The Tying Bench - Two Patterns to Build Your Skills

The Tying Bench - Two Patterns to Build Your Skills
The tying bench — a place where imagination becomes reality.
Although there is no substitute for time spent fishing, over the years I have found one of the most rewarding and challenging facets of fly fishing doesn’t take place on the water. It happens at the bench - the fly tying bench. Fly fisherman have the unique opportunity to sit down at the tying bench and put their imaginations in motion. Tying flies teaches us more about predators, prey, and what triggers a strike. Somehow it brings the angling experience full circle. Best of all, it’s just plain cool to catch a fish on a fly YOU tied. 

If you are new to fly tying or are considering learning to tie, there are two patterns in particular that can be great learning platforms for you - The Clouser Minnow and the Wooly Bugger. 

The Clouser Minnow is a simple weedless baitfish pattern that is easy to tie and absolutely deadly on the water. No fly box is complete without a selection of Clousers. The Wooly Bugger is a crustacean/insect pattern widely used in fresh water and equally effective (although oddly less-renowned) in salt water. If your quarry eats a shrimp it will eat a Wooly Bugger. 

These flies each require different skills and materials to tie, but neither pattern will frustrate you with its complexity. I will confidently wager that if you learn to tie these two patterns proficiently, in various sizes and colors, you will have armed yourself with flies for nearly any fly fishing venue you may encounter in either fresh or salt water. And, you will gain an understanding of tools and materials that will hone your tying skills and lead you on to more challenging patterns. Lets look at each of these patterns, and the core skills they require to tie.   

We’ll start with a Clouser Minnow. A Clouser Minnow consists of belly and back fibers (generally bucktail, sometimes synthetic hair), a little bit of flash material, and lead or bead-chain eyes. It’s a slim, linear fly designed to have a sleek “fast” profile and an up-down jigging action in the water. Tying a Clouser requires 4 simple steps- eyes, belly, flash, back. But, the devil is in the details.

The most common error that beginners make when tying Clousers, or nearly any fly for that matter, is that they overload the materials. Bulky clumps of materials tend to slide away from the thread under tension and pop loose. They stick out and sometimes crowd or shroud the eye of the hook, and form gangly uneven heads. Flies with overly bulky materials also absorb lots of water making them difficult to cast and sluggish to retrieve. With Clousers, and most flies, remember- less is more.    

Perhaps more important than the overall bulk of the fly, is the relative proportion of back and belly fibers. When comparing the volumes of back and belly fibers, the back should be somewhat bulkier. Because bulk creates resistance, a bulky back relative to the belly keeps the fly upright during the retrieve. With a pattern like a Clouser Minnow, designed to ride with the hook point oriented in a weedless upright position, this is a key feature. Otherwise, you’ll be snagging oyster shells and grass all day long.

A second error commonly made when tying Clousers is that the barbell or bead-chain eyes are not leveled correctly and not securely fastened to the hook shank.  When looking head-on at a Clouser, and other patterns with barbell eyes, the eyes should be level and positioned on the belly side of the hook shank when the hook is oriented in the “point-up” position. 

A small winding of thread and drop of cement should be placed on the hook shank at the point of contact just prior to wrapping the eyes. To correctly wrap the eyes, use a series of figure eight wraps followed by several circular lasso wraps to pull the figure-eights up tight. Follow these wraps with a second drop of cement. The cement saturates the thread and makes contact with both the eyes and the hook shank, ensuring the eyes will not break loose or twist around the shank. 

When tying Clousers remember - don’t overload the materials, proportion the body, and firmly anchor the eyes. These principles can be applied to Crazy Charlies, Cactus Charlies, and countless other baitfish and shrimp patterns. 

Whereas the Clouser is a slim, linear, darting fly, the Wooly Bugger is a slow-moving, pulsating fly. Its hairy segmented body creeps and crawls in the water. The body of a Wooly Bugger consists primarily of chenille and hackle that has been wound, or “palmered,” around the hook shank. Palmering material is a tying fundamental, as old as fly tying itself, and it accomplishes 3 things- it covers the bare hook shank with material, it provides a leggy appearance to the fly, and it creates a segmented look. Wooly Buggers and many other shrimp and crab patterns incorporate palmered hackle feathers, chenille, and spun fibers to create legs and segments.

When you tie a Wooly Bugger the order of material placement is important. First, you must remember you are generally working from the rear of the fly forward. Materials should be layered beginning with the inside (underbody) and ending with the outside (hackle). When tying a Wooly Bugger the order of materials is weight (lead wire, or bullet head, or bead, etc…) first, tail next, then underbody and flash, and finally hackle.   

You will find materials with high tensile strengths, like chenille and leach yarn, palmer easily because you can really bear down on them while winding toward the eye.  Hackle feathers, however, are more delicate. Hackle requires steady even tension as it is palmered forward. Too much tension breaks the hackle fiber, and not enough leaves a loose and unsightly wrap. Additionally, hackles are by nature spindly and difficult to grasp, always wanting to pop free from your fingers at the worst moment. A pair of hackle pliers (a nimble tool that pinches and holds the end of the hackle feather while you wind) will help you keep a good grip on slippery feathers and wind them evenly. 

As each material reaches the eye, it should be wound down tightly with 3-5 thread wraps, and snipped clean. A small drop of cement should be applied to the thread wraps. This ensures they will not unravel when subjected to use and abuse later on. The eye of the hook should remain clean and free of little overhanging fibers and excess cement. These obstruct the eye of the hook and cause the head of the fly to build up into bulky mess. 

It takes a bit of practice, but you’ll soon be forming smooth, clean bodies with balanced volumes of materials. Your palmered fibers will me snappy and evenly spiraled. These principles will carry over to countless other crustacean patterns.

The techniques used to tie Clouser Minnows and Wooly Buggers are fundamentals of fly tying. Mastering the ability to evenly apply materials, provide smooth clean thread wraps, and proportion flies correctly is key to the appearance and performance of all flies. Practicing these techniques will ensure your creations look good and last long. You’ll pave the way toward more challenging patterns, and hopefully catch a lot of fish along the way!