Fur, Feathers & Steel
To tie flies in the 'traditional' manner, the trout angler
must use all natural materials.
By Neil M. Travis, Montana
Place a hook in your vice and attach gray tying silk,
winding from the eye to the tail position. Strip the
flues from a grizzly hackle and a brown hackle feather,
mix the fibers and tie in at the tail position. Select
some gray underfur from a muskrat pelt, remove any guard
hairs, and dub a tapered body. Select two hackle feathers,
one from a grizzly neck and one from a brown neck. Tie in
at the wing position and wrap. Whip finish head. If wings
are desired use grizzly hackle tips, tied upright or spent.
When I started tying flies over 35 years ago those were
the instructions given for tying the standard Adams dry
fly. All natural material was used to tie this fly, from
the tying silk to the body fur. There were no artificial
materials, it was fur, feather and steel. This had been
the pattern for the construction of artificial flies for
over 300 years. Many modern fly tiers, especially those
who have only been tying for a few years, may never have
used any of the natural materials, except hackle, that
formed the basis for fly tying since its inception.
Most artificial flies tied today truly are artificial.
Synthetic fibers of every description have replaced
almost every component used to construct an artificial
fly. The only major component that has yet to be
successfully duplicated by synthetic materials is hackle.
The chicken is still king in this department.
What the modern fly tyer has gained in this avalanche of
artificial materials is the ready availability of materials
in any color and texture desired, without spending time
procuring and dying the material. Many of the colors
available in synthetic materials cannot be duplicated
with natural materials, and the range of hue and
intensity is unobtainable in dyed natural materials. For
anglers who tie salt water flies and Atlantic Salmon
patterns the modern synthetic materials have been a
tremendous blessing. However, for the trout angler
the advantages of synthetic materials is not as well
defined, and the angler who wishes to tie his trout
flies in a 'traditional' manner will find the materials
readily available and well suited for his needs.
Natural furs made up the bulk of the fly tyer's kit
just a few short years ago. Heading the list were
furs from animals that live in the water; muskrat,
mink, otter and beaver. Pieces of these furs could
be used in their natural state, or bleached and dyed
in a variety of colors.
Natural furs generally consist of a coarse outer coat,
and a softer inner coat. The outer coat contains stiff
hairs called guard hairs. These stiff hairs take the
wear caused by the animals activities, thus protecting
the under coat from excessive wear. The undercoat is
composed of dense, fine fur that provides the animal
with warmth. On animals that live in water this under
coat is usually quite dense, and tends to keep the water
from reaching the animal's skin. When not in the water
these animals spend much of their time grooming their
fur to insure that it retains its' insulating qualities.
By grooming they keep their fur from becoming matted,
and the grooming process spreads a natural oil throughout
the fibers, enhancing the waterproofing character of the
Muskrat and beaver fur are excellent furs for dry fly
bodies since they are very water resistant. The fur ranges
from light gray to a dark blue gray. The outer guard hairs,
especially on the beaver, make excellent tails. Otter fur
is light tan to dark brown, and makes an excellent coarse
dubbing when the guard hairs are mixed in with the softer
There are other furs from animals that do not frequent
the water that also provide excellent dubbing material.
Years ago there was a company called 'Herters' which sold
all manner of sporting goods. They were one of the first
and largest catalogue sporting goods retailers, and they
carried a large selection of fly tying material. I ordered
a selection of there 'Belgian Mole Skins,' which they sold
in a variety of natural and dyed colors. The fur is very
fine and makes excellent dubbing. I still have several of
those skins along with several 'native' moles that I trapped
and skinned myself.
Rabbits provide the tyer with a variety of material useful
for fly tying. The body fur comes in a variety of colors
and is easily dyed. Vince Marinaro in his classic book,
A Modern Dry Fly Code, set forth a receipt
for making 'Yallow Carrited Stuff,' from a book published
in 1876 entitled, Quaint Treatise on Flees and the
Art A Artyfischall Flee Making, by Aldam. By placing
white rabbit fur in a solution of nitric acid and water, the
fur takes on a sulfur-yellow color. Vince used fur this for
tying his Sulphur Duns and spinners.
Rabbit ears, or more properly Hare's Mask and ears, provide
the tyer with a variety of fur, from soft to bristly. The
Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear is still a very productive fly, and
is an excellent nymph imitation for many types of mayflies
Rabbit skins are also cut into strips and used for tying a
variety of streamer flies. Common rabbit fur is a very useful
and versatile material that is readily available for the fly
Other furs used by fly tyers are Australian opossum, raccoon,
nutria and seal.
Various types of hair are used by fly tyers when tying traditional
flies. Hair from certain parts of deer, elk and antelope are hollow.
This hollow hair can be spun on a hook shank, clipped and formed
into compact fly bodies for dry flies, or for the heads of streamer
Moose hair, especially the long hair found on the mane, is very
useful for tying bodies for midges and mayfly spinners. The fly
tyer takes a single hair and wraps it on the hook shank to form
the body of the fly. Given a thin coating of fly head cement
will produce a realistic and durable body.
Old flying tying books mention the use of horse hair for tying
flies. This is the hair taken from the mane and tail of the
horse. It is extremely strong, and comes in a variety of colors.
Horse hair, unlike moose hair, is normally quite thin so the
fly tyer may need to wrap several layers on the hook to achieve
the desired results. Since this hair is quite strong it makes
excellent ribbing for smaller flies.
Bear hair, bucktail and calf tail hair make excellent streamer
and bucktail wings. Many tyers have substituted one of the
various synthetics in place of these natural hairs, but the
natural hair still has many advantages. Natural hair generally
has a softer look and feel that may cause the fish to hold the
artificial in its mouth a little longer, giving the angler more
time to set the hook.
CARE AND STORAGE
Unlike synthetic material, natural fur and hair requires some
care in handling and storage. Since natural materials will
attract moths and beetles that feed on the fur and hide, it
necessary to protect them.
I have found large mouth glass jars make the best storage
containers. I obtained my storage jars from local restaurants.
These jars contained mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, and similar
bulk foods. I would wash them, remove the label from the outside
and let them dry thoroughly. The jars have tight fitting lids
that keep out even the most persistent moth or beetle, and the
contents are easily seen from the outside. To insure that no
hitch-hiking bug comes in on the material I drop a moth ball
in each jar.
If large mouthed glass or plastic jars are hard to obtain
then plastic bags will provide a good substitute. I like
the commercial 'zip-locking' bags that are available in a
variety of sizes, and can be found in any grocery store.
They make it easy to store and retrieve your materials,
as well as providing protection from insect pests.
~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona
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