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Fly Tying for Beginners

Tying a reverse soft hackle with dubbing and partridge feather
Tying a reverse soft hackle with dubbing and partridge feather

I started catching trout when I started tying flies. Coincidence? Maybe. But if you’re a trout angler, there’s no such thing as coincidence if it means breaking a trout drought!

However, even though I fish with a Tenkara rod, I didn’t get started tying Tenkara flies. I tried, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of the basic “one fly” kits I’d bought from Tenkara Bum. I can now, but I was missing some very basic skills and needed a way to kickstart my fly-tying skill base before I could use them. I’m a self-starter by nature and prefer to teach myself new skills, even if it takes a little longer.

Contrary to the Tenkara pundits who advise against buying kits, I got a beginner fly tying kit, the LL Double L Fly Tying Kit, and was quickly typing basic fly patterns with a bobbin, vise, and hackle pliers. Priced at $129, it has the fixings to tie 17 different fly patterns including enough feathers, fur, yarn, hooks, thread, and wire to last well beyond the set of hooks included. LL Bean also sells a smaller kit called the Angler Fly Tying Kit for $99, which includes the same manual, but only has the fixings for 10 flies.

How to Use a Bobbin
How to Use a Bobbin

The LL Bean Fly Tying Manual

While it’s very convenient to have all of the tools, hooks, and materials available and organized to start tying flies, the real value of these two kits is the fly-tying manual that comes with them. Put simply, it provides step-by-step instructions on how to use each tool and how to tie each fly, so you can slow down the process and understand what’s going on.

How to Dub Dubbing
How to Dub Dubbing

I’ve tried watching fly-tying videos on YouTube and as a beginner, it is too hard for me to follow what is going on, even if I pause them and loop segments over and over. There’s also an entire linguistic vernacular that fly tiers use that is meaningless to beginner trout anglers and frustrating to understand. “What the heck is hackle, saddle, or maribou?” I wondered.

How to Attach Materials to a Hook
How to Attach Materials to a Hook

Of course, everyone has their own preferred learning style, but the one provided by this manual and fly-tying kit resonated with me. It helped me quickly achieve a basic competency that I could leverage to start tying Tenkara patterns and start making my custom modifications to conventional trout flies. After a week or two of tying more conventional trout flies and Tenkara patterns, I began to tie my fly patterns and test them out on the river. What fun!

Ant tied with dubbing and rooster neck feather
Fur Ant tied with dubbing and rooster neck feather

What does this have to do with hiking and backpacking? Fly fishing has proven to be another way to immerse myself in a wilderness experience. While you can buy flies that other people tie, tying your own provides an opportunity for you to learn about the foods that trout eat and the insect life of rivers. It’s a fascinating subject that has expanded my appreciation of mountain ecosystems and given me an excuse to learn still more!

The LL Bean Fly Tying Kit I’m using includes materials that go beyond the flies that are included in the manual that accompanies the kit. The quality of the tools included in the kit is pretty good and the fly-tying materials are abundant so you can tie many more flies than the number of hooks included. While I’ll probably upgrade the tools at some point, the vise, bobbin, hackle pliers, dubbing needle, scissors etc. are all more than sufficient for my needs.

Once I got some fly-tying experience with the kit, I went back to the Tenkara kits that I’d bought before I got the LL Bean Fly Tying Kit including the Ishigaki Fly and the Pink Chenille Worm, and didn’t have any problems using and mastering them. But the barrier to using them as a complete beginner, before I’d gained some basic fly-tying experience using the LL Bean Kit, had been too high to overcome on my own.

If you’re stuck trying to learn how to tie trout flies, try using one of these kits. They made a believer out of me and gave me the basic skills and experience I needed to become a fly tier.

Disclosure: LL Bean provided Philip Werner ( with the sample LL Bean Fly Tying Kit described in this review. 

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  1. Yeah, a basic kit can help. I tied many thousand flies for many shops…from down around the Catskills to the Adirondacks to the Salmon River, Pulaski. Yup, you do get the hang of it after a while :)

    • I’m hooked, as they say. It’s lots of fun tying flies and there’s lots to learn to, which is my kind of thing. Glad I stuck it out and started catching fish. It was a bit grim there in my trout drought stage. I figured out where to find them consistently, which was the breakthrough, actually.

  2. Fly fishing has a steep learning curve. Casting, wading, reading water, understanding trout behavior, grasping aquatic entomology, tying flies, and selecting a fly all come into play pretty soon after picking up a rod. When I used to teach an introductory fly fishing class at my university (which employs me to teach something else), I would tell the students that each of these should be approached as a separate skill. I’d emphasize that a beginner might quickly excel in one but become increasingly frustrated with another. “The skill you easily pick up will compensate for the skill that gives you a problem. Just be patient,” I’d tell them. That always seemed to take the pressure off them. Glad you stuck it out, Philip. Backpacking with an off-the-beaten-track fly fishing destination–it doesn’t get any better than that.

  3. I normally don’t post links to vendor sites, but Chris at was an early adopter and probably should be credited with introducing Tenkara to the American people.

    He has a nice assortment of fly tying kits and supplies. He also has tons of advice and tips.
    He also doesn’t focus on just Tenkara, but also other traditional ultralight fishing styles.

    • Steve, As I explain in my post, I found Chris’ kits impossible to use or understand until I’d acquired the experience provided by a full kit. The problem with Tenkara is that its marketed to experience d fisherman not beginners.

      • Sorry Philip, I was ready the your post on my phone and must have skipped over that whole section. I was wondering why the article was so short.

        I have to stop trying to reading your posts when I’m on the trail:-)

        • No worries. I really like the Tenkara Bum site and have bought a bunch if stuff from Chris this year. I can really appreciate his Heinz 57 style approach, where he merges multiple styles of fishing into a whatever works approach. I also think it’s important that he’s an East Coast fisherman, since he fishes in the same conditions I do, and not big western rivers.

        • I also dig the fact that he mostly take public transportation and then hikes in to all of his fishing spots. That forces him to be UL and minimalist.

  4. Hi, fly tying is addictive!
    I have been doing it for over 50 yrs and learned from an ABU Fishing School in Scotland. Over this length of time I have tied many different patterns and fished them world wide. I now use just 3 flies but in different sizes, 2 are easy to tie and one not so easy.
    The most reliable is the Bead Head Gold Ribbed Hares Ear Nymph, Next is the Black Spider tied as sparse as possible with or without a reverse hackle (Tenkara style) Last is an old pattern called The Grey Duster; this can be fished as a dry, an emerger with floatant on the top of the flies hackle only so the body sinks, or as a wet.
    Sizes 16# through to 12# suffice and will fit in a match box and all work well with a Tenkara outfit. Good luck Phillip

    • I just ordered 150 new hooks…love sitting around and tying flies and then testing them on the river. Reverse hackle flies are really amazingly effective, but I still like to experiment with others.

  5. Philip, I think you are at the point where you might consider using both Tenkara and typical flyfishing techniques to suit the water and trip. The differences are pretty similar to those between a short and long flyrod. The reel is most often just a line holder until you get into more energetic fish like sea-runs, certain big rainbows or land lock salmon. I often use Tenkara style with long flyrods in brushy water, for instance. Tenkara style is quite limiting if that is all you have, for all it’s pleasures.

    It helps to be more flexible if you want to consistently catch fish. I have even been known to use a worm where permitted and when it might work better than my normal fly panoply.

    • I agree. The number of streams that are good for Tenkara is fairly limited. i want to fish rivers and possibly ponds too.

      • As a relative new-comer, I recommend you first learn how to fish wet flies; there are any number of effective techniques involved and these remain effective since so few fisherfolk actually use them. Dry flies require better casting skill and nymphing requires intense concentration & considerable know-how in effective drag-free passes through feeding lanes.

        Some of the same wet fly techniques apply to both general flyfishing and Tenkara. Effective mimicry of caddis pupa emergence casting upstream & then rod-tip lifting along fast stream edges is a good example and tremendous fun when the caddis are happening. The strikes are obvious & viscous and less skill in casting or stalking are needed. There is plenty of info on the web & google is your friend here.

        • I think my first stop will be to get another guided lesson with my Tenkara mentor Ken Elmer who’s a regular fly fisherman too.

        • Good plan ! There should be some decent fall-tan-caddis emergence about this time of year (happens in all streams more or less) if you are up for it so soon and another series in early spring thru the end of May. Mention the technique I mentioned above and see what he says. Many fisherman don’t know of it but it is both fun and killer.

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