Tying Flies With Everyday Materials

Fly Fishing Trout

I started fly fishing when I was about twelve years old. The same year I started chasing our local brook trout with my $25 dollar 7 weight Eagle Claw rod, I got a basic fly tying kit and a book of beginner fly patterns for Christmas. We were enthusiastic bird hunters, so I had access to more game bird feathers than I could use in a lifetime of tying, and many of the other materials like a patch of elk hair were fairly inexpensive even for an unemployed boy to obtain. However, the reality of my youthful budget resulted in a creative-- one might even say scrounging -- approach to fly tying materials. When you can’t afford what flies are supposed to be made of, it opens your eyes to all of the things around you that a fly could be made of. My dad and I caught a lot of bass on crawdad flies with claws made of scrap leather. Most of my nymphs were tied without hackle in the hair’s ear style with “rub-a-dog” dubbing. The trout didn’t seem to care that the expensive feathers had been omitted.

I haven’t tied a fly with a pipe cleaner for decades; but even though I can now afford the materials I want, I still try to think outside of the fly shop for some of my materials. I became a more innovative and creative fly tier through figuring out how to make do with what was on hand or could be obtained for little or no money. So whether you are on a tight budget or you just get a kick out of creating something new, here are some of my favorite budget friendly fly fishing materials and where to find them.

Bead Chain:
The bead chain commonly used for key chains and light pulls is an excellent material for eyes for streamers and large nymphs. It is widely available in a wide variety of sizes and colors, but the most commonly found silver and gold chains that you likely have around your home are about the right size for a size 8 to 10 streamer. Simply snip two beads off from the chain with a pair of pliers and you’re ready to tie your eyes in place.

Where to find it: junk drawer, hardware store, living room ceiling fan

Cheap Fly Tying Materials
Easter Basket Filling:
When I first became aware of flashback style nymphs in the 90s, we were still doing Easter baskets in my family. One year, the plastic eggs and chocolates were nestled in narrow strips of semi-transparent pearlescent plastic “grass”. I filled a zip-lock with enough to keep me supplied for years. The material is already about the correct width for streamers and is easily trimmed for smaller flies. It holds up well to being mauled by multiple fish especially when a wire rib is wrapped over it and adds iridescence to minnow and nymph patterns. I have also seen similar material used for gift bows.

Where to find it: Your kid or other small relative’s Easter basket, Easter Egg hunts at your local public park

Dog Hair Flies

Rub-a-dog Dubbing:
I grew up with Chesapeake Bay retrievers. They shed a virtual blizzard of brown hair year round with especially violent storms in the spring. This was distressing to my mother, but there was a silver lining for the broke fly tier because Chessies have a double coat consisting of longer, coarse guard hairs and a soft, dense undercoat. This combination behaves very similarly to the dubbing used for hair’s ear nymphs and makes exceptional buggy flies. The only limitation is in the color as you are stuck with whatever color your dog happens to be. Don’t have a Chessie in your life? My buddy Pat, has been catching trophy brown trout with hair jigs tied with the hair of his Bernese mountain dog.

Where to find it: best if collected directly from the dog; under the fridge; seasonally, literally everywhere

Copper Wire

Reclaimed Copper Wire:
Most of us are surrounded by cords and cables for various electronic devices. They’re everywhere and they are filled with copper wire. If you are tying dozens of Copper Johns, you are probably going to end up buying spooled wire, but if your wire needs are more moderate you can eliminate some of the cables cluttering your life and have what you need for your next batch of flies. Win-win! Depending on what cable you are salvaging the wire may be too fine for many applications, but it is usually about right for use as ribbing on trout flies.

Where to find it: junk drawer, forgotten corners of the home

Bungee Cord:
Bungee or shock cord plays a role in most outdoor enthusiast’s lives. It keeps our tent poles together and keeps our stuff attached to our trailers and vehicle roofs. Bungee cord is also a great supply of rubber legs for fly tying. Smaller shock cord like that used for tent poles is made of fine rubber strands suitable for smaller flies whereas bungee cords have strands that are right for terrestrial patterns.
The color options are limited as the interior rubber strands are almost always white, but it is still well worth salvaging a section of a damaged bungee instead of throwing it away if you tie patterns with rubber legs.

Where to find it: roadsides, attached to trailers and tarps, inside the tent poles of your fly fishing buddies.

Taxidermist Scraps:
One of the best pieces of advice I received as a novice scrounger of fly tying materials was to visit a taxidermist and ask if they were willing to part with any scraps from mounts. I never did tie that fly with elephant hair antenna, but it was a kick to tie streamers with American bison and mountain goat hair, and I still haven’t run out of caribou that I use as a substitute for deer or elk hair more than a decade later. You might not be able to get exactly what you want for a specific fly recipe; but if a taxidermist is willing to part with their leftovers, you may have the chance to create fly patterns with materials that are unusual or difficult to obtain.

Where to find it: taxidermist shop

Thrift Shop Magic:
Thrift shop magic isn’t a specific material; it is an opportunistic and creative mindset. If you find yourself in a thrift shop or garage sale keep your eyes and mind open. There is a lot of appalling clothing that should be destroyed and repurposed to more noble ends (such as the deception of fish). These can be a great source of synthetic fur for streamers or rabbit fur for zonker strips or dubbing. Feather boas are often made of marriboo. Peacock feathers might feature in a tacky decoration.

Where to find it: thrift shops, garage sales, flea markets, pawn shops

These are a few of my favorite low-cost fly tying materials, but this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. Over the years I have read about tiers using porcupine quills or crochet yarn for the bodies of their flies or a piece of snickers wrapper for the wing casing on nymphs. No matter what your budget or skill level, thinking outside the fly shop for your materials can help make you a more creative tier, and there is a simple pleasure in catching fish on something unique that you have made – especially if you get asked what you’re fishing with. So keep your eyes open, and next time you sit at your vice try something new with the materials you already have around.

If you have a non-traditional, budget friendly fly tying material that you like to use, post a comment with what the material is and how you use it.

Post Authored by: Seth Ewing

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