by John Likakas - Fly Tier - Winter 2004
It has been said that it's poor cdraftsman who blames his tools, but it is equally true that working with poor tools can make even a master craftsman produce poor results. The most essential tool you'll need to tie flies is a vise. Do your homework before purchasing a vise.
The jaws are the business end of the vise. These are the things that grasp the hook. A good set of jaws should be easily adjustable and firmly clamp the hook without requiring you to exert too much force on the jaw-closing mechanism.
These type of jaws ride in a steel tube. A lever with a cam is attached to the back end of the jaws and draws them into the tube, squeezing them closed. This is the most common mechanism used on beginner vises as well as a few vises designed for experienced tiers.
These jaws consist of a pair of tapered steel bars with an adjustable bolt joining the bars near the front. A lever attached to a cam is placed between the back of the jaws. When you rotate the lever, the cam spreads the back of the jaws apart, causing the tapered tips (where the hook gets clamped) to close. The bolt in front lets you adjust the width of the closed jaws so you can use a wide range of hook sizes. Generally, cam-lever bar or draw-collet jaws are found on the better vises - even beginner vises carrying more affordable price tags.
A fly-tying vise comes with either a pedestal base to set the tool on top of a table, or a C-clamp to attach the tool to the edge of the table - some manufactures offer both.
A pedestal base is typically made of a big slab of heavy metal. The weight helps hold the vise steady, but it also makes carrying the vise a bit of a weighty pain in the butt, especially on a trip. However, many tiers believe that the extra weight is a minor inconvenience compared with the tie-anywhere flexibility the pedestal offers. A pedestal, however, will allow you to tie on any flat surface.
A C-clamp is light and holds the vise rock-steady. You can easily toss a C-clamp in with your socks and underwear for a trip, and it will add very little weight. But you'd better hope that the edges of the table at your destination are narrow enought to accommodate the width of your C-clamp.
There are all sorts of vises on the market. Some are at the extreme of bare functionality; others offer all sorts of gimmicks that may or may not make tying easier. Of course, the prices of vises range from very inexpensive to costly.
Perhaps the most important consideration when selecting a vise is knowing what you'll need your vise to do. Its primarily function is, of course, to hold a hook while you lash fur and feathers in place. A vise that can't hold the hook steady is worst than useless.
Most of the better vises redesigned to hold a wide range of hook sizes, but there is a limit to this do-everything versatility. You can narrow down the search for a vise if you can determine the type of flies you will usually be tying. If you spend most of your time chasing trout, your average hook will run from size 4 down to size 22 or even smaller. If you spend your time fishing for striped bass, snook, or redfish, your hooks will be heavy-wire saltwater models in sizes 4 to 3/0. Think about the types of flies you will tie before making a decision on the vise to buy.
A vise with fairly narrow or pointy jaws maks it much easier to tie small flies. Most of the draw-collet vises work quite well. If possible, set up the vise so you can try a bunch of different hook sizes in the jaws and get a feel for how your hands work with the tool. Pay attention to how deeply you can place the hook bend between the jaws while still being able to tie materials in place. Select a vise with narrow jaws that can grasp a good amount of the hook bend and still allow room to tie. Avoid any vise in which you can only perch the hook in the tip of the jaws; this can cause the metal to chip and ruin the vise.
Look for a vise that can hold fairly large hooks and has a head that can move to different angles from horizontal to vertical. Bass and salmon flies range in sizes 8 to 4/0, but generally are made of fine wire for their sizes. One convenient feature to look for is a groove on the inside of the jaws. You can set the bend of a large hook in the groove for maximum securiy while relieving some of the stress off the jaws.
Tying bass bugs and other flies that use spun-and-packed deer hair requires a vise that can hold large hooks very tightly. A vise that doesn't grip tightly enough will let the hook slip when you pull on the thread, which makes tying difficult.
You can tie lots of saltwater patterns using the same vise you might use for bass or salmon flies, but a good saltwater vise needs to hold really big hooks made of very thick wire. Also, if you tie a lot of saltwater flies consider a vise with a head that rotates - rotary vise.
In the end, it pays to take some time to shop around. Try as many different styles and brands of vises as you can before buying. Seek the advise of tying friends and examine the different vises used in tying classes. There are a lot of different vises from which to chose. Find the right one for you.