One of the great benefits of fly tying for an audience is the huge variety of questions I receive. I've always believed the best way to learn something is to teach it, and so these demonstrations give me a great opportunity to hone my skills, both as a tier and as a teacher.
Recently I've heard a lot of questions about dubbing loops—what they are, for starters. Many fly recipes simply call for a "body made from a dubbing loop," which begs the questions "How do you make one, how do you use them, are there any tricks or tips to make them easier, and where and why do you use them in the first place?" These are all good questions and they are rarely answered, as the dubbing-loop technique seldom gets the attention it deserves.
Dubbing loops are created by bringing the tying thread around the hook shank to create a loop into which you can place any variety of dubbing material—fur from the skin, synthetic fibers, and even individual feather fibers.
You can then twist the loop, using a dubbing whirl, to create a dubbing rope much like manufactured chenille, with the fibers protruding from the strand at all angles. You can then wrap the loop around the shank to create buggy bodies, thoraxes, and in some cases, heads on a variety of flies.
Dubbing loops produce a much shaggier dubbed area with longer fibers. They create bulk faster and more easily than conventional dubbing, and often allow completely different effects than conventional dubbing.
Due the inherent bulkiness of the doubled strand of thread in a dubbing loop, I usually reserve them for large flies, although they can be carefully crafted with finer thread for smaller patterns.
I personally find that a simple conventional dubbing application is sufficient for small flies, as even if I really want them shagged out and buggy, I can still accomplish this quickly and easily with conventional dubbing and the liberal application of a wire dubbing brush. In other words, the time and trouble of a dubbing loop reaches a point of diminishing returns on smaller flies.
Flies that Move
While dubbing loops have been around for a long time, there are several more modern applications for them that I'll delve into here. Aside from the obvious shaggy nymph thorax or leech patterns possible with this technique, dubbing loops help you create shaggy bodies that breathe and move, as well as streamer heads that can be trimmed to shape, sink well, and are both quicker and easier to make than the traditional methods that they replace (like Muddler-style heads).
Just two examples of this are my Ragin' Craven and Gonga patterns. On the Ragin', I use craft fur underfur (with a few guard hairs) to produce a thick, ragged dubbing rope I can wrap, and then trim into a shrimp or crab profile with little effort.
The Gonga and Double Gonga have heads made from the underfur of Polar Fibre, cut square and applied perpendicular to the dubbing loop to create a long-fibered, thick, soft chenille you can shape easily with scissors. These flies sink quickly, and they take a fraction of the time you need to spin deer-hair heads.
You can also use dubbing loops for smaller nymphs and streamers to create soft-hackle type collars where wrapping a strip of hide such as bunny or squirrel would create either too much bulk, or result in a collar that was too long for the hook. The loop has the unique advantage of allowing you to precisely control the length of the fibers.
A dubbing loop is really a pretty simple technique, and often the hardest part of it is developing the dexterity to get the material into the loop without dropping it.
Synthetic fibers like Polar Fibre and craft fur are dense and mat together well, making them naturals for the dubbing loop technique. Squirrel and rabbit fur both work wonderfully in a loop, and can be appropriately sized down to smaller hooks. Even fine fur like beaver or mole can be used in a thread loop to create soft collars and heads on tiny flies.
Dubbing loops aren't just for fur. Here I used synthetic dubbing to quickly build the thorax for a Mike Mercer Poxyback Golden Stone. These synthetic fibers tend to be shorter than fur, and do not come uniformly aligned. To use this dubbing in a loop, create a flat sheet of fibers by placing small, slightly overlapping pinches of dubbing onto your desktop to create a flat, elongated clump. Twist and wrap the fibers using the dubbing whirl, and wrap the dubbing rope to create a juicy, thick thorax.
You can also use craft fur or Polar Fibre in a dubbing loop. In my Gonga, I cut the bottom half inch of dense fur from the base of a clump of Polar Fibre. Center this bunch of fur in a dubbing loop, and spin the loop as described for the Squirrel Leech. Use a wire dubbing brush to loosen any trapped fibers before you wrap the dubbing rope. The beauty of this technique is that you can trim the head, and use a marker to create a beautifully shaped, durable baitfish head that sinks quickly and is easy to cast.
In the case of my Squirrel Leech, wrapping a strip of hide around the shank would produce too much bulk. Instead, make about a 3-inch-long loop by doubling the thread around the shank and wrapping back over the juncture at the hook shank. Place the dubbing whirl in the loop to help keep the two strands separated. If you allow the whirl to hang freely, it will start to twist the thread and cause trouble. To control the loop, I either make it long enough for the whirl to touch my desktop, or I bring the rear leg of the loop up and catch it in my material spring. This keeps the thread loop open while I prepare the material for the loop.
Pull the squirrel fur from a strip of hide while pinching the fibers between your thumb and forefinger. Place the fur between the strands of the loop, trying hard to keep the hair perpendicular to the thread. Depending on how I place the fur in the loop, I can control the length of the finished collar. In this case, I have kept the length of the fibers to a minimum by centering the fur in the loop. Had I offset the fur, and left the tips longer and butts shorter, the length of the fibers in the finished fly would be longer.
Before spinning the dubbing whirl, pinch the thread loop together below the fur and hold the strands tightly together. Then spin the dubbing whirl and let the thread below your pinched fingers twist up tightly. After you've twisted just the thread, slide your fingers downward to allow the twist to work up through the fur. Continue spinning the whirl, and let go of the pinched thread completely to finish the dubbing brush.