Bring new life to common patterns with uncommon feathers
[by Scott Sanchez]
THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT THE PHEASANT-TAIL NYMPH and its numerous variations are some of the most universal flies. Take them anywhere in the world and you are sure to fool a trout. And trout aren’t the only fish that will take a pheasant tail. As a mayfly imitation, the fibers radiating from the body mimic the gills of mayfly nymphs. But from an imitation standpoint, the rust, brown, and black mottling resembles a plethora of bugs.
That said, I’ve caught plenty of trout on this fly during caddis, stonefly, and midge hatches. Ringneck pheasant tails, which are the main ingredient in the Pheasant-tail Nymph recipe, are available in the natural brown color or in dyed or bleached shades. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
There’s actually a large variety of plumage tiers can use to achieve the same effects that will also give the fly another color scheme or patterning effect. For the bird-hunting angler or the road-kill aficionado, the other-feather options are almost endless. Tail, wing, and body feathers on many common fly-tying feathers, some of which are likely lying around your bench for another purpose, are a great starting point.
Pheasant, peacock, and ostrich tail-fiber fly bodies are commonly referred to as herl bodies. The barbs of the feather radiate out from the center fibers when wrapped around a hook and give flies a fuzzy, chenille-like look. In fact, the majority of the feather fibers on a bird have this type of construction, though the size of the barbs holding the fibers together varies depending on the purpose of the feather. Feathers that are meant for flight have a more rigid connection while those on the body are softer and more pliable. I generally classify tail feathers somewhere in-between. Peacock and ostrich feathers are a story for another day.
To make a feather body, simply make sure you’re using fibers that are long enough to wrap. Feather fibers that are slightly larger in diameter tend to be more durable, and longer fibers are easier to wrap and can be used on larger flies. Hackle pliers can be of great assistance when wrapping shorter fibers.
Goose Shoulder Nymph (claret)
HOOK: Dai-Riki 075, sizes 10 to 18.
WEIGHT: Black bead, size to match hook.
THREAD: Black 8/0.
TAIL: Purple hackle tail fibers.
RIB: Purple wire.
ABDOMEN: Claret dyed goose shoulder feather fibers.
WINGCASE: Claret dyed goose shoulder feather fibers.
THORAX: Purple mylar dubbing.
LEGS: Claret dyed goose shoulder feather fibers (the tips of the wingcase).
The tail feathers of most pheasants can be used in the same manner as ringnecks. Those most commonly used for fly tying are golden and Amherst pheasant tails—a material commonly seen on Atlantic salmon or steelhead flies. Golden pheasant tails have a golden brown, mottled color, while the Amherst’s are white with black barring, though Amherst feathers are also available in dyed colors.
Tail feathers from other upland birds are also great options. Ruffed grouse tails are primarily gray and black, but some have a brown-tinted hue. Sage grouse have a mottled tan to brown, and blue grouse are multiple shades of grey. Chukars have a unique, smoky-grey color. Tail feathers from all these species are viable color options to a standard ringneck tail.
But the largest and probably most resilient tail fibers are from a wild turkey. These have a black and brown pattern that, when wrapped on a hook, make a substantially darker-than-usual Pheasant-tail Nymph.
Larger body feathers are suitable alternatives for herl-style bodies, but the best material often comes from larger birds. Turkey body feathers run the range of brown to black, and as a bonus, the feathers often have an iridescent sheen. These same feathers from domestic turkeys, called turkey flats, are commonly used for wings on thorax and parachute dry flies. They come in many dyed colors and will also work for herl bodies.
If you’re not achieving a specific effect, waterfowl feathers are a good alternative, and coincidentally, one of the most durable feather materials available. Flank feathers from teal, mallard and wood duck have beautiful barring and are certainly long enough to wrap. Depending on the species, other colors can be found, too. However, waterfowl body feathers have a fine diameter, so it may require more material to make a tapered body. Dyed mallard is available in various colors as well.