Classic Salmon Fly Tying

Written by Robert Verkerk, 2013. Revised in 2021. Original title Beginners Guide.

A teacher at a university in California recently told me that he finds that the student with what he calls “beginner spirit” learns and grows the most. After running this website and its forum for over 9 years now, I think this phenomenon applies to most of us. You see, unlike university, everybody that joins us is actually eager to learn and driven by enthusiasm. Not in the least because it simply is great fun, being a beginner at tying classic Salmon flies. The first few years are all all about discovery and challenges, and if you put in the work, your efforts are at rapidly rewarded with results.

Most of us didn’t know classic Salmon flies existed until we accidentally stumbled upon beautiful feather creations when we were searching for something else. When I saw classics for the first time, I knew that what I had initially been searching for, had suddenly lost all relevance to me. Without any knowledge or experience, I started on a journey that soon turned into a quest. A quest for truth and facts for the most part, because it turned out that classic salmon flies are subject to very specific rules. Rules that aren’t represented in every fly that comes up from an internet search.

Starting out as a beginner, it is important to realise that it takes time to understand and learn the various techniques and qualifications that allow you to recreate what we like to call ‘functional art’. Just like any other item with a purpose, there are basic principles that apply. Weight, proportions, volume, relativity between colours and natural materials, length, height, everything is subject to a minimum and a maximum, and in between these extremes, is the space where you, yourself, can find your preferences.

This article is for those of you that are about to engage on this mission.

What is a Classic Salmon Fly?

A classic salmon fly is just that. It is a fishing lure that had evolved over hundreds of years before ultimately synthetic materials took over. More than 300 years of experience and development came to a climax in the late Victorian era, when commercialism and marketing had just been discovered. Selling a fly became all about aesthetics and appeal to eye of the fisherman. Where wings hadn’t been the main feature of a fly just one generation prior, clever people like Kelson and Hale made winging techniques the new trend, and fly dressing was suddenly more complex than ever before.

The flies of this era are well documented in books, accompanied by beautiful illustrations. For many years in modern times, it was assumed to be impossible to dress flies that would even come close to those illustrations. But, after 9 years of debate, exploring techniques and practise, we now have several members in the group that can actually dress flies to resemble even the Kelson plates.

Functional Art or Artistic Renditions.

American Feather Art has little to do with Classic Salmon Fly Tying. I used to love the work of Radencich, and you can’t say anything bad about the man, except that he doesn’t teach you how to dress classic Salmon flies. The first book on fly dressing that I ever purchased was called “A Modern Approach to Tying The Classic Salmon Fly”. A modern approach, teaching how to use scissors to make it look like you have pair of tippets in the underwing, while in reality, what you see is all there is. He also promotes the use of glue, and the way he wings his flies is what Hale explains is the method for people that can’t manage the proper way to do it.

This website deals with historically verified facts only. Nothing you will read or learn here, is invented in modern times. You will learn that you don’t need glue for extra strength. In fact, using only wax and a few very clever principles, will allow you to dress a solid fly that withstands the toughest of conditions.

After you’ve become acquainted with the various techniques, you can work to perfect your skills, and ultimately join us in creating functional art, trying to achieve aesthetic beauty and artistic quality in flies that are dressed for the river.

What to Read.

If you want to invest in books, I recommend starting with Eric Taverner’s book on Salmon flies for an overall perspective. It gives a generous overview of salmon fly dressing through the ages, and gives a brief introduction to the various styles and their differences. As a tying manual, J.H. Hale’s book is an all out favourite, and his tying instructions are by far the easiest to prepare you for tying late Victorian classics.

Where to Start.

Before starting to tie an actual fly, you should get a basic understanding of traditional Salmon fly proportions. What is the anatomy of a classic Salmon fly? Where does the tag start, and how long should the tail be?

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 at first, 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.

Switch between fully dressed flies and Spey’s or Dee’s or even simple strip winged flies. Trying to set the wings on these is a different game entirely, and it will allow you to get more acquainted with winging material properties. Remember also, that birds fly with feathers, so there is no reason to assume that they are fragile.

What Kind of Materials Do You Need?

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 or Rover series, so you can really benefit from a learning curve. I would recommend a list of maximum four patterns that start with beginning skills.

Classic Salmon flies are tied in a variety of sizes. When you start dressing 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. Swan is preferred, but hard to obtain. Dyed Turkey is a tad stiffer, while Goose is a tad softer. Goose is tougher to work with, Turkey is the easiest.

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
– Black and clear head cement/varnish
– Dubbing wax
– Tying wax
– 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 Cock hackles
– Jungle Cock nails
– Dark mottled Turkey tail
– Turkey tail dyed green, yellow, and light blue
– Gallina hackle (Speckled feathers from the hen Guinea Fowl)
– Mallard flank
– Peacock wing (substitute for Kori Bustard)
– Scarlet wool

Share Your Work

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 our forum. You will find that many people are willing to contribute with tips and pointers, allowing you to develop your skils faster. 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 veils 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 veil 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!