes, it does require more tension to pull heavy wire into fish’s jaws, but the bones are tough and the hook weight is needed as a keel to allow the fly to swim properly. The Prospect of fishing a 4/0 heavy wire hook on #12 tippet seemed insane before, but now that I am fishing the bulky baitfish flies myself, and now that I think about the jaw bone structure of the target species for many of these flies; the use of big heavy wire hooks just makes sense.

Saltwater Tying Threads: Mono and traditional threads. Some tyers recommend using Kevlar thread. I still can’t see the point, but I may be shortsighted on this point. To date, I have had very good experience using threads like Danvilles 210 D Flat Waxed thread; Ultra Thread 140 D, Veevus Stomach Body Thread, and I especially have enjoyed using mono threads like Danvilles fine mono and Uni Mono thread. I think the mono threads really come in handy when tying baitfish patterns that will be finished with eyes and Clear Cure Goo. The use of mono threads and the Goo has reminded me about minimalist tying – where if 3 wraps of thread and a dab of Hydro are plenty of security, there is no need to apply twenty wraps of thread. I find that Saltwater Clousers and Bucktails can be tied with either mono or traditional threads, but again, the size of the fly and relative bulk of the finished head will guide you towards selection of a thread that is right-sized for the job.

Natural materials for wings. Although many saltwater flies use synthetic materials, there is good reason to use many of our traditional natural materials in the salt brine too, and these include our favorite Bucktail, Fox, and Rabbit Zonker strips at the very least. Bucktail is a natural material that is absolutely fantastic for use in flies designed for use in both freshwater and salt, and the Clouser Deep Minnow style of fly is a perfect example. The Clouser may be tied with synthetics also, and the synthetics may offer perks in terms of already-incorporated flash or durability, but for pure fish catching properties, I believe it is really difficult to surpass the qualities of natural Bucktail. Similarly, the Arctic Fox or Rabbit Zonker strips we use to tie our river flies for Atlantic salmon, Pacific Salmon, steelhead, and trout are often very good choices for winging a wide variety of saltwater baitfish flies.

Feathers, saddles & neck hackles for tying saltwater flies. People who specialize in tying flies for Musky, Pike, and Bass have a close kinship with tyers who specialize in baitfish patterns for offshore species. These flies tend to emphasize feathers like saddles and large neck hackles for tails and wings. The trout anglers may require very narrow feathers to wind around a hook, but the saltwater or Pike fly tyer will look at the same feather and like the fact that it is 12” long and strongly marked never noticing whether the feathers are wide or narrow. Point here is that many of the flies we would not find useful for our trout or steelhead flies make for great saltwater flies.

Flash materials for saltwater flies. We use flash in freshwater flies, but the saltwater fly styles are often a little flashier and then the Pike and Musky flies add even more flash to the game. Saltwater specialty flash materials are sometimes wider, stiffer, and tougher than flash materials intended principally for freshwater flies. This extra measure of firmness is intended to make for more durable flies that will withstand the wear-and-tear of toothy critters.

Dumbbells, Cones, and Eyes for saltwater flies. We may use very similar dumbbell eyes, cones, and eyes on smaller saltwater flies, say in the #2 – #8 range. When it gets to flies in the 1/0 and larger sizes, we are likely to reach for the XL dumbbells and cones, and to use larger stick-on eyes for our baitfish patterns.

Cure goo versus Epoxy to secure and finish our saltwater flies. I’ve covered this topic in a different post, but suffice to say, the Cure Goo is absolutely essential on my saltwater flies, and it should be on yours too.

Synthetic winging materials: tying-in securely. Some wing materials may be tied in just as we would tie in Arctic Fox or Bucktail; the fibers compress and will be held securely by a little thread or a lot if we want a bulky head on the fly. Some synthetic winging materials do not compress and should be super glued, lashed down very tightly, or tied in reverse-style. My preference is to use the reverse-tie-in method. Basically, this means tying the wing in facing forward, applying a drop or two of Cure Goo Hydro to the tie-in, and then reversing the wing and lashing it down with a few more turns of thread (regular or mono). When doing this, one may build multi colored wings in several layers or in a single tie-in by stacking wing colors and putting the darkest material on the bottom as the forward tie-in is executed. By doing this, the reversed wing will have the proper arrangement of colors with the darkest on the top of the baitfish fly.

Synthetic winging materials: tapering. Baitfish wings that are tied with synthetics look better if you taper the materials so that the fibers are a variety of lengths, instead of just cutting straight across the material. Taperizing scissors can help in this department, and you can feather the tips of synthetics to achieve a variety of fiber lengths by gently pulling out some of the tips and by rolling the bunch to better distribute the different lengths.

Hook fouling issues and solutions. Hook fouling refers to what happens when the tail or wing of the fly wraps under the hook and the fly does not swim as intended. This can be a minor issue if a few strands of Bucktail on a Clouser wrap around the hook shank or a major issue when a Deceiver with a very long tail gets tail-wrapped (same deal when a baitfish fly tied with long materials fouls around a short shank hook). There are a variety of strategies to reduce fouling, including weed guards, “posting” thread around the base of tails, foam or mono shelves tied under tails to keep them upright, and using epoxy (cure goo) to keep the winging material at an elevated angle above the hook’s plane. All of these are helpful, and all have weaknesses. Some flies are foul-proof as a virtue of their design, as in, they have very short tails and their wings are shorter than the bend of the hook. In fishing experience, making good casts is a great anti-fouling measure, and I have reached the stage where I don’t worry overly about fouling. That said, it is important to think about the issue and see how your own flies perform, given each individual’s casting style and fishing conditions (wind is not our friend in the fly fouling department). This topic deserves greater attention in the detailed instructions and videos for tying specific patterns.

Tying saltwater flies on hooks versus tubes. In my opinion, the use of Tube flies is not nearly as common as it will be in five to ten years. Some flies don’t make much sense tied as tubes: say for example a Bonefish Gotcha or many Crab patterns. On the other hand, I currently believe that many flies in the saltwater, Pike, and Musky realm make a lot of sense to tie on Tubes. The longer it takes to tie a fly, the bigger the fly, and the greater the beating a fish will give the fly – all of these factors hint at the potential advantages of tying the fly on a tube instead of on a hook shank.

I’ve experimented with a wide variety of baitfish flies and compared their effectiveness and durability tied on hooks versus tubes. For many of these flies, the tubes fished just as effectively on tubes and proved far more durable than a similar fly tied on a hook shank. I also found some fly patterns that just didn’t look right when I tried to tie them on tubes. Smaller-size Surf Candy style flies are an example, as are very small Clousers (say, sizes 6 & 8 in sub-2”). Larger size Surf Candy flies and Clousers fished and performed effectively, and allowed me to replace saltwater- and pliers-damaged hooks on still perfectly good tube flies.

I’ve learned that there are a growing number of tyers producing and fishing saltwater flies on tubes; this is true as well for the Musky and Pike fly world. These tyers are both innovative and demanding, and I think that it is worth our while to devote serious thought and bench time to tying tubes. Where Tube flies are concerned, Scandinavian Atlantic Salmon anglers are decades ahead of us here in the Pacific Northwest, as are European Sea Trout and Pike anglers. My fledgling efforts tying and fishing tube flies for saltwater have been entirely satisfying – expect to see plenty of tube flies in our upcoming video series, including tube poppers and Gurglers in addition to tube trolling and casting flies.

New Synthetics for Saltwater Fly Wings. We have had several synthetic materials like Fishair, Polar Flash, and Craft Fur for a long time, plus others that I am not very familiar with. Of late, we have a family of synthetic winging materials from Enrico Puglesi and Steve Farrar. While similar, the EP and SF family of synthetics offer some different properties with more or less flash already incorporated, and of both similar and distinct fiber stiffness and texture.

These materials and others like Baitfish Emulator and Shimmer Fringe Minnow Back merit your attention, and many will be featured in the upcoming series of saltwater fly tying videos we will produce for the Oregon Fly Fishing Blog.

Saltwater fly tying with Brushes. Enrico Puglesi has produced a series of brushes on stainless steel wire that are specifically designed for tying saltwater flies. I had already discovered these brushes a year ago tying steelhead and salmon flies, but my new venture into tying everything salty from baitfish to crabs and shrimp this year led me to several other EP brushes including the EP Foxy Brush, EP Anadromous Brush, EP Sparkle Brush, EP Crustacean Brush, and EP Shrimp Brush. These will all be shown in use in fly videos. I have been especially fond of several of these brushes to use for baitfish bellies. Imagine that.

Securing eyes on flies. This is a skill unto itself, and encompasses different techniques depending on the size of the fly and they eyes and how they are placed on the fly. Our videos will review techniques including applying Super Glue on surface of wing material, applying a blob of Cure goo to the gap between top and bottom of eyes, applying a bead of Cure goo to form a head around the eyes, deciding whether or not to pinch eyes between your fingers while curing Goo, the necessity to rotate the fly in your vise to establish the Goo shape around eyes, whether or not to add a finish coat of Hydro Goo, and applying eyes to flies tied on hooks versus flies tied on tubes.

‘Nuff for a start. Time to get tying saltwater flies and let the tips and ideas flowing at the bench.

Hope you have a ton of fun with these flies – as I am.

Jay Nicholas, September 2013

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3 Responses to Saltwater Fly Tying: Introduction

  1. Scott says:

    Welcome to the world of saltwater fishing, there’s no going back now! Lings beware now.

  2. Sam says:

    It is one thing to tie flies that can exceed 8 inches and I do enjoy the craft, but it is quite another to keep some of these behemoths in the air throughout the day when searching for striped denizens in my home waters. The search for the appropriate rod and line(s) is another challenge. After an hour or so of overhead casting an overloaded short two-hander I generally back off to an oversized clouser or gurgler (to a big sigh of relief from any others in the boat or along the shore).

  3. two dogs says:

    Another great summary writeup!! Glad to hear that you are enjoying coming over to the dark side. Appears that I may need to change some of my stratiges.

    Thanks for your efforts.


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