Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

January 10th, 2005

Tie One On
By Dave Micus

Sharing a vise with your child can be a pretty good thing

One Christmas, when my boys were 7 and 9, I bought them their first fly rod outfits and, as an afterthought, put together a fly tying kit for each of them. I was a bit leery at first, thinking that they were a little too young to learn the necessary vocabulary to express the frustration when the wings on the size 20 PDM just won't comply. But they were eager to learn the sport, and I figured that baptism by total immersion was not such a bad idea.

We've tied quite a few flies in the years since, and I've been very impressed with how quickly they learned the skill. Sure we had some rough spots initially, and I often had to steer them away from the more elaborate patterns in the Orvis guide. But early on in their fly-fishing careers they experienced the satisfaction of catching fish on flies that they tied themselves, and it is still something that we share.

Following are a few pointers for anyone thinking of teaching their kids to tie. Forgive me if any of them fall into the 'duh' category; sometimes it's easy to miss the obvious until it's too late (like realizing it's best to tie over a non-carpeted floor when you're on your hands and knees, searching for a size 14 dry fly hook in a deep piled carpet).

TOOLS

If you've been tying for a while, you probably have enough tools to get your kids started. I had two small vises that came with fly tying kits that I received as Christmas gifts, and while my skills had outgrown both of these vises, they were fine for my kids (plus it kept them away from the Renzetti). If you don't have extra tools, and you're only teaching one child to tie, you can just let him/her use your tools. You'll be there the whole time so you can keep an eye on your precious vise, and you won't be tying yourself, so why not?

But if you've never learned to share, or you're teaching more than one child to tie and you don't have spare tools, you'll have to make a purchase. There's three ways to go here; cheap, moderate and expensive. All three have advantages.

CHEAP

You can buy cheap fly tying kits in the $35 range. It's almost blasphemous to suggest this, and you'll cringe when you see the quality (or lack of) of the tools and materials, but it's not as bad of an idea as you might think. Remember the $300 snowboard that's been in the closet for two years now, the $60 video game that's been played twice, and the various and sundry other things the little nipper had to have but have not been touched in years? Add it up and it would pay for that 8-foot-5-weight Garrison you dream of. Buying cheap tools is a way of hedging your bet. If you child does take to tying, the kit will have all of the tools he/she needs and also some materials. You can buy better tools as a birthday of Christmas present.

MODERATE

If you're afraid to be seen leaving the department store with the cheap set, you can still set your child up without spending a fortune by buying tools piece meal. The Thompson Pro Vise is a good beginner's vice and it sells for about $30. Buy a pair of cuticle scissors from the drug store for under $10, let him or her use your hackle pliers, bobbin, and materials, and the child is ready to go. Hide the bodkin.

Another option is to buy a decent fly tying kit. L.L. Bean, Orvis, and Cabellas sell kits that include everything a child would need to get started, including materials, and they really aren't all that expensive.

EXPENSIVE

If this is the way you want to go, my suggestion is to buy top of the line tools that are much better than you currently have. If your child doesn't take to tying, shrug your shoulders at your spouse and keep the tools for yourself.

MATERIALS

You won't face the same price v value dilemma with materials that you did with tools; the materials for many of the most productive flies are not very expensive. Elk hair, deer hair, chenille, marabou-all are great fly tying materials and all are very reasonably priced. There's also exotic materials, like peacock feathers, and weird things, like hare's masks, that kids will find fascinating (side note: I told my kids that all of these birds and animals died of old age to keep the moral dilemmas to a minimum). Buy a number 2 or 3 grade hackle, grizzly and brown, for starters. These will let your children tie quite a few patterns and will save you a few bucks. Save the number one grade Metz hackle purchases for their high school graduation presents.

I used dry fly and nymph hooks in the size 10 to 14 range, and streamer hooks in sizes 4 and 6. Barbless is a must-the same mechanics that allow you to easily release a hooked trout will also allow you to release a hooked finger. Control the hooks, only doling them out as necessary and keep a small magnet handy.

You can buy them tying thread (black, white, and brown) and mylar and tinsel, or you can just let them use yours. Avoid lead wire for obvious reasons, but do buy non-toxic wire to tie weighted flies.

FLIES

What flies should you tie? Fortunately, some of the best flies are also not very difficult to tie. We tied woolly buggers for streamers, woolly worms for wet flies, hare's ear and pheasant tail nymphs, and elk hair caddis and humpy dry flies. All of these are proven fish producers, and they are fairly easy for a child to tie.

Start with terrestrials, fun flies for children to tie because they really look like bugs that the kids are familiar with. Mine tied a bunch of deer hair ants and put them on the kitchen table to scare their mother, who, being the good sport she is, acted properly disgusted.

If you want to build their confidence, have them tie the black nose dace and mickey finn. The beauty of these flies belies their simplicity, and they will probably be the first flies your children show to the grandparents.

PATIENCE!

Most importantly, be patient. Don't even think of tying flies while your children do, at least not until they get pretty good at it. I would set each of my boys at opposite ends of the table and stand in-between, doling out material, offering advice, and holding bobbins out of the way while they wound hackle. Explain the use of the fly and the way it should be fished as well as the mechanics of tying. This will give your child a head start when he/she reaches the stream.

I tried to steer them toward traditional patterns like the ones above, but occasionally let them stray into the realm of their imaginations. This produced Flyzilla, a pattern appropriate for fly whaling, and Butthead-the name says it all.

When they had problems I quickly (and honestly) pointed out how I often have difficulty tying, and I worked them through it before they got frustrated. I also told them that by the time they were older they would be excellent fly tiers. "As good as Lefty Kreh?" my youngest would always ask. Lefty was his hero.

SHARING THE VICE

My kids grew to love fly tying, and I realized just how much when they brought their fly tying vices and materials to school for show and tell, rating their fly tying skills above Nintendo and Game Boy. And though, as teenagers, they now have a lot more on their minds than fly tying (read girls and cars), we still break out the vises and whip out a couple flies for a weekend fishing trip. It's an activity that we've enjoyed through the years.

You and your children will too. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.


Previous Dave Micus Columns

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