Tie like a chef

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I take recipes as suggestions, as helpful little pokes in the side. Some of the dinners I’ve served, however, have reflected my laxity in the most unflattering of ways. In my defense, those failed dishes were largely before I understood how recipes work, how ingredients operate individually and together. Knowing the rules and properties of materials you’re working with can improve development of new patterns as well as inform substitutions. Tiers often get hung-up on specific ingredients. However, knowing what will work in much the same way can work in your favor. Substituting butter for oil can save your cake. Some of the food, some of the flies, I love the most don’t have recipes. It’s a make-it-your-own deal and you can’t have the goods until you figure things out. Pinches and dashes make for memorable, if frustrating dishes—asking your matriarch for her pie recipe to find it written on an oily index card in “handfuls” and “skoshes.” Good cooks, good tiers, work with their mediums so often it’s rote. They know what an extra egg, or tie-in of bucktail for the purposes of this article, will do. I have a chef friend who says if you learn to sauté, you can sauté anything. Meaning, that if you get the gist of the thing—how to oil, salt, sweat and deglaze, perhaps, with a bit of red wine—well then, the world is your potato.

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Hooks

Maintain a diverse selection of hooks in both size and style. Like cooking with a garden out the back door, on-hand options allow innovation and creativity. Inspiration is somehow lost if you have to stop, make a list and run to your local fly shop. There are three hook-eye configurations to consider: upturned, downturned, and straight. For each pattern, there should be a logical reason a hook is picked. Review and re-think. Make it your own; make it better.

Some examples: the rear hook in articulated streamers should be straight eye, so as to not adversely affect movement of the streamer in the water. And when tying a fly to ride hook-point up, choosing a downturned eye will help you achieve this, as it is essentially a miniature 45-degree jig hook.

Using a downturned eye for nymphs, as many patterns do, often causes the fly to drift downstream upside down. With this in mind, the most important thing when tying new, or even just new to you patterns, is to sink test. Fill the kitchen sink with water and see how your new fly reacts.

Finally, use what you have confidence in. This is the recipe that turns out every time. The sweet spot: strength, yet an easy hook-set. This will vary for individual anglers and species.

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THREAD

There are three aspects of thread to consider: strength, size, and configuration. If you are lashing down bucktail for streamers or bass bugs, priority will be strength. But tie a pattern involving foam and size and configuration should take point—thick flat thread will be less likely to cut through the material. For sleek-bodied flies—dainty mayfly nymphs, say—thin and flat thread works best.

But there are no hard-and-fast rules. When tying small thread-bodied flies, using larger thread than the recipe lists can be more time efficient. Another consideration is what you plan to tie on top of the thread. On midge pupa, a round thread on curved hooks will help hold the wire ribbing in place.

Lastly, don’t forget to plan ahead. How much room will you have behind the hook eye? Leaving a reasonable about of space enables use of a thicker thread, which can be more durable in the long run.

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Materials

Natural and synthetic materials have unique strengths and weaknesses, and it’s important to identify these characteristics and understand how they will work for your recipe. A few things to consider: synthetic fibers are durable and won’t absorb as much water as natural fibers; therefore they will not encumber weight to your fly. However, they can have an unnaturally perfect look—too manicured, like over-plucked eyebrows, or cropped and blocky like a middle school gym teacher’s hair cut—and often lack the movement of natural materials.

Natural materials, on the other hand, provide more realistic tapers and are inherently lively and buggy. Furs and hides, however, are hydrophilic and will absorb water, adding weight to your fly, cast and presentation. Also, natural feathers such as peacock herl and palmered hackle can be more brittle than their synthetic counterparts, especially as the quills age.

Both types of materials offer varying degrees of rigidity: a stiffer synthetic fiber will work better for long streamer wings but will compromise movement, and a softer natural feather will provide more movement but will be prone to foul a hook. A combination is often a good solution. Match materials like pairing food and wine; know what you like and why.

Become a master of dubbing.  You have to know how to deal with cornstarch to make good gravy, and in the same way, know the consistency of materials—Antron or natural fibers, independently and mixed together. Fiber length and density will also affect the final product, and don’t forget the same ingredients can behave differently under contrasting conditions: the raw, the cooked, and the rotten.

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By Brennan Sang.