The fly has been tied for centuries using the materials that were readily available to replicate the insects and other creatures’ fish want to eat. We, born after the Industrial Revolution, have the liberty of using countless synthetic and man-made products for creating the thousands of patterns available today. What we take for granted is most of the synthetics were created in lieu of and duplicating the natural materials that have been used for centuries; natural animal furs and hairs. Animal furs, hairs and hides have been used by man for countless purposes. Animal furs and hairs all have qualities and properties that can be utilized for warmth, protection and various other comforts. When our fly tying fore-fathers looked for materials to create patterns for fishing, they recognized that furs and hairs have a litany of uses depending on the type, texture and inherent qualities.
Natural furs and hairs have certain uses and functions that cannot be reproduced by synthetic means. The numbers of patterns out there are increasing yearly and for the most part, they are regurgitated versions of patterns that were created years ago. What the tiers of the past found out was furs can make perfect wings, dubbing, tailing, body material and virtually thousands of other applications. Furs and hairs serve the same purpose on animals, protection and warmth, but in tying are not interchangeable. Hairs and furs are used for different purposes and should be separated for explanation sake.
Many dry flies use hair for buoyancy as opposed to hackle from chicken. Deer, elk, antelope, calf body and caribou all have hollow hairs which can be used in wings and bodies in dry flies, but each has properties that separate one from the other. Deer body hair is long and coarse and will flair when cinched down on the hook. When put on en masse and trimmed, the tier can sculpt bodies of the fly. White tail, deer body, Coastal deer, caribou and antelope have similar properties. Buck tails do not have the same function in spite of coming from the same animal. Most common use for buck tail is the body and tail of streamer flies. The lesson is hairs from different parts of the animal may have completely different uses.
Elk hair caddis is one of the most well-known dry flies. Elk flairs less than deer and is perfect for the wing of the fly. Early season cow elk works best for caddis wings. Other elk hairs have various uses depending on length and size. Elk hock and mane are used for tails and antennae. Elk body has great length for larger flies and stimulator wings.
Some other hairs have various uses. Squirrel tail is used for many streamer tails and salmon flies. Calf tail and calf body hair can be used for parachutes and winging on dries as well as wings on streamer patterns. Moose, moose body and moose mane are all stiffer and stronger than the aforementioned and are used for tails and bodies.
The distinction to make between hair and fur is that most furs are used as dubbing. Furs are not as stiff and generally are softer and less coarse. These can be combined and blended to create bodies on dries and nymphs. Hares Ear dubbing is one of the more famous and is used in the Hares Ear nymph. This hair comes from the mask of face of the hare. This fur is commonly used in a variety of dyed colors for numerous patterns. Other commonly used furs include mole, muskrat, opossum, beaver and whatever fur fits the bill. All furs can be blended with others for colors and/or consistency necessary for the task. There are also many synthetic materials that can be blended with natural fur to add shine and translucence to the dubbing.