The Art of Tying Flies: The Damsel Fly Nymph Pattern in Four Steps


(Photo by Courtney Tanner) Photo credit: Courtney Tanner

For my dad, there are only two types of people in the world: those who tie their own flies and those who aren’t real fishermen.

He, of course, falls into the admirable former group and has for the past 40 years. Tying flies is, for him, an art form, not something that can be bought at a corporate chain. He spends time studying fish: what they eat, what they don’t, and how they can be deceived to eat what they don’t. All of this goes into his creations — flies that look like bugs, flies that float on a swift current, and flies that appear to have tails swimming in the water.

“It’s how the flies look to the fish, not the fisherman,” he says. “I don’t tie flies to win a beauty contest.”

My dad is a 52-year-old scraggly-looking mountain man who wears long flannel shirts and an even longer beard. He began fishing before he was 10 and taught himself to tie his own flies at age 12. Since then, he’s gained a lot of technical expertise — something he doesn’t mind sharing with others in the hopes of creating a few more real fishermen with whom to share Utah’s lakes and streams.

Many people are scared away from tying flies because they believe it’s too difficult. But you don’t need a degree in mechanical astrophysics to create a fly that will catch fish. With flies, it’s often the simplest designs that work best.

My dad describes the damsel fly nymph pattern, a fly made to look like the bug in its juvenile phase, as “easy to tie, very effective.” I’ll take you through the four steps of tying this beginner-level fly, which you can use on just about any lake in Utah, particularly Strawberry Reservoir, to catch trout and bass. The whole process takes about 15 minutes and creates a finished product you can’t find in stores.

The best is that it’s a great winter activity. While it’s snowing outside, you can stay indoors preparing your tackle box for the sunnier days of summer fishing.


Step One: Baiting the Hook

The first thing you need to do is prepare your hook. Clamp one size-12 hook into a vise, making sure to cover the teeth on the tip so it doesn’t snag your materials as you work (remember: the point is to catch fish, not hook yourself). Once your thread is pulled through your bobbin, wrap it tightly around the hook, starting at the back. Lay down a second layer of thread until your line is back where you started and holds together.

Leave the line of thread attached to the spool until the end of the process, but trim the excess thread from your starting point. Think of fish as divas — they won’t go after a messy fly, so keep it neat.


Step Two: Bright-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed

Next, grab two pieces of the barred marabou for a tail. Pull out the fluffiest pieces you can find (the closer it resembles a baby bunny, the better). Place the thin tips of the feathers on the base of the hook, wrapping the thread around from the back to the front and back again to secure it. Allow about a thumbnail’s width of the fluff to hang over the back edge on the hook side. This part of the fly is the tail. Because the feathers are barred, or striped, the tail appears to flicker back and forth when underwater — a sort of optical illusion.

Grab two pieces of tinsel that are more than twice the length of the hook. Place the ends of the tinsel on top of the tail and wrap the thread forward around the body of the hook to secure. Bend the other half of the tinsel to meet the tail and move the thread back to the other end. My dad says this “little bit of extra flash” helps attract fish.


Step Three: All About that Base

Now we’re going to work on the body of the fly. For this part, you’ll need four full pieces of peacock herl. Place the thin feathers together with the ends not going beyond the eye of the hook. Wrap the bunch with thread until the bobbin is at the back of the hook. Connect a three-inch piece of the green wire here, making sure that the end of the wire is at the base of the hook (opposite the peacock feathers). Wrap the thread on the wire for about half a centimeter.

Grab only the thread and the feathers, wrapping them together, like chenille, to the front of the hook. This helps reinforce the peacock herl, which is extremely delicate. Stop just shy of the eye and clip off the excess feathers. If your fly looks like a cat’s hairball, you’re not doing it right. Make sure all of the materials lie flat and smooth.

Take the wire, which should still be at the back of the fly, and wrap it to the front in the opposite direction that you wound the feathers. Once you reach the eye, wrap it tightly in thread and cut off the extra wire. This strengthens the base of the fly, what my dad calls a “bulletproof body,” so the herl doesn’t fall apart when a fish bites it.


Step Four: Tying it All Together

The last step is to add the hackle, which mimics the bug’s legs. Secure one end of a hackle feather to the tip of the fly and wrap it around the eye three or four times with the fray coming off the base. Secure this with thread and cut off the loose feather. It should look like a 360-degree mohawk for your fly. Hold the hackle back and wrap the thread around the tip of the fly, not covering the eye, to make a small head.

Use the whip finisher to tie a knot by winding the thread around the tool a few times and pulling it out. Cut the excess thread (finally disuniting the bobbin and the fly) and put a dab of cement glue on the knot with your bodkin. Make sure not to put glue in the eye of the hook or you won’t be able to tie your line through it when you get to the lake.

After the glue has dried, your first hand-tied fly is completed. Take it to the lake and, as my dad says, “have a sense of pride to catch fish on your own creation.”

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Supplies You’ll Need:

-Small, sharp scissors

-Black thread and bobbin

-Metal vise


-Whip finisher

-Clear cement glue

-Size-12 hooks

-Peacock herl feathers (stripped from the bird’s tail)

-Olive barred hackle feathers (chicken)

-Olive barred marabou feathers (turkey or chicken)

-Thin green wire

-Dark green tinsel




Best Local Shops to Purchase Supplies:

Sportsman’s Warehouse

165 W. 7200 S.

Midvale, Utah


Fish Tech

6153 S. Highland Drive

Salt Lake City, Utah


Western Rivers Flyfisher

1071 E. 900 S.

Salt Lake City, Utah


Micky Finns

85 N. Main Street

Kaysville, Utah


Top Five Tips for Tying a Fly:

1. Always keep the thread attached to your bobbin. This ensures that your fly is tied with just one piece of thread instead of multiple loose ends.

2. Don’t be afraid to undo a layer if it doesn’t look right. Just move backward through the steps, unraveling one piece at a time.

3. Shop at local tackle shops for your supplies so the price of making your flies doesn’t exceed what it would cost to buy cheap corporate flies.

4. Fly tying is more of an impressionistic art than a realistic art. The finished fly should look similar to damsel nymph, but not identical.

5. Remember that your fly will look different in the water. You can test it out at home in a sink before packing it to a lake to make sure it swims right underwater.