This article is written by Robert Verkerk.
It is great fun, being a beginner at tying classic Salmon flies. It is all about discovery and challenges. Your mind is like a blank page, eager to get filled with information and experience. You are enthusiastic, and full of energy just waiting to be put to use. Call this the Beginner Spirit, if you will. A teacher at a university in California recently told me that he finds that the student with the “beginner spirit” learns and grows the most.
If your goal is to become a skilled tier of classic Salmon flies, then it is of paramount importance to make sure that you receive information that is correct and at your level of skills. I realized that I was lucky to meet the right people when I started out. With my own starting point still fresh in mind, I have written down a few insights that might offer a perspective for other beginners to use as a reference guide.
What is required to tie classic Salmon flies?
Before starting to tie an actual fly, you should get a basic understanding of feather wing salmon fly proportions. What is the anatomy of a classic Salmon fly? Where does the tag start, and how long should the tail be? From proportions, you move on to materials, and once you have your first materials, you can start to practice technique, to actually tie your first fly.
In my opinion, the best choice is to invest a proper modern salmon fly tying manual. My first book was Michael Radencich’s Tying the Classic Salmon Fly. It has great photos and excellent step-by-step tutorials. Classic books are available for download online. To me, only Kelson’s and Pryce-Tannatt’s books were available, of which I found Pryce-Tannatt’s the one that was the easiest to interpret. As I progressed, and discovered more, I had a change of heart, and I now feel that Eric Taverner’s book on salmon flies is the best starting point for any beginner. It gives a generous overview of salmon fly dressing through the ages, and gives a brief introduction to the various styles and their differences. J.H. Hale’s book is an all out favourite, and his tying instructions are by far the easiest to prepare your for the tying of late Victorian classics.
Which ever direction you choose, take your time to read about the various techniques, and practice them a bit before you decide to try a complete fly from start to finish. I found that applying silk floss smoothly, was very difficult, as was palmering hackles and tying on toppings for tails. Practicing these techniques first, will give you an advantage. The more experience you have with materials, the more you can focus on proportions and the tying process as a whole.
What kind of materials do you need?
Classic Salmon flies are tied in a variety of sizes. When you start tying salmon flies, a medium sized hook (3/0) is a good size to start with. The 3/0 hook size is large enough to tie on and it is easy to get feathers that have the required size and fiber length for married wings. I prefer iron-eyed hooks where the eye is at a gently raised angle. Steeply bent eyes tend to get in the way when you mount your tippets or married wings.
The most important feathers for Salmon fly tying are Golden Pheasant crests. They appear an almost every Salmon pattern through the ages, and are used for both tails and toppings. Other materials that are essential, are oval and flat tinsel, dubbing, silkworm gut, “blind eye” Salmon irons and tippets, to name but a few. Try to get dyed Turkey, rather than Swan or Goose. It is a lot easier to work with, especially for beginners.
With your beginner’s enthusiasm, you will want a variety of materials, as fast as possible. The catalogue of classic Salmon flies is vast, and the number can be intimidating. There is a tendency in the beginning to buy too many materials and in time your will find that some of your choices might have not been the best. My advice: take one step at a time, and buy when you need something, not when you can. If possible, ask for advice, either from people you know, or from the shopkeeper. Learning to tie classic Salmon flies, is a game of patience and practice. Start simple, choose fly patterns that are not super complex, like Kelson’s* Sherbrook, or the Doctor series, so you can really benefit from the learning curve. I would recommend a list of maximum four patterns that start with beginning skills.
First up: a Black Ranger. A beautiful and influential classic, that will prepare you for the «married wing» flies. Simplify this pattern by removing the tail veiling, cheeks, horns and wool head. So your first ‘Ranger’ fly will have a tip/tag, tail, butt, ribbing, body hackle, floss body, throat, wing, crest and head. That is a lot of material to get on a hook! Then repeat the pattern several times before you tackle your second pattern.
The Sherbrook as per T.E. Pryce Tannatt is a great second fly. It incorporates tippets for the underwing, with a married wing over it. Again, leave out the tail veiling, cheeks and horns. The transition between the tag and the body floss on this particular fly is “butt-less”, making this fly challenging even for advanced tiers. Remember at all times, that thread control and thread discipline are key factors for smooth transitions and normal sized heads.
Then when ready, challenge yourself with a Green Highlander, or a Silver Doctor and keep going back and forth between these patterns, or variations of them, to practice and improve your skill.
Shopping list for the Black Ranger, Sherbrook, Green Highlander and Silver Doctor:
hooks, preferably between sizes 1/0 and 3/0
clear head cement/varnish
thick white tying thread for the underbody
thin black tying thread for material application
Small silver tinsel
Medium or large Oval tinsel
Flat silver tinsel
Black, light blue, light yellow, and dark yellow silk
Green Seal’s fur or substitute
Golden Pheasant crests, tippets, and tail
Black Ostrich herl
Black, green, yellow, and light blue hackle
Jungle Cock nails
Dark mottled Turkeytail
Turkey tail dyed green, yellow, and light blue
Gallina hackle (Guinea Fowl)
Peacock wing (substitute for Kori Bustard)
After you have managed to tie a few of these to your satisfaction, try to get some feedback from tiers that have more experience. Post some photographs of your work on a forum, or a Facebook group. You will find that many people are willing to contribute with tips and pointers. Also don’t hesitate to send personal messages or emails to tiers that inspire you. Most tiers are in this game to have fun, and out of passion. Keep in mind that clear photographs of your fly on a simple, uncluttered background will help people see the details of the fly and give you better feedback.
When you feel that you are up for a new challenge, you can choose to add the cheeks, horns and a tail veiling that you left out in the beginning. The Asian Kingfisher is a natural (un-dyed) substitute for the Blue Chatterer. Kingfisher skins are easy to find and very affordable. Natural feather substitutes for the Indian Crow can be more of a challenge to find. When I started out, I found the red Ibis substitutes from Veniard useful. They look excellent as a tail veiling on the Sherbrook and Black Ranger.
From there you can make your way to gradually more advanced flies. If you started with Kelson patterns, you might try some of the patterns from Pryce-Tannatt’s book next. They are slightly more complicated.
Good luck on your journey!
* Kelson’s patterns are often more simplified that Pryce-Tannatt’s, while Pryce-Tannatt’s explanation of technique is easier to understand or interpret. Therefore I recommend reading Pryce-Tannatt’s book, while tying Kelson’s patterns.