Saltwater Fly Tying: When Art Meets Fishing

Jul 13, 2022 | 7 minute read Comments
3
Reading Time: 7 minutes

There are many reasons to start tying flies. Saving money is not one of them, whatever what some people may tell you. There is no way you’ll ever be able to match the prices of the cheap flies that are flooding the market these days. Of course, they’re cheaply made and will fall apart after a few fish, but you get what you pay for.

Closeup of a man in a purple shirt tying a fishing fly

You can buy your flies in fly fishing specialty shops, tied by US-based or even local tiers. These will cost more, though, and your choices on patterns will be limited to what sells well at that store. That usually means Wooly Buggers, Deceivers, Adams, Clouser Minnows, and Pheasant Tail and Hare’s Ear Nymphs – all in limited colors and sizes.

You’ll get a better selection by ordering flies online from places like Cabela’s, Hook & Hackle, or even individual tiers’ websites. This will require some forethought, though. It takes a few days, at best, to receive an order. If you want to go fishing tomorrow, it’s not going to help much.

Why tie your own flies?

A Clouser Minnow on a fly tying vise

So, it’s not really about the money. Why, then, would anyone want to go to the trouble of tying their own flies? It’s a complex question, with as many answers as there are types of people.

For some, the problem is that there are no fly shops close by. Others may want to try out patterns that are not readily available. And of course, some people might simply wish to create their own designs.

However, for most of us, I believe that fly tying is about the satisfaction of creating something beautiful, and at the same time, useful. A well-crafted fly is a true work of art. I can’t speak for others, but most of the flies I tie are never meant to be fished with.

I tie flies just for the pure joy of tying. Many times, I’ll glue them onto foam sheets and place them in glass-covered picture frames to give away as gifts, or display around the house. Local pubs, restaurants, and even the public library have several of my plaques on their walls.

Whatever your reasons, you should not hesitate to give fly tying a try. It makes the enjoyment of fly fishing that sweeter.

Saltwater Fly Tying Equipment

A selection of saltwater fly tying materials

It doesn’t take a lot of expensive equipment and materials to get started with fly tying. It can be as simple as a basic used vise, some precision scissors, a little thread, some feathers, a little fur, and some lacquer. And you can even use cheap clear nail polish instead of lacquer.

That’s it for the most basic patterns. Space prohibits going into too much detail here, but there are many good fly tying books available, as well as free information on many websites. Since our focus today is saltwater fishing, I’ll stick to information relevant to that.

Vises

You can get a basic vise for under $25, brand new, or as cheap as $5 used. Vises do one thing, but do it well: They hold your hook steady while you wrap materials around it. You can rotate them 180° to tie hook-up patterns, or to inspect your fly from different angles.

You can tie any pattern there is on one of these vises. The only thing to worry about is not to get one of those cheap copies. Stick to name brands, mainly Griffin (my favorite), Regal, Nor-Vise, Thompson, Peak, Dyna-King, Renzetti, and HMH. Herter’s is sadly no longer in business, but their vises were made by Thompson, anyway.

A Herter's fly tying vise
My Grandfather’s Herter’s Fly Tying Vise, circa 1940s

I started out tying flies in the 1960s on my grandfathers Herter’s vise. It was already 30 or 40 years old, and I still have it today. I still use it sometimes, just for old time’s sake. It works on all freshwater patterns, and most saltwater patterns, up to a size 2/0 hook, which is about as big as I ever tie.

After you’ve been tying for a while, and have gotten comfortable with most basic techniques, you may want to move up to a rotary vise. A rotary vise does everything the basic vise does, and it also spins, allowing you to rapidly wrap material on hooks. These are especially good if you plan to tie a lot of flies.

These types of vises will cost a lot more, maybe up to $200.00 for some models. However, they have a lot of features that make them more than worth it.  As you can see from the photograph, my Mongoose came with a bobbin cradle, very useful for many techniques. It also has as a clamp for mounting on a table, and a heavy base if you don’t want to clamp it to anything.

A Griffin Montana Mongoose vise
My Griffin Montana Mongoose Vise

I have a Griffin Montana Mongoose that I use 90% of the time. It will handle any size hook, from semi-microscopic size 22 hooks, to size 4/0 monster hooks. There are also many other accessories you can get for these, such as tube-fly jigs, parachute fly attachments, rubbish baskets, and more.

Hooks and Materials

A selection of hooks and thread used for saltwater fly tying

Most of the fishing hooks you’ll use for saltwater flies will be stainless steel. Saltwater corrodes bronze hooks very quickly. Saltwater fish are also quite a bit stronger than even the biggest freshwater ones. You’ll need the strength of the steel to keep the hook from bending out.

For saltwater flies, you won’t be using hooks much smaller than size 8, and may need to tie on hooks as large as 3/0. That’s is about as large a fly as you can reasonably cast with a fly rod.

You won’t be needing any delicate dry flies or nymphs. Marine fish are tough, and most have some kind of teeth, so your flies will need to be tough as well. You’ll be using a lot of bucktail, specialty fibers like Polar Fiber, Puglisi Fibers, Mylar Tubes, Zonker Rabbit Strips, and closed cell foam.

Your feathers will need to be long, such as schlappen, large marabou, and a lot of synthetic materials. You’ll also need 5-minute epoxy, or the new Clear Cure Goo, for some patterns. Plus, you’ll need a selection of 3D eyes (I use Doll Eyes from Walmart), mono-eyes, and barbell eyes. Depending on how many different patterns you fish with, you may only need some of these materials. Each pattern is unique.

Other tools you’ll want will be a pair of fly-tying scissors (do not use regular scissors – they won’t work!), a bobbin to hold thread, and a bodkin to pick out fur, feathers and hook eyes. I also like to use a whip finish tool. You can certainly do it by hand, I just like using the tool. 

The Flies

A selection of saltwater fishing flies

I could write several books on all the great saltwater fly patterns there are, but space and time only permits me to talk about a few. I’ve selected 4 patterns that I feel are the basic flies you need to know how to tie to catch most marine fish. Some may disagree with my choices, and that’s fine. Everyone has their favorites. If I missed yours this time, I’ll catch it in a future article. Here are my picks for the Go-To to flies in the briny deep.

The Deceiver

A Lefty's deceiver saltwater fishing fly

The Deceiver is one of the most successful patterns you can have in your saltwater arsenal. It catches Striped Bass, Bluefish, Mackerel, Bonitos, Snook, Speckled Trout, Redfish, Barracuda, Snappers, Mahi Mahi, and more. It works in the surf, in the mangroves, around jetties, bays, and inshore. If you can only carry one fly, this should be it.

The Deceiver is actually properly called “Lefty’s Deceiver.” It was created in the 1950s by Lefty Kreh on Chesapeake Bay. He always had a problem with bucktail streamers getting fouled on the hook when cast out and designed the Deceiver to fix that problem.

Deceivers are more a style of fly, rather than a specific pattern. You can be tie them with all kinds of materials, and in different colors. The defining characteristics are a tail made of feathers, and wing made of hair, fur or synthetic material. That’s it.

Puglisi-Style Baitfish

A selection of Puglisi-style baitfish flies

The story of Enrico Puglisi is a great example of the American Dream. Enrico was raised in Sicily, and when he came to America, he learned all about fly fishing, and began experimenting with new synthetic materials.

Puglisi’s innovative fly patterns look like fish, and they swim like fish. In the water, it’s hard to believe they’re not fish. They catch anything that swims and eats other fish. You can tie them in any combination of colors to match any baitfish that has ever lived.

The Gotcha

A gotcha fly, popular among saltwater fly tying enthusiasts

The Gotcha is the industry-standard fly for catching Bonefish, Snook, Tarpon, and other flats and inshore fish. It vaguely resembles a shrimp, at least close enough to keep the fish happy.

Legend has it that its creator, Ted McVay made the first one from bits of carpet taken from an Andros Island taxi. Everytime he’d catch a bonefish on it, he would say: “Gotcha.”

The Crazy Crab

Saltwater fly tying closeup of a half-finished crab pattern fly

Permit, Pompano, and other flats fish absolutely love little crabs. This pattern only vaguely resembles a Blue Crab, but it’s close enough for the fish. This has been one of my top flats producers for years.

There are lots of other great patterns to try, like the Clouser Minnow, the Crease Fly, Tarpon flies, etc. Don’t be afraid to experiment! And, if you have any questions, we’d like to hear from you in the comments below. Otherwise, it’s time to tie some flies, find a fishing charter near you, and start casting!


Joel C. Brothers has been a musician, entertainer and prolific writer for over 4 decades. He is also an avid fisherman, and has fished all over the world. Joel has authored several fishing books and is a regular contributor to over a dozen fishing publications and websites. His knowledge of fishing is unsurpassed. Joel lives in the beautiful Southern Appalachian Mountains of North Georgia, in the Cohutta Wilderness, amid miles and miles of pristine trout streams, and outstanding lakes.

Comments (3)
  • John Barillaro

    Feb 18, 2016

    This is a world of information I have always wanted to start tying and went the the only fly shop in shop county N.Y…. Sadly to say it closed permanently due to the owners age and illness . My biggest problem is where do I start . Reading this is has helped a great deal .

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Xavier

      Feb 22, 2016

      Thanks for the comment, John! We’re glad to have brought some relevant know-how your way.

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Art Santore

      May 1, 2016

      Roscoe New York fly heaven on earth

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *