Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

Efficiency in fly tying is a subject that comes up from time to time in books and magazine articles. The authors are often commercial tyers who want to share what they have learned in the course of their work. Speed is essential for the commercial tyer, for whom time literally is money. You can certainly get some excellent ideas from these sources. Perhaps, though, the hobbyist tyer should stop and ask, “How fast do I really need to go?”

One of the more common suggestions made in these discussions is that one should carry the scissors in one’s hand all the time rather than wasting time by constantly putting them down and picking them up again. I gave this idea what I considered a fair trial, and found it awkward. I have the habit of lining up my tools on my tying bench within easy reach of the vise and automatically put each one back in the same place after every use. When I need my scissors, my hand automatically goes to them. The fraction of a second lost in this process just doesn’t seem significant.

Commercial tyers utilize a variety of time-saving practices that make their operations more efficient and profitable. To me, though, much of it seems rather extreme and tedious for the hobbyist tyer. It’s a common practice among serious commercial tyers, for instance, to pluck and store separately by hook size all of the feathers from an entire dry fly cape. One professional tyer I knew plucked out a cape and not only sized but also counted the hackles. He could then determine how many flies he could get out of an average neck and calculate the cost of hackle per fly. He obviously got a big kick out of this project. I wouldn’t.

I’ve done just enough commercial tying to know that I don’t want to tie commercially. When I was still a teenager, my fly fishing mentor took me from our hometown of Point Pleasant, NJ on a drive north along the Garden State Parkway to visit a gentleman in the city of Fords. At the time this man was the one of the biggest wholesalers of flies and tying materials on the East Coast. He looked at my flies, and made an immediate offer to have me tie for him. He quickly added, “You know, you would have to tie a gross at a time of the same size and pattern.”

A vision of my possible future self, having spent years stooped over a tying vise peering through Coke-bottle eyeglasses, flashed through my head. As flattered as I was by the offer I knew this was not something I wanted to do—not then and probably not ever! Obviously not everyone feels this way, but for me commercial tying takes something that’s should be relaxing and fun and turns it into work and drudgery. I suppose that if I were desperate enough for funds I might have to reconsider. However, I can think of many other jobs I’d be willing to try first.

One concession I do make to efficiency is to try to tie in batches of at least half a dozen, more often a dozen, of the same pattern and size. Once the materials are out, why not tie enough flies to make it worthwhile? Also, I like my flies to be consistent in proportions. You can achieve this only by means of repetition. The fish, within reason, do not care about such things. However, I take pleasure in being precise and workmanlike with my tying—not because I have to but because I want to.

Another useful efficiency is to take a few minutes to prepare materials in advance for as many flies as I plan to tie at a sitting. If I’m tying a dozen size 8 Woolly Buggers, I’ll count out and pinch the barbs on a dozen of the correct hook. If I’m using a bead or cone, I’ll count them out and put them in a small dish with tweezers nearby to use for picking them up. Or I may mount the beads on all the hooks at once before I start tying. If I know I’ll need a three-inch piece of chenille for each fly, I’ll cut them all and put them in a pile on the bench. I’ll pre-select a dozen hackles. You get the idea. Once this advance preparation is done the rest of the tying process goes remarkably quickly.

I do put some effort into keeping my tying materials well-organized. It may sound strange, but my greatest motivation in this is that I’m a lazy person. I like things to be easy, and I hate it when I have trouble finding what I need. Everyone who ties flies has a collection of materials that may range in size from modest to outrageous. Obviously the more stuff you have the harder it is to keep track of it all.

In 50+ years of tying, including a long stretch as a fly shop employee, I’ve amassed a rather large quantity of tying material. I think I’ve got it fairly well under control. Yet finding what I want sometimes requires far too much searching among my “Teetering Tower of Shoe Boxes.” Maybe the item in question is in the box labeled “Misc. Synthetics.” Or is it in the “Tubes and Braid” box? Or is it in the basket full of items that I’ve pulled out for club tying programs and haven’t yet gotten around to returning to their proper place? Or did I use up my supply of that material and never remembered to replace it? These frustrating rounds of digging, poking and head-scratching make me want to pull my hair out!

Recently, I came up with a new strategy that is proving very helpful. It’s not going to solve the entire materials organization puzzle—nothing ever will. But it’s done away with one major source of frustration and wasted time.

I taught fly fishing for a number of years before I started teaching fly tying. The shop where I worked had a very experienced, highly-regarded and respected tying instructor of long tenure. No one would ever have dreamed of competing with him. When he could no longer continue teaching, however, it was clear that I would be his replacement. I had a lot to learn, and am still working on developing and refining my teaching skills.

In an effort to make preparation for my tying classes easier, and to help them run more smoothly, I decided to make up a separate bag of materials for each pattern I planned to teach during a session. After the class was over, I’d eventually return each item to its usual place in my materials storage area. I still take this approach for most patterns, since it’s unusual for me to repeat the same one often enough to justify doing it any other way.

Eventually, however, a light bulb went on over my head. Why not set up permanent pattern kits for my personal tying, for workhorse patterns I know I will tie in batches at fairly frequent intervals? I keep these kits in their own separate bin, so that I can quickly grab one and sit down and start tying. Digging and searching are largely eliminated!

I use gallon-size Slider bags for my pattern kits. These bags are large enough to handle almost any material I’ll be using. It’s of no particular consequence if I have to cut down long feathers like Pheasant tails or Peacock sticks to make them fit in the bag. While I’m at it, I high-grade these natural materials so that parts that aren’t perfect for that pattern are removed—to be discarded or stored elsewhere, as appropriate.

The slider-style closure is much better than a zipper closure for a bag that will be repeatedly opened and re-sealed. Because of my teaching, I have Pattern Sheets made up for many of the flies I tie. This consists of a brief introductory note, a recipe for the pattern, and abbreviated tying instructions. Into each Pattern Kit bag I’ll put a Pattern Sheet, a sample fly, and all of the materials needed to tie the pattern. If I need any of those materials for another purpose, I am likely to remember to check the Pattern Kit bin. There’s a good chance I’ll even remember which bag it’s in. And if I decide to purchase a duplicate of any material I’ve placed in a Pattern Kit, there’s no harm in having a back-up. I also like to include a packet of hooks and a bobbin with the correct thread, loaded and ready to go.

We can all benefit from giving some thought to the matter of efficiency in our tying, adopting any methods we find appealing and helpful to that end. I hope I’ve given you some good ideas here. Happy tying!
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