Fly Tying Classes

Fly tying classes have been around for some time, but not for a long time. If you have more than a couple decades or half-a-lifetime or most of your life, of fly tying experience, then perhaps you’ve heard stories how fly tying used to be, back in the old days, somewhat of a closely guarded profession, secrets were kept, even though there were a few books written on the subject. Back in the early 1930’s Walt and Winnie Dette, famous Catskill fly tying husband and wife team, asked Ruben Cross, author of Tying American Trout Lures, 1936, to teach them how to tie flies. They offered Rube the tidy sum of $50 in return for lessons, which at that time, considering it was the Great Depression, was more than pocket change. Their request  was met with Rube’s terse reply, “Go to hell.” Undaunted, the Dette’s bought some of Rube’s flies, carefully took them apart, made notes, and taught themselves how to tie flies. The rest of that chapter is history.

Back in 1964 when I started tying flies, my dad showed my brother and I how to get started; a short lesson consisting of dad tying three flies, then giving all his tying tools and materials to Larry and I. We progressed for several years tying and trying, using the instructions in Ray Bergman’s Trout and the brief chapter titled, On Tying Flies, and How to Tie Flies, by E. C. Gregg, 1940. Fly tying lessons were slow to catch on in the late 1960’s and through the ’70’s. Nowadays, many fly shops have in-house demos and lessons and there is a plethora of fly tying videos on the market. And then there is the internet; forums, online how-to articles, and you tube videos of tying hundreds of fly patterns. There are many fly tying “arm-chair experts” out there, some qualified, some, well… Considering the wealth of available fly tying information, still, the best learning source is to take a class with an experienced, professional, accomplished fly tier who knows their work and also has an ability to teach and has appropriate organizational and instructional skills to lead a class.

DVD’s are great, but when I started teaching fly tying lessons twenty-eight years ago, I learned that even “professional” fly tying instructors are not always the best teachers. How did I learn this? I learned it over time from my students, and also from people that stopped by my tables at fly tying shows, where I have presented and demonstrated for over twenty years. Repeated questions on a number of tying topics convinced me that many fly tying instructors take too much for granted in their students, they assume knowledge and / or a level experience that may not be what they believe. My definition of a professional fly tier is one who has several notches in their gun belt. More on those “notches” in a few moments.

Whether one should take a fly tying class or not is a question that perhaps you have pondered. I started tying in 1964, and never actually took a fly tying class until I was working for Cathy and Barry Beck. Barry suggested I sit in on a class being taught by the late, great Jack Gartside.The next step for me was to serve as assistant instructor in a class taught by Barry Beck. Prior to these early 1990’s class sessions with the Beck’s, in 1985 I organized a new format for a beginner’s fly tying class for my local Trout Unlimited Chapter in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. I found out the chapter formerly conducted fly tying classes, but they had not been held after I joined in 1974. I served as class coordinator for these classes, and several chapter members who were also experienced fly tiers participated as teachers and assistants. Extra help can be a good thing and is generally beneficial, but oftentimes, there are some personal preferences and variations in individual fly tying habits that can be passed to the students by well-meaning assistants. Favorite methods of one person are not necessarily those of another. This can also be a good thing, I’m all for presenting multiple methods of skinning the cat, but there is also the possibility that the assistants can inadvertently contradict what the head instructor is teaching, and in the end, this can be confusing to the students. Good organization is key.

I heard a piece of fly tying class news over the past weekend at the International Fly Tying Symposium, which is not uncommon, but what I heard from a former student in a particular fly tying instructor’s recent class made me think that perhaps a bit of advice from a veteran fly tying instructor might be a good thing to pass along, especially if you or anyone you know is considering taking a fly tying class. The particular class report I heard was that in a three-hour session, the students did not even complete one fly. Aside from being a little bit dumbfounded, all I will say about that is: “Something’s wrong with this picture.” I was informed about this because by comparison, last winter I taught a streamer class to that same group, we completed six patterns in seven hours, including a break for lunch. We also dressed two Carrie Stevens streamer patterns using her unique Rangeley style material placements and her methods of streamer fly tying / wing assembly. I held that same class twice with the same rate of progress, twenty students in all. I know for a fact, based on my twenty-eight years of fly tying instruction experience, that I could easily finish two or three streamers with six to twelve students in three hours. So…if one is considering taking a fly tying class, here are my recommendations; referencing the aforementioned “notches” in a potential fly tying instructor’s gun belt:

1) Fly Tying Experience – the more the better. A qualified instructor has more than a few years, I’m talking decades of fly tying experience. If taking advanced classes, one ought not be able to count the potential tying instructor’s years of experience on the fingers of one hand. Intermediate tiers can teach others the basics of beginning and intermediate fly tying. Regardless of that, the best fly tying instructors have twenty, thirty, forty or more years of experience in fly tying no matter what the subject matter.

2) Fly Tying Teaching Experience – like number one, the more the better. A good instructor for teaching advanced fly tying patterns and methods should be one who has taught classes for at least ten years. That said, there are a few fly tiers who have excelled in a particular style of tying in a relatively short period of time. Pat Cohen of New York, a deer hair master with only about five years of tying experience, comes to mind. A good instructor can plan the class itinerary, stick to it, proceed at a comfortable pace, and get the lessons across without leaving any student lingering for lack of understanding the material and methods being presented. The instructor should also be skilled enough to plan for contingency variations, often tailoring specific tying procedures to the students needs or requests.

3) Teaching Ability – differs from teaching experience. Tenure does not necessarily translate to good instruction. A good fly tying instructor knows threads, deniers, and applications, and also should know, for example, the reason and explanation why left-handed fly tiers often have trouble with fraying threads. A good class instructor will be able to have his students learn in a relaxed atmosphere, and be able to answer their questions and help them trouble-shoot any problems they may be having. A good instructor can present each pattern and material usage and tying method and application in a manner that is easily understood by all the students, without skimming over or skipping significant details. This is more common that you might think; much of my personal teaching methods and instruction style is very detail-oriented; the result of fielding questions from fly tiers who have taken other classes and came away, shall we say, less than completely satisfied.

4) Versatility – a good fly tying instructor for advanced classes is one who has pretty much achieved a personal level of mastery of a particular group or groups of fly patterns and tying styles. Catskill Drys for example. If one ties and fishes only drys, then there’s not much point learning how to tie saltwater flies. But the more accomplished a fly tying instructor is, the better teacher they can be. Even though as an instructor I admit willingly to still being on the learning curve, as we all are. A good fly tying instructor knows wet flies, streamers, bucktails, dry flies, saltwater flies, and possibly hairwing salmon flies; these are basically bucktails and wet flies combined; a smidgin of bass bug information and maybe a little deer-hair spinning, and one or more sub-categories within each group. Full-dress salmon flies are a nice notch to have in one’s gun belt, but are not essential to being a good qualified fly tying instructor.

5) Knowledge and Ability – a good fly tying instructor knows how and why things work the way they do, and knows how to explain and teach methods that enable students to learn “how and why,” so the students can progress, learn, and make things work as they should.

6) References – last but not least, a good fly tying instructor will provide references of their past teaching experiences from a number of sources; venues, shops, and locations. References from former students and fly tying clubs should also be readily available. And it goes without saying, these should be good references.

Watch this blog for upcoming class schedules. I’ll be at a location in Massachusetts in February, and Maine in March. Possibly a few more locations. Details to be announced!

12 comments on “Fly Tying Classes

  1. Hi Don
    I consider myself an upper-intermediate tyer, and some years ago was “co-opted” into teaching a novice tying class at my FDG Branch.
    I “thought” I was doing a reasonable job, but your article has really made me considerhow good a job I do… Time to up my game me thinks!


    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Darrell;
      Thanks for your comment! As indicated in this article, plenty of tiers think they can teach, and they can, but some are not as qualified as they might like others to believe. That’s just how it is.
      On another note, I was over the hill at a local pub this evening for dinner. They had a drink special, 3 – 8 ounce drafts of your choice – for $5. One of the ones I tried was a cider – delicious, and smooth. S-m-o-o-t-h- to the point that it could be a little dangerous. 😉 I had to order a pint after my first “little” glass… :mrgreen:

      • flydressersguild says:

        Down in the South West of England, Cider drinking/testing 😉 is almost considered a hobby by some! LOL!

      • flydressersguild says:

        I have some friends in Somerset who we visited last year – and Saturday night started off my sampling six local ciders – what a way to start a weekend!!!!!!

  2. Don Bastian says:

    Hi Darrell;
    I think the name of what I drank was Angry Orchard; delicious, refreshing, fruity, as I said, it went down too easily. 😉

  3. Ray Henley says:

    I’ve been tying since 1958, when I had to take the train to NYC to buy materials from Jim Deren. After watching many tiers teach and try to teach I feel to do it right is a long earned gift to be shared by a few. In reading your blog I still say “so that’s how that’s done.” Thanks,
    Capt. Ray

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Ray;
      Thank you very much for your comment! Also thanks for sharing your story of obtaining fly tying materials from Jim Deren’s; I believe you meant the famous Angler’s Roost. Thanks for your enjoyment of my article!

  4. Matt G says:

    Don, well said. I can’t believe that in three hours of tying class not one fly was completed! What was the point of the class then? Best, Matt

  5. joel stansbury says:

    Don, great reading here. You are 100% right. A shame those people got cheated. I know I am not a gifted teacher, and I try to make sure students know this going in, and then I try to compensate for my teaching skills. I have found that smaller classes are much better for me, preferably no more than 5 people. If they want me to ‘teach’ more than that, I now insist on just myself ‘demo-tying’ a specific type of fly, and they observe and ask questions as I tie.
    Also, I tell them that if they really want to learn, they should take one of your classes, or get one of your DVD’s!!!!!!!!
    Cheers, Joel

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Joel;
      Thanks for your comment and observations! I didn’t want to be as harsh to say those students got ‘cheated’ but it’s true; I will say they sure didn’t get their money’s worth. Your ideas about a smaller class size are good, and, watching and taking notes while a good tier demo-ties is also a good plan. Thanks for your comment!

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