Here's an insight into the very best natural fly tying materials to help you create the most realistic patterns known to the fly fisher.
There are many different items you can use, and we have listed the main culprits here, together with details on how best to store them to ensure they retain their bright colouration and pleasing looks.
The neck skin of poultry with the feathers (hackles) still attached is called a cape. The tyer of trout flies should look at neck and saddle capes.A neck cape provides a wide range of hackle sizes. The saddle cape is from the bird’s flank and tends to produce much longer hackles.
Capes from the cock (male) bird produce glossy, stiff-fibred hackles, ideal for dry flies as they support the fly in the water’s surface. Hen (female) capes are often duller in appearance and much softer and make ideal hackles for wet flies and nymphs as they collapse easily when wet.
Indian and Chinese capes, often a by-product of the food industry (although this source has been hit by the bird-flu outbreak), are available in natural and dyed colours, from £3 to £10 each. Genetic capes are specifically reared for the fly-tyer’s needs and therefore there is a big jump in price and quality. You can pay from £20 to £60 depending on the grade (quality).
When buying capes, inspect the feathers to make sure they are not damaged and check for signs of bug infestation.
Hare fur with its sandy-brown fibres and black tips makes a wonderful ‘buggy’ dubbing material, the colours combining to give a wonderful brown-grizzle effect. One of the best examples is the Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear (or GRHE) which uses the hair fibres plucked from in and around the hare’s mask. Comes in its natural colour and a wide range of dyed colours and also in a pure dubbing form in packets or dubbing dispenser boxes.
Available pre-cut in lengths of different diameters, or as a complete patch so you can cut your own. Its most famous use is in the Minkie, one of the most effective fry patterns around, where it is tied in in one strip to form both the tail and the wing. Also use in very fine strips to form a hackle, referred to as fur hackle, or pinch off the skin and use as a dubbing.
Comes in natural grey, white, black and beige-brown through to dark chocolate with black tips. Mink farms also produce a large supply of white fur, which is dyed up in every colour under the sun. Unlike rabbit, the hair fibre is reasonably short with a soft underfur and spiky tips so you can tie much smaller flies.
These beautiful feathers are used to create very effective stillwater nymph patterns, such as Diawl Bachs. A single tail feather will give enough material to tie hundreds of patterns. Coming off the central stalk are bronze/green feather fibres (known as herl). The tiny individual fibres are very fine on feathers at the base of the stalk and become denser on the feathers nearer the eye. These herls are used to create bodies, thorax and wingcase. Don’t keep the feathers in direct sunlight or the beautiful green will become bronze – great if that’s what you want but a disaster if you don’t! Also available in a range of dyed colours.
Natural cock and hen pheasant tail feathers are used in many stillwater patterns, including the humble but devastatingly effective Pheasant Tail Nymph. They can be used for tails, bodies, wings, thorax covers, antennae and legs. Natural cock pheasant tail ranges in colour from a very light beige to a dark chestnut brown with black bars running across the feather. These tail feathers can also be dyed while still retaining the bars. Colour extracted dyeing removes almost all visible trace of the bars to produce a solid dyed colour throughout. Natural hen tails tend to be a lot paler and are softer so make ideal wet fly wings.
A soft fluffy highly mobile feather, traditionally sourced from African marabou storks, but now comes from turkeys. Widely used for wings and tails. In its natural domestic state it is white so is perfect for taking dye, hence the huge range of colours available. Quality marabou has a good length of plume with plenty of long fluffy feather fibres. It shouldn’t be matted or have bits missing. If it is dyed the colour should be consistent, and not fade from dark to light.
Dubbing can be natural fur, wool or synthetic fibres which are twisted around a strand of thread and then ‘dubbed’ onto the hook to create a body. The material is often sold in individual packets, or in dubbing dispenser boxes. These boxes are split into individual compartments and each one is filled with dubbing material. Underneath each compartment is a hole that dispenses a little dubbing at a time (and little and often is the trick to a good dubbed body). You can buy empty boxes for £4 to £5 and fill them yourselves, or ready-filled with natural seal’s fur dubbings and synthetic materials for upwards of £10.
Look after your materials
With any new fur or feather material, make sure you seal it in a grip-seal polythene bag and pop it into the freezer for a week. This will kill off any infestation or bug before you place it in with the rest of your valuable materials.
Store natural materials in sealed plastic bags. Those with a white panel on the side are ideal as you can label them clearly. Some capes have a slightly oily skin patch on them in which case I would slide in a piece of absorbent kitchen towel and place the skin patch on top of this. Place these material-filled bags in the dark so they don’t fade or discolour.
Scatter these crystals in the bottom of the container or drawer where your materials are stored to kill off any bugs.