Updated: A Path To Tying Classic Salmon Flies

Learn how to create timeless full-dress salmon patterns that are the epitome of the fly dresser’s art.

[by Eric Austin]

IF YOU’VE THOUGHT ABOUT TYING FULL-DRESS SALMON FLIES, now is the time to do it. Anyone with good fundamental tying skills and great perseverance can make these patterns. They’re beautiful to behold and you’ll experience a sense of accomplishment when you at last succeed. So, jump in if you feel inclined, but don’t do it with both feet. Learning to dress these flies is a process, and you should learn to walk before you run.

If you are new to tying classic patterns, I strongly suggest that you first master making simple wet-fly wings before attempting the larger and more difficult married wings. Tiers used to learn to mount these wings as a matter of course, but these days, with the old wet flies less popular than they once were, this part of your education might be missing. It is essential that you master wet-fly wings if you want to take the most frustrating element of tying full-dress flies—the wings—out of the equation.

I’ve chosen the Leadwing Coachman to get you going for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a fly that still fishes great, especially in the East; the Leadwing Coachman does catch trout. Second, you can tie it quickly and inexpensively, allowing you to really focus on making the wings.

I want you to tie this fly in a very particular way, which I’ll explain as we get going. Dress the Leadwing Coachman several times; practice makes perfect. Then, move on to the other simple wet flies featured in this article. When you are really confident in your abilities to make these patterns, and others you find in books and online, you will be ready to tackle full-dress salmon flies.


Hook: Regular wet-fly hook, sizes 10 to 6.
Thread: Black Flat-waxed Nylon.
Tag: Flat gold tinsel.
Body: Peacock herl.
Throat: Brown wet-fly hackle.
Wing: Mallard wing quills.

Tying the Body
Making the Wing
Tips for Making Married Wings

Here is a photo of a left turkey slip (in the center) married to two narrower slips clipped from a left Amherst
pheasant tail feather (on the top and bottom). With full-dress salmon flies, you can mix and match the winging materials anyway you wish.

Use high-quality feathers containing no crossed or short fibers. Keep in mind that some feathers marry more easily than others. Bustard, turkey, and goose (wild and domestic), Amherst pheasant, and macaw feathers are favorites for making married wings; golden pheasant tail and peacock wing feathers don’t marry as securely. Also remember to use slips cut from the left side of the feather for making left married wings, and slips from the right side for right wings. (With wing quills, the fibers are shorter on one side of the feather. In this case you must use matched sets of feathers. Marry together slips clipped from right and left feathers.)

Several available books, past issues of this magazine, and many online resources offer additional information about crafting married wings. You can spend several evenings making wings. This advanced technique requires practice, but once you get the hang of it, any other type of fly tying will seem like child’s play.

The Challenge of Married Wings

Making married wings is the easiest thing in the world to do; don’t fear it. If you clip a thin slip from the left side of a turkey feather, and a slip from the left side of a bustard feather, and place their edges together starting at the tips, they will lock together to form one slip. This is Mother Nature’s way of keeping the fibers of a bird’s feather together; we simply use it to mix strips of different feathers together to create colorful and attractive wings for flies. After the individual slips cling together, gently stroking them between your fingers—from the base to the tips—locks them together.

Check out the accompanying photo of the individual married wing. The center of the wing is a piece of turkey tail and the two slips on the top and bottom are from an Amherst pheasant tail feather. This is one simple example of a married wing; there are literally thousands of variations and color combinations of married wings. With full-dress salmon flies, you can mix and match wing materials any way you wish; you are limited only by the length of the feather fibers, the curvature of the face of the feathers, and your imagination.

Always use slips clipped from high-quality feathers. There should be no crossed or short fibers in the slip. Keep in mind that some feathers marry more easily than others. Bustard, turkey, goose, Amherst pheasant, and macaw all marry well; golden pheasant tail and peacock wing feathers do not marry easily. And there is one more important thing you must remember: A slip cut from the left side of a feather will not marry to one cut from the right side.

Please don’t start your adventure tying fancy full-dress flies with a pattern like the Popham, Jock Scott, or even a Silver Doctor. A Silver Doctor has an underwing of golden pheasant tippet feathers, with slips of golden pheasant tied on the sides of that. The main wing is tented over all of those pieces, and finally, slips of bronze mallard are placed on the sides. That’s too much! A Silver Doctor is a difficult pattern for even an experienced tier.

For this article I’ve selected a fly from Francis Francis’s (yes, that’s really his name) book from the mid-1800’s, A Book on Angling. It’s called Snowie’s #2 for the Brora. The Brora is a river in Scotland, and a great fly dresser named “Snowie” originated this pattern.

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