Wet Fly Heads by Mike Schmidt

Articles, Fly Tying Tips, Step-by-Step Tutorials — By on February 8, 2010 1:55 pm

Through the years I’ve spent fly fishing and fly tying, I have seen a whole lot of flies. Having an art background I have found that I tend to look at all of them with a critical eye; noting each small hard fought victory at the vise as well as their imperfections. Over time I have found that, regardless of the style of fly, the care given to the head of the fly is indicative of the care used at each step along the way. I try to keep that in mind for every fly that comes out of my vise, but especially for the smooth and glossy lacquered head that is standard on one of my favorite styles of fly to tie: classic, winged wet flies. Over time, I have tried to come up with a repeatable process that will yield a consistently sized head for my flies, and the following is what I have come up with.

Please note that this example was tied all in black thread for visibility purposes. When tying the classic patterns the translucence of the wet floss requires that you use white thread from the start of the fly through step 5 so that the floss maintains it’s color rather than being dulled by the black underbody. After step five you would then do a three turn whip finish and start your black thread at the eye, tying back over the white to the shoulder of the fly. You would then finish the fly with the black thread.

STEP 1: Start your 70 denier UTC on the hook shank one eye width back from the hook eye; that is the point I call the ‘shoulder’ of the fly. The shoulder of the fly is the point at which all the materials on the front of the fly are tied in to the hook. The space between the shoulder can be used to bind down material butts, but the thread should always be returned to the shoulder before adding the next material. Starting each fly this way will give you a consistent head size as well as sufficient space so as not to crowd the eye of the hook.


STEP 2: With your thread flattened, by a counter clockwise spin of the bobbin, wrap to the back of the hook and tie in the tip, tail, and tinsel. Once the back of the fly is tied in return the thread back up to the shoulder. Remember that each turn around the hook shank reintroduces a quarter turn of twist in the thread, so you will have to flatten it back out several times throughout the process. The flatter the thread base, the easier it will be to form a smooth floss body.


STEP 3: Taking a single strand of floss, push it in to the thread following it up the far side of the shank and slide in to place on top of the shank. The weight of the bobbin will hold it in place as you pull the floss back until the cut end is as shown in the head area. Adding the material this way allows for specific placement and zero waste.


STEP 4: Tighten down on the initial thread wrap and then make three more tight thread wraps on top of each other in the head space. Next, proceed to form a smooth floss body for the fly by flattening the floss in the same manner as you did the thread, wrap the floss back to the tail tie-in point and then forward to the shoulder.


STEP 5: Each wrap of floss should overlap the previous wrap by one third to one half, and each wrap around the shank you can spin your fingers just a bit to account for the quarter turn of twist you are introducing back in to the floss. Once back at the shoulder, hold the floss tightly while unwrapping three wraps of thread, and then binding the floss back to the hook with a pair of wraps. By unwrapping the three thread wraps, you leave the floss holding itself in place until bound back down. This technique uses fewer wraps of thread and so causes less bulk at the head.


STEP 6: The tinsel is brought forward in five evenly spaced turns and then is bound down at the head, and the thread is returned to the shoulder.


STEP 7: The schlappen is held in place, tied down at the shoulder, and then a few extra wraps to hold it in place while the hackle butts are carefully trimmed as close to the hook eye as possible. Those butts are then bound down with flattened thread to hold them in place, and the shape of the head starts to take shape. I find it easiest to do this step with the hook inverted in my vise for easy access to the bottom of the hook shank.


STEP 8: With the wing carefully placed above the hook shank, I use two turns of thread to collapse the wing. Then, while maintaining thread pressure, check the placement of the wing and use an additional two to three wraps, in front of or directly on top of the initial two, to secure the wing in place.


STEP 9: With a firm hold on the wing to keep it from shifting I then use a very sharp pair of fine tipped scissors to clip the wing butts. I clip them on an angle following the bend of the hook eye to give a good base for the shape of the finished head.


STEP 10: Still with a firm grasp of the wing, and with the thread flattened completely, I take one wrap forward to just behind the eye, and then wrap slightly overlapping wraps back to the shoulder. This will form a fairly smooth base for the head while binding down the quill butts. Once at the shoulder I flatten the thread back out and make side-by-side wraps back to the eye to complete the thread base for the head.  Next, whip finish with just three turns laid side by side back towards the shoulder, so as to not form a bump at the tie off point.


STEP 11: Using Hard As Hull I place approximately a full drop on top of the head and then use the brush to bring it down the sides and underneath of the head. A fairly large amount is used at this step as it will soak in to the thread.


STEP 12: To finish the head I then carefully apply two or three more coats of Hard As Hull to achieve a smooth glossy finish. Be sure to allow sufficient time between coats for the lacquer to fully dry before starting the next coat.


By finishing my heads with only a clear lacquer I remove the possibility of a black lacquer soaking in to the wing, throat, body or hook eye of the fly. The alternative finish would be to make the first coat with Hard As Hull and then a few coats of a black lacquer. The most common black lacquers used are Pro-Lak (my choice if that finish is requested of me), Lagartun Fly Tying Lacquer, or Cellire.

When tying classic winged wet flies it is good to realize that you are not in a race. Carefully place each thread wrap and material as you wish it to be on the finished product. If you are unhappy at any step then that is the time to back the thread off and fix the issue. Have fun tying these little works of art, and remember…excellence is in the details!

Mike Schmidt is the owner/operator of Angler’s Choice Flies.

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Wet Fly Heads by Mike Schmidt, 9.4 out of 10 based on 8 ratings


  1. Jessica says:

    Wonderful tips, Mike! I will try this method the next time I’m at the vise.

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  2. upstate tj. says:

    nice article, thank you for sharing the technique as well as the names of the products.

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  3. Mark Hendricks says:

    Anyone who has seen Mike Schmidt tie classic wet flies knows how exactly much work he puts into each of them to make them look perfect. They are very, very well-tied.

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  4. Avril says:

    Hi Mike,
    I’m just starting to tie some classics and this article answered all my questions on how the fly is finished. Thanks for the details! ?? In the pictures it looks like the lacquer extends on to the hook. Is the hook coated as well? Thanks Mike.

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  5. David says:

    Fantastic description of the form. For any who aspire to this level of art, as I do, this will be a must.
    Thank you

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