Video: How to Tie the Bird’s Nest

Written by: Phil Monahan

Cal Bird owned a small fly shop in San Francisco in the 1940s and ’50s, and he created the Bird’s Nest in 1959 as a caddis-pupa imitation to use on the Truckee River. Most anglers now consider it an attractor pattern for use in a wide variety of angling situations. The original recipe called for a dubbing mix of Australian possum and dyed coyote and wood-duck flank fibers for the tail and legs, although many tiers now use substitutes. The standard pattern is tan, but you can also tie the Bird’s Nest in cream, brown, and olive. One of the keys to the pattern’s success is its “ratty” appearance, so it’s important that you pick or brush out dubbing fibers after you’ve whip-finished.

In this video, by Tim Flagler of Tightline Productions, Matt Grobert ties his version of a Beadhead Bird’s Nest. Grobert, an author and blogger, shows the best way to tie this deceptively simple pattern so that it’s attractive and durable. As usual, there are a couple of neat tying tricks on display that you can use for many different patterns. For instance, note how Matt uses a couple wraps of lead wire to hold the bead in place, and employs a finger to trap the ribbing wire against the vise as he’s wrapping over it, which keeps the wire straight against the hook shank. You’ll also learn why it’s easier to tie in wood-duck-fiber legs without first cutting the fibers off the feathers.

Birds Nest from Tightline Productions on Vimeo.


          Beadhead Bird’s Nest
          Hook: 3X-long nymph hook (here a Dai-Riki #285), sizes 6-16.
          Bead: Copper, size to match hook.
          Weight: Lead wire, .02″.
          Thread: Olive, 6/0.

Tail: Wood-duck fibers.
          Rib: Copper Ultra Wire, small.
          Abdomen: Natural Australian possum dubbing.
          Legs: Wood-duck fibers.
          Thorax: Natural Australian possum dubbing.

             Note: Pick out the dubbing to create a “ratty” look.       

13 thoughts on “Video: How to Tie the Bird’s Nest

  1. T.L.

    The only flys I tie are for the surf perch fishing I do, but I always watch, enjoy and learn something from your videos, thanks!

  2. Dan Gracia

    Cal was a personal friend of mine. I first met Cal in 1987 when he came to the Orvis San Francisco store to give fly-tying demonstrations for our trout-season kick-off. He did that every year until his health went downhill. He would also tie flies in our booth each year at the San Mateo Show. Cal was what I would refer to as a very genuine person who had the ability to make you feel like an old friend after just meeting him for the first time. it was fun to watch him tie flies because it often looked like this fly was just not going to come together correctly and yet it turned out perfectly every time. He’s also well known for Bird’s Stonefly, Bird’s Muddler, and he tied a number of steelhead flies too.

    Although I’m sure that fly in the video will catch fish, it definitely is NOT the Bird’s Nest as Cal tied it. I’m happy to see that this is tied with Australian Possum which is what Cal used originally. However, sometimes you get some Australian Possum that is too spiky and doesn’t have enough underfur. In that instance, Cal would mix in some cheek fur from a hare’s mask. He never used Wood-Duck for either the tail or the collar behind the thorax. His preferred material was Teal flank feathers dyed “Maple Sugar”. He preferred Teal because it was so nicely and thickly barred. He would use Mallard flank feathers if he was temporarily out of Teal, but Teal was by far and away the preferred and original material.

    Materials can certainly be substituted as needed but a signature feature of the Bird’s Nest was the completely circular collar behind the thorax where this video puts two bunches of wood-duck angled down for legs. Cal had a very cool way of tying this fly. He would always arrive at a demo with a bag of cleaned, Maple-Sugar dyed Teal flank feathers. All the fluff had been removed and all had very substantial tips. He would use 1 feather for each fly. He would snip the tip with center quill out and use that as the tail. This would leave a gap where the section had been removed. He would then tie on the body using a dubbing loop utilizing Bird’s Dubbing tool. After spinning the dubbing loop, he would use the dubbing tool to wind the material on the fly. Then would wind the ribbing up. .

    The next step is the signature tying move of his that hardly anyone seems to be using. Right in front of the body he puts on a collar of Maple-Sugar dyed Teal flank using a distribution wrap. The cool thing about this distribution wrap is that you don’t have to find a feather with the perfect hackle length. As long as it is at least as long as what he needs, it will work. He uses the same feather that he clipped the tail material out of by stroking the ends together, placing it at the tie-in location and adjusting the length before tying it in with his distribution wrap that rolls the feather all the way around the hook distributing the hackle in a collar in front of the body. Then, again using a

    feather forward to line up the tips.

  3. Dan Gracia

    OOOPs….accidentally hit the wrong button. Here’s the rest:

    Then, again using a dubbing loop, he builds up a bit of a tapered thorax/head. After tying off the fly, he would rough it up a bit to get the desired amount of fuzz and guard hairs sticking out. He most commonly tied these in size 12 but they could easily be tied in both larger and smaller sizes. I tie them in 12, 14, and 16 myself. although I more commonly use these in freestone streams, I did catch a nice 14″ Golden trout at a lake in the Desolation Wilderness of the Sierra with a size 12 black one years ago.

    Originally Cal tied this with Australian Possum and Maple-Sugar dyed (RIT dye) Teal Flank Feathers. He would also use Mallard when he ran short of teal but first preference was teal. He like the Australian Possum instead of hare’s ear because it had more guard hairs in it. Wood Duck is a reasonable substitute for he dyed teal. He also used to tie this in black, olive, brown, and who knows how many other colors. There was a fellow in the San Bruno are (SF Bay area) who actually distributed the materials as specified by Cal and our Orvis San Francisco store carried them in original, tan, olive, and black while we were still located at the corner of Grant and Sutter in San Francisco. I’d say feel free to substitute any materials that will work for you but that hackle collar around the entire body of the fly behind the thorax/head is what really identifies the Bird’s Nest and that was Cal’s signature fly.


    1. Lightenup

      Dan… seem to be a bit upset….the fly pictured catches fish….the fly is tied extremely well and the video production is second to none….I don’t understand why people get their panties in such a bunch…a hackle collar, or two bunches tied in? The fish won’t notice, and neither will Cal…….you seem to notice and want to tell everyone. I think this is a nice tribute to a great fly….in the round or not….

      1. Dan Gracia

        LOL….sorry about getting my “Panties in a bunch”. As I mentioned earlier, “Although I’m sure that fly in the video will catch fish, it definitely is NOT the Bird’s Nest “. The video, as always, is absolutely top notch and the tying methods are also top notch, but he’s not tying a Bird’s Nest or a Bead-Head Bird’s Nest and to call it that is a mistake.

        Just like you wouldn’t call an Adams a Royal Wulff, the fly in the video is not a Bird’s Nest. The definitive feature of the Bird’s Nest is the flank feather collar tied around the body right behind the thorax/head area using a distribution wrap. If it doesn’t have that, it’s not a Bird’s Nest. No if’s, and’s, but’s or maybe’s about that. If I tie an ant fly without a waist, is it an ant fly? No. It may still catch fish, but it would be a mistake to cal it an ant.

        One of the really nice things about that flank feather collar behind the thorax/head is an extra option it gives you to fish it. By treating that nymph with some fine powdered floatant and fishing with some split shot about 6″ up so it doesn’t float, that collar grabs a bubble of air and makes it just about as good an imitation of a caddis pupa as you can find.

        There are a LOT of videos on the web (none of them with near the production values or clarity that this video has) and I’ve only found one so far that actually shows it correctly. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as good and he is substituting materials (which is fine), but he gives about as good a demonstration of the distribution wrap as I’ve seen. The gentleman’s name is Andy Burke, who many of you will know as an excellent fly-tier and originator of many different fly patterns. If you Google his name and the Bird’s Nest, you should be able to find it.


    2. Matt

      “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”.

      Insert “Cal Bird” where appropriate…

  4. Matt

    Oh, and BTW, Mr Grobert and Mr Flagler, once again an excellent and instructive production. Keep ‘em coming!

  5. Lightenup

    I understand your point, but who would have their panties in a bunch if the video did not give homage to Cal Bird…..I fish these flies regularly, I tie them like they are in the video. I will continue to call it a bird’s nest and tell people it was originated by Cal Bird, and that I learned it from a video made by Tightlines productions…….

    I think that it serves the memory of an obviously talented fly fisherman and tier like you say Cal was….I will also tell people that the fly can by tied in the round, and that someone named Dan Gracia said Cal preferred it that way……Tightlines!!!!

    1. Tightline

      Please note, in deference to Dan, the title of this video has been changed as has its description on Vimeo. I will ask Phil Monahan to change the description that precedes the video when he returns from the Rendezvous. My hope is that these changes have not messed up the search for this pattern in the Orvis Fly Fishing Learning Center Database.

      Dan, I apologize for any undue anxiety and stress this or any of our other videos may have caused you. If you would rather our videos not appear on the blog anymore, I am sure that can be arranged. Both Matt and I try our very best to get things right, but I guess sometimes it is just not enough.

  6. Matt Grobert

    I think I can settle this……last night I dusted off the Ouiji board, fired up some incense, and in the pale yellow light of a single candle had a metaphysical conference call with Cal and Polly. The overall feeling in the room was one of astonishment, as there was no doubt among us that this fly is a bead head Bird’s Nest. And as to the reference above to an Adams, it was agreed that an Adams is an Adams whether it be tied with a body of muskrat fur, gray beaver, gray rabbit, and/or a tail of mixed grizzly and brown or moose body hair. Before the fog cleared the room, it was suggested that some might want to read Mike Valla’s book, Founding Flies, and reference the chapter on Cal Bird; not to overlook the chapter on Polly.

    Fixing my collar,


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  8. Rachel

    A Bird’s Nest By Any Other Means

    Hi: Just love the videos, please keep them coming. I am new to the sport and appreciate both the historical content and the obvious craftsmanship demonstrated by Matt – just magical.

    Sooo, I’ll never know Cal Bird nor see him ply his magic. I am however pleased to see this video and know that Cal was an amazing contributor to our sport – I honor him and his accomplishments.

    The value of these videos and the their quality and research impresses me greatly. Rightly or wrongly, history belongs to those who document it, and this series does a very credible job. For those who knew Cal, you were apparently blessed to meet a good, kind soul and an excellent member of good standing in the sport of his time. He’s honored here.

    Being new to sport but not to life, enjoy it and when others celebrate the great works of those past; be of good cheer. I now know of Cal Bird and some of his work, AND also get he has left memories for others who knew him to be cherished; you are fortunate indeed.

    Tight lines me hearties . . . Rachel


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