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The vice

(or vise, if you live to the west of the Emerald Isle)

Fly tying has not always been done with the aid of the sophisticated tools we take so much for granted today - in fact, for more of the history of fly fishing, fly dressers coped perfectly well without the help of any tools at all. For most of the 2000 years that we know fly fishing has been practised, every fly was tied on a hook held in the fisherman's hand, with little help other than a pair of scissors.

Early fly tying vicesAmazing though it may seem, the first mention of the vice was by a writer called Samuel Taylor in 1800. Prior to that it is simply not mentioned. This may seem strange, but there are good reasons why it should be so - very early tyers whipped their hooks directly onto the end of their line, which would have made it difficult for them to use a vice even if it had been invented in those days. Whipped-on flies being hard things to change, these early anglers might well have fished the whole season with just one or two flies. The same applies to flies tied on horsehair or gut links: it was convenient to for the tyer to hold onto the horsehair.

But although it was described in 1800, the vice didn't really come into common use before the 1875, and that may have been due to the adoption of the eyed hook, which was championed by the dry fly men. However, it is more than likely that lack of familiarity with the new tool played a major part in delaying its adoption, because the vast majority of people who were taught to tie flies in the hand continued to do so all their lives, because they simply couldn't get used to using a vice. One of the last survivors of this rapidly diminishing breed, the incomparable Ken Middlemist, who was trained to tie flies in the hand by Hardy Brothers in 1959, recently told me that although he has tried using a vice, he finds that it slows him down and gets in the way of doing tricky jobs, like winging fully dressed salmon flies. If you would like to see a gallery of Ken tying a fly in the hand - visit this link.

Hand held viceIt has been suggested that early models were non-specialist vices made with soft cast iron jaws, which were too soft to grip a hook properly, but the evidence for this is pretty slight. One thing that is certain is that these vices were usually mounted on a wooden base that was held in the hand and that (like so many items of fishing tackle) the first examples were borrowed from other disciplines, in this case, very possibly jeweller's clamps. It took quite a while for designs to standardise, in part because fishermen valued mobility and so many early vices were designed with pointed stems that could be stuck into a convenient piece of wood at the waterside. Even in the late 19th century, the idea of a portable vice often meant one that could be slid onto the fly tyer's thumb, rather than a slimmed down desktop model - largely because there wasn't much slimming down to be done on most of the available standard vices.

The "table" or clamp vice took some time to become truly popular and it wasn't until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that it became de rigeur, thanks to tackle makers like James Ogden, but prior to the development of large-scale commercial fly tying operations in the latter half of the century, most vices were used by enthusiastic amateurs. Until then, the "professionals" were mostly ghillies and keepers, who augmented their salaries by tying flies for sale - and almost to a man, they tied in the hand. As you can see in the gallery showing Ken Middlemist dressing a Green Highlander by hand, it is amazing what can be done - Hardy's expected their dressers to tie a pattern like this every 15 minutes.

A selection of 19th century vicesBy the end of the nineteenth century a wide variety of fly tying vices was available, even though the argument about whether it was necessary to use one or not had yet to be completely laid to rest. Among the most popular were the Tacklemaker's vice, which looked remarkably similar to an earlier Allcock design; the very popular and much-praised Holtzapffel Hawksley vice; and of course the Halford vice, although the unquenchable spirit of human enterprise meant that an astonishing range of competing devices was available, including throw-backs like the thumb vices mentioned above and innovations like ball-and-socket vices that, dubious creations though they were, foreshadowed the versatile tools we use today. Just about the only thing that didn't appear was nose vices and that may well have been because fly tyers tended to be older and a little long-sighted. The increasing choice of vices was accompanied by an absolute explosion of supporting fly tying tools, although anglers had to wait until the late 1940s for the appearance of two of the most useful of these - the bobbin holder and whip finishing tool, both of which were made popular by Veniard's.