If you’re covered in feathers and looking to evolve your passions, tying flies from your highland bird’s feathers is a great way to pass the time looking forward to opening day. (Photo by: Chris Ingram)
Ask any passionate upland bird hunter what he or she enjoys most about bird hunting, and aside from good dog work, many will likely respond in some way to chasing, searching, or finding a bird. bird hunting. Fly fishing is not much different from bird hunting. It’s a hunt of its own, just in a different place with swimming prey instead of flies, but it’s the pursuit of a bird or fish that fires our trigger. So it’s no wonder many bird hunters become fly fishermen during the off-season, taking the thrill of the hunt from wing to string. For many of them, tying flies with bird feathers bridges all the gaps between the two hobbies.
Now, you don’t have to become a complete fly tyer and avid fly fisherman to start appreciating your bird’s feathers after the hunt. There are some hunters who simply enjoy hanging out with the vise and twisting flies for fun, and the end results can become an art form of their own. If you’ve been looking for something to keep you going from the last day of the season to opening day, you might want to consider spending some time at the fly tying bench.
make the feathers fly
Although fly fishing and fly tying came first for Craig MacDerment of Essex, Vermont, he soon added bird hunting to his list of hobbies when Dewey, a Black Mouth Cur, came onto the scene. Dewey’s urge to chase upland birds and small game led the pair into the woods on a new quest. As his passion for fly fishing and bird hunting grew together, MacDerment finally found the perfect way to bring these favorite pastimes together, in what he describes as a natural evolution. “I never had a lightbulb moment; it was always there. I would spend time in the fly shop looking through the flies and looking at the tying materials, and then it just clicked once I started hunting birds and had a steady supply of my own tying materials.”
find your feathers
Whether you’re new to fly tying or need a friendly reminder, MacDerment first suggests not getting too obsessed with reproducing exactly the fly patterns you see in a book or the insects you see in the wild when you tie your own flies. . “Colours catch anglers,” he adds, going on to mention that shape and profile are more important than color and exact size. “I started flipping rocks and taking pictures of bugs, then I went to my pile of feathers and started making something that looked like what I saw. You don’t have to replicate things perfectly; you want to try to match them as best you can. It’s not about copying three turns of this and using this feather here on a #18 hook or you won’t catch fish, so if you like the look of something and you’re confident when you cast it, just go for it.”
With that in mind, MacDerment reveals that nearly all of the upland bird and waterfowl feathers we bag in North America have vice-friendly feathers, each with its own unique purpose based on its physical properties. Once you start working with different feathers, you’ll better understand their specific attributes and how they can best be used when tying different flies.
“There is no right or wrong way, but there are certain things where one pen will be better than another,” he instructs. “For example, most of the soft, intertwined feathers with little barbles that you’ll see on most birds are ideal for soft hair on nymphs and streamers, and are used as wings and legs on flies because they’re soft and move in Water. The stiffer tail feathers of, say, a rooster, make great tails and wings; Think of the “pheasant tail” fly, but these stiffer feathers can also be used on dry flies. And sometimes you can even use a single whole feather because of the color pattern it has, like one of my favorite flies, the “feather game changer”, with spots that look like the eyes of a minnow.
MacDerment offers one final pro tip, in that you can also use the fur or hair of large game animals, such as deer, or small game, such as rabbits and squirrels, especially for the fly body material, Also known as “dubbing”, and in an important tweak, a lock of hair from your dog makes excellent dubbing material.
Easy to tie flies with bird feathers
If you’re looking for some simple patterns to get you started, MacDerment points out a few that aren’t too intimidating for beginners.
the “Walt’s Worm” The fly uses dubbing or pheasant tail feathers wrapped around a hook, just about the easiest fly to tie. Don’t worry about it looking lopsided or patchy. There are no wings or tail and it looks very “buggy” and they just work.
the “French” is another easy fly to tie. It is essentially a “Walt Worm” body with pheasant tail feathers as the tail of the fly and some wire wrapped around the body. Have fun with this pattern and try different color folds and wire wraps, and experiment with various feathers as the tail material.
the “pheasant tail” it is a fly that uses pheasant tail feathers in all its parts, including the body, tail, and wing hump. This one has a few more steps to properly attach the wings and make a tight wingbox, but you’ll have a lifetime supply of feathers to test this fly with the limit of one cock day.
taking care of your feathers
If you’re thinking tweaking a few critters is in your future after this fall, MacDerment provides some helpful tips for ensuring your feathers are in tip-top condition when it comes time to tie, and it all starts with good habits right after the shoot. . “Especially the tail feathers, if you can keep them long and straight, that’s the best,” he adds. “As long as you are taking care of your field feathers, they will last you a lifetime. It starts with how well your dog handles birds and how well you carry them in your vest, but even if the bird comes home in a mess, you should be able to salvage some feathers from it. Once you dry them, store them in bags to keep out moisture and bacteria and prevent the spread of germs to your other feathers. I like to bag and freeze my feathers for a few weeks to get it all done.”
If you’re the industrious type and have the means, MacDerment suggests that covering a bird is possibly the best way to preserve the natural structure and shape of the feathers and allows you to use different sizes and types of feathers strategically. “It’s much better than pulling lots of feathers, and the performance of the coat will allow you to use all of that bird,” he recommends.
Let it fly
MacDerment says that catching fish with flies that he has tied using feathers from the bird he has killed with his dog is a very rewarding experience. “It’s a great use of the resource and these wild bird feathers have much more muted, natural tones and mottled colorations that more closely resemble insects in the wild, you just won’t get that from synthetic materials.”
Whether you’re looking for a new off-season hobby or a creative way to indulge your combined passions, tying flies with feathers from birds you’ve hunted can be a rewarding way to keep birds on the brain all year long. But just like upland hunting and dog training, fly tying and fly fishing can be a bit intimidating and create multiple barriers to entry. But we are a close-knit community and most of us are ready and able to help a newcomer who shows a willingness to learn.
MacDerment encourages anyone interested to find someone to tie or join a tying group for help getting started. And he shares that if you really want to make friends fast, donating your birds’ feathers to local tyers could quickly lead to a tying aid or an invitation to a fishing trip. Even a single bird can provide enough tying material for several lifetimes, so at least consider sharing your stockpile of feathers with others to get the most out of your birds, and make a generous gift to the avid fly maker.