Neil Travis - March 7, 2011

I’m not much inclined to do it anymore but there was a time when I never took a fly fishing trip without a fly tying kit. It started when JC and I were beginning to fish the Michigan’s Au Sable River back in the early 60’s. We were catching bugs and tying flies to match them and we needed to have the ability to tie flies on the spot. Thus began the evolution of my own portable fly tying box.

In the beginning all of my fly tying stuff would fit in a shoe box, but anyone that has ever tied flies knows exactly how long that lasted. I believe that my first portable fly tying box [boxes] consisted of a couple cigar boxes that held my vice, an assortment of Mustad hooks, thread, and some hackle and various small pieces of fur. I quickly outgrew the cigar boxes so I conscripted an old tackle box for my growing collection of fly tying stuff that I felt was essential to have with me whenever I traveled. In reality it was quite convenient. The trays provided a place for hooks, tying thread and other odds and ends, and the large space in the bottom contained my vice and a variety of capes and furs.

JC, never being content with the ordinary, built a wooden fly-tying box to carry his fly tying stuff. Frankly it was a little bit large to be a portable box – it took two of us to move it – but it did hold lots of stuff. JC would load it in his camping trailer at the beginning of the season and I don’t think he took it out until fall. When I felt that I needed to carry more stuff than my old tackle box would hold I built a wooden fly-tying box. It was not quite as extravagant as JC’s and it was portable. The box was about 30 inches long, 12 inches wide and 18 inches tall. The box was in two pieces – the bottom was 12 inches high and the removable top was 6 inches. Inside the bottom section were two shallow removable trays that held my selection of fly tying thread, tinsels, hooks, and miscellaneous fly tying tools. The bottom part of the box was reserved for my vice and a generous assortment of capes – both dry and wet. The removable top was used for storing more material including pieces of fur and hair. The two parts were kept together with latches like you find on a tool box, and it was finished off with a drawer pull for a handle. I could, and did, carry it all over the place from Michigan to Montana, I used it when I taught fly tying classes, and later I used it for storing extra fly fishing material. That old box carried more than fly tying material because it contains a life-time of memoires, and today it is in retirement out in the garage in Montana.

Ultimately I reduced the stuff that I carried in my portable fly-tying box down to a plastic box that I found in a sewing shop. Designed to hold sewing stuff it measures 13½ inches long, 8 inches wide and 8 inches tall. It has two removable plastic trays that are idea for holding all the small tools, hook boxes, and spools of tying thread. [The top tray has spindles for holding spools of thread] The bottom is large enough for my vice, several capes, furs and hair. To make certain that it doesn’t pop open when I carry it I ran a cord around it. The original box is now over 40 years old and I still use it when I feel the need to carry a portable fly-tying kit.

The idea of carrying a portable fly tying kit allows you to tie up a new pattern or tie up some proven patterns that you suddenly realize that are in short supply in your box. What you carry in your personal portable kit is dependent upon your angling situation, but each box needs to contain certain items. Unless you tie flies by holding the hook in your fingers you need a vise. If it is a clamp model make certain that the clamp opens wide enough to allow you to attach the vise to a variety of table tops. It’s really discouraging to try to attach your vice to the top of a table and discover that your vice clamp will not open wide enough to allow you to clamp it to the table top. In addition to the vice you will likely need a bobbin, hackle pliers, bodkin, and perhaps a whip finishing tool. Except for the whip finisher, I do this task by hand; I consider these tools to be essential. You might include a few other tools like a hair stacker, but I think key is not to overwhelm your portable kit with too much stuff.

Once you have gathered the necessary tools you now need to determine what type of flies you are likely to need to tie and load up the necessary material in your box. You will need hooks and fortunately, unless you are tying really large salt water patterns, hooks don’t take up much room so you can carry a good assortment without overwhelming the limited space in your portable kit. Since 90%+ of my personal fly fishing is directed toward catching trout I carry an assortment of dry fly and nymph hooks plus a few long-shanked streamer hooks for tying buggers and similar patterns. Each angler needs to determine what hooks they will need for the type of fishing that they doing.

The harder decision is what type of materials you need to carry in your portable kit. This is where time and experience are of great value. My experience tells me, based on where I will be fishing, what materials I need to carry when I pack up for a trip. For me some things are always in my kit: peacock herl, deer hair, goose quills, several swatches of various furs, and grizzly and dun hackle. These basic materials are supplemented with other materials that I think I will need depending on where I am planning to fish. You will need to do the same thing.

Years ago I was fishing on Henry’s Lake in Idaho and I saw the ultimate “portable fly tying kit.” If you are familiar with this fishery you know that it has the ability to produce some truly impressive trout. Overtime Henry’s Lake has accumulated a group of fanatics that spend most of the season fishing the lake nearly every day. Many of the patterns that the regulars used were some type of woolly worm pattern. In addition, since Henry’s Lake has a tremendous population of damsel flies, there was a profusion of damsel naiad patterns. Since the variety of possible color combinations with woolly worms is nearly endless one regular had converted a van into a portable fly tying kit. Actually it was a portable fly tying room. He had covered the interior walls of the van with bins filled with every shade of chenille possible and bins of various colored hackle. There were bins for marabou, hairs, calf tails, and any other type of material that you might use when tying a woolly worm type pattern. He had spools of lead wire, boxes and boxes of hooks, in short everything that you would need to tie anything that the mind of a demented Henry’s Lake angler could conceive. The van was equipped with a tying table, vice, tying tools, lights and comfortable chair. Now that was a complete portable fly tying kit!

Making a portable fly tying a kit out of a van may be a bit extreme but a good portable fly tying kit may be invaluable. If you choose your material and tools carefully you can put together a very an effective portable fly tying in a truly portable form.

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