I didn't start tying fishing flies to sell them. One day I was fishing, and catching fish. Others around me weren’t. Now I sell them at flea markets, to individuals, and in our secondhand store.
I had never really been too interested in tying fishing flies until I
spent a summer in Alaska. I had always been in areas of the country in
which the flies that were used were itsy bitsy little flies that were
supposed to resemble actual bugs. Some of these were supposed to be
mosquitoes, and were the size of real mosquitoes. I knew I didn’t have
the patience to even try to make such small creations.
While I was in Alaska, I was introduced to flies that were big, bordering on huge. These were used mainly for the five species of salmon common up there. With salmon ranging from a couple of pounds to over 100 pounds, a person needs a sizable hook. Some people even use flies for halibut, fish that can get upwards of 350 pounds. I’d seen these flies around and even bought and used some, but never really thought about tying.
We were spending another winter in Alaska, in our travel trailer. I had
time for an indoor project. I saw an ad in the paper for a fly tying
class, sponsored by Bay Traders True Value. The class was within my
budget -- it was free. It was for two hours a night, for four nights.
They provided everything. It sounded fun to me.
Bay Traders is a hardware store with a huge selection of fishing gear and all sorts of fly tying supplies. They sponsor free fly tying classes, hoping to get you hooked on tying, so you'll buy tying supplies at their store.
We learned basic tying methods and tied about 10 different flies during the class. There were many things we didn’t learn, but we were set free on the last night with the knowledge of some of the fundamentals.
I didn’t have a fly vise at that time, and although I enjoyed the class I
didn’t pursue tying for another year or two. During this time, I had
acquired a box of used equipment and supplies from a garage sale. In the
box was a vise, a couple bobbins, a hair stacker, a whip finisher,
three or four scissors, thread, feathers, marabou, chenille, hackle,
dubbing, wax, a dubbing tool, and other supplies. I got all this and
more for $10.00. With other things that I had been accumulating, I had
more than enough to get started.
When I got back into tying, I just tied what I wanted to use. I found that I had more flies than I could use, so I tied what I thought was fun. I would tie big, pretty flies; big ugly flies; and flies that I could create with the supplies I had on hand.
I started to give a few away to people I knew, and people I met while I was fishing. They wanted to know what I was using. I showed them the fly I was using. They wanted to know where they could buy them. I told them I had tied them myself, and I would give them one. They said they would buy them. I sold them all they wanted. That’s how I started selling hand tied flies.
I still tie mostly what I want or what sells well. I don’t usually take custom orders. But, sometimes, I tie what a particular person wants. I’ll tie what someone wants if I have time, and if they get a hold of me when I have them, we’re both in luck.
I do buy specific materials now, for certain popular flies, but I try to use common materials that aren’t too expensive. There are numerous things, like foil candy wrappers, gift-wrapping twine, Christmas tinsel, and parts of holiday decorations that work well as fly tying materials. They available inexpensively, usually for the effort of picking them up before they get thrown away. I do buy fly tying thread and special head cement.
My hooks are mostly common octopus hooks, though I use a special Mustad 36717 for Russian River flies. The Russian River in Alaska has special restrictions on the hooks you can use, and we sell a lot of flies in that area.
A good way to get started is to take a class to learn the basics. Sporting goods stores or fly shops sometimes have classes for little or no fees, to encourage new tiers who will in turn buy materials from their stores. Some communities have fishing clubs that have seminars. Some classes have a substantial fee. You could also seek out a fly tier who would be willing to teach you and help you along.
Fly tying can be an expensive hobby, money saving endeavor, or a profitable enterprise. You can get started with an all-inclusive kit, which will have everything you need and a lot of things you don’t. Or, you can just buy what you need to start. To start you will need a vise. Vice prices vary greatly ranging from $10.00 to over $400.00. You'll need a bobbin, again, there's a range of prices, from $2.50 to $35.00. You also need a scissor, and if you don't have one, that's another $1.00 up to $75.00. And finally, you'll need hooks and materials. You can add equipment and supplies as you need them. To save money, look for a used vice and other supplies at garage sales or secondhand stores.
Everything I need is in one tackle box. I can store it under the bed in
the motorhome. In our travel trailer, it easily fits under a dinette
seat. That makes it an excellent business to do while RVing.
When I'm tying flies, I don't need much room to work. Coleen and I can both work at the RV table at the same time. She'll be on the computer, and there's still room for me to set up my vice and crank out some flies. The finished product doesn't take up much room, either.
I can do it when I have time. There are years that I have tied 600 or more flies, and years that I’ve tied less than 20. It’s fun to do. It makes me some money. It works well with the RV lifestyle. Making and selling hand tied flies is a good RV business.
If you have any interest in tying fishing flies, give it a try. You may come up with an award winning fly or one that catches a trophy fish.
Coleen's comments: My husband, Bob Nilles, wrote this article about how he got started making and selling hand tied flies. Besides making them and selling them, he likes to be out using them. He has successfully fished his flies from Alaska to the southern tip of Texas. You'll also want to read the book review he wrote about the fly tying reference picture book Fly Patterns of Alaska -- Alaska Fly Fishers.