Fly tying, when done well, is often referred to as an art—so it comes as no surprise to me that so many good tiers are also great artists. Dave Whitlock, Andy Burke, and Rick Takahashi all come to mind when art and fly tying come together, but even an average Joe can let a little art creep into his tying with a small investment and a bit of creativity.
Permanent waterproof markers are always within an arm's reach of my tying bench. Directly to the right of my vise sits a container holding about 50 markers of varying colors and tip shapes and sizes. From pale cream all the way to bright fluorescent, black, and muted earth tones, my marker stash has become an imperative piece of my tying program.
I didn't realize how much I relied on markers until a gentleman at one of my fly-tying demonstrations asked how much influence markers and coloration had on my tying.
I had to stop and think, and then agree that I often don't consider a fly finished until it has had a bit of makeup added to dress it up. Finishing flies using permanent waterproof markers can add extra realism to most fly patterns.
While I may not be completely convinced that it makes a huge difference to the fish, dolling up an otherwise bland and monochromatic fly pattern with spots, barring, or shading certainly makes the pattern more interesting to my eye, and I fish a fly with more confidence when it's something I like.
Make no mistake though, breaking up a solid color profile by adding camouflage mottling and barring increases realism, and is a quick and easy way to set your pattern apart from the crowd.
Of course, markers have been used for years to simply darken existing fly patterns. Many years ago I recall pulling a black Sharpie from my vest and darkening a standard Pheasant Tail to better match emerging Baetis nymphs in Cheesman Canyon. The altered fly worked wonderfully, and the marker kept me from duplicating the standard versions in my fly box with other colors. This is perhaps the most common usage of markers, and it has been widely used for many years.
Any brand of permanent waterproof marking pens can be used to alter the color pattern of a fly. Prismacolor, Pantone, and Sharpie markers are widely available in a range of colors and can be put to good use on both freshwater and saltwater patterns.
One of my favorite marker techniques involves barring a synthetic wing with a wide-tip marker to add color variation and contrast. I use this technique on patterns like my Gonga, marking the head and collar to break up the outline.
I also bar the synthetic wings on many of my bonefish patterns to create just enough contrast while retaining the overall light color of the fly. This added contrast helps the fly stand out against light-colored sandy bottoms. In some cases I go a little heavy with the marker, or use a dark brown or black marker on a light tan-colored wing to make the barring even more pronounced so the fish can spot the fly from farther away. Conventional bonefish wisdom says that your fly ought to match the color of the bottom and in many cases this is true, but factor in a glassy calm calf-deep flat where you'll have to land the fly a bit farther from your quarry, and anything you can do to help the fish find your fly is an advantage.
Another favorite technique is barring rubber or Superfloss legs with varying color bands. Much like the barring on grizzly hackle imitates movement, and makes your fly patterns seem more alive, barred legs, particularly when crafted of a lively rubber-type material, appear to shimmy and shake with even the slightest of movement as well as matching up better to most naturals. My Charlie Boy Hopper patterns have barred legs to add both a bit of color and movement, and I typically add barring to any rubber-leg material on any fly for the same purpose.
Markers can also be used to shade and mottle both drys and nymphs. I frequently use a bright red or orange marker to add a hot spot to my nymphs, and have been known to sometimes color a thread head with a brightly colored shade just to change a pattern up a bit.
My Jumbo Juju Chironomid has a red butt that beautifully imitates the hemoglobin found in emerging midges. You can add a similar hot spot to store-bought patterns as well.
A dark brown or black fine-tip marker is handy for mottling or even drastically altering the shade of a fly pattern and is a worthwhile addition to your vest or boat bag. Simply adding stripes to the wing of a Callibaetis spinner is an easy and effective way to increase the legitimacy of the fly, and can quickly be done at the bench or on the water. Just stroke the fine tip of a dark brown or black marker across the wing at right angles to create the bands of color, but be sure to space them out a bit as they tend to run together and blend.
My friend Brian Schmidt of Umpqua Feather Merchants puts markers to great use on his new Reefer Madness bonefish fly. Several colors combine to create barring and highlights on the carapace and claws of his pattern, with the unique and accurate use of blue tips on the pincers. I'm sure his fly would get eaten even in a plain vanilla flavor, but the variegated version is inarguably a lot sexier and really stands out.
Adding a small batch of permanent markers in carefully selected colors to your tying bench is a fun and easy way to add life to a variety of patterns. Merely having them at the ready will create all kinds of uses and just may bring out your hidden artistic tendencies. Look out, Dave Whitlock!