Thread Tension - The Third Hand

              The hardest part of most projects is figuring out where to start.  Finding a beginning to this article was no exception.  A good article needs a strong beginning, a solid foundation upon which the rest of the piece can be built.  The quality of the piece will largely depend on this foundation.  As I wrestled with this idea, it occurred to me that it was, in a sense, analogous to fly construction.  Without the basic techniques of fly tying, it is impossible to construct a solid, well developed fly.  Techniques such as the pinch wrap and whip finish are essential.  I’m going to offer one additional technique that may not commonly be considered basic, but one that, in my opinion, should be, one which is just as essential, perhaps the most essential: the concept of thread tension. 

                Let’s define the concept of thread tension.  Thread tension is the amount of force imparted on the thread by the pull (or lack thereof) applied by the tier to the bobbin.  A strong pull will yank the thread taut, creating significant tension.  Conversely, not pulling on the bobbin at all, allowing the thread to go slack, is also considered a degree of thread tension, albeit a lack of tension.  By manipulating the pull on the bobbin, the tier can effectively manipulate and use thread tension as a third hand, if you will, used to hold materials fast or slide them precisely into places that large fingers can’t reach.  Let’s clarify this idea through the following examples.


Tailing a Dry Fly

                Tying a tail onto a size 12 mayfly is not very difficult for most tiers.  Pinch your tailing materials atop the hook, throw a few pinch wraps and you’re good to go.  Tying the same tail onto that size 24 trico the fish are keying in on, however, is another story.  For most of us, our fingers are simply too big to effectively control such a delicate operation with a pinch wrap.  An effective alternative is to utilize thread tension to rotate the tail into position.  Gather your tailing barbs together and hold them at a 45 degree angle on the near side of the hook at the tie in point.  Take your thread and make one lose wrap at the tie in point, using just enough tension to hold the material in position.  Now initiate a second wrap, applying more tension as your bobbin crosses the top of the hook.  As you complete this wrap, manipulate the tension on the thread so that the thread itself actually pushes the tailing fibers into position on top of the hook.  It takes a little practice to determine the proper amount of tension needed, but just a little.  Too much tension will splay the tail fibers to the opposite side of the hook, too little will not push the fibers far enough.  After a few trials you will quickly get a feel for the proper amount of tension needed, after which you will be able to seat the tailing material perfectly atop the hook every time.  In this way, the thread tension acts as a third hand, doing what your large, bulky fingers cannot effectively accomplish.  Tailing this way also allows you a better view of the hook, something that is greatly appreciated especially when tying smaller flies.  Holding the tailing fibers by the tips allows you to keep the tie in point in view at all times, and once the material is initially secured with the first wrap, you can let go of the bunch completely, allowing you to use visual feedback to assist you as you use the thread to push the material into place.  This concept is illustrated visually in the video “Fly Tying Tip – Using Thread Tension to Apply a Tail to a Fly” available under the resources tab at or on YouTube.


Tailing a Bass Bug

                Now let’s consider the opposite end of the spectrum.  In tailing a trico, we’re dealing with a few delicate fibers, a small, sparse amount of material.  Tailing a bass bug involves just the opposite - managing a large, thick bunch of material.  The material still needs to be precisely secured to the hook to create an effective fly.  The concept of thread tension can be utilized here as well to ensure this placement, the idea of which I began to fully appreciate after putting into practice the techniques found in The Art of Tying the Bass Bug by Skip Morris, on which the following example is based.  Although he doesn’t label his technique as a “thread tension” concept, Skip does a fine job of illustrating how thread tension is utilized to ensure the material is placed and secured effectively.

                For the sake of example, let’s discuss tailing a diver style of bass bug such as a Whitlock Diving Frog.  For this fly, you need to secure a total of six hen saddle feathers to the rear of the hook, three on each side.  Select your feathers and align them so that their tips are even and all are curving in the same direction (e.g. – the feathers are cupped together, one inside the other.)   Take the three feathers that will make up the near side of the tail and hold them on the near side of the hook at the tie in point.  Now make a series of eight to ten contiguous loose wraps around the feathers, using only the slightest amount of thread tension, only enough to prevent the thread from going slack.  Any more tension at this stage will cause the material to crush and rotate out of alignment since this is a large, thick bunch of material.  Next, make another eight to ten contiguous wraps over the first set, now increasing your pull on the bobbin to create a medium amount of thread tension.  Finally, make a third set of eight to ten contiguous wraps over the first two layers, applying a large amount of thread tension, to firmly bind and secure this half of the tail in place.  Repeat the process for the other half of the tail on the far side of the hook.  By selectively increasing the amount of thread tension with each successive layer of thread, you will be able to secure this bulky material to the hook effectively without causing it to slip or rotate.  Tension is gradually increased, allowing the material to handle it without misbehaving.  It’s a beautiful example of how thread tension can be utilized to ensure the precise, secure placement of large bunches of material to the hook.

                These examples show how useful thread tension can be in constructing a solid, precise fly.  Increasing or decreasing the tension on the thread can be invaluable in positioning material and securing it to the hook.  It helps secure materials in ways that simple pinch wraps just aren’t able to do and it allows the tier place materials in areas that fingers just can’t reach, acting as a third hand, if you will.  By fully appreciating this concept of thread tension, you will come to find that it is in fact an essential tying tool, as essential as the pinch wrap or whip finish.  Keep this in mind as you continue to tie flies, and learn how to manipulate the thread tension to help achieve the results you desire.  You won’t be disappointed, and you will soon find your flies to be precise and exact. I guarantee you will find thread tension to be a valuable asset to your tying skills. Good luck, and happy tying!