Feathers and fly tying go hand-in-hand. Feathers are a key ingredient in most fly tying applications, whether you are making Tarpon flies or Trout flies. Which ones do you choose you might ask? Here is a basic introduction to fly tying feathers that will help you in your feather selection.
There are a few important pieces of a feather that should be kept in consideration when choosing fly tying feathers. First is the size of the stem. Some feathers have large thick stems like that of a duck or turkey quill. Others have thin brittle stems. If you are going to be “hackling” or wrapping the feather, stems are a big consideration because you don’t want a lot of stem on your fly, you want the feather! You also want to determine how many wraps you will get out of a feather before you start wrapping a thick stem.
A very important part of feather selection is the color. Feathers come in a variety of natural and dyed colors to imitate specific insects, or a “trigger” color that a fish species might prefer over another.
Because feathers consist of a stem and the barbules that protrude off the stem, an important consideration in feather selection is the length and thickness of the barbules. Some feathers have long barbules that come in handy for big flies like salmon flies, and others are small and sparse which is optimal for traditional spiders and soft hackles. A hackle gauge is a good way to determine whether the feather chosen is the right size or not, or you could wrap a feather around a hook without tying it in and see if it is the preferred length.
I touched on it above, but another important factor in feather selection is the density of the barbules. Some patterns need stiff, thick barbs to help flies float, others are meant to be sparse and flow with the current and “ungulate” in the water like an insects legs. Now that you have learned about things to look for, we will focus on the birds, their feathers and how they relate to flies.
Fly tying feathers come from a variety of birds in various shapes and sizes. The feathers chosen depend on the type of fly you are tying. When you are tying dry flies, your most important feathers come from the neck and saddle of a male chicken. These barbs are stiff, dense and help a fly to float on the water. A genetically produced bird for tying dry flies will have dense, stiff barbs, a thin stem, and a stem that does not spin when you are tying your fly. Birds of this level are normally raised by a local breeder and might ask a higher price but I assure you that you get what you pay for.
Most subsurface patterns call for a softer feather like that of a hen chicken, grouse, partridge, or pheasant. The feathers on these birds range in size with the smallest ones around the neck and gradually getting bigger as you head down the back of the bird. Plenty of great, usable feathers can be found on the wings as well. These feathers are great for soft hackled nymphs, streamers, and “spiders,” but are also used on foam saltwater flies and bass poppers. These feathers have a lot of action in them and are a great imitation for struggling insects or streamlined baitfish.
There are a variety of birds used for feathers in fly tying and many patterns calling for a specific bird can be substituted with what you might have on hand. Keep in mind the length of the barbs, the thickness of the stem, the action you expect from the feather and whether the color matches what you are trying to imitate and you will succeed in your feather selection and fly tying. That being said, we carry a variety of different birds, wings, skins, and colors of each. We are happy to help you choose the right feather for the right application, and will share tying techniques and advice for all your feathered flies. Stop in or give us a call and we will happily point you in the right direction to help you continue on your way to becoming a great fly tier.