Taper Before You Trim … The key to better baitfish patterns

By Drew Chicone – saltyflytying.com

Ever wonder how to tie those extra large, ultra-life-like baitfish flies that go for like $20 in your favorite fly shop or mega outdoor goods store?  

Like the vast majority of new tyers, I cut my teeth on freshwater flies first and after years of twisting feathers around microscopic hooks, I was ready to begin exploring saltwater flies. In this new “salty” world, bugs were replaced with crabs, shrimp, and baitfish patterns … and when I started, learning to create these majestic mangrove minnows was a well-kept secret among the guides and gurus.  There were quite a few how-to’s and step-by-step available out there, but none of them seemed to give me the full story.  I floundered around tying marginal baitfish patterns for several years, but I just couldn’t seem to make them look quite like store-bought baitfish flies.  My flies were always just a little too thick, or not quite the right shape, and the more I trimmed, the worse they looked! Every once in a while, I got lucky and created a real beauty, but tying another exact replica was next to impossible, and the dream of having a gigantic fly box stacked with matching minnow patterns was floating away fast.

The epiphany came one morning when I was spinning a bundle of synthetic in my fingers, and the tapered tips began to make the entire bunch longer and longer. The bundle of material was full in the middle with an even taper to the tips and resembled the shape of a small baitfish. I realized right then no matter how large of a baitfish fly I wanted to create; the technique was more about tapering than it was trimming! After cracking the code on how to build huge better baitfish, the next step is to measure the materials so you can create a number of uniform flies without breaking out the tape measure every time. The process I came up with utilizes the one tool I would always have with me…my hand.

When you are using a material without tips like yak hair or a synthetic like EP or SF Fiber, you can cut a section so you have two flat ends. The section will contain multiple fibers or hairs that are the same length.  Pulling a few hairs or fibers from the ends can make the section longer.  This will make the entire section longer and taper the ends.  At one end where the cut was made, pull 30-40 fibers or hairs out 1-2 inches.  Of those 30 hairs, you pulled away from the cut section, pull 20 of them out a little farther, and of those 20, pull ten out a little farther.  Now you have a taper at each end of the section and a longer section of materials.

When I tie large 5 to 6-inch baitfish patterns, I start with a 4 1/2″ – 5″ piece material. For me, this is the distance from my middle finger to the first line on my palm, but this measurement will be different for everyone.  The idea here is to measure the consecutively shorter pieces of the fly on your hand so all your flies look uniform in shape, size, and fullness.  The first piece will determine the length of the bait fish fly, so for smaller patterns, start with a shorter piece.  My second piece is slightly longer than my middle finger, and the third is the length of my index finger.

Taper each of the ends, adding 1 to 2″ in length.  This is the real key to creating natural-looking baitfish flies.  Tapering each section of material an inch or so at each will give your baitfish a much more natural shape and take the guesswork out of where to start trimming. You will still need to do some light trimming, but the basic tapered shape will be much easier to follow with your scissors, and over time you will produce better-looking baitfish.

Until next time … keep your wraps tight and your feathers straight.

Learn How To Create Your Own Saltwater Flies!

“Whether it’s camaraderie, creativity, art—or simply a device to catch more fish people are passionate about tying flies for a lot of different reasons. For me, it’s all those reasons and more. Tying is an important part of my daily routine. And teaching others the art of fly tying is one of my favorite activities.”

– Drew Chicone