Fly-dressing, now referred to a fly-tying, is the art of preparing a fly for fishing. In the late 1800s, Mr. Frederic M. Halford gave the premier account of fly-dressing in his book “Floating Flies and How To Dress Them”. You can find out more about his book on our Dry Flies page.
Chapter 4 of his amazing book is titled “To Dress Floating Flies on Eyed Hooks”. While synthetic material, genetic hackles, and modern tools have been introduced since then, this chapter provides great detail on the art of fly-dressing and much of it is still relevant today. The steps for the following fly styles have been imported from that chapter.
Techniques Imported Below
More Techniques in his Book
- To Dress A May-Fly or Green Drake
- To Make Detached Bodies
- Flat-winged fly hackled at shoulder only
- Flat-winged fly hackled right down the body
- Buzz-fly with silk or quill body
- Buzz-fly with dubbing body
Ordinary Upright Winged Duns
1. Attach Tying-Silk
When commencing to lap, hold the end of the waxed silk tightly between the left thumb and forefinger against the shank of the hook, and with the right thumb and forefinger take the silk firmly about four inches from the end; retain the extreme end between the left thumb and forefinger until three laps are laid on the hook-shank. Proceeding as above, work in the middle part of the hook-shank four or five turns of tying-silk close behind each other; at every turn of the silk1 draw it down as tightly as possible without breaking, as without a firm foundation the wings will infallibly slip or turn out of position.
1 N.B. All the diagrams of fly-making are magnified, and in these magnified diagrams the relative thickness of the tying- silk is purposely exaggerated in order to give a clearer idea of the method, and the exact number of turns used.
2. Prepare Wing Feathers
From each of a pair of starling wings — one right and one left from the same bird, if possible, as the length of fibre and colour vary according to the age of the bird — detach a feather. If for a very small fly on a 000 hook, select the second primary quill feather; for any larger hook, the third or fourth. Cut with scissors from each sufficient of the plume, from the side of the feather on which it is the longest, to form a wing (for a dun on a 0 hook a little more than an eighth of an inch, and for other sizes in proportion), and lay these two wings on the table, taking care not to separate the fibres, or, what is technically called, “break the wings.” Place them with the natural inclination of the fibres towards the tail-end of the fly, and the cut side of the plume nearest to you. With the forefinger of the right hand, slightly moistened, pick up the wing for the side of the fly furthest from you, with the darker side (i.e. the one on the outer side of the bird’s wing) downwards; lay this wing along the forefinger of the left hand. Similarly, pick up the other wing with the outer side upwards, and lay it on the wing already placed on the left forefinger, taking care to keep the points evenly one on the other. Place the left thumb on the points of the wings, and take them by the stump-ends firmly between the right thumb and forefinger, at the same time gently coaxing any disarranged fibres evenly into position with the left hand. Apply the pair of wings to the upper side of the hook, over and close down to the turns of tying-silk previously made in the middle of the hook-shank, judging the position so that the wings when attached will just reach from the neck of the eye to the bend of the hook.
3. Attach Wings
Holding the wings and the wire of the hook between the left thumb and forefinger, take the tying-silk in the right hand, and, separating the left thumb and forefinger sufficiently to allow the silk to pass between them, draw the silk down as firmly as possible, at the same time gripping the wings and hook with the left thumb and forefinger so as to draw all fibres down vertically without any horizontal motion. Repeat this operation three or four times, carrying each successive turn of the silk forwards, or towards the head of the fly. Pass the silk once behind the wings and over the hook, and pull it tightly forwards: the fly now appears as shown on sketch (fig. 12).
4. Trim Wing Stumps
Cut away with the scissors as closely as possible the stump-ends of the wings, and, with the nails of the left thumb and forefinger force them with the silk foundation on which they are fastened along the wire close up to the eye. The object of tying the wings on in the first instance in the middle of the shank is to enable the operator to cut the refuse ends of the wings off neatly, which is impossible when they are fixed close up, owing to the projection of the eye being in the way of the scissors. In the case of a fly dressed on an ordinary hook with gut attached this is, of course, unnecessary, and the wings are at once worked on in their proper place. When cutting off any refuse ends of material quite closely, it is a good plan to steady the right hand by resting the little finger against the pillar of the vice.
5. Attach Hackle, Tag, Tail and Body
Strip the downy flue off the root-end of the cock hackle selected (the longest fibre of the hackle of a properly proportioned fly is a trifle shorter than the shank of the hook), lay it along the wire of the hook with the point of the hackle towards the right, and bind it firmly with the tying-silk until about half-way down to the bend of the hook, cutting off diagonally, with the view of tapering the body, any of the quill or root-end of the hackle projecting beyond this point.
If a gold or silver tag is required, it is now formed by tying in a short length of flat tinsel and working three or four turns of it fastened off with two turns of the tying-silk and the refuse ends of the tinsel closely broken off.
If the fly to be imitated has setae or whisks, lay on top of the hook four or five strands of a cock’s-beard hackle with the set of the fibres inclining upwards (the beard hackles are three or four coarse-fibred hackles on each side of the throat just below the wattles of the cock); bind them securely In place with successive laps of the tying-silk until the tail-end of the body is reached ; take one turn of the silk behind and under the whisk and over the hook, pulling the silk forwards so as to set the tail well up.
Lay along the top of the hook projecting to the left the strand of quill, previously stripped of the flue, of which the body is to be formed; or, if the body be of silk ribbed with tinsel, tie both in similarly in one operation (fig. 13).
6. Wind Body
If the body be of quill, thoroughly wax the silk in order to secure the adhesion of the quill to the hook-shank, but if of silk, avoid waxing, as it darkens the body; lap the quill or silk with the tying-silk, carrying it in regular laps close up behind the wings: form the body by winding the quill or silk smoothly up to the shoulder, where, fasten it with two turns of the tying-silk, cutting off any refuse of the body material. If the body be ribbed, carry the gold or silver wire in regularly-spaced open folds up to the shoulder, where, secure as before, and break off refuse end (fig. 14).
7. First Turn of Hackle
Fix the point of the hackle in the pliers, and taking care to keep it on its edge with the glossy or outer side towards the head of the fly, make the first turn of the hackle round the body, close up to and behind the wings (fig. 15).
8. Remaining Turns of Hackle
Retaining the hackle in the same relative position, and counteracting its natural tendency to twist by keeping the forefinger of the right hand in the ring at the lower end of the pliers throughout the operation of winding the hackle over the body (technically called “turning the hackle”), work each successive turn in front of the one just previously made, until by this action the wings are gradually forced into a perfectly upright position (fig. 16).
In turning the hackle, carry the pliers well forward when under the hook in each turn, so as to fill up the space under the wings. Neglect of this precaution gives a very crude appearance to the fly. A fly to float well should have at least four or five turns of hackle round the hook.
9. Fasten Down Hackle
Fasten in the point of the hackle with two turns of silk, cut off the projecting point of the hackle, and, carefully coaxing it between the fibres, gradually carry the tying-silk up towards the head so as to take a fold over, and thus secure each successive turn of the hackle. This is a most important improvement, increasing to a surprising extent the durability of a fly; and if by any chance in fishing the extreme point of the hackle draws out, it can be cut off, and the remainder of the hackle will not move, so that the fly can still be used. Pass the silk in front of the wings, and take one turn round the neck of the eye. Press the fibres of the hackle into position pointing towards the tail of the fly, and generally arrange them with the dubbing-needle (fig. 17).
If the wings are a trifle too long, nip off the extreme point with the nails (but on no account cut them with the scissors), although, as before stated, this should not be necessary, as the length should be correctly judged when winging.
10. Whip Finish
It is now only necessary to fasten off the fly, and it may be noted that throughout the previous operations not a single knot or hitch has been made. If the silk is kept thoroughly waxed, and the folds drawn down quite tightly, the fly at any stage will remain secure: the continual half-hitches recommended by the old school of tyers are useless, and only give an uneven and lumpy appearance to the work.
I cannot too strongly impress on professionals as well as amateurs the necessity of abandoning the old system of finishing off a fly with a series of half-hitches. True it saves a little trouble, which, to the professional, may be of some Importance, but I venture to suggest to them that it is worth a trifling expenditure of time to make the work really secure, a result which can by no possibility be attained by the use of half-hitches.
The ”Whip Finish” shown in the magnified sketches of the eye-end of the hook Is the only really secure and reliable knot to fasten off with. It is made thus:
Lay the end of the tying-silk back towards the tail so as to form an open-loop, and work one turn of this loop round the neck of the eye (fig. 18).
Similarly work three more turns of the loop, passing It at each turn over the eye (fig. 19).
Holding the hook and turns of silk firmly between the left thumb and forefinger, draw the end of the tying-silk down with the right hand until the knot Is quite tight (fig. 20). It is essential in this operation to proceed slowly, so as to allow the warmth of the finger and thumb to soften the wax, and thus allow the silk to draw freely.
Cut off the remnant of the silk, varnish the knot thoroughly, and if in this operation the eye is filled with varnish, do not neglect to clear it. The fly is now complete.
The use of the fine end of a porcupine quill is recommended both for varnishing and clearing the eye.
Upright Reverse-Winged Duns
1. Attach Tying-Silk
Work four or five turns of well-waxed silk close to the eye of the hook.
2. Prepare Wing Feathers
Take two feathers from a right, and two from a left wing of a starling, or other bird; cut out the entire plume from each, excepting the extreme points and downy part of the roots of the feathers; lay these as cut on the table, taking care not to disarrange the fibres. Place the two pieces from the right feathers one on the other, with the points quite even along their entire length, and similarly those from the left feathers, in each case pressing the plumes together, so that they will adhere to one another. Lay the two lengths now adhering together from the one wing on the two lengths from the other, with their points quite even along the entire plumes, with the natural inclination of their fibres sloping towards the tail- end of the fly, and with the darker sides outwards. Take a pair of long bull-dog pliers of the form shown in sketch1 (fig. 37)
and, pressing them open by means of the thumb and forefinger of the right hand applied on the portion roughed for this purpose, place the four plumes together between the jaws of these pliers with sufficient width projecting beyond the points to form, when detached, a set of wings. Remove the pressure of the right thumb and forefinger, and the feathers are securely fixed in the position shown on the diagram. The projecting pieces being four wings accurately in position, can now be detached, and when a set of wings is required for the next fly, it is only necessary to press the pliers open and draw the whole of the feathers out sufficiently for the next set of wings. Releasing the pliers, the remainder of the four feathers is kept firmly in place. In this way sufficient feathers can be arranged at one time to make six or eight sets of wings.
For single wings it is, of course, only necessary to use the plumes of one right and one left feather.
1 This form of pliers is the invention of Mr. Marryat, and can be procured from Messrs. Weiss, surgical instrument makers, Strand.
3. Attach Wings
Having detached the set of wings, place them with the left thumb and forefinger with their points projecting to the right or over the head of the fly; and note that the tendency in this style of winging is to judge them too short. Secure the wings with three or four turns of silk, and carry one turn in front of them and over the neck of the eye (fig. 38).
4. Divide Wings
If the wings have been properly put on without disarranging the fibres, they will set outwards at the points with two thicknesses of feather in each wing; if, however, a few fibres are out of place, divide the wings carefully with the dubbing-needle. Take the tying-silk in the right hand, and pass it in front of the double wing on the further side from you, then carry it back between the wings, once round the wire of the hook behind the wings, then forwards between the wings, then round the neck of the eye in front of the wings, and then once more behind the wings, thus forming with the tying-silk the figure 8 with a wing in either loop. Hold the wings firmly in the left hand, and, with the right, pull the tying-silk down quite tight, and take one more turn behind the wings, which should then be quite upright, and, look- ing at them end on, set apart at the points in the shape of the letter V (fig. 39).
5. Trim Wing Stumps and Attach Hackle
Cut away the stumps of the wings diagonally to taper the body, and fasten in the hackle by the root-end (fig. 40).
6. Attach Tail and Body
Carry tying-silk to the bend of the hook, fastening in and setting up the whisk, secure the quill for body, bring tying-silk to shoulder (fig. 41).
7. Wind Body
Form, and bind in the body, cutting off any remnant (fig 42).
8. Turn Hackle and Finish
Turn hackle, fasten it in, carry tying-silk through it to head, where, finish and varnish (fig. 43).
Improved Method of Winging Upright Duns
This is considered to be the latest improvement, and the most efficacious mode of setting on upright wings, whether double or single.
1. Prepare Wing Feathers
Strip off entirely and discard the shorter plume of a pair of starling wing feathers, one right and one left. Pare the central quill running down the feathers as thin as possible with a pair of curved scissors such as are used by oculists. Cut through the quill of each feather at regular intervals, each being of the width required for a wing (fig. 44).
2. Attach Wings
Having worked the silk on close to the eye of the hook, detach one if single, and two if double wings from each feather; lay them with their points evenly one on the other, with the darker side outwards. Holding the wings, and, proceeding as usual, secure them at once in their proper position close to the neck of the eye, and take one turn behind the wings, and over the wire of the hook (fig. 45).
3. Fold Out Wing Stumps
Set the stumps of the wings horizontally at right angles to the length of the hook, each stump or pair of stumps (according to whether the wings are single or double) on their proper side, and pull the tying-silk forward between them and under the hook-shank (fig. 46).
4. Fold Back Wing Stumps
Press the stumps tightly back, and bind them firmly behind the wings (fig. 47).
5. Cut Wing Stumps
Cut the stumps away diagonally to taper the body (fig. 48).
The remaining operations being then carried out precisely as described for the upright reverse-winged duns, complete the fly as before (fig. 49).