||This article may require copy editing for excessive use of galleries. (June 2013)|
Fly tying is the process of producing an artificial fly to be used by anglers to catch fish via means of fly fishing. Probably the most concise description of fly tying is the one by Helen Shaw, a preeminent American professional fly tyer in Fly-Tying.
"Fly-tying is a simple process of binding various materials to a hook with thread.".
Many fly-tyers consider fly tying an art, such as E. C. Gregg in introduction to How To Tie Flies.
"The object of this book will be throughout its entirety to teach in a practical manner the Art of Fly Tying in all its branches.”
At the other end is the apparent view of A. K. Best, a well known professional fly tyer and writer whose book, Production Fly Tying, suggests practical ways to streamline tying technique. Best emphasizes that fly tying is also a science rooted in careful observation of fish and their prey, and then designing and tying artificial flies to replicate that prey to catch fish. One of the first and foremost of these efforts was by Preston Jennings, in his classic: A Book of Trout Flies.
Fly tying requires some basic equipment, the appropriate materials for the fly pattern being tied and a fly pattern to follow or replicate. Fly tying equipment enables the fly tyer to efficiently and effectively assemble and secure the materials on the hook. Flying materials were originally limited to various furs, feathers, threads and hooks. Today there many different types of natural and synthetic materials used to tie flies. Fly patterns represent the “recipe” required to create the fly—what hook size(s) types to use, what materials are to be used, what colors, in what sequence and by what methods are they assembled on the hook. These are the elements of fly patterns. Of patterns, there are thousands.
Hand-tied flies on the commercial market retail from less than a dollar to several dollars each. Fly tying is a challenging and rewarding hobby for some, a money-saving strategy for some fly fishermen, and a profitable commercial enterprise for the professional tyer. The professional, commercial fly tyer may produce upwards 3000 dozen flies annually, whereas the amateur fly tyer may tie only a few flies each season for personal use.
Fly tying history
The history of fly tying (and fly design) is inextricably tied to the evolution and history of fly fishing. Although from the mid-19th century to present times, basic fly tying methods have not changed dramatically. Changes have resulted mostly from the introduction and adaptation of new materials, especially synthetics and new hook designs. Images from early literature devoted to fly tying on the fly construction process are not significantly different from the process used today. Tools associated with fly tying today also evolved as technologies evolved. Flies tied in the mid-19th century were done so without the benefit of a hook vise. Instead the hook was held by the fingers while the fly was constructed. Consider this description: The Method of Dressing a Hackled-fly from Rod Fishing in Clear Waters (London 1860):
Your materials being now in a state of readiness, the hook must be first tied on with waxed silk to the finest end of the hair or gut left after cutting off the curled end, in this manner (Plate vii. No. 1) : Take the bend of the hook between your left finger and thumb, the shank projecting; place an end of the waxed silk, which should be about six inches in length, and the end of the gut along the underside of the shank; pass the silk over until you have wrapped it down to the end of the shank, and two or three turns back for the head of the fly ; take the feather or hackle as prepared (Plate vii. No. 2), put the point of the feather from where it is turned back with the outside next the hook, and hold it there with your left finger and thumb until you pass the silk over it, just where you left off, wrapping it twice or thrice on its downward rounds to the bend of the hook ; take your scissors and cut off the root of the feather, and the superfluous gut under the bend of the hook, leaving it not quite so long as the body of the fly has to be made ; take the thick end of your feather in your tweezers or pliers and wrap it over three or four times close together, following the silk wrappings until it is all, or as much as you deem sufficient, twirled on; then take your silk and pass over the end once or twice; cut off the superfluous part of the feather and wrap up the shank with the silk, evenly and regularly, to form the body of the fly, and fasten off by a loop-knot or two; or,if you want a thick-bodied fly or one of flossed silk, turn down again and fasten off at the shoulder ; cut off the silk left, set the feather right with your needle and finger and thumb, and the fly is made or dressed. This is the simplest method.
One of the earliest references to the use of a fly tying vise is in Ogden on Fly Tying (London, 1887). Other fly tying tools—scissors, hackle pliers, bodkins, etc. have remained remarkably similar for the last 120 years.
Tying artificial flies has always been about imitating some form of fish prey with natural and/or synthetic materials bound to a hook. Significant literature exists, especially for trout flies, on the concepts of imitation. A Book of Trout Flies – Jennings (1935), Streamside Guide to Naturals & Their Imitations– Art Flick (1947), Matching the Hatch – Schweibert (1955), Selective Trout-Swisher and Richards (1971), Nymphs-Schweibert (1973), Caddisflies-LaFontaine (1989), Prey-Richards (1995) are but a few 20th century titles that deal extensively with imitating natural prey. However, from the human perspective, many fly patterns do not exactly imitate fish prey found in nature, yet they still are successful patterns. As such, a successful or killing fly pattern, therefore imitates something that the target species preys on. This has resulted in fly tiers and fishers devising additional terms to characterize those flies that obviously don’t imitate anything in particular, yet are successful at catching fish. These additional terms are inconsistently, but commonly associated with trout fly patterns because of the huge variety of patterns, both historical and contemporary. The term Attractor pattern has been applied to flies that resemble nothing in particular, but are successful in attracting strikes from fish (Trout Fishing, Brooks 1972). Dick Stewart in Flies for Trout (1993) characterizes these same patterns as General Purpose. Dave Hughes in Trout Flies-The Tier’s Reference (1999) describes the same flies as Searching flies and characterizes three levels of imitation: Impressionistic, Suggestive and Imitative.
Paul Schullery in American Fly Fishing – A History (1996) and The Rise (2006) explains however that although much has been written about the imitation theories of fly design, all successful fly patterns must imitate something to the fish, and even a perfect imitation attracts strikes from fish. The huge range of fly patterns documented today for all sorts of target species-trout, salmon, bass and panfish, pike, saltwater, tropical exotics, etc. are not easily categorized as merely imitative, attractors, searching, impressionistic or something else.
Fly tying tools and materials
The fly tying process benefits from the fly tyer employing the proper tools. According to Skip Morris, a professional fly-tyer, there are several tools essential to the creation of a properly tied fly. He lists essential tools as being: a vise to hold the hook of the fly to be tied, as well as bobbins, magnifying glass for delicate work, hackle pliers, hackle gauges, lights, hair stackers, and scissors. Other optional tools are pliers, toothpicks, bodkins, dubbing twisters, blenders, floss bobbins, whip finishers, wing burners, and bobbin threaders.
Fly tying material can be anything that is used to construct a fly on a hook. Traditional materials were threads, yarns, furs, feathers, hair, tinsels, cork, balsa and wire. Today's materials not only include all sorts of natural and dyed furs, hair and feathers but a wide array of synthetic materials. Rabbit, mink, muskrat, fox, bear, squirrel and other furs, deer, elk, moose hair and chicken, pheasant, turkey, duck, goose and partridge feathers were and still are commonly incorporated into artificial flies. Neck and saddle hackle from chickens, so critical to many artificial fly patterns is being especially bred for fly tying to achieve superior performance and color. Synthetics have allowed fly tyers to replicate rare and sometimes illegal and endangered furs and feathers and well as create completely new types of flies. Synthetics such as rubber legs, plastic wings and transparent plastic cords, chenilles, and all sorts and colors of flashy materials that can be incorporated into wings and bodies of today's artificial fly are available to the 21st Century fly tyer. Whereas lead wire was the traditional method of weighting flies, today's weighting materials include glass, brass and tungsten beads and cones as well as lead materials. Silicone, epoxy, kevlar thread and other modern materials are being incorporated in artificial fly patterns regularly.
The hook determines the basic size and shape of each fly and is generally an important part of any fly pattern description. Hooks come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, lengths, and weights, and the hook must be selected to complement the pattern being tied and the method by which it will be fished. Additionally, flies constructed for use in salt water are typically tied on corrosion-resistant hooks.
The fly pattern
The fly pattern is the recipe for any particularly named fly. In older literature, especially prior to the 20th century, fly patterns were referred to as dressings. The pattern specifies the size range and type of hook to be used, the materials to use including type, color and size, and in some cases specific tying instructions to achieve a particular effect or configuration. Fly patterns allow tyers to consistently reproduce any given pattern over time. A Light Cahill dry fly produced by one tyer will look remarkably similar to the same fly produced by a completely different tyer if the pattern is followed with reasonable accuracy with comparable materials. Patterns may also lay out alternatives for different materials and variations of the fly.
Fly patterns are usually found in fly fishing and fly tying literature and periodicals to include on-line sources. Although fly patterns do provide some consistency, different writers may publish patterns that contain small to moderate differences across pattern descriptions for the same fly. In many cases, the greatest differences are in tying technique instead of form, color and materials. Fly patterns may or may not have an image or drawing of the finished fly to guide the fly tyer. Historically, fly patterns have been included in texts that discuss fishing a particular genre of fly, fly fishing technique or fly fishing for specific species or genre of gamefish. There are however, texts that are pure fly pattern and tying references with little or no instruction on how to fish them.
Parts of an artificial fly
Salmon flies have historically been the most complex and gaudy of artificial flies. Texts describing fly tying techniques often use an image of a salmon fly to describe all the parts of an artificial fly. The parts described below are typical.
|Key to Parts of Salmon Fly Image
There is no convention or consistency in the naming of artificial flies. Long-standing, popular patterns have names that have persisted well over time. Fly designers, amateur or professional fly tyers however, are free to create any fly they choose and name it any way they want to. Angling writers, the popular angling press, and professional fly tackle dealers have always introduced new patterns, with new names. The only naming convention is that there is no convention. Flies have been named to honor or celebrate fellow anglers: Royal Wulff, Jock Scott, Quill Gordon, Adams; named to describe their color and composition: Ginger Quill, Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear, Partridge and Orange; named to reflect some regional origin: Bow River Bugger, Tellico nymph, San Juan worm; named to reflect the prey they represent: Golden stone, Blue-wing Olive, Pale Morning Dun, White swimming shrimp; named to reflect nothing in particular: Woolly Bugger, Crazy Charlie, Club Sandwich and more often than not named to reflect the name of the designer: Copper John nymph (John Barr), Clouser Deep Minnow (Bob Clouser), Brooks' Montana stone (Charles Brooks), Carey Special (Colonel Carey), Dahlberg Diver (Larry Dahlberg).
The following is an example of how flies get their names and those names evolve over time.
- The Coachman
Most famous of all trout flies is the Coachman, originated by Tom Bosworth, who drove Queen Victoria's coach
- The Royal Coachman
The Royal Coachman was first made by John Haily a professional fly dresser living in New York City. In writing of other matters, he enclosed this fly for us to see, saying "A gentleman wanted me to tie up some Coachman for him to take to the north woods and to make them extra strong, so I have tied them with a little band of silk in the middle to prevent the peacock bodies from fraying out. I have also added a tail of the barred feathers of the wood-duck, and I think it makes a very handsome fly." A few evenings later, a circle of us were together "disputing the fly in question", one of the party claiming that numbers were "quite as suitable to designate the flies as so many nonsensical names." The others did not agree with him, but he said: "What can you do? Here is a fly intended to be a Coachman; but it is not the true Coachman; it is quite unlike it and what can you call it?" Mr. L. C. Orvis, brother of Mr. Charles Orvis, who was present said: "Oh that is easy enough; call it the Royal Coachman it is so finely dressed!" And this name in time came to be known and used by all who are familiar with the fly.
- The Royal Wulff
I will be forever indebted to Dan [Dan Bailey] for his companionship and inspiration. Indebted, too, because it was Dan who insisted on giving my name to the Wulff Series and gave me stature I might never have had otherwise. We were fishing together on the Esopus in the spring of 1930 when I was trying out some new flies I'd designed in revolt to the then available Catskill patterns. The new flies had bucktail wings and tails for better floatation. I had planned to call one of them the Bucktail Coachman. It was Dan who insisted that I call them Wulffs and he started tying them under that name-Lee Wulff in the tribute in Mist on the River-Remembrances of Dan Bailey.
Typical fly patterns or dressing descriptions
The typical fly pattern will appear something like one of the illustrative patterns below for the Adams dry fly (without tying instructions) or the Clouser Deep Minnow (with tying instructions). Based on the fly pattern, a knowledgeable fly tyer can reproduce the fly with the materials specified.
|Typical Fly Pattern Descriptions|
Fly pattern types
Historically, fly pattern types have evolved along with fly fishing itself and today there are generally recognized pattern types. However, none of them are absolute and there is much cross-over in patterns and pattern types. Typically the fly tyer will encounter patterns classified as: Dry Flies, Wet Flies, Soft Hackles, Emergers, Nymphs, Terrestrials, Bucktails and Streamers, Salmon (Atlantic) Flies, Steelhead and Salmon (Pacific) Flies, Bass Flies and Bugs, Poppers, Panfish Flies, Saltwater Flies, or Pike Flies. Even within these categories, there can be many sub-categories of imitative and non-imitative flies. For more detail on fly fishing with different types of patterns, see Fly fishing and Artificial fly.
A selection of historic and contemporary fly tying theory and pattern references
There are hundreds of fly fishing titles that contain fly tying instructions, fly patterns and information on fly tying tools and materials. Below is a selection of key American and British titles that span the history of fly tying theory from the mid-19th Century to the present day. Additional references on artificial flies and fly tying can be found in the Bibliography of fly fishing
|Ronalds, Alfred (1836). The Fly-Fisher's Entomology. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans.||
|Blacker, William (1855). Blacker's Art of Fly Making. London: Geo Nichols.||Online Version (1855 Edition)
|Halford, F. M. (1886). Floating Flies and How to Dress Them. A Treatise on the Most Modern Methods of Dressing Artificial Flies for Trout and Grayling with Full Illustrated Directions and Containing Ninety Hand-Coloured Engravings of the Most Killing Patterns Together with a Few Hints to Dry-Fly Fishermen. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington.|||
|Pritt, Thomas E. (1885). Yorkshire Trout Flies. Leeds: Goodall and Suddick.||
|Ogden, James (1887). Ogden on Fly Tying, Etc. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington.|
|Theakston, Michael; Walbran, Francis M. (1888). British Angling Flies. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington.|
|Marbury, Mary Orvis (1892). Favorite Flies and Their Histories. Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company.||
|Kelson, George M. (1895). The Salmon Fly-How To Dress It and How to Use It. London: Wyman & Sons, Limited.||
|West, Leonard (1913). The Natural Trout Fly and Its Imitation. Ravenshead, St Helens: McCorquodale & Co., Ltd.|
|Rhead, Louis (1919). American Trout Stream Insects-A Guide to Angling Flies and other Aquatic Insects Alluring to Trout. New York: Frederick A. Stokes and Co.|
|McClelland, H. G. (1919). The Trout Fly Dresser's Cabinet of Devices or How To Tie Flies for Trout and Grayling Fishing. London: The Fishing Gazette.|
|Jennings, Preston J. (1935). A Book of Trout Flies. New York: Crown Publishers, Derrydale Press.||Jennings was probably the first American Fly Fishing writer to tie the entomology of trout stream insects to the artificial flies and how to fish them in this 1935 seminal work.|
|Schwiebert, Ernest G. Jr. (1955). Matching The Hatch-A Practical Guide to Imitation of Insects Found On Eastern and Western Trout Waters. Toronto, Canada: The MacMillan Company.||Matching The Hatch was the first American book to cover fly imitiation from a transcontinental perspective and is widely read and reprinted. According to Paul Schullery, Matching The Hatch set the standard for fly entomology and tying studies for the late 20th Century.|
|Marinaro, Vincent C. (1950). A Modern Dry Fly Code. New York: G. P. Putnam Sons. ISBN 1-55821-413-5.||One of the most important angling books of the 20th Century A Modern Dry Fly Code, Marinaro revolutionized American trout fishing with his experiences on the Pennsylvania spring creeks in the 1940s and 50s.
Dr. Andrew Herd wrote:
|Shaw, Helen (1963). Fly-tying—Materials, Tools and Techniques. New York: The Ronald Press Company.||Helen Shaw was considered the First Lady of Fly Tying by Arnold Gingrich and was considered one of the premier professional fly tyers of the mid-20th Century. Fly-tying—Materials, Tools and Techniques was a fly-tying bible in its time|
|Bates, Joseph D. (1966). Streamer Fly Tying & Fishing. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books.|
|Flick, Arthur B. (1967). The New Streamside Guide to Naturals and their Imitations. New York: Crown Publishers Inc.||Describes the flies and nymphs significant in trout fishing, and explains the procedures for constructing imitations|
|Bates, Joseph D. (1970). Atlantic Salmon Flies and Fishing. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-0180-8.||A comprehensive look at all aspects of Atlantic Salmon fishing and dressing Atlantic Salmon flies. Eight color plates of Flies.|
|Richards, Carl; Swisher, Doug (1971). Selective Trout-A Dramatically New and Scientific Approach to Trout Fishing on Eastern and Western Rivers. New York: Crown Publishers.||
|Schwiebert, Ernest (1973). Nymphs-A Complete Guide to Naturals and Imitations. New York: Winchester Press. ISBN 0-87691-074-6.|
|Wakeford, Jacqueline (1992). Fly Tying Tools and Materials. New York: Lyons & Burford Publishers. ISBN 1-55821-183-7.||Loaded with color photographs and descriptions of the natural materials such as fur, hair and feathers used in fly tying.|
|Stewart, Dick; Allen, Farrow (1993). Flies for Trout. New York: Lyons & Burford. ISBN 0-936644-14-1.|
|Schmookler, Paul; Sils, Ingrid V. (1994). Rare and Unusual Fly Tying Materials-A Natural History Volume 1 – Birds. Mills, MA: The Complete Sportsman. ISBN 1-886961-01-8.||
|Schmookler, Paul; Sils, Ingrid V. (1997). Rare and Unusual Fly Tying Materials-A Natural History Volume 2 – Birds and Mammals. Mills, MA: The Complete Sportsman. ISBN 1-886961-02-6.||
|Hughes, Dave (1999). Trout Flies-The Tier's Reference. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-8117-1601-7.|
|Rosenbauer, Tom (2001). The Orvis Fly Tying Guide. New York: The Lyons Press. ISBN 1-58574-033-0.||The Orvis Fly Tying Guide is a typical, comprehensive contemporary fly tying reference with excellent photographs on technique, equipment, patterns and tying instructions.
|Clouser, Bob (2006). Clouser’s Flies. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-0148-4.||A fly pattern reference for a specific genre of fly—the Clouser Deep Minnow—authored by the original designer of the fly.
|Soucie, Gary (2006). Woolly Wisdom. Portland, Oregon: Frank Amato Publications. ISBN 1-57188-352-5.||A typical contemporary fly pattern reference devoted to a specific genre of flies--Woolly Worms and Woolly Buggers.
|Greenhalgh, Malcolm; Jason Smalley (2009). Fishing Flies: A World Encyclopedia of Every Type of Fly. London: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-00-728845-8.||Fishing Flies: A World Encyclopedia of Every Type of Fly
- Artificial fly for examples of different types of flies
- Fly Tyer for a magazine devoted to fly tying
- Shaw, Helen (1963). Fly-tying—Materials, Tools and Techniques. New York: The Ronald Press Company. iii..
- Gregg, E. C. (1940). How To Tie Flies. New York,: A. S. Barnes and Company. vii.
- Best, A. K. (1989). Production Fly Tying. Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Company. ISBN 0-87108-781-2.
- Jennings, Preston J. (1935). A Book of Trout Flies. New York: Crown Publishers, Derrydale Press.
- Wakeford, Jacqueline (1992). Fly Tying Tools and Materials. New York: Lyons & Burford Publishers. p. reface. ISBN 1-55821-183-7.
- Best, A. K. (1989). Production Fly Tying. Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Company. Forward. ISBN 0-87108-781-2.
- Wade, Henry (1860). Rod-Fishing in Clear Waters By Fly, Minnow and Work With a Short and Easy method to the Art of Dressing Flies. London: Bell and Daldy.
- Ogden, James (1887). Ogden on Fly Tying, Etc. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington. p. vi.
- McClelland, H. G. (1919). The Trout Fly Dresser's Cabinet of Devices or How To Tie Flies for Trout and Grayling Fishing. London: The Fishing Gazette. p. 63.
- Wade, Henry (1860). Rod-Fishing in Clear Waters By Fly, Minnow and Work With a Short and Easy method to the Art of Dressing Flies. London: Bell and Daldy. p. 132.
- Schullery, Paul (1996). American Fly Fishing-A History. Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press. pp. 85–99, 228–234.
- Morris, Skip (1992). Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple. Portland, OR: Frank Amato Publications. ISBN 1-878175-13-0.
- Wakeford, Jacqueline (1992). Fly Tying Tools and Materials. New York: Lyons & Burford Publishers. ISBN 1-55821-183-7.
- Morris, Skip (1992). Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple. Portland, OR: Frank Amato Publications. ISBN 1-878175-13-0.
- Kelson, George M. (1895). The Salmon Fly-HOW TO DRESS IT AND HOW TO USE IT. London: Wyman and Sons Ltd. pp. 17–18.
- McDonald, John (1972). Quill Gordon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. late 5. ISBN 0-394-46989-5.
- Marbury, Mary Orvis (1892). Favorite Flies and Their Histories. Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company. p. 97.
- Waterman, Charles F. (1986). Mist on the River-Remembrances of Dan Bailey. Livingston, MT: Yellowstone Press. p. x. ISBN 0-9617253-0-3.
- Stewart, Dick; Allen, Farrow (1993). Flies for Trout. New York: Lyons & Burford. p. 2. ISBN 0-936644-14-1.
- Schullery, Paul (2006). The Rise-Streamside Observations on Trout, Flies and Fly Fishing. Mechanicsburg, Pa: Stackpole Books. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-8117-0182-2.
- Jackson, Alec (Summer 1982). "Blacker's Art of Fly Making, 1855 – The peculiar and eccentric production of a milestone book". The American Fly Fisher 9 (3): 12–19.
- Schullery, Paul, Reading The Rise
- Schullery, Paul (2006). The Rise-Streamside Observations on Trout, Flies and Fly Fishing. Mechanicsburg, Pa: Stackpole Books. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-8117-0182-2.
- Barry, Ann (October 1988). "Outdoors; An Angling Classic Returns to Print". New York times (October 30th, 1988).
- Jackson, Alec (Summer 1980). "Salmon Systematics-A review of Two Editions of George Kelson's Monumental Book on Salmon Flies and Salmon Fishing". The American Fly Fisher 7 (3): 24–28.
- Gingrich, Arnold (1974). The Fishing In Print-A Guided Tour Through Five Centuries of Angling Literature. New York: Winchester Press. p. 282. ISBN 0-87691-157-2.
- Schullery, Paul (1996). American Fly Fishing-A History. Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press. pp. 85–99, 199–200..
- Book and Video Reviews, Fly Anglers Online
- Herd, Dr. Andrew, Fly Fishing History
- Schullery, Paul (1996). American Fly Fishing-A History. Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press. pp. 183, 215..
- Google Book Search
- Gingrich, Arnold (1974). The Fishing In Print-A Guided Tour Through Five Centuries of Angling Literature. New York: Winchester Press. p. 312. ISBN 0-87691-157-2.
- Schullery, Paul (2006). The Rise-Streamside Observations on Trout, Flies and Fly Fishing. Mechanicsburg, Pa: Stackpole Books. p. 105. ISBN 978-0-8117-0182-2.
- Nelson, Bryant, OUTDOORS; Insightful Reading on Hunting and Fishing to Pass the Winter, New York Times Book Reviews, December 6th, 1992, 
- Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (November 1995). "BOOKS OF THE TIMES;The Past, From Simple to Popular to Elegant". New York times (November 27th, 1995).
- Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (December 1997). "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; In Time for the Holidays, a Few Favorites". New York times (November 1st, 1997).
- Global Flyfisher Book Reviews
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