Married Wings

Lesson 8 - Married Wings
Full Dress Flies
By Eric Austin

Ray Meade

Marrying wings on wet flies and salmon flies has long been treated by authors as a rather arcane art, one filled with talk of barbules, rachis, barbicels and hooklets. I hope to take some of the mystery and all of the pseudo-science out of married wings in this article, and give you a straightforward "how to" in simple English, with pictures. Let's not make this any harder than it really is.

What are we actually trying to do when we create a married wing? We are trying to make one wing, for either the near side or the far side of our fly, out of slips cut from different feathers. When I say near wing, I mean the one closest to the tier. For instance, here is a piece cut from the left side of a turkey tail feather that could be used as the near wing in a wet fly:

Here is that same turkey tail piece, married with a couple of strips from the left side of a piece of Amherst pheasant tail:

What did I do to combine these? I added the top strip of Amherst pheasant to the turkey first, pushing the edges of the feathers together starting from the tips. When the feathers were together somewhat I then grasped the butts in my right hand, and "zipped" the feathers together with my left middle finger and thumb. The bottom strip was then added the same way. There really is nothing to it, these feathers WANT to marry, they HAVE to marry or the bird couldn't fly. We don't actually care why this is, just accept the fact that it is. But there are some hard and fast rules that must be followed, or this marriage will end in a quick divorce.

Let's look at a real-world example and I'll explain the rules. We're going to tie a Ray Meade, a full dress salmon fly that has wings with black and yellow stripes, and we're going to do the married wing first. What I'm going to do initially is lay out my feathers, getting my lefts and rights together and straight so I don't get them mixed up. Take a careful look at this picture:

These are quasi "matched pairs" of feathers. We hope that the feathers you use will be truly matched, one from each side of the bird. As I look down at the top of these feathers, you'll notice that the ones on the left curve slightly to the right, and the ones on the right curve slightly to the left. It's not extremely important that your feathers do this, but it is a good way of keeping your pairs straight. We will marry slips cut from the left side of the left hand feathers together to make the near wing, and then later, we will marry slips cut from the right side of the right hand feathers to make the far wing. Don't get these mixed up! Do one wing at a time, and put the other feathers aside. Here's a diagram showing you what parts of what feathers to use, for which wing:

We are looking down on the top of the feathers, in other words at the convex side if they are goose shoulders, with the stem toward us. On some feathers it's no so easy to tell which side is the "top." Look for a single stem, if the stem seems to have two sections to it, you're looking at the bottom of the feather. Orient your feathers this way every time. We are going to make the near wing first, so we will use only the two feathers on the left in our picture. Put the other two feathers away. It's a good idea to wash dirty feathers in Woolite, slowly dry them, and then steam them. They will marry more easily. Prep the feathers, getting rid of the bottom third of the fibers or so, which is just fluff that will never marry anyway. Cut a strip three strands wide from each feather. It will look like this:

Now cut three more from each feather, and lay them out in order, just as they came off from bottom to top.

If any of the slips you cut is damaged or has intertwined strands, discard it and cut another. You really need decent slips to work with, or you have no chance. You may trim the odd fiber sticking out of the tip, I won't tell. I've just married these strips myself, starting with black on the bottom, adding a strip at a time, going up. I found that I hold the base strip in the middle of the strip with the thumb and middle finger of my left hand, I then take the strip I want to add with my right and match its tip to the one I'm going to marry to (the one or ones in my left hand ). I then pinch both with my left hand, keeping them together, and push everything else together with my right. Then I grab the butts of all with my right, and "zip" with my left thumb and middle finger, causing the feathers to marry completely. Be careful when you're marrying strips to not get a strip flipped over. The curvature of the strip you're marrying must match the ones you've already done, or it won't marry. I like to stagger the slips slightly as I go up, so that the resulting wing has a curvature similar to that of a section of a feather. Lots of tiers do it this way, but Ron Alcott likes to make all the tips even. Am I going to argue with Ron Alcott? I think not. Do what you prefer. When all is said and done it should look something like this:

Boy that was easy. What could possibly go wrong here? Well, lots of things could go wrong actually. I've already talked about a strip getting "flipped", it'll never marry. To avoid this happening you could cut a strip at a time from your feathers, instead of cutting them all at once as I've done. It might be a good idea to do them this way at first, so you're less likely to flip a strip. You can actually get a feather sometimes which is of such poor quality that it won't even marry well to itself. Forget about that one, even if you get it to marry, when you tie it in the wing will fall apart. Make sure you've prepped your feathers, washed them in Woolite, gently dried them, and then steamed them. This will greatly help the ability of these feathers to marry, especially if they're from the dreaded golden pheasant tail. Some feathers are just tough to marry period, and two that leap to mind are macaw and golden pheasant tail. Of course, if you didn't follow my instructions and are trying to marry lefts to rights, you're doomed. One other thing can happen, and you really need to watch for this. Look out for "reverse curl" in your feather. You see a lot of this with turkey. It's where the tips of the feathers curl back up toward you as you look down on the top of the feather. Here's a shot of a turkey tail feather where the left side of the feather exhibits lots of reverse curl.

Mallard primaries do this naturally, as do goose primaries. It can be very frustrating to try to marry a left that has a ton of reverse curl to a left that doesn't. It can be done, but it might be best to try and straighten the feather out first. If it's goose or swan, you can iron out the reverse curl with an iron on very low heat with steam. If it's turkey, you can't. With turkey you can wet the feather and put the side of the feather where you want less curl in between the pages of a book, then stack more books on it. In about a month you should have a usable feather. I don't go through these contortions myself; I buy more feathers. That fits in with my life's plan of spending every available financial resource at my disposal on fly tying materials.

Can you marry lefts that have a lot of reverse curl to other lefts that have a lot of reverse curl? Yes, no problem. The Ray Meade shown at the top of the article was done that way. I had yellow and black swan feathers where the long sides had lots of reverse curl, so I went ahead and used them. Tying them in was a bit more difficult though than if I had been able to use the sides of the feathers without the reverse curl. Of course, those sides were too short.

So we've got our left wing completed, and now need to do the right. In order that your marrying technique stays consistent, it is a good idea to orient the feathers with the concave or bottom sides up, so that the slips you are going to cut, while still being rights, are available to you on the left. It's just easier to cut them off if you're right handed. So you'll start with the feathers like this:

Now cut slips like this:

Marry them, keeping the concave or bottom sides of the slips facing you, just as you would look at the far wing on a fly if you tied it in alone. Again, start with black on the bottom. It should wind up looking like this:

Here are both married wings, ready to tie in:

You'll notice that the right wing (far) is shorter than the left. That's because my right feathers didn't have enough strand length. It's a good idea to measure your feathers for strand length before you start. Measure your hook shank all the way to the bend of the hook, then add " or so, and try to get feathers with strands that are at least as long as the total. For instance, if I'm going to tie a 3/0 fly, and the shank length is 2", I'll need at least 2 and " strand length on all my feathers. You will spend your life trying to find feathers with enough strand length.

Marrying Single Strands

Marrying single strands might seem difficult at first, but there's a trick. Marry two or more strands of a feather in, then cull out everything but one strand with a bodkin or your scissors. If you plan correctly, you can then take the fibers that were culled out and use them as a group later. Let's say I want to marry two strands of yellow, then one of red, then two strands of yellow, then two of red. I'll start with three strands of red, marry it to the two of yellow, cull out the extra two strands of red, saving it for the two strands of red needed later. Not so hard after all.

Married Wings - Wet Flies

Marrying wings on wet flies can be a little confusing. You are generally using mallard quills here, as is traditional. You can use goose shoulders, but it's really not done much, and tends to get a little "wimpy." Mallard quill has a lot of reverse curl in the feathers, and because of that, if you use the techniques described above, lefts for near wings, rights for far, you will wind up with wings that have their tips out, pointing away from each other, like this:

How big a problem is this really? Not a problem at all, J. Edson Leonard liked his wet flies this way, and none other than the great Pennsylvania tier Don Bastian agrees, and now ties all his wet flies in this manner. It's great because you don't have to do anything differently; the wings are married and tied on just as you would full dress wings, but now the tips point out due to the reverse curl of the mallard quills. The "good" side of the feather shows on the outside of the wing with this method. Now let me throw in the monkey wrench. I personally don't tie my wet flies this way. One look at Trout by Ray Bergman will make my point. The flies I remember from the '60s didn't have their tips out, nor do the ones in Trout. But there is more than one way to skin a cat, and Don's way is certainly easier, and his results speak for themselves. If you'd rather get the "tips together" look, it's easily done. Once you've married the wings simply tie the "right" married feather in on the side toward you, and the "left" on the side away from you. In other words, reverse the left and right wings. Note that the "good" side of the feathers is now not showing. Now your fly will look like this:

However you do it, marrying wings on wet flies is a great way to get your feet wet with marrying wings in general. You're typically marrying only three slips, and if you use Don's method (tips out), it will lead directly toward full dress salmon fly wings. So I wholeheartedly recommend starting your marrying career doing some wet flies tips out, then moving on to full dress flies once you've gotten things down.

Some Conclusions

Marrying wings is either the easiest thing in the world, or the hardest depending on two factors. The first is your materials. Are they clean, steamed, fresh, undamaged, high quality matched pairs of feathers? Are these feathers free from a lot of reverse curl? Is their curvature generally the same? Are you cutting slips from the good area of these feathers (the middle third or slightly above)? The second factor is you. Have you gotten things laid out and prepped properly? Have you measured the strand length on your feathers? Are you working with just one group of feathers at a time (lefts or rights)? You haven't mixed up the rights and lefts have you? This is the kiss of death. You will NEVER marry a right to a left. Am I marrying good side to good side with my slips? In other words, do the curvatures of the slips I'm trying to marry match? If one gets flipped, you've got a problem. Are you working hard enough to get these things together? Manhandle these puppies. MAKE them go together. If you've done everything right, and they still won't marry solidly, throw one or more slips away. Try another feather. Don't take no for an answer. I like to swear at the feathers, but that may not be for everyone. Just keep in mind that it's natural for these fibers to want to marry, and chances are good that if they're not, it's your fault. Above all, have fun. ~ Eric Austin

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