It's Knot Difficult
Article & Photography by Bill “Bugs” Logan

Conquering a hand-tied whip-finish is like learning to tie your shoes: It’s tough only until you get the hang of it.  

Do you remember struggling to learn to tie your shoelaces? We have all come such a long way since that grand moment of success and independence. My mom showed me how to do the deed while telling me that a rabbit, when chased around a tree, dives into its hole. Now I tie one fine bow, and sometimes even double my knots.

Mastering the mechanics of knots sometimes requires bold initiative; this is especially true when tying flies. For instance, tying a whip-finish knot without a whip-finishing tool is a bit of a feat, but I know it’s something you can do: all you need is two fingers! To start, place a blank hook in your vise, start a spool of thread on the shank, and you’ll be set for a short practice session. It won’t take long to master the moves, and like the very first knot you ever learned to tie, this one will set you free and serve you reliably for the rest of your life.

The idea of making a whip-finish is that one half of a loop is wrapped over the other half several times, and the remainder of the loop is then drawn under the wraps. Confused? Don’t worry: it’ll all make sense in the tying exercise. To be honest, I’ve never really understood why a whip-finish doesn’t come apart; it seems like it should, but if you tie a whip-finish correctly, it never does. Such mystery, such magic—but hey, a bit of either seems only fitting in anything to do with fly fishing.

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 1. To start, you’ll need a hand’s length of working thread extending between your bobbin and the hook. Lay your fore- and index fingers against the thread and begin wrapping a loop around them.2.  Shift the angle of your fingers upward to roughly 45 degrees as you complete the loop. Notice the blue half is now parallel to the hook and lying over the orange.

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3.  To set up for the first wrap, curl your right index finger just a little to keep the blue thread from sliding off as you roll your hand in the next step.4.  Rotate your forefinger above the index finger to close the loop. So far, so good.

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 5.  The toughest part of tying this knot is sliding the base of the loop up against the hook, but you must do so to succeed. Study this and the preceding photographs carefully. Do you see the difference? In this photo, I’ve pulled back on the bobbin while at the same time keeping my fingers spread to maintain an open loop. This action drew a small portion of the thread that was originally between the hook and the loop’s base into the loop itself. This, in turn, brought me in contact with the hook.6. Use your forefinger to loop the orange half of the thread over and down the backside of the hook. Your fingers should now be facing you below the hook. We’ve made our first wrap and are a breath away from having made a half-hitch. If you want to see how to complete a half-hitch, skip ahead to steps 12 to 14; if you wish to continue on with the main event, stay the course.

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7.  I’ve rolled my fingers in the loop so their tops are now facing us. Now I’m set to make the next wrap.8.  In this photo, I have spread my fingers and am ready to make the next wrap. Do you see that my fingers are in the same position as in the second photograph? The only difference is that I’m already on the hook and am preparing to lay the second orange wrap right beside the first. Each additional wrap is made in exactly the same fashion.

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9.  Once again, note the slight bend in the index finger to keep the thread from slipping off.10.  Use your forefinger to loop the thread over the top and down the backside of the hook.

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11.  I’ve completed the second wrap, and once again the bottom of my two fingers are facing us. I will continue using this sleight-of-hand maneuver to add more wraps to my whip-finish.12.  I’ve added several more wraps to our whip-finish and am ready to complete the knot. I will draw the knot tight by pulling the remaining thread in our loop under the wraps. Remove your forefinger from the loop to keep it from twisting and tangling. Notice that I’m pinching the loop between my thumb and index finger; I’ll maintain my grasp while pulling back the bobbin to reduce the size of the loop.

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 13. I’m now drawing back the bobbin to close the loop. At the last moment, I’ve rolled my index finger out of the loop before it became trapped.14. Continue pulling the bobbin to tighten the knot. This whip-finish, made entirely by hand, is neat and secure. All I have to do is clip the tag end of thread.

Knot to Be Overlooked
Whip-finishing by hand will give you enormous versatility and precision. This is especially welcome where tying off would otherwise be awkward or close to impossible. I can’t explain it well in words and pictures, but trust me: once you get the hang of this, you will discover that you can slide wraps in and around daunting obstacles or even back under the overhanging parachute hackles you used to dread.

Here are a few handy tips that will help tie a tight whip-finish using only your fingers:

• Apply wet cement to the first four to five centimeters of thread before tying a head knot. This will make the knot neat and permanent.

• With small flies, you can get away with a whip-finish of only three wraps, assuming they’re well cemented. I generally make a whip-finish using four to five wraps.

• If you’ve ever tied with foam, you know that compression builds up as you make additional thread wraps. Each additional wrap further cinches the material, and the first wraps can become slack. Where this situation might occur, tie off with two or three two-wrap whip-finishes. The completed thread head will be tight, and a drop of cement will secure it.

• Should you wish to lock down an already completed portion of an otherwise unfinished fly, throw on a half-hitch, which is really nothing more than a whip-finish using only one wrap. Folks tying very complicated patterns, such as full-dress salmon flies, regularly secure their work in stages using half-hitches. Whenever you feel a fly is one step away from coming undone, or you have a hard time get-
ting something like feather wings positioned and cinched down just right, making a half-hitch will allow you to lean back and relax for a moment, happy at having regained
the upper hand.

• Many experienced tiers finish their flies with a series of half-hitches rather than full-blown whip-finish knots. Single-wrap knots are very easy to control and place exactly, especially on peewee flies or when faced with cramped heads.

Notice that I’ve colored each side of the loop of thread in the following photos a different color; this is to encourage you see the loop as having two distinct halves. Although your fingers (and the loop) will be moving around a bit, the fundamental idea is that the orange half of the loop always wraps over the blue half. I should also note that my photos portray right-handed tying; if you’re a lefty, just switch hands!

Bill “Bugs” Logan is an amazing tier and artist who lives in New Jersey. His great articles regularly appear in our magazine.

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