Confused about what tying materials to get started with?
Lucky you, I’ve got some thoughts so you can make some wise buying and tying decisions.
You’re going to see some strange stuff in some fly recipes. Almost like alchemy, but we call fly tying. Polly Rosborough employed owl’s eyebrows for legs of his first Black Drake Nymph, Art Flick used urine-stained hair from a vixen for the Hendrickson, and Tup’s, Indispensable was originally tied with wool from a ram’s scrotum. A list of natural materials from which flies have been constructed would probably cover every known fur-and feather-bearing animal.
The Benefits of Natural Tying Materials
Natural materials offer a wide range of characteristics: color, ability to take dyes, translucency, ability to refract or reflect light, texture, action in the water, floating or sinking properties, ability to trap air bubbles, durability, ease of application, availability, ease of blending, and a rather nebulous property we call bugginess.
Guide Tip: Tying materials is just one part of tying “puzzle” Tools are nearly as important. Check out an article reviewing tools for fly tying – Fly Tying Tools and Materials
Often one material possesses several of these characteristics. Unfortunately, for many tiers, selecting materials that best capture the features of an organism is an intuitive process that isn’t always fully successful. This process becomes more objective (and therefore easier, faster, and more accurate) if the tier understands how to relate the characteristics of organism being imitated.
Color selection would seem to be rather easy. In fact, our understanding about the way fish see color is still rather vague. Water has a background color that can affect color perception (it varies from yellow-green to red depending on overall water clarity and the direction the fish is looking). Backlit colors are different than frontlit colors.
Wet materials are darker than dry. Food organisms are speckled, splotched, barred, or patterned: they may give off colors we can’t see but which fish can. Reflection is the mirroring and scattering of light whereas refraction is the bending of light.
Get a FREE Fly Tying Materials List – A list of the materials needed for fly tying – FLY TYING MATERIALS LIST
The exoskeleton of insects and crustaceans and the scales of minnows are roughened and reflect and refract light; however, most living organisms are not opaque but allow some light to pass through. These nuances in color and lighting may be why natural fly tying materials are so attractive to the fish. Hair and feathers have textured surfaces that reflect and refract light; many are also translucent.
The texture of natural materials varies widely, allowing the tier to achieve almost any degree of coarseness or fineness in the fly.
The most desirable trait is the fly’s ability to float or to sink. Natural materials provide the fly with any degree of buoyance required.
Ascending nymphs or pupae usually generate gasses beneath their skins to help float them to the surface. These bubbles shine through and fish see them easily. Dubbing and coarse feathers such as peacock herl can trap air bubbles on their outer surface; hackles (stiff or otherwise) catch air bubbles; hair wings hold air in the sunken fly.
Guide Tip: Emergers are a stage described in Entomology. Learn more about the bugs “we” fly fishers use in – Fly Fishing Entomology – Bugs that Catch Trout
In addition to selection for imitative characteristics, the fly tier should examine the tying properties of te material. Durability is highly desirable; although fly tying is a most enjoyable adjunct to angling, most fly fishers would rather fish than tie flies. The materials should he easily applied to the hook; a fly that requires an hour’s tying time because of unruly materials is no bargain, even if it is effective.
The following recommendations for natural materials by no means are an omnibus listing. The information should convey the concepts and reasoning behind the selection of materials.
Nymph Materials – Make it Sink
Getting the Nymph Tail Right
The selection of tail material for nymphs should be based on the tier’s overall design concept for the fly. The tier should be asking:
- What are the physical characteristics to imitate (length, width, color, marking, texture, translucency)?
- How does the natural employ these characteristics in a place where fish might see them?
- How will the angling technique affect the appearance of these characteristics? For instance, damselfly nymphs have board paddle-shaped tails that are translucent. The resting natural holds these spread apart.
If the artificial is to sit on the bottom or simply sink among the weeds, then hackle tips make superb tailing material. The swimming natural holds the tails together and moves them with the undulatory motions of the abdomen; in other words, the tails appear as part of the moving body, not as separate structures.
For this reason, the tails and abdomen of the artificial swimming nymph should be designed as a unit. Six years of experimentation have convinced me that clump of marabou is the best material to mimic the tails and abdomen of the swimming natural. When fished with a slow, twitching retrieve, marabou exactly duplicates the pulsing, swaying motion of the living insect.
For burrowing and large swimming mayfly nymphs, swimming fishfly, alderfly, dobsonfly, beetle, cranefly larvae and leech imitations, use marabou or a strip of hide with the fur left on to swim, tail and body, together. For small swimming mayfly nymphs: use tuft of marabou.
Clinging mayfly nymphs or small stonefly nymphs: pheasant tail fibers. Crawling mayfly nymphs: teal, mallard, wood duck, or other speckled, soft fibered feathers. Large stonefly nymphs: fibers from leading edge of goose primary wing feather.
Caddis and midge larvae: no tail or a small clump of marabou if insect has plumose gills. Dead drifted imitation of fishfly, alderfly, dobsonfly, beetle larvae: calf tail hair.
Nymph Body Material
Fur dubbing is an excellent choice for many nymph bodies because this material can be blended for a host of textures and color variations. “It just looks, well, buggy,” is the standard reply when asking why tiers choose dubbed bodies for nymphs. Buggyness may seem an intuitive feeling the tier has about the appearance of the fished fly, but this trait is a real one.
“Bugs” (insects) are not shiny smooth. They possess a wide range of hairs, spurs, tubercles, bumps, warts, spines, gills, and prolegs. Some organisms are more “buggy” looking than others; the body of the artificial should reflect the correct degree of coarseness.
Match rough-looking insects with a blend of short- and medium-length guard hairs and medium and long, fine fur. Smooth-bodied insects are well matched with blend of fine furs only. Seal is a highly prized coarse guard hair for blending because this material is translucent and imparts a realistic impression of the exoskeleton of insects and crustaceans.
White rabbit is a most useful fur because it is easily dyed any color. I like to buy whole rabbit skins and dye them myself so I can take advantage of the many different textures available from the various areas of the pelt. Belly hairs are long and very fine; guard hairs are translucent; and so on.
Other abundant and useful furs are muskrat, mink, here’s mask, otter, Australian opossum, fitch, beaver, and fox.
Natural yarns of mohair, angora, and many varieties of wools are handy to tie with and readily available. These can also be cut into short lengths and blended.
Jack Gartside’s experiments with pheasant filo-plumes has led to the development of some very effective flies using this marabou-like plumage for bodies. And of course, peacock herl is a well-known and highly effective body material. To imitate gills of mayflies, some tiers secure strands of marabou along the sides of the imitation’s abdomen; this same material is used for the gills of net-spinning caddis larvae.
For burrowing and large swimming may-fly nymphs; damselfly nymphs; swimming fishfly, alderfly, dobsonfly, beetle, cranefly larvae, and leeches tie body and tail as a unit (see section on nymph tails); otherwise, spin a body of coarse dubbing well picked out so it moves in water.
Or use a body of filo-plumes (small marabou-like feathers from the saddle of the pheasant) trimmed to shape. Medium-size mayfly nymphs, stonefly nymphs, scuds: medium to coarse dubbing. Small mayfly nymphs, caddis and midge larvae: medium to fine dubbing (for thorax of larvae use medium dubbing and pick out); feather fibers wound on hook also make effective bodies.
Guide Tip: Let me help you along your fly fishing journey. Learn how to dead drift with this article – What is Dead Drifting Plus Casting Tips
Nymph Wing Case – Feathers and Hair
Most tiers use feather fibers to form wing cases. My personal favorite is peacock herl since it gives off an iridescent most akin to the swollen wing pads of a mature nymph. Other feathers with an iridescent sheen, such as the rump patch of pheasant, work well too.
Mottled turkey is nice material, especially for folded wing pads on stonefly nymphs. Hairs work well also. Polar bear hair works well in this regard, but is difficult to obtain in any quantity. Guard hairs or tail hairs with any translucency also work well (the end of these can be folded back to make legs).
Nymph Legs – Keep it Simple
The most-used material for legs are feather fibers. A wide range of feathers has been used, but mottled materials give the best impression: teal, mallard, or wood duck flank feathers. Soft-fibered body feathers of grouse, woodcock, coot duck, snipe, starling, pheasant, and others can be wound on hackle fashion to form legs.
In The Art of Tying the Wet Fly, Jim Leisenring recommended soft hackles for flies fished in slow waters, medium-stiff hackles for imitations fished in moderate currents, and stiff hackles for flies used in fast water. George Grant has applied the same reasoning to his hair-hackle flies.
Hair legs are very effective for many nymphs (stoneflies, many mayflies, fishflies, alderflies, dobsonflies, beetles, damselflies, dragonflies, caddis larvae, and scuds). Many types and stiffnesses of hairs can be used by twisting them into a dubbing loop. Especially useful are guard hairs because they can be easily obtained in many colors and mottlings or dyed any color.
These patterns present some unique fly tying problems because the flies are fished just under or on the water’s surface film. In addition to having floating or neutral buoyancy properties, the artificial must also give the impression of an adult insect shedding its nymphal or pupal exoskeleton.
Several excellent solutions have been found. Rough dubbed bodies of seal fur give a fine impression of a partly cast husk. Soft hackles dressed with floatant allow the fly to ride partially in, partially out, of the film and also nicely simulate partially emerged wings. Mike Lawson’s mayfly emergers with folded cock hackle are one of the secrets to successful fishing on the Henrys Fork.
Swisher and Richards’ stillborn flies use tails of hackle points to simulate partially cast husks. Floating nymphs are dressed much like dry flies: a tail of cock hackle fibers, a body of fine fur dubbing, emergent wings represented by a ball of dubbing on the top of the thorax (Rene Harrop’s innovation), and one or two turns of cock hackle wound parachute style around the base of the emergent wing ball.
Gary LaFontaine employs a short deer-hair wing on his caddis emergers; this material not only helps float the fly but serves as a siphon to wick air bubbles to the body. The best midge emerger is Griffith’s Gnat, a miniature Wooly Worm tied with cock hackle. Resting awash in the film, it gives the precise light pattern of the hatching natural.
Materials for Dry Flies – Quality Matters
Dry Fly Tails
Dry flies float-otherwise they wouldn’t be dry flies. The tail should help support the artificial on the film as well as mimic the real insect. The best all-around material is without question the very stiffest fibers from cock hackle (spade hackles are superb if they are available).
Other stiff fibers are mink tail guard hairs; peccary body hairs, woodchuck guard hairs, short body hairs of deer, and calf tail hairs. Stiffness without excessive bulk is the desired property of tailing material on dry flies.
The Body of a Dry
Air trapping ability without excessive weight is the most desirable property of body materials. In this regard, few materials come close to fine dubbing such as that of rabbit, mink, muskrat, fitch, otter, fox and beaver. Easily dyed or bleached, such dubbing is also readily blended and handy to apply.
Such a body, dressed with a modern floatant, is capable (by itself) of supporting the fly-Swisher and Richard’s no-hackle patterns are excellent examples. Another light-weight material is feather fibers: peacock herl (both stripped and unstrapped), pheasant tail fibers, condor quills (no longer readily available), goes quills, and others.
However, feather fiber bodies must be reinforced with fine wire to protect them from being torn by the trout’s teeth. Deer-hair is an excellent material for larger bodies. Spun and clipped to shape, it floats like cork and makes excellent bodies for bass, bugs, grasshoppers, stonefly, large beetle adults and inchworm larvae.
Tied parallel to the shank and extended, deerhair makes high floating bodies for large may fly imitations, stoneflies, grasshoppers, damselflies and dragonflies. Such bodies are fragile, but can be re-enforced with a coating such as Schmidt’s Flex-Seal to make them nearly indestructible.
Dry Fly Wing – What Sets Dries Apart
Material for dry fly wings should provide the same degree of translucency and reflectivity as those of the natural. Any special, highly evident markings should also be imitated. And in keeping with the overall theme, the material should be buoyant, or at least of minimal weight.
Caucci and Nastasi’s, compara-duns use deer hair from the animal’s face. Swisher and Richards use traditional duck quill segments for the wings on their highly successful no-hackle flies. Hen Feathers burned to shape are widely used for mayflies and caddisflies.
What would an Adams be without its grizzly hackle-tip wings? Or a classic Hendrickson without its wood duck flank feather wings? Or a Royal Coachman without its fan wings of duck breast feathers? Stonefly, fishfly, alderfly, and dobsonfly wings of woodchuck hair or raccoon tail hair are superb.
Caddisflies have semi-opaque wings, and tiers successfully employ deer hair, mink tail guard hairs, feather segments, and small body feathers to imitate these structure. Calf tail hair is fine for a number of generally imitative dressings. Wings for mayfly spinners have been fashioned from hackle tips and other feathers, but trimmed cock hackle makes the best imitation. The finest color is pale watery-blue dun because the fibers are translucent (watery).
I have been experimenting with parachute hackles trimmed off in the front to simulate spinner wings. This approach works very well, even on the largest mayflies. It is the best method for imitating wings on spent damselfly adults and works quite well on midge imitations.
Dry Fly Hackle
High quality cock hackle is the obvious and traditional choice for many dry flies. Wound around the hook shank or tied parachute style, this material adds buoyancy without adding any significant weight.
Full or trimmed, hackles have found their way into dry patters of all food organisms of the trout. Soft hackles will float a fly amazingly well if treated with floatant. A rather fine emerger pattern I developed uses two turns of cock hackle with a soft hackle wound in front of that. Both are then trimmed flush on the bottom.
Deer hair can be spun onto the head of the fly with the tips left extra long to form a very effective hackle.
Al Troth uses this method for his skater patterns; it also works well to tie big, bushy, night flies. Guard hairs such as those from mink tail can be tied in and spread out to the sides (as in preparing spinner wings) to serve as hackle for winged flies.
Many patterns have used exotic feathers and furs that are no longer readily available. In many cases, these rare materials were used because of their coloration. A very large number of these patterns can still be tied with currently available materials.
Guide Tip: Wet fly fishing is awesome! It seems to have lost a bit of popularity, but this means those trout haven’t seen these bugs lately. Learn how to fish wet flies in the article – The Magic of the Wet Fly
Try to match the original material in color and texture as closely as possible. Substitution sometimes requires a bit of sleuthing through angling history to discover the nature of the original materials.
Some of the most effective wet flies are the soft-hackled patterns such as those of Pritt and Edmons and Lee in Yorkshire, England, and Leisenring in this country. Sylvester Nemes provided excellent information on the Yorkshire patterns in The Soft-Hackled Fly Addict. Leisenring’s book (mentioned earlier) is a fine study in wet-fly dressing and use. Vernon Hidy Added a very interesting chapter on soft-hackle emergers (“Flymphs”) to the 1971 edition of Leisenring’s book.
Streamers and Bucktails
Long shank patterns are basically imitations of minnows. Streamers employ feathers for the wing and bucktails have hair wings. Very long streamers such as “eel flies” used for bass require saddle hackles for the wings. Shorter streamers have employed a number of feathers: cock hackle is very good for standard streamers because it is semi-translucent and holds its shape well in the water.
A clump of marabou fibers waves in the water as no hair or other feather could hope to match. For Matuka-style dressings, use hen hackle, marabou, strips of hide with fur intact, body feathers of pheasant, grouse, bittern (the original feather used by New Zealand tiers), and others.
Back to Those Natural Materials….
Again, the selection should be made on the basis of overall design as related to use. Marabou is unexcelled for slowly fished streamers. When the fly is stripped very fast, however, this material compresses too much and does not provide the desired profile. Heavy-textured feathers perform much better on the quickly retrieved flies.
Hair bucktail wings should be selected with the same criteria. A very useful hair for these minnow imitations in bucktail, which can be dyed any color and handles well. It is also long enough for large flies. The all-time best hair with regard to translucency is polar bear.
Hard to obtain, its use has greatly diminished among tiers, but its effectiveness at matching the living translucency of minnows is unparalleled. Other hairs that produce fine bucktail wings are calf tail, squirrel, woodchuck, raccoon, bear, fox coyote, wolf, and for mini-bucktails, guard hairs.
Bodies of streamers and bucktails are often tinsel or floss ribbed with tinsel. Experiment more with natural materials such as seal fur or African goat dubbing or feathers such as filoplumes for bodies on these minnow imitations.
A spun deer-hair head has no equal for producing sonic vibrations that ape those of a crippled minnow.
Jungle cock was widely used for the shoulders on many streamers and bucktails because it simulates the bulging eyes of a young fish. Recently this material has become more available as domestic stocks of birds are produced in this country
Like wet flies, these patterns are deeply seated in tradition. A fully dressed salmon fly with a feather wing is a thing of great beauty and artistic endeavor. Few tiers can dress these marvels of married feathers. Modern salmon anglers have veered from the straight and narrow and have tried many other tying styles.
In park this has been due to the great skill needed to properly dress an all-feather fly and to the in-availability of rare plumage. Flies with hair wings in somber colors have proved to be killers on salmon, as have nymphs and spun deer hair dry flies.
One More Cast
Modern fly dressing theory is continually evolving. Some synthetics have replaced hard-to-find natural materials and have superseded the properties of others. Such is the nature of progress in any art or science. However, to see where we are going, we must look back at where we have been. Natural materials have served the fly tier well for centuries, and their use will continue to be of paramount importance. The wise tier will remain fully conversant with these old friends