Welcome to Beginning Fly Tying

Part Fifteen

Gray Dun

An Introduction to Fly Tying:

The Basic Dry Fly

By Al Campbell

For all you dry fly purists, the time has come to fulfill your tying destiny. This week we begin tying dry flies. In fact, we'll tie a lot of dry flies over the next few weeks, but first we need to look at what it takes to make a dry fly float.

Some dry flies float because they are created from materials that float. CDC is a feather from the preen gland area of a duck that has natural floatation qualities. It floats by trapping air bubbles in the tiny fibers that extend from the tiny shafts of each feather fiber. If you put something on the CDC that mats down the little fibers, it won't capture air bubbles and it will sink.

Closed cell foam floats like a cork and is a great material for fly tying. The only real problem here is that it's so big, it's only useful in large flies like hoppers and crickets. If all you want to tie is hoppers, your search has ended. But, if you want to tie the rest of the patterns, you need to learn the other type of floatation.

Most dry flies float by the miracle of nature called surface tension. The surface of any body of water has a tension that will float a needle if it lands on the water lightly enough. This same tension forms a barrier the pupa and emerging nymphs of most aquatic insects must break though to "hatch" into adulthood.

Standard dry flies are light and have many surfaces that rest on the surface tension (also known as surface film) and support the weight of the fly. As long as the materials the fly is made of don't absorb water, the fly will usually float a long time on the surface tension of the water. If the fly tilts to the eye of the hook, is pulled through the surface tension by the current, or absorbs water, it will sink. That's why proper proportions and using the right technique to apply the hackle and tail are so important.

Properly tied, a dry fly will float forever as long as another force doesn't force it through the surface tension. So, let's take a look at the parts and proportions of standard dry flies.

First, there are certain parts of a dry fly you need to know. The tail is usually made from hackle fibers or stiff hair. It should be about the same length as the hook shank.

Depending on the type of dry fly, the body should be between 1/2 and 2/3 the length of the hook shank and tapered slightly to look like the taper of a real insect. To minimize water absorption, the body should be made from a fine, non-water-absorbing dubbing material. Angler's Choice Pure Silk dubbing is the nicest dubbing material I've used for dry flies. It's super fine, twists very smoothly around the thread, and won't absorb water.

The hackle should be stiff and free of web. Webbing in the hackle will absorb water and cause the fly to sink. As a general rule, the hackle barbules should be approximately 1 1/2 times the hook gape. You can measure this using a Griffin hackle gauge,

or by pulling a hackle feather up under the hook and looking at the length of the barbules.

The hackle barbules should generally curve toward the eye of the hook to prevent the fly from tipping on the hook eye.

There's a difference between quality hackle and cheap hackle. The bargain hackle feather on the left has longer barbules, less barbules, the barbules are softer, the feather is webby and shorter. It won't work very well as a dry fly hackle. The feather on the right is excellent hackle material with a high barbule count, short stiff barbules, less web, and it's longer.

Quality saddle hackles are a great choice for dry flies if you're tying a large quantity of the same size fly and you can find a saddle with hackles in that size range (usually size 10 to 18).

Since saddle hackles are longer, you can tie as many as four or five flies with one feather. You can see by the picture, it's a far better bargain to buy quality than economy. All three of these feathers will tie the same size fly. For the best economy, buy a quality neck with its full range of sizes or a quality saddle if you are tying a lot of flies in one size.

The wings on many flies are there to please the angler and serve no other purpose. In some cases, the wings serve to make the fly more visible to the angler. In a few cases, the wings are there to support the fly in the surface tension. We'll look at those flies later.

Tied properly, standard dry flies rest on the surface tension by balancing on the hackle and tail. The more hackle and tail that come into contact with the surface tension, the more support the fly has and the better it floats. The weight of the hook bend serves to keep the fly riding upright. You should be able to draw a line between the hackle tips and the tail and find the hook bend just touching the water's surface.

In the case of thorax flies (also considered standard), the fly rests on the wide stance of hackle that has been trimmed on the bottom to increase the amount of hackle in contact with the surface tension. The tail of thorax flies is usually tied in a V shape to increase the amount of tail fiber in contact with the surface tension and add balance to the fly. In this case, the hook point and bend penetrate the surface, but the increased contact with the surface tension that the hackle and tail gives the fly keeps it on top of the water.

Although thorax flies tend to look more natural to the fish, it's nice to have a variety of flies in your fly box. Since wings usually aren't necessary to fool a fish, the first fly we tie won't have wings. This will give us a chance to work on basic proportions for a while.

List of materials: Gray Dun

  • Hook: Standard dry fly; Mustad 94840, Tiemco 100, Eagle Claw L059, Daiichi 1180. Size 10 - 22.

  • Thread: 6/0 to 10/0 Gudebrod or equivalent, color to match body or black.

  • Body: Angler's Choice pure silk dubbing, mink under-fur, muskrat under-fur, or any other synthetic or natural fine dubbing. Color to match the body of the insect you want to imitate.

  • Hackle: Quality neck or saddle hackle, webby parts removed and 1/16" of the remaining stem stripped of barbules. Color to match natural insect or any pattern you want to tie. (In this case, a gray dun.)

    Tying steps:

  • 1. Start the thread and tie in a tail about the same length as the hook shank.

    A slight upward pressure on the tail fibers while tying them down will minimize the tendency for the fibers to turn around the hook.

  • 2. Wrap a dubbed body to approximately 1/3 of the hook shank back from the hook eye. Create a smooth tapered body.

  • 3. Tie in a prepared hackle, curvature (dull side) facing up or forward.

  • 4. Using a hackle pliers, wrap the hackle forward, dull side facing forward. Keep the wraps even. It doesn't take a killer grip to get the hackle to wrap tightly.

  • 5. When you get to just behind the hook eye, tie the hackle off and trim. If you tied any hackle barbules down over the eye, trim them. You can carefully singe any hackle fibers in the hook eye with a lighter and a hackle guard over the hook eye to prevent singeing the rest of the hackle.

  • 6. Build a smooth head, whip finish and cement.

  • Notice how the hackle barbules are curved slightly forward? This will help prevent the fly from tipping onto the hook eye. It also keeps the fly balanced between the hackle and tail.

    We'll play with wings next week, but for now practice tying standard dry flies to get the proportions right. Most beginners use too much dubbing and crowd the hook eye. Carefully practice proper proportions this week so your future dry flies will be based on sound tying techniques.

    See ya next week. ~ Al Campbell

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