I'll admit it - when it comes to tying flies, I suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. No matter how much time I've spent tying a fly, I will not transfer it from the vise to the box unless it's what I consider a masterpiece. Every hair has to be just so, the eyes must be completely symmetrical, every strand of flash has to be the perfect length, and without a doubt, the head or nose (depending on the pattern) has to be flawless.
I realize that if a fly appears as food, a hungry fish will look past what I consider imperfections. However, I rationalize my obsessive-compulsive tendencies: Not only do I take pride in tying nice-looking flies, but I believe that having confidence in the fly will increase my hookup ratio.
There are many things you can do to improve the appearance and functionality of your flies, but I'll save most for other columns. For this one I'll focus on how you can create picture-perfect heads and noses.
Leave Enough Room
The first thing to consider when it comes to building a head or nose is how much of the shank you need. It's tempting to tie in materials close to the eye of the hook, since that is where most flies are finished off. If you make a poor call and don't leave enough room, though, you will end up with materials that extend over the eye. This is problematic because unless the materials are completely wrapped, they have a tendency to slip. Also, a fly in this condition makes it easy for head cement to find its way into the eye when applied. And let's not forget - it's unattractive. To avoid this, I first visualize where I want the head or nose of the pattern to start. Once that's determined, I consciously cheat that distance back toward the bend of the hook approximately one-eighth inch. In all my years of tying, I've turned out thousands of flies, and I'm still amazed at how fast the space I leave on the shank gets eaten up by wraps and materials, which is why I always leave myself a little more wiggle room than I think I need.
Using too much material also contributes to ugly heads and noses. There's a fine line between using just the right amount and using way too much. With most materials, I feel a less is more approach is best. Aside from throwing off the balance of the fly, using excessive amounts of material will almost always leave you with an unsightly head or nose. This is a problem that took me years to correct. I can remember tying Clouser Minnows in which I used so much bucktail they actually floated, despite having lead eyes. A common flaw I noticed in all of those poor excuses for flies was the dreaded staircase. This is the jump from the top of the material tied in down to the shank and is a telltale sign that too much material is in play. It is possible to compensate for this stair-step appearance with thread wraps, but be judicious with your wraps. You have only so many to work with before the head or nose becomes too bulky. Use as many as you need to secure the material to the shank, but not one more. The goal is to save as many wraps as can so you can use the thread to shape the head or nose at the end of the tying process. I find that when I trim my material at a slight angle and then tie it in, I'm able to use fewer wraps, and what might have been a staircase ends up more like a ramp, which is a much easier shape to wrap over neatly.