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Working with Dubbing: Fly Tying Fundamentals

We recently shared a 101 guide to working with chenille and how to sort through the options. In case you missed it, go check that out here. This time, we’re talking about dubbing: natural vs. synthetic, different colors, textures, varieties and how to use them.

When an angler walks into a fly shop and is faced with a wall of dubbing options, it’s easy to understand the intimidation factor. No matter where you’re fishing, or what types of fish you’re casting to, dubbing is an essential element for tying great flies. But it’s an element that many tyers can struggle with.


Before the tying begins, it’s necessary to sort through a myriad of dubbing options. Once you pick your poison, you’ve still got to figure out how to tie with it most effectively. Where should you begin?

Here at the fly shop, questions about dubbing are among the most common fly tying questions we receive. When we asked some of our experienced friends and colleagues, here are a few valuable tips we learned:

Natural or Synthetic Materials

“When considering a dubbing, I think one of the most important considerations is natural materials versus synthetic materials,” Anglers All media manager Davis James noted. “Natural dubbings will tend to absorb more water while synthetic duding tends to shed water.

Natural Fur Dubbing - Light Hares Mask

“If you’re trying dry flies, you might want to consider a synthetic dubbing or a synthetic blend like Dave Whitlock’s SLF dubbing,” Davis explained. “On the flip side, if you tie primarily nymphs and emergers, you might consider a natural dubbing.”

Dave Whitlock SLF Blend - Squirrel Nymph Thorax

Davis added that that the advent of high quality floatants and heavy tungsten beads can offset these factors in either direction. Therefore, start with these factors simply as guidelines, not rules.


Texture, Color & Length

Next, it helps to narrow down your choices by length, texture and color.

“If you’re tying a dry fly, you probably want a dubbing material that’s on the softer, finer side of the spectrum,” Umpqua signature tyer, Greg Garcia, told us. “A heavy, tinsel-like material may not be the best place to start for dry flies.”

Once you’ve sorted out the dubbings by natural or synthetic and then by texture, you’ll still be faced with many options. Davis and Greg both commented that color is the next important factor.

“My next consideration would be color,” Davis said. “Drab colors will work well when matching the hatch while vibrant colors are useful for adding hotspots or other attractive qualities to a fly.”

If you’re tying a fly to imitate a specific aquatic insect or baitfish, you might be looking for a specific color to match it. This might be the best way to narrow down your dubbing choices. If you can find the perfect color in a material that seems reasonable for the task, you’re in business.

“Just because it says ‘dry fly’ or ‘nymph’ on the package doesn’t mean you can’t use it in other applications,” Greg added. “There’s a time and place for anything. For example, Antron dubbing is often used for nymphs. However, it is also commonly used on Stimulators and Adams, both dry flies.”

Antron Dubbings

“Rabbit, beaver are very soft and pliable,” Greg continued. “These are great for dry flies. But of course, there’s the Hare’s Ear nymph, which is tied with rabbit dubbing too. When it comes to selecting dubbing for a particular task, there are rarely any hard and fast rules.”

When picking out any dubbing, open the package and get a feel for the material. Is it flat and smooth? Or does it have a lot of texture to it? For example, you’ll notice that Super Fine Dubbing is very smooth, perfect for dry flies and sparse-looking nymphs. On the other hand, if you take a pinch of Squirrel fur, you’ll notice immediately that it’s spiky. It lends itself to flies with a more bushy appearance.

Superfine Dubbing - Pale Morning Dun

In addition to color and texture, the length of dubbing is an important consideration in any fly. Shorter fibers like SLFIce dub and Hare’s mask will be great for dubbing noodle & dubbing loop applications but will not work well to shape the head of many streamer recipes out there. Flies like the Lunch Money or Complex Twist both have a bulky head made of longer dubbing fibers designed to push water. For these applications you should select a longer dubbing fiber like Senyo’s Laser Dub or Bruiser Blend Dubbing from the Fly Fish Food laboratory. Be sure to have a comb or brush handy after you tie these materials in to remove both loose and trapped fibers.

Senyo's Laser Dub - Silver Minnow Belly

With the correct color, length and texture for the fly you intend to tie, it’s time to sit down at the vise.

Put it into Practice

Before you begin spinning dubbing onto your thread, take some time to prep it. This is something it’s easy to blow right past.

“When you take a piece of dubbing out of the package, pinch it on either end with your forefingers and thumbs,” Greg told us. “Pull it apart, and then stack it back together. Do this a few times to remove any knots and to get the fibers running in the same direction.”

Taking a few seconds to prep your dubbing in this way will save a few headaches. It will be much easier to apply the dubbing onto the thread and the dubbing will adhere to the thread much more evenly.

One of the most important keys to dubbing that we’ve learned from Greg and other talented tyers over the years, is to use a little dubbing on a lot of thread – we’re talking wisps here. It’s much less than you might initially think. Start with a very tiny amount. You can always add more.

Use a little dubbing on a lot of thread.

“Good dubbing wax makes a world of difference,” Greg added. “But be careful, because it’s easy to use too much. You want just enough to gain some purchase on the dubbing.

“Be firm in the way you pinch it on,” he continued. “Imagine the amount of pressure you use when you snap your fingers. That’s about what it should feel like. And be sure that you’re always spinning the same direction.”

Applied with a firm pinch.

Try Mixing Materials

When you’ve got the hang of it, you might want to start mixing your own dubbing. Blending materials has a couple of advantages.

“If you don’t like manufacturers colors, you can always try mixing your own,” Greg said. “I will also mix dubbing if I want to add a different texture or perhaps a material with a little more flash.

“For example, I like taking the Nature’s Spirit Emergenceand mixing it with the Fine Natural Dubbing in a similar color,” Greg explained. “This is great for adding a little bit of sparkle to a thorax. You might even add a small amount of a bright or contrasting color to add highlights.”

To mix dubbing, use the same method described above for prepping dubbing. Stack it, then pull it apart and stack it again. Repeat until blended.

When you mix dubbing, keep notes on what you used. Find your ideal ratio for blending. If you used a 1-to-1, or 2-to-1 ratio, write it down. This will make it easier to reproduce those successful ideas later.

Practice With Dubbing Loops

Finally, you might want to try working with a dubbing loop. This is a great way to add new elements to your flies. To create a loop in your thread, simply pull your bobbin down several inches below the hook. Wrap the bobbin down around your forefinger and bring it back up to the hook. Tie it in with a few wraps to create the hanging loop.

From here, you can stack materials into the loop, spin them with a dubbing loop spinner, and then begin making wraps onto the hook.

Dubbing loop loaded with Ice Dub.

“Dubbing loops are great for creating a large, breathable thorax or perhaps adding a collar with some bulk,” Greg suggested. “Dubbing loops are very durable. They’re great for mixing materials and can even provide an appearance like wrapping hackle.”

The essential tools here include a dubbing spinner and a dubbing brush.

Dubbing brush in action.

The next time you’re staring at the wall of dubbing materials at the fly shop, don’t let the intimidation overwhelm you. Be confident in your ability to experiment and discover some new tricks. Each of those unique materials represents another option, not more rules. Dive in, and make it fun.

If you have questions, we’re here to help. Don’t hesitate to visit us at the shop or call us at 303-794-1104. Everyone starts somewhere, and we’re happy to lend a hand!