Saltwater fly tying is catching
  |  First Published: November 2004

Saltwater flyfishing is a rewarding and successful way to target a huge variety of fish. The fly can imitate just about anything, whether it’s a piece of weed that would interest a luderick, or a slimy mackerel that would entice a billfish.

Although casting can sometimes be hindered by wind, as well as the need of physical space for a back-cast, this style of fishing has many advantages. The fly can be worked enticingly to create realistic bait movement, and even the smallest flies can be cast a reasonable distance. This can be especially useful when pelagics such as tuna are feeding on microscopic bait. You wouldn’t be able to cast a chrome lure, or a soft plastic of the same profile, the same distance on regular tackle that you could cast a small fly on flyfishing tackle.


There are plenty of quality flies available from those suppliers which have good quality control, such as Felty’s Flies, Dog Tooth and some local custom tiers, but many tackle stores stock production-tied flies that are often lacking in several areas. The hooks can be too heavy or too light for the job, or are the wrong size to suit the profile of the flies tied on them.

Another problem with commercially available flies is that many of them are generic patterns, meaning they are a general representation of a particular food source but are not a specific copy. Often they may be available only in one or two sizes and in a limited selection of colours. Being able to tie your own flies means you can produce a more accurate imitation of any particular bait.

To tie your own flies you need a few basic tools and a reasonable selection of materials. Although you may be up for around $130 to $200 for the initial set-up, depending on the quality of tools you buy, in the long run you’ll save quite a bit of money. As time goes on you will only need to purchase new materials or replace existing ones that you have used up.


Fly tying kits are available from many suppliers and can seem like the best way to get a selection of tools and materials to get you started. These kits can be fairly deceptive, however, as the tools are often of inferior quality and the materials can sometimes make tying much harder to learn due to their poor quality. Often kits will have materials in them that you are unlikely to use, and may have only small amounts of the popular materials in them, which will last no time at all.

Tiewell has recently released some decent quality kits, but I have seen few over the last 10 years that I would highly recommend as good quality and good value.


There are lots of tools on the market but many of them are aids for tying smaller trout-style flies and very specific patterns. A lot of the tools are designed to make a particular task a little easier but aren’t necessities. The only three tools you really need for effective saltwater fly-tying are a vice, bobbin and scissors.


Vices can vary from $10 tin tools to $1000 works of true rotary precision. Decent vices that will hold the hook well and will last several years start at around $35 for a basic vice, such as a SunriseTyemaster. This type of fixed-head vice will simply hold the hook in the jaws and not much else.

You can also get rotary vices where the jaws will rotate to allow you to see the opposite side of the fly, and true rotary vices where the shank of the hook stays on the same horizontal plane whilst being rotated. This allows materials such as chenille and Larva Lace to easily be wound onto the hook.

Tackle stores who sell fly tying equipment should be able to explain the different vices to you. If you are unsure about how much you will like fly tying, just go for the $35 option. If you want a vice that performs well and will last a lifetime, check out a Renzetti, Griffin or Dyna-King.


A bobbin is used to hold the spool of thread while you securing the materials onto the hook. Having a good quality bobbin will result in fewer broken threads when tying and less frustration.

Bobbins start at around $6 for a plain steel model and can cost up to ten times that much if you want a top-of-the-line Renzetti ruby-tip bobbin. There are also a lot of ceramic bobbins about, representing good value for money at around $20. Be aware, however, that they are likely to break if dropped on a concrete or tile floor.


Scissors have become a lot cheaper over the last few years, and any instrument that allows you to cut the thread and materials easily and accurately will suffice. Some of the scissors sold for cutting braided line do the job just fine. Even if you only purchase a cheap pair of scissors to get started, you can use them for cutting hard materials such as strip lead, copper wire and zonker tape when you decide to buy a better pair for fly tying. Small serrations on the blade of your scissors help to cut the materials accurately, as they don’t slide down the blade when it’s closed.

On a budget

As with all things, quality tools will last longer and do the job quicker and more efficiently but they have a higher initial outlay. If your budget allows only the cheaper end of the scale, or you’re not sure how much you will enjoy fly tying, opt for the budget end of the market. They will still get the job done. If you upgrade later on you will fully appreciate how much better the high quality tools perform.


There’s a huge array of materials available on the market, and when you visit a good fly tying store the various packets on the wall can be a little confusing. You can usually get advice from the staff on what materials are required to tie a particular style of fly, or you can purchase a fly tying recipe book or video beforehand and make a list of the materials you need to tie a selection of flies.

Materials are either of a natural origin or synthetic. Natural materials come from the skin, feathers or hair of an animal, and most natural materials have a taper and maximum length to them which can limit the type and size of a fly that can be tied from them.

Synthetics can be used to tie flies of all sizes but they often lack the taper of natural materials and will need to be trimmed and teased out to get the right profile. Synthetics have a lot more scope and are often tougher than natural materials. A fly tied with them will often last a lot longer, especially on fish with sharp teeth. Synthetics also have the ability to be trimmed while you’re out fishing, which is especially useful if you need to reduce the profile of a fly to match a particular baitfish.

Both types of materials have their place in your selection and many flies consist of a combination of both types.


There are no rules when it comes to fly tying – you are limited only by your imagination and selection of materials. While a lot of the patterns you will find in magazines, books and videos are generic patterns, they create a good base upon which to customise your own flies. They also teach the skills and tying procedures that will help you to develop and tie your own creations. There are no rules as to what you can and can’t do, and the selection of materials for tying flies is not limited to the shelves of the tackle store; many items from craft shops, hardware stores, bargain stores and toy shops can also be used at times.

Flies have the ability to imitate almost anything you can imagine – it’s just up to you to work out the best way to go about it. I’ve seen flies tied out of plastic bags to imitate jellyfish that Tierra (round-faced) batfish feed on, and others flies that represent the yellow scum that’s so appetising to Darwin Harbour milkfish. Some fly tyers create artistic patterns that are designed more for looking at than for fishing with.

So if you want to save some dollars in the long run and fish with flies that better suit the environment you’re fishing in and the local species you’re targeting, fly tying is for you. As an added bonus, it’s also a lot of fun. Over the coming months I will be doing some articles on tying and fishing my favourite and most productive patterns. I hope you enjoy tying and fishing these patterns, too.


1) Tying your own flies can save you quite a few dollars in the long run.

2) Although there are a lot of fly tying tools, you really only need a vice, bobbin and scissors.

3) Tarpon are often very particular when it comes to flies, so it helps to tie your own.

4) I needed to tie a fly with extra heavy eyes to get down to where these bream were.

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