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The Difference Between Premium and Discount Fly Fishing Flies

How big of a difference do premium fly fishing flies make to your day on the water? There are many out there advertising “Quality” or “Premium” fly fishing flies, but are far from it. A premium dry fly will land right-side up, float properly and consistently, and retain those properties even after catching 5,10, even 20 fish. On the other hand, improperly tied flies will often land upside down, on their side, or even on their head.

A premium trout fly in a fly shop costs anywhere from $1.50 to $3.00, bass and surf flies $3.00 – $5.00 but there are literally dozens of online retailers who offer similar patterns for half that price. You may pay more for a premium fly at a fly shop but research suggests the fly will last nearly 10 times longer. You have to ask yourself one question: Do I want a 2 fish fly or a 20 fish fly? Let’s examine some of the differences:


The first important material is the hackle. Great strides have been made over the past 60 years with the hackles that are used by the premium commercial fly tiers. Flocks have been bread based upon color, hackle length, and barb stiffness to create superior hackle.

It has been a process beginning with Harry Darbee in the 1940’s and 1950’s continuing today with the hackles produced by Dr. Tom Whiting of Whiting Farms and Buck Metz of Metz Hackles, among others. Premium fly manufacturers such as Idylwilde Flies, Umpqua Feather Merchants, and Rainy flies use top quality premium hackles

The second material of significant importance is the quality of the hook. Tiemco has positioned itself as the World’s leader in premium grade fly fishing hooks with creativity and attention to detail in the functional designs of its premium fly tying hooks. From trout to tarpon, in freshwater or saltwater, for bass poppers or Micro Mayflies, top fly manufacturers choose Tiemco hooks over the other competitor’s best efforts. They were one of the first manufacturers to chemically sharpen the points and now is standard throughout the industry. They carry a very broad line of flyfishing hooks with about 46 models to choose from. At the end of the hook designation, you might see a “SP,” this stands for Specialty Point. The SP hooks have a hollow curve point with triangulated edges for easier sharpening. The hooks also have a slow taper which assists in easier hook sets. An interesting aspect of this hook is the basal end of the point has a swelling that works much like a barb without being a barb.

This may be of some advantage in holding hook sets with the barbless hooks. Another designation you may see is “TC” which stands for Tiemco Cut. This is a cut that Tiemco uses on certain wet and streamer flies for enhanced hooking penetration. “Its all about quality, or better said lack thereof,” Bruce Olson from Umpqua Feather Merchants says. “The first issue is that cheap imports always are tied on very cheap hooks, with strange sizing. I find that a quality fly has to be tied on [name brand] hooks. This becomes very important for big game, such as tarpon, where sharpness and tensile strength of the hook wire are vital.”

A discount fly company’s failure to use top-notch materials means the final product doesn’t measure up. As Shawn Brillon, the lead fly buyer for Orvis says, “If you have to tie with junk, often the final product is the same… junk.”

Discount fly manufacturers also take shortcuts to reduce costs and materials. Bruce states, “In order to produce flies that cheap, these guys have got to take shortcuts.” The discount fly companies use inferior hooks and materials, skip important tying steps (such as laying down a glue base on the hook shank to keep the materials in place), and don’t exhibit much quality control.


A second important quality of premium fly fishing flies is the adherence to standard pattern recipes. Bruce described one “Copper John” that he purchased online as missing the epoxy over the shellback and the lead under the thorax.

“So, you may have saved a lot of money on the fly, but it’s not a Copper John!” he says, and he notes that such an inferior version of the popular fly won’t perform on the water the way its designer intended. Without the lead, it won’t sink correctly, and the lack of epoxy makes the fly much less durable.


Most fly production is done in third world countries because of price but also because they still work with their hands. Although they are third world countries the fly tiers are paid a good wage and earn middle class income for their work. The more expensive flies carried by the premium fly shops such as Blue River Fly Company are tied in Thailand, the fly tying capital of the world. There are over a dozen major fly tying companies that have tying facilities there. Other areas of the world that do a significant amount of fly production include China, Sir Lanka, and Kenya. There is some production in Central and South America, Mexico, and the Philippines. The fly production in the United States and Europe where the largest number of users are is primarily by home tiers or tiers that tie for specific fly shops.

Many premium fly manufacturers, including Idylwilde have a strong belief in corporate social responsibility and believe in fair trade. They take responsibility for the impact their activities have on customers, employees, communities and the environment. As Idylwilde describes on its website: “If a fly’s worth only $.99 it not only sucks, but it was likely tied in a third-world sweatshop and we’d rather not have that bad mojo hanging on our conscience. Idylwilde fly fishing flies are tied in Manila, Philippines under a markedly forward-thinking arrangement with Sister Christine Tan, a Catholic nun who believed her people needed more than charity. They needed good-paying, honest jobs they could rely on as they built a life outside the confines of poverty. Our promise to Sister Christine continues some 12 years later, now enabling over 150 tiers to better provide for their families. The flies you see here are the work of their hands and their hopes.”

Fly Fishing Fly Costs

The average cost of goods for a premium fly manufacturer for the simple dry flies and nymphs equates to about $ 4.50 – $5.50 a dozen. Additional shipping, duty costs and a US excise tax add an additional $1.00 a dozen.

The fly companies that are importing the flies need to make a profit so the cost to the shops are generally at keystone (50% markup) so the cost to the shops is now at $ 12.00 per dozen. The fly shop pays shipping and marks up for their operating costs and profit, keystone again, the cost to the consumer is pushing that $2 -3 price you pay at a brick and mortar fly shop.

The large box stores, in order to get the pricing down to what they do are either getting huge discounts for volume buying or they are getting flies that are tied somewhere other than Thailand, or both. Hopefully now when you get sticker shock when you go into a fly shop you can understand why the shop is charging what it does.

Cost per Fish

Bruce Olson argues that anglers should look at the cost of a fly in relation to its durability. If the 75-cent Stimulator falls apart after the second fish, but the $1.75 Umpqua Stimulator is good for 10 fish, then the cost-effectiveness of the more expensive fly is twice as high. (75 divided by 2 fish=37.5 cents per fish, 175 divided by 10 fish=17.5 cents per fish.) “You gotta do the math,” says Olson.

Premium Fly Fishing Flies

You would not settle for sub-standard rods, reels, fly lines, waders, etc. that fall apart or break after a couple times fishing. Why then settle of substandard flies? Flies are the most important part of fly fishing. If the end result to all of this is to catch fish then why not spend more time, money, and energy on the only element the fish actually care about?”

Price is a pretty good indicator to the overall quality of the flies you buy. Cheap flies are almost always cheaply tied. It does not take a Rocket Scientist to do the math. You can also test them out by making sure they don’t easily spin, are designed well for balance, are tied to the proper proportion, etc

Umpqua, Idylwilde, and Rainy have significantly raised the standards by which high-quality fishing flies are defined with their use of premium materials such as Tiemco hooks, Metz and Whiting hackle, and by developing the consummate skills of its production fly tyers.

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