Our Man In Canada
December 30th, 2002

Sweating the Small Stuff

By Sheldon Seale

In the middle of summer, fish, especially trout, frequently concentrate on tiny morsels. These small insects, often referred to as the Fisherman's Curse, tend to try the patience of even the most diligent of fly tyer. Here are some useful tips for taking the sweat out of tying small.


First, inspect your hands and fingers. If the skin the rough, the thread will constantly get caught up and fray on the cracks and rough edges. This can be avoided by smoothing off the rough edges with some emery paper and treating the skin with some good moisturizing hand cream about 30 minutes before you start.

If you have trouble with your eyesight, the best thing you can do is make certain you have enough light. This is far more important than magnification, although a magnifying system of some sort can be useful. The better the lighting where you are tying, however, the more detail you will be able to see and the better the proportions will be for each pattern. And, as we all know, the three most important aspects of fly tying are proportion, proportion and proportion.

Scale Down

When tying very small patterns (sizes 22 to 32) it is important to scale everything accordingly. This calls for very fine thread. 8/0 simply won't cut it on a size 28. There are now threads advertised on the market as being sizes 11/0 to 17/0. While I'm not certain of the accuracy of the designations, these threads are fine, very fine, and refreshingly strong. I also recommend that you use a bobbin with a ceramic tube or ceramic insert. This will help to prevent the fine thread from fraying.

Similarly, all materials must be scaled down accordingly. After all, the ribbing we use on a size 12 Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear will be totally unsuitable for its size 24 equivalent. Even dubbing must be much finer. And don't bother trying to weight your nymphs. Lead wire generally is not fine enough for size 26 hooks. Hackles small enough for tiny flies are tough to come by and usually very expensive. However, you can often make do by roughing up your dubbing a little to form a hackle or a wing. On the other hand, some materials, such as CDC and very fine deer hair (such as that found on the mask), are fine enough for tying small.


In keeping with my sobriquet that "simpler is better," at least in fly tying, keep your patterns simple. You won't need to add eyes to a size 26 pattern. You may add wings or hackle, but generally not both. Concentrate only on the principal characteristics, such as sizes, shape and colour or any unusual trait, such as unusually long tails. The smaller the pattern, the more proportional errors are magnified: while 1mm error in a 25 mm nymph is hardly significant, a 1 mm error in a 3 mm nymph is huge. And don't forget the knot you use to tie on your fly. It becomes, by definition, a part of the pattern, and must be tied as small and neat as possible.


Hook selection for tiny flies is critical. You constantly face the challenge of getting the right shank length while maximizing hook gape. Since there are no industry standard hook designations, the tyer is reduced to measuring shanks to get the correct size hook for the pattern in question. Consider using "wide gape" or "short Shank" style hooks (which are effectively the same designations.) What you get is more hook gape for hook shank length than in "normal" style hooks. Hooks that are slightly kirbed or offset, while causing some tying challenges, often improve hook sets and seem to stay in a fish's mouth longer. Fine wire is critical as well. This is especially important for dry flies.


Current issue

Not all patterns can be scaled down to size 28. Strip leeches, for instance, are out. You would need strips cut from tanned field mouse skin for the wing. However, you can tie tiny wet flies using a small clump of fine fibre for the wing. Rabbit fur will suffice, or even CDC.

Fishing Tips For the Small Stuff

Fish these patterns in the surface film, although you can sink them to imitate nymphs. Fish take them for midges and other tiny insects. Usually, colour and size seem more important than shape/outline. Don't forget to use the finest possible tippet and smallest knots.

When presenting tiny patterns, do everything in slow motion - including setting the hook. Indeed, just gently tighten up your line and ease the hook into the fish. Anything else will probably cause you to quickly part company with your quarry. Some anglers gently offset the hook point a little to improve the hook-up percentage. Whatever you do, don't horse the fish. Just gently apply pressure, especially from the side, and ease it to the net. Make it do its fighting in your net. Don't want to play it too long, however, as you will exhaust the fish - often fatally. Just use your common sense to achieve a balance. ~ SS

We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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