My First Fly-tying Class

San Juan worm and the Elk-Hair Caddis

In which I learn just how patient fly fishermen really are

by Teresa Mull

Early morning (8:00 a.m.) Mass is always the fast one. There’s no choir. Father Matthias sings in 1.5x speed—a habit spilling over from weekday 8 o’clock services, when folks need to get in and out and off to work, perhaps, or a reward for the intrepid up-and-at-’em types shunning sloth? A mix of both, I’d imagine. 

Last week, the 37-minute liturgy was going to be my speedy ticket to sanctity and enlightenment as I fulfilled my Sunday obligation before zipping off with plenty of time to spare to the “Intro to Fly Tying” class I’d signed up for days before the “arctic blast” was forecast. 

Except after the last hymn, I bumped into Ed and Linda. “What are you up to today?” they asked in a breezy, day-of-rest kind of way. “Well,” I paused and smiled, confident that Ed, who I know from “gun club,” would appreciate it. “I’m actually headed to my first fly-tying class!”

“Oh yeah?” I was right about Ed appreciating it. Turns out he used to tie his own flies but had gotten away from it, working too much. He retired last year, though, and hopes to have more time for fishing now. So of course I had to know his favorite spots and about the really nice antique rod his buddy had given him. I promised to bring him a fly I made myself—how complicated can it be?—and emerged to the snowy parking lot with not a blessed minute of that “plenty of time to spare” left. 

And so it was that I learned my first lesson of fly tying: It’s best not done under duress. When the snow and ice encapsulating the F-150 rise above six feet, and the person scraping it off barely above five, and there ends up being fifteen minutes to drive through the tundra, a journey that would take twenty-five minutes on a clear summer day, let’s just say the mood is not ideal. The guy answering the phone at the fly shop had enough chill for the both of us, though, and assured me taking my time (and theirs) was A-OK. 

Fly-tying class and the fly vise, focus of a fly tyer’s world.

Nonetheless, I felt sheepish blowing into the five-person class late, where three Ed-aged men and one younger woman sat solemnly in front of their vises as if mentally preparing to perform surgery. And after evaluating the assortment of pointy instruments neatly arranged in a box before me and listening to Gavin’s lecture on the importance of high-quality thread and scissors and how some dentists prefer to buy their pliers from the shop, I thought maybe we were about to. 

The first order of business was to thread the bobbin. Even with a bobbin threader, it was not the easiest thing to do when overcoming a fluster. Gavin, though, had the patience of Job and the charity of a kindergarten teacher “helping” the kids, who end up convinced they managed it all on their own. 

Dressing the hook (wrapping it with thread) was simple. Suspiciously so. I glanced furtively at my fellow class-takers to ensure it really was as straightforward as looping the bobbin repeatedly around the hook. It was—so long as you didn’t allow your line of thread to extend to a foot long and adopt the motion of a symphony conductor directing the orchestra toplay more allegretto. Keep it short and tight! And oh! careful not to “crowd the eye,” either. Overzealous wrapping risks covering up the eye of hook. 

The hooks were wrapped and our bobbins hung spinning like inverted pinwheels while Gavin demonstrated the half-hitch knot—a satisfyingly simple little maneuver that dispelled the remnants of the rushed morning and had me feeling like a real fly-tying natural. 

The high lasted through the tying-in of a piece of red chenille and dissipated when Gavin, less of an early-childhood educator now, and more of a sage professor, delivered a dissertation on the value of the “whip finish.” It can be challenging to learn, he said, but is invaluable for securing all your materials to the hook.

“You’ll use your whip finisher tool,” he explained, holding up what looked to be one of those metal hooks the dentist scrapes your teeth with, if someone had run it over with a tank. 

All we had to do—and Gavin demonstrated twice, and slowly—was hook the thread with the sharp end of the whip finisher, wrap it around the notch in the crooked part of the arm, make the thread into a sort of triangle shape, allow the tool to rotate upward and spin and—wait, why did the guy next to me finish his in three seconds flat while all I did was create a mess of thread only a spider that’s into abstract art would consider for a web?

Gavin caught me unfurling my tool and came to the rescue. One painstaking minute later, and I held in my hand a decidedly homely-looking San Juan worm. Yet Gavin’s beaming pride and enthusiasm were contagious, and so I persevered with more thread and some wire and a bead to make a zebra midge I was rather proud of (despite subcontracting the whip finishing skills of my neighbor).  

Then it was onto the final fly—an “elk hair” (we used whitetail deer hair) caddis that looked, with its fuzzy body, spiky (these are official terms, I’m sure) hackle, and flamboyant wing, like the quintessential flies you see on the cover of manuals and in logos and sketched on cutesy outdoor-themed décor. Tying it involved using a comb to get rid of unwanted, under-hair fibers and a “hair stacker” (I may have stifled a giggle when I learned such a thing exists and that they even come in different sizes!) to even-up the clump before attaching it to the hook. 

I left the class after four hours with three tiny treasures and one huge dilemma: which one to gift to Ed? The San Juan is kinda cute in its own hokey way, but the zebra was undoubtedly the best constructed. Then again, that caddis is impressive looking—until Ed realizes it was finished with a half-hitch instead of a whip (no one tell Gavin!) and the eye is nowhere to be found. 

Ultimately, I decided to embrace the first lesson I learned about fly tying: Don’t rush. I told Ed I’d give him a fly I tied myself, but I didn’t say when. I still have a few dozen flies to practice tying before I’m no longer embarrassed to give them away. And since Ed’s a fly fisherman himself, I know he won’t mind waiting. 

Teresa Mull could never be a kindergarten teacher, but she is confident that honing her fly-tying skills will make her more patient.