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Welcome to the world of "Realistic Fly Tying" by Bill Blackstone

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Creative Realism Realistic Fly Tying

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Bait Fish - Step-by-Step Fly Tying Process of Bill Blackstone


My newest endeavor in realistic fly tying is in the saltwater area. I guess I work differently than other tyers, but when I am tying I try to evaluate my finished product with the thought, " is this the best I could do "? That's probably why I gravitated towards realism. I keep thinking, I can do better, and realistic tying certainly stimulates that thought.

I live near the coast. It is the only active and easy access to fishing saltwater. You have a choice of surf or offshore. One venue I really enjoy is fishing offshore for Bonito in the harbor area. You can rent a boat and never have to go out into the outer ocean. There are bait barges in the inner bays that sell live bait. These holding areas attract Bonito that cruise the bay waiting for escapees or as the workers are tending the holding areas they are continually culling out the dead or wounded baitfish. Fly fishing around these barges can really be a thrill, and you are always assured of the catch. I started out using just ordinary streamer type patterns, but as time went on, my thoughts gave rise to the idea that maybe I could increase my luck by improving my patterns. Well, I'm glad to say it did, and I did, and it gave me a chance to challenge my tying skills and maybe come up with some new patterns. And here is the result.

It started with Sparse Buck tail type Leftey's Deceivers and from there a more fully dressed pattern, then I added eyes. But then the juices started flowing, to an epoxy body, to one with pectoral fins of marabou for movement, to marabou tales. As the patterns grew more involved, the results increased the catches and in fish size. See photo #1. But this was only the beginning. See photo #2 and #3. My epoxy efforts, although productive, still fell short of my expectations with respect to the greater need for more realism. I gave some epoxy patterns to a friend who fished the Australian Barrier Reef who told me they could've sold them for $50 each, as they were hooked up continuously. But without steel leaders they lost them all. Even their guides were impressed. So my next trial and error process concentrated on a closer likeness. See photo #5.  It's a process that's pretty demanding, and takes far too much time, but for me, loaded with fun and challenges. I would like to share these efforts with you. I use wood for my bodies. Bass Wood is a softwood and makes for faster working. I sketch the shape I want and jigsaw or bandsaw it into a rough shape. See photo #6 .  With an X-Acto knife or a Dremel drum sander, I finish the shape. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes for each shape. I size the body at about 2 1/2 inches. See photo #7.  Next I drill a hole from the mouth through the body and out through the anus area of the fish using a 1/16 inch drill. This is for the leader to pass through. See photo #8. Next I place a number six wire shape through the drilled hole to hold the body and prime the wood using a dark gray primer. I use Rust-Oleum Self Etching Quick Dry Primer. The wire shape is then clamped it the vice to dry. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes to set enough to handle. See photo #9. Next I take my netting material, stretch it over the top of the fish body and spray it with Krylon Metallic Silver spray paint. It dries in five or less minutes. I'll explain the netting and spray technique I use, but you will have to experiment with this on your own to get your best results.

The hardest part for me was this section. At first, I must have re-primed the body, or started over at least 10 times. I really struggled to get the effect I wanted. Make yourself a little makeshift spray paint booth. I made mine out of a cardboard box. Get it big enough to capture most of your overspray as this can get everywhere but where you want to go, and unhappy wives are even a greater frustration than how your tying efforts are going. See photo #10. There are always some failures involved in this so take a day and experiment with the procedure. If it's not up to your expectations, re-prime it, and start again. Just keep that it. You will be surprised at your results. For netting I went to the fabric store and bought netting available in 6 inch rolls, in a small mesh. This material is made of some type of an open monofilament which allows paint to go through the net and mask-off the paint spray in one operation. See photo #11. The net pattern is a diamond shape like window screening. If you stretch it slightly it makes the pattern look more like fish scales. When I spray I hold the netting by hand tightly over the fish body and spray my hand with the silver. I use a rubber glove to keep my hand from the paint. Since the paint dries quickly I hold that shape in my hand for about 1 1/2 minutes until the paint has set before removing the netting. Look at the photo again, you can see the effect it gives. See photo #12. You will discover quickly it's how you hold the fish body shape as to how satisfied you are with the results, and practice is all it takes. Basically you want a silver underbody with a gray back and that hint of fish scales as a pattern. If you hold the body in a straight line and not see the back you can get the sides and belly coded correctly. You can do it! Just practice.

I find that limiting the volume of paint to the surface also helps. You can do this by holding the object farther away from you, and only slightly depressing the nozzle tip of the spray can. I know I have personally spent far too much time on this step. But if your efforts started out like mine did, you will appreciate the extra advice. Just experiment. Next I put in the eyes. This dictates where the gills and pectoral fins and back then will go. You can handle the fish shape at this point as it is dry and not sticky. For the gill plate I use a paint finish called Iridescent Pearl. I got it at a craft store in my area called Michael's. It comes in a small plastic 1 ounce container. Sometimes I mix it with Acrylic Gloss Varnish Clear bought at the same store. Next paint in your eyes. Look at your eye color, the background is normally yellow/gold with a black pupil. Look at some fish pictures first. You will be surprised at what you don't know. I rarely use paintbrushes in lieu of toothpicks and matchsticks daubed in a small puddle of paint. I find by daubing instead of brushing my paint, I am able to get a more scaly look to the body. Keep looking at your research papers when you commence your finishing process. Look at that distinctive line down the center of each side of the body. Look at how it rises and lowers at it heads for the tail area. Look at the gill lines. Both at the sides and at the underbody. You can take your pencil and lightly draw in these lines to keep balances in order. Think about what you're doing. You are almost tracing out your color lines and surface changes. If you are careful, small screw ups are easy to correct without starting over. You can wipe off what you don't want and redo just that area. In case you did not pick up on it, a lot of my detailing is in the finish rather than the carving step. If you want an area to stand out in relief such as the eyes, a gill plate, or a fin muscle and you are good enough as a wood carver, by all means, do it. I am not that skilled so I prefer to build those areas with a thickened clear finish. I know it takes longer, but, "it is what it is". I have thought about making a master mold and copying a body using hot glue or some other product but not for now. Work with what you do best. Otherwise you double your frustrations. You can see my efforts on building up the gill plates eyes on my wood blank before I applied the primer, or how it stands out when the prime coat is applied.

Next I take the body shape and prepare the tail, back, and belly for the spines to create the base for the fins and tail. See photo#13. With my Bodkin Needle point I place the holes in a straight line at the appropriate positions for the spines. Once the holes are punched in I use number 16 monofilament to provide the fans and number 16 monofilament for the tail. When the monofilament is cut and placed in the holes I apply superglue to their edge and this holds them in place nicely. Do each section separately, otherwise you will be chasing monofilament pieces all over your bench. See photo#14. Next I use a semi transparent Tracing Paper to cover the spines on each side using glue called E – 6000 Clear available at any hardware store. It's flexible and waterproof. It dries fast and is paintable or can be colored when dry, and the excess rubs off like rubber cement. See photo#15. Next, cut out the profiles of the shapes you want your tail, belly, and back fins to be. Follow your research paper. Before you even start, look up the fish you want to copy. This will ensure that everything is on track. Try Google for a picture. Print it out and look at every detail. Your finished product will depict the extent of the research you did. I know from my own failures how that goes.

If you look closely at the photos (See Photos #17 and #18) you will see how I handle the dorsal fin. Sometimes I place a couple of extra spines in front of the fin and trim them off at different levels for effect. It adds to the overall effect of the "fishy" look. Now it's time for your pectoral fins. Double the paper, glue it up, let it dry, and cut out the shapes you need. Then making a slight bend at the base I glue in using my Super Glue by Loctite, a right and left pectoral fin. Hold it momentarily until it's set. Next the belly fins. I use one piece for this and glue it straight to the belly. You have to bend your fin with a wide fold so it can bridge the belly curve width. See photo #16. Now it's finish time. I can't begin to tell you the problems this phase presents. It seems that every time I get into finishing I run into another challenge. You just have to slowly work towards self-satisfaction with this phase. But let me talk you through some other issues. You will see in photos #17 and #18, that I felt were necessary to satisfy myself that my fish was as close to a real fish as I could get it. Starting at the tail. I applied some thick Clear Translucent Acrylic that's called White Frost that is used for a glass etched effect, also from the craft store, to build up the two thin tail. I also cover up the pectoral fins to make it appear more like it's a part of the fish body. The eyes have been built up and retouched using the same White Frost to build more bulk to look natural. Rather than just being flat, the gill plate has also been built up the same way. I have used the Perl cover over that to blend in color wise using a toothpick. I daubed some extra pearl drops to look like scales here and there on the body. Then to top it off, I used some permanent markers to put in the medium brown and yellow shading. And lastly, I coated the entire fish with a Perma Clear Acrylic called Spar Var for a wet look and preservative finish over the whole fish.


When the fish species changes, so do I. At least my technique- materials and general design approach also does. This really makes instructions difficult to follow and explain. But if you look close you can see the differences. When I am doing my anchovies, I leave out the monofilament spines for the fins because the fins are smaller and more compact. The base color changes from silver to more white with the silver glaze over it. My tails are doubled tracing paper covered with a thickened clear acrylic with no spines. Even the eye colors, sizes and placement are different. The sleeker body and smaller profile calls for changes. I'm still using the same basic materials and finishes only the shading and coloring plus the accessories are altered. The pectoral fins are now acetate for flexibility. The back and belly fins, like the tail doubled tracing paper and pressed in glued slots, and much lower in profile. Look again. Each variation will have some subtle changes.  I can't help experimenting with colors and shapes but that's what keeps the creative juices flowing. Just look at my bluegill. It may have no fishing value whatsoever. But color wise it's a next step in the learning process which keeps me engaged, focused, and working.

I can't tell you how wonderful it is to look at your Facebook entries in the absolute wonder I get from the patterns and creativity each of you bring to the table. What a delight. I only wish I was more literate on the computer inner workings and had more time to respond. Thanks to my son, I have such a medium to look at. He maintains at all. But please look at my Latest Projects link to see what creative thinking causes. And if people like Fred Haney realized what effect his input and encouragement has done for me, he wouldn't need waders next time he was out fishing. So everyone! Please keep that activity coming.

With each of these adventures I think I have slipped over the edge. Anyone who goes to this length to create a fly, lure, call it what you will, really qualifies for the funny farm. Yet somehow I keep going. What a world! What a hobby! I'm the luckiest person alive. Keep those lines tight everybody.

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