When Art Meets Fishing: The World of Saltwater Fly Tying
Apr 8, 2019 | 7 minute read Comments
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Today, we’ll look at the art of saltwater fly tying! Be ready to take notes as you’ll learn how to make your own saltwater flies.


Why Tie?

There are many reasons to tie your own flies. One of them is not to save money, regardless of what some may tell you.

There is no way you will ever be able to match the prices of those cheap flies, tied in Chinese sweatshops, that are flooding the market these days. Of course, they are cheaply made, and will fall apart after a few fish, but you get what you pay for.

You can, of course, buy your flies in some of the better fly fishing specialty shops, tied by US tiers, many even from local tiers.

But these will cost more, and your choices on patterns will be limited to what sells good at that store, mostly Wooly Buggers, Deceivers, Adams, Pheasant Tail and Hare’s Ear Nymphs, and Clouser Minnows in limited colors and sizes.

You’ll have a better selection by ordering flies online from places like Cabela’s or Hook & Hackle, but it will require some forethought.

It takes a few days, at best, to receive an order, so if you want to go fishing tomorrow, it’s not going to help much. And they are also limited on patterns.

And lastly, there is Ebay, and individual fly tier’s own websites. You can get any fly imaginable, including custom patterns, this way, but there’s the time factor, again.

So, it’s not really about the money.

Then, why 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, it may be that there are no fly shops close by.

Others may want to try out patterns that are not readily available.

And still others may simply wish to create their own designs.

But for most of us, I believe it 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 them just for the pure joy of tying, and many times, I will glue them onto foam sheets and place them in glass-covered picture frames, to given as gifts, or displays around the house. Many local pubs, restaurants and even the public library have several of my plaques on their walls.

Crab Fly 5

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

It doesn’t take a lot of expensive equipment and materials to get started. It can be as simple as a basic used vise, some precision scissors, a little thread, some feathers, a little fur, and some lacquer (or, some of us even prefer to use cheap clear nail polish).

That’s it for the most basic patterns. Space prohibits going into too much detail here, but there are many good fly tying books (I’ve written a few myself) available, as well as free information on many websites. Since our focus on this site is saltwater fishing, I’ll limit the article to information relevant to that.



My Grandfather’s Herter’s Fly Tying Vise, circa 1940s

There are a few types of vises. The basic vise can be had for under $25, brand new, or as cheap as $5 used. If you get a good brand, like Thompson, Griffin (my favorite) or Regal, it will last a few lifetimes. I started out in the 1960s, on my grandfathers Herter’s vise that was already 30 or 40 years old, and I still have it.

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. Modern basic vises are almost identical to this one, and only cost around $15.00-$25.00 brand new. They do one thing, but do it well. They hold your hook steady while you are wrapping materials around the hook. You can rotate them 180° to tie hook-up patterns, or to inspect your fly from different angles, but they are not rotary vises. More about those later.

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, 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.

After you have 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, or think you may want to be a commercial fly tier. I have a Griffin Montana Mongoose that I use 90% of the time.


My Griffin Montana Mongoose Vise

These types of vises will cost a lot more, maybe up to $200.00 for some models, but 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, as well as a clamp for mounting on a table, and a heavy base if you don’t want to clamp it to anything. 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. There are several types of rotary vises, so you should go to a shop and test out a few before deciding on which style you prefer.

Saltwater Ties Hooks and Materials

Most of the hooks you will use for saltwater flies will be stainless steel. This is necessary because saltwater will corrode normal bronze hooks very quickly. Also, saltwater fish are quite a bit stronger than even the biggest freshwater fish, so you will need the strength of the stainless steel to keep the hook from bending out. You wont 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 (or, 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 will want will be a pair of fly-tying scissors (do not use regular scissors – they wont 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, although you can certainly do it by hand. I just like using the tool.  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. 3/0 is about as large a fly as you can cast with a fly rod.

The Flies

Saltwater fly fishing ties

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 there 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

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.
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 the Deceiver fixed that problem. The Deceiver is more of a style of fly, rather than a specific pattern. It can be tied with all kinds of different 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

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

The Gotcha

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 it’s 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

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!

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 .

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      Feb 22, 2016

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

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      Art Santore

      May 1, 2016

      Roscoe New York fly heaven on earth

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