Welcome to Beginning Fly Tying

Part Twelve

An Introduction to Fly Tying:

Hackle and the Woolly Worm

By Al Campbell

Several individuals have mentioned that this series is a good substitution for formal fly tying lessons or a good fly tying book. I can't agree with that thought.

In my opinion, there is no substitution for formal lessons if they are taught right. Likewise, there is no substitution for a good fly tying book. This series is designed to provide a detailed map to fill the gaps that those two methods don't have the time or space to fill.

To keep the costs affordable, books must be limited to a certain amount of pages. And, the time allowed for formal tying lessons limits the scope of those lessons to the bare necessities and basic patterns. Hopefully, for those of you who don't have access to formal lessons, this will do the job for now, but I would encourage lessons for those of you who can obtain them.

Authors like Randy Kaufmann, Skip Morris, Jack Dennis and Dick Talleur to name a few, lend worlds of information to your skills that can be found nowhere else. I personally own and refer to books by these authors and many others. I also subscribe to every fly tying magazine I can find. There is no substitution for a good reference manual. There is no substitution for quality instruction in any of its forms.

Please keep this in mind when you consider passing up one form of instruction because you have another form handy. You will never know the value of that jewel you may be passing up. I encourage you to dig and prod for any form of information you can find on the subject of fly tying, and fly fishing for that matter, whether it be here or elsewhere.

Now, on to this week's tying!

One of the items we use in fly tying on many flies is hackle. Hackle is the fuzzy stuff on the front of most flies, especially dry flies.

Depending on how the hackle is applied to the fly, it will help it float or help it sink. We'll look at the three most common hackle wrapping techniques this week. You'll see the difference, and what you learn this week will be used often in the weeks ahead.

Hackle on a fly is created by wrapping feathers (usually from the neck or saddle of a rooster) around a hook.

Most of the time when we refer to hackle, we are talking about the hackle on the fly, but sometimes we are talking about the feathers used to create the hackled effect. Since hackle feathers vary in quality and type, we need to look at some of the differences.

You can buy hackle in several forms. Sometimes you'll find it sown together in a bunch. This is called strung hackle, and it is often of a poor quality for anything but streamers or woolly worms. Most of the time it is found on the skin, either in a neck or saddle form. This is usually the best quality hackle, but it can be defined more than that.

Hackle feathers have several qualities that make them suitable for dry fly, wet fly or streamer uses. For dry flies, you want a long thin feather with short, stiff barbules and a flexible stem. For wet flies, the feather can have softer barbules, but they still need to be fairly short. For streamers, long, soft barbules are the best.

Quality saddle hackles provide the best dry fly hackle, but are limited in the sizes of hooks that can be used. They are much longer than neck feathers and are more consistent in size from bottom to top. They have the highest barbule count per inch, and the barbules are stiffer than those found on a neck feather.

A good neck from a bird that was raised for fly tying feathers (Metz, Hoffman, etc.) will have a larger variety of feather sizes than a saddle, and is probably more versatile for the beginner fly tyer. You need to be aware that all feathers are not created equal. Good neck feathers will have similar characteristics to saddle hackle feathers, they just aren't as nice to tie with. On the other hand, some neck feathers are shorter and softer than others.

Cheaper necks and saddles have more web and softer barbules than good quality necks and saddles from the better growers (notice the web and thin barbules in feather on the left in the picture above).

Imported necks and saddles look like they cost less at first, but in the long run they cost a lot more because you have to use up to four feathers to tie the same fly you can tie with one quality neck feather. You can tie up to five good dry flies with a quality saddle feather because they are much longer and have a higher barbule count.

You also get more feathers and a greater size selection in a quality cape (neck or saddle) than you get in an import. You'll tie more flies with one good half neck than you'll tie with four import capes, and they'll be better balanced and better floating flies. So, let's tie a fly or two and see how it works. We'll tie the Woolly Worm several ways and you'll see how the method of wrapping hackle is important to how it looks and reacts when it hits the water.

List of materials:

  • Hook: Streamer 2xlong; Eagle Claw L058, Tiemco 5263, Mustad 9672, Daiichi 1720.

  • Body: Chenille, any color you wish.

  • Hackle: Saddle or neck, saddle is preferred. Color to match the body if desired.

  • Thread: 3/0, color to match body or black.

  • Rib: - Wire (used in one method of tying).

    Tying steps:
    Type 1 - Dry style.

  • 1. Select a good neck or saddle feather (saddle is preferred). The length of the barbules should be 1 1/2 to 2 times the hook gape. You can determine the barbule length by wrapping the hackle around the bottom of the hook or bending it near the hook.

  • 2. Strip the fluff and web from the bottom of the feather. Trim the stem to leave a short stem without barbules to tie to the hook.

  • 3.Tie the stem of the feather to the back of the hook just in front of the bend, curvature (dull side) facing up.

  • 4. Tie in chenille to the bend.

  • 5. Wrap chenille forward, form a thick, even body.

  • 6. Tie off and trim. Leave room for a head.

  • 7. Grasp the tip of the hackle feather with hackle pliers and wrap it evenly forward. Be sure to keep the curvature (dull side) to the front as you wrap. This will keep the curvature of the barbules forward and aid in the flotation qualities of the hackle.

  • 8. When you reach the front, tie the hackle off, trim. Whip finish and cement the head.

  • 9. Notice how the barbules slope forward on the fly and the curve of each barbule is forward? This is the proper method of applying a dry fly hackle.

  • If you tie a dry Woolly Worm in small sizes with grizzly hackle and peacock herl for the body, it's called a Griffith's Gnat, an excellent midge imitation. Give it a yellow body and brown hackle, and you have a fair hopper imitation. These are hot bluegill flies too.

    Tying steps:
    Type 2 - Common Wet Style

  • 1. Prepare a hackle feather as before. Pull some of the barbules down from the tip as shown.

  • 2. Tie the hackle feather in by the tip, curvature down.

  • 3. Wrap a chenille body as before.

  • 4. Wrap the hackle forward, keeping the curvature of the barbules (dull side) toward the back of the hook.

  • 5. Tie off hackle, trim, whip finish and cement. Notice how the barbules slope toward the back of the fly and the curve of each barbule is back also? This is the common way to tie a wet Woolly Worm.

    For a more durable Woolly Worm, here is another method of tying this fly. It sinks a little faster too.

  • Type 3 - Durable wet style.
    Tying steps:

  • 1. Tie a gold or copper ribbing wire to the hook.

  • 2. Wrap a chenille body as before.

  • 3.Tie a hackle feather to the front of the fly, curvature facing back.

  • 4. Wrap the hackle evenly to the bend of the hook. Be sure to keep the curvature of the barbules toward the back of the hook.

  • 5. Keeping the hackle feather tight, wrap the ribbing wire forward over the hackle, securing it to the hook.

  • 6.Tie off the wire, trim, whip finish and cement the head.

  • 7. Trim the hackle tip at the bend of the hook.

  • This last method of wrapping hackle is more durable than the others. You'll see it again next week when we tie the Woolly Bugger. Practice all three methods of hackling flies, they are building blocks to the rest of your fly tying education.

    See ya next week. ~ Al Campbell

    Beginning Fly Tying Archives

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