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Where and how to find bargains on fly tying materials

Sandra Cheung

Frugal flies

When it comes to tying materials, it pays to fish for deals

A great untruthhas been told to generations of fly anglers. And even though this deception arose from the best of intentions—to encourage people to take up fly tying—it’s time to come clean: tying your own flies won’t save you money.

Well, make that probably won’t. If you only tie a handful of patterns that you use (and lose) a lot, such as Woolly Buggers or Clouser Deep Minnows, you can purchase just a few materials and fabricate flies for a quarter of their retail price. But that’s not how it usually goes. Once you get into tying flies, you tend to accumulate stuff, often shelling out for materials that will take years to use up. So while tying your own flies is immensely rewarding on many levels, breaking even is a more realistic monetary goal than saving a few bucks.

As always, fly-fishing shops remain an excellent source of information and advice, and the only place to get quality fly-tying tools and premium materials. But if you’re thrifty and enjoy scavenging and improvising, you can break even on your materials a little faster by seeking out bargains from non-traditional sources.

Dollar stores

If you open your mind to the possibilities, almost every aisle of a dollar store offers materials at rock-bottom prices. In the crafting section, I’ve bought bags of marabou, pheasant, peacock and saddle feathers. It’s rarely top quality, but it’s good enough for many streamers and wet flies. Even if only half the feathers in a package are usable, you’re still ahead. I’ve also found glass beads for nymphs, googly eyes for big poppers and cheap yarn that would be itchy in a sweater but works great for wet-fly bodies.

From the hardware aisle, I’ve bought fine wire for ribbing and cheap bungee cords—strip ’em apart and you’ve got thin rubber strands for wiggly legs. I also use dollar-store nail polish for head cement and for painting eyes on large flies.

Arts and craft stores

Years ago, I took my daughter shopping for art supplies at our local craft superstore and came home with bags of goodies for myself, as well. Craft shops stock a wide variety of feathers, though you have to watch the prices, especially compared to dollar stores. However, you can often find deals on beads, tinsel and wire, as well as chenille, embroidery thread (for bodies, not tying) and fuzzy or sparkly yarns that make very interesting streamer and nymph bodies.

Arts and crafts stores are also where I get closed-cell foam sheets, cylinders and chunks that I use in my bass bugs. And I’ve had good luck with brightly coloured synthetic craft fur as a body dubbing, especially on saltwater flats flies.

Thrift stores

Finding materials from the likes of Goodwill or Salvation Army Thrift Stores can be hit-and-miss, but over the years I’ve nabbed several fur and feather items that I then cannibalized for materials. Among my finds? A bizarre piece of ladies’ headgear festooned with nine peacock eye feathers, and a rabbit scarf that I’ve used to dub bodies on hundreds of nymphs.

Tying materials aside, I tie my flies on a TV table purchased from Value Village. And a thrift store is probably your best bet to find a battered tweed hat or jacket, should your fishing fashion tastes run to the traditional.

Bridal boutiques

It can be a little intimidating to venture into one of these dens of estrogen, but in my experience the clerks will fall all over themselves to help once you explain that you’re looking for materials to make homemade fishing lures. Just a guess, but I suspect fly tiers are easier customers to deal with than bridezillas.

At any rate, bridal shops are an amazing source of large, beautifully dyed saddle feathers. Also, when it comes to schlappen—the longest, softest, webbiest rooster feathers—the best I’ve ever found for my giant pike flies were in a bridal boutique. They cost about the same as the stuff packaged for fly tiers, but were of far better quality.

There are a few materials for which it doesn’t pay to scrimp, including tying thread, dry-fly feathers and your single-most important component: the hook. But when it comes to many other materials, you’re limited only by your imagination—and your willingness to be seen buying a ladies’ fur hat.

Scott Gardner

Scott Gardner

Outdoor Canada associate editor and fly-fishing columnist Scott Gardner is happiest when he's on the water fishing (especially from his kayak) or just surrounded by trees, preferably out of cell phone range. Since joining Outdoor Canada in 2010, Scott has won nine National Communication Awards from the Outdoor Writers of Canada for his adventure travel and fly fishing articles, and been nominated for five National Magazine Awards.

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