Wing and Shoulder Feathers
Secondary wing feathers from many birds are suitable for herl bodies. These are the second set of large feathers on the wing typically set towards the rear of the wing and closest to the body. They are somewhat symmetrical in width and commonly used for wings on wet and dry flies. Don’t confuse these with primary feathers, which are the stiffer, asymmetrical feathers at the front and outside of the wing. The leading edge of the primaries is where you’ll find biots used for tails on stonefly patterns and bodies on some mayfly recipes.
Turkey, duck, and goose wings have the longest and easiest to use feathers, but other bird wings will also work. The feathers from pheasant, grouse, and partridge wings have some amazing colors, and if you have material that’s long enough for a fly, use it. Wing quill fibers are tough when it comes to strength and their ability to interlock—it’s actually one trait of the feather that helps birds fly. They make nice bodies, but I don’t find it works as well for tail material. Natural and dyed colors are available, and mottled turkey and dyed over mottled turkey looks great on nymphs.
Shoulder feathers from waterfowl and large upland birds have some good fibers for wrapping. Dyed goose shoulder, a substitute for swan Nashua feathers, is very long and easy to work with. It mostly comes in bright colors and is used to make married-wing Atlantic salmon flies. Natural Canada goose and most duck shoulder feathers have a nice medium-dun color, but some ducks also have some beautiful, dark, iridescent feathers.
Hook: Dai-Riki 075, sizes 10 to 18.
Thread: Grey 8/0.
Weight: Silver bead, size to match hook.
Tail: Chukar tail fibers.
Rib: Fine silver wire.
Abdomen: Chukar tail fibers.
Thorax: Callibaetis Superfine dubbing.
Wingcase: Chukar tail fibers.
Legs: Chukar tail tips split from the wingcase.
Tying the Chukar Tail
Herl bodies can be fairly fragile, so reinforcing them is a good idea. Reverse wrapping with wire, thread, or mono is quick and usually adequate. Wire is my favorite rib, and with all the colors of wire available it’s easy to color coordinate or accent the fly, too. You can also twist herl together with thread, either in a single strand or as a dubbing loop, to make a thicker, more secure and durable body.
If you want your pheasant-tail variation to resemble the traditional Al Troth style fly, use your body material for the wingcase and legs. Tie in the fibers so the tips point over the abdomen, make a thorax and then pull fibers over to create the wing case. Secure the fibers down with thread, split them in half and pull back and secure half to each side of the hook shank for legs.
Wood Duck Nymph
HOOK: Dai-Riki 075, sizes 10 to 18.
WEIGHT: Copper bead, size to match hook.
THREAD: Gray 8/0.
TAIL: Mallard flank dyed wood duck fibers.
RIB: Fine copper wire.
ABDOMEN: Mallard flank dyed wood duck fibers.
WINGCASE: Mallard flank dyed wood duck fibers.
THORAX: Rust dubbing.
LEGS: Mallard flank dyed wood duck fibers (the tips of the wingcase).
Another angle worth pursuing when tying substitute-herl fibered bodies is to mix colors. In the often never-ending search for a specific shade for a pattern, we sometimes go crazy looking for a specific color in a hundred fly shops or go way over the edge trying to dye materials. An easier solution is to mix different colors of fiber together on the hook and then wrap them together.
If you want a fly with a brown-olive hue, mix and wrap olive and brown fibers together. You can achieve almost any shade or barring effect using this process. Mixing and wrapping fibers is easier to do with the same base feather, but as long as the fibers are similar in length and texture, it can be done.
Expanding the range of the proven Pheasant-tail Nymph is a great way to fool more fish and have fun experimenting with previously unused feathers. The range of colors and patterning is almost endless and opens the door to other imitations and attractors. Give the other herl a whirl.
Scott Sanchez is the shop manager at JD High Country Outfitters in Jackson, Wyoming. He won the first Federation of Fly Fishers Iron Fly Contest in 2014.