Fly tying feathers can be broken down into 2 main categories – Feathers for Dry flies and feathers for all other flies. Feathers are used as wings, tails, body material, hackles, throats, collars, cheeks and sides. Feathers from a variety for bird species are used – Chicken, Turkey, Waterfowl, Upland Game Birds, Exotic species and more. Some feathers are chosen for their coloration and patterns, while others are chosen for their ability to absorb or repel water, or their stiffness or flexibility.
Dry Fly Feathers
Feathers used on dry flies are most often the slim rooster chicken saddle hackles. They are generally selected for each fly based on the hook size. You generally want your hackle feathers to extend away from the hook no further then the width of the hook gap. Dry fly hackles are usually either wrapped around the hook shank near the head of the fly, or wrapped around a “post” near the head of the fly.
Dry fly feathers are generally used in their natural state and come in many shades, colors and sizes. For years, poultry farms have been breeding their stock to bring out the best genetic traits in each type of bird. I highly recommend a visit to Whiting Farms website for some history and great information about genetically raised birds.
Some feathers used for dry flies are from Waterfowl. The Cul de Cunard (CDC) feathers are from the rear end of a duck and are located near the birds preen glands. They have natural water repellent built right in. Waterfowl flank feathers are often used as wings and body material.
Hackle feather stems (stripped of the fibers) are used in dry fly patterns for body wraps and antenna.
You’ll also find some exotic species feathers on dry flies. Peacock herls are used to decorate some attractor dry fly patterns like the Royal Coachman and the Renegade.
Wet Fly Feathers
Since most of my tying is Steelhead Flies, I want to shift focus to wet fly type feathers. Feathers used in tying steelhead, salmon, streamers, saltwater and other larger flies are often very colorful. This is usually accomplished by dying the feathers. Here you will be using the larger saddle and schlappen feathers from chickens, flank feathers from many waterfowl species and some of the more colorful pheasant species feathers.
Let’s start with Saddle Hackle. Saddle Hackle is used in a variety of ways. It is commonly used for wings, collars or throats and individual fibers pulled from the feather stem are often used as tails on some flies. Saddle feathers can also make a nice body hackle wrap for flies with a “spiky” body appearance. Saddle hackle is somewhat stiff and the fibers often point straight out from the hook shaft. Saddle feathers are generally 3-5″ long.
Schlappen feathers are similar to Saddle feathers, but are often longer (5-7″) and not so stiff. They are used in similar ways that Saddle feathers are. When used as a body hackle wrap, the fibers are more “flowing”. You’ll find schlappen used on a lot of saltwater patterns.
Marabou (or Blood Quill) feathers are extremely “fluffy” and flow very nicely in the water. Marabou is commonly used for tails and wings in both flies and jigs. It is very active in the water and seems to pulsate.
Gadwall, Teal and Mallard Flank feathers are used for throats or collars in many salmon and steelhead patterns. All three have barred markings and create the appearance of “legs” on a fly. Guinea fowl feathers are often used in the same manner.
Peacock herl and Ostrich plume herl are both used as “butts” or sometimes body material on a number of fly patterns. It’s a good idea to create a “rope” with these materials to increase their durability. This is accomplished in the same way as a dubbing loop. Simply twist the herl, along with tying thread or wire to create a rope prior to wrapping around the hook shank. Peacock and Ostrich herl is sometimes used as wing, overwing, or underwing material on several streamer patterns.
Pheasant feathers come from a variety of sub-species. Ringnecks, Golden, Silver, Amhearst and many other pheasant varieties contain some of the most colorful and patterned feathers. Color shading on many pheasants is iridescent and different colors show depending on the angle of light. The crest feathers from the Golden and Amhearst pheasant are commonly used as tails on steelhead and atlantic salmon patterns. Golden Pheasant body feathers are also found in many patterns as wings, tails and body hackle.
Wing feathers from a variety of species, common and exotic, are found on many patterns. Classic Atlantic Salmon patterns, sometimes contain what is known as a “strip wing”, which is built from the individual slips of different colored, even different species, of wing feathers. The individual slips or fibers are “married” together using the built in “barbs”, similar to velco. The wings are built specifically using matching slips from a left and a right feather of similar size, contour and color or pattern. You’ll see strip wings using goose shoulder, turkey, pheasant, peacock and many others.
Atlantic Classic flies also feature many small, decorative feathers from common and exotic bird species. Jungle Cock eyes. Indian Crow, Red Winged Blackbird, Golden Pheasant Crest feathers, Kingfisher and the like are often used to turn a fishing fly into a work of art. There are several fly patterns from the late 1800′s/early 1900′s that call for feathers from species that are now endangered or threatened and can no longer be obtained legally.
Some feathers you may come across that are used in nymphs are grouse body feathers, turkey or goose biots. Pheasant Tail feathers are common as well. There’s even a specific pattern called the Pheasant Tail Nymph that uses Ringneck Pheasant tail feather fibers for the tail, body, wingcase and legs of the fly.
Duck and Goose wing feather slips are also used extensively on some older wet fly patterns like the Trout Fin, Parmaneche Belle, etc. These strip wings are a little easier to produce than those of the Atlantic Salmon flies. The wet fly strip wings generally only feature a color or two and you marry three of four slips to make the wing rather than individual color/species slips.
Tying Tips and Tricks
In addition to there being many types, sizes, colors and patterns of feathers, the way they are applied to hook can vary greatly. For example: Most dry fly hackle is tied in at the butt end of the feather stem, whereas, schlappen, saddle and waterfowl feathers used on steelhead and salmon patterns are tied in at the tip prior to wrapping around the hook shank. The options are too numerous to list here. Just be sure to follow the recipe closely and you’ll be just fine.
Feathers can be somewhat delicate, especially when you consider that you are trying to catch a fish with them and that fish has very sharp teeth. To keep your flies usable for more than one fish, a few tricks have been devised to protect your feathers. I already mentioned the method for building a “rope” to add durability to ostrich and peacock herl. Counter-ribbing is one method used to protect body hackle. You simply over-wrap your tinsel, floss or wire rib material the opposite direction over the top of the hackle. Another method is to “follow” you rib wrap closely, laying the feather stem right next to the rib wraps. The feather stem is somewhat sheilded by the metal rib from sharp teeth.
Got a feather that’s twisted, bent or otherwise looks damaged? Not a problem. Don’t throw that feather out, it can often be easily repaired back to near normal condition by either steaming or soaking in warm water. I prefer steaming, it’s amazing how quickly a feather will jump back into it’s original shape by just holding it over a steaming teapot! Soaking in warm water for a few minutes will accomplish the same thing, but you need to be careful when letting it dry out, plus the time involved.
Soaking is sometimes a required step in the process, especially for thick and/or brittle stemmed feathers that will be wrapped around the hook shank. You should also soak feather stems or quills that you use for body material on smaller flies prior to application.
I hope you find this primer on fly tying feathers useful.