Fly Tying Feathers
CDC Golden Pheasant Goose Biots
Water rips and peels quickly from your Spey line as you set a powerful anchor and gracefully place seventy feet of line on the water. Fishing such a long and beautiful run stirs the deepest reaches of your soul. The large Spey-style fly you created last night with your buddies has been fishing well all morning long. You imagine the webby black Spey hackle and schlappen wiggling and waving just above those weary fish. You’ve tied just enough of the hackle into the collar to give the classic Spey profile and you know the golden pheasant tail is helping the fish key into your offering. Just as you finish the thought, you feel the unmistakable tug at the end of your line and before you know it, you’re locked in an epic battle with the fish of a lifetime…
Traditionally, when people think of fly tying, they think feathers. Many of the more recognizable artificial fly patterns of the past – heavily dressed, and fancy Atlantic salmon flies – prominently boast the unmistakable look of feathers, and it’s no mistake to think the feather is the heart of the fly.
Feathers of all kinds are used in the construction of a fly. They can make a perfect tail, imitate wings, realistically mimic the articulation and movement of an insect’s legs, and a stripped quill or turkey biot can even provide the foundational shape for a fly’s thorax and abdomen. Because feathers can create virtually all the components of a fly, there is an accordingly wide world of feathers available to fly tyers.
What exactly is “CDC” … ? This is a common question from green fly tyers – and one even a veteran on the tying bench shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask. There’s no secret, or conspiracy in place to keep the meaning hidden, but it’s not obvious unless you know a little something about fly tying.
CDC is an acronym for the French, and somewhat esoteric fly tying term “cul de canard.” CDC feathers have been popular in Europe for years and are now finding their way into the North American market. CDC feathers are are found near the oil gland of a bird, and accordingly they are also known by more standard terminology as simply “oil gland feathers.” These feathers provide a dry fly with superior flotation properties; during the bird’s lifetime, these feathers are constantly impregnated with rich oils and become highly resistant to water, ultimately keeping your surface fly where it should be: on top!
Golden pheasant feathers are commonly used in artificial fly recipes aimed at catching trout, steelhead, and salmon. These brilliantly colored feathers are distincitively barred and are often tied into flies as tails, wings, and sometimes as cheeks for more traditional and fancy salmon flies and streamers. Golden pheasant tippets will provide excellent color and attraction qualities to a host of dry fly patterns and will also make elegant tails on large Atlantic salmon, Spey, and Gaudy salmon patterns.
Biots can be found on the leading edge of a bird's flight wings. These veins are stripped from the feather and tied on to a hook shank to create an excellent body shape for dry flies. There are two distinct types of segmented bodies that can be created depending on the wrapping technique a fly tyer chooses. Goose biots are an extremely durable material that tapers quickly toward the butt end of the section. This feature can sometimes be difficult to work with, but with a little extra care, biots can produce some of the more elegant body profiles in the long catalog of fly recipes. To get extra life out of your goose biots, store them in water for up to two months. This will prevent them from becoming brittle and unusable.
Technically, hackle refers to another group of feather, but for the fly tyer, hackle truly encompasses a world of its own. Hackle is taken from both roosters and hens and these feathers are found on two different parts of the bird. “Saddle” hackle is found on the backside of the bird, while a hackle “cape” consists of the neck and shoulders of the bird.
Traditionally, hackle techniques have been more important to those interested in tying and fishing dry flies because of a hackle collar’s ability to render a fly more buoyant. Both cape and saddle hackle can be useful for tyers interested in creating this effect. However, there are a host of wet fly patterns that require hackle as well. This wet-hackle is usually taken from the saddle of a hen which contains a great number of shorter, more thickly webbed feathers. These feathers are commonly referred to as “schlappen,” and many Spey patterns also require this type of webbed hackle feather.
Always consider the structural properties of the hackle you select. Dry fly hackle should be stiff and strong to support the fly and assist with floatation. Wet fly hackle must be heavily webbed and will give the fly better movement and water absorption when the fly is actually fished.
Marabou feathers have long, flexible barbs and wispy barbules. This classic fly tying material is necessary for tying a wide range of flies, and is especially useful for fly tyers interested in mastering nymph patterns and big saltwater streamers. Marabou was originally taken from the Marabou stork, a giant wading species native to sub-Saharan Africa. It is now illegal to harvest the feathers from the species and modern Marabou can be taken from the analogous feathers of species of turkeys and chickens.
Marabou has a wispy quality that creates loads of animation and movement underwater. Some of the more creative modern patterns used for steelhead and salmon take advantage of this fluffy property, and tyers will often stack these flies with as many layers of the material as possible. These soft feathers are also tied as "bundled" tails on streamer and nymph patterns. Marabou can also be used to imitate legs and legs because of its gentle and undulating underwater movement. Fly tying marabou is widely available in many colors, and in both short and long sizes. Every fly tyer should have a good selection of Marabou on hand.
The ostrich is the world's largest species of bird and is native to Africa. These birds are farmed across the world and they produce excellent fly tying feathers. The large quills harvested from the ostrich are often take the backseat to peacock herl because of their less colorful nature, but they should not be overlooked. They will produce fine legs, heads, and tails in a wide range of fly recipes.
The partridge is an Old World species and member of the pheasant family. These birds offer hunters great sport, but also yield some of the best soft hackle feathers on the planet. The lifelike animation these feathers generate is commonly used to imitate bodies, legs, and tails of aquatic insects. Partridge skins have a diverse range of feather types and can also be used to tie excellent spinner patterns, caddis wings, and parachute-style dry flies.
Peacock herl is known and loved by tyers for its iridescent quality and color. This iridescence is produced by a type of optical interference called Bragg reflection. In the effect, the nanostructures that compose the barbules of the feathers display different colors based on their individual and differing lengths.
These kaleidoscopic feathers are used to create bodies that are full of life and movement when they hit the water. The best herl can usually be found closer to the elegantly colored and prominent eye of the feather, and these herls can be cut and tied to the hook shank to form excellent tails on many artifical fly patterns.
The most commonly used pheasant feathers are taken from the ringneck pheasant, but some fly recipes call for Amherst or Golden pheasant neck feathers. Tail feathers from the pheasant can typically be tyed to imitate legs, tails, wingcases, and bodies. Pheasant body feathers can be used in the construction of extremely convincing abdomens – don’t discard these filoplumes! In fact, the ringneck pheasant's cape is so versatile, a good fly tyer could probably get away with constructing an entire fly from its selection of feathers.
Lady Amherst Pheasant
The game bird Chrysolophus amherstiae is native to China and the Union of Myanmar (Burma) and is a member of the pheasant family. The species still enjoys its native range, but now boasts a healthy population in central England.
In 1828, the “Lady Amherst pheasant” inherited its stately name from Sarah Countess Amherst, after she shipped an example of this colorful species to London for scientific inspection and display. The wife of William Pitt Amherst, then the Governor General of Bengal was likely quite taken with the brilliant and vibrant coloration of this extraordinary creature (the species is known by its characteristic silver, blue, yellow, green, and white feathers).
The timing of the Lady Amherst pheasant’s rapid domestication in England was ripe for coincidence with the rising interest in salmon fly fishing and the art of tying the flies to catch these fish. Towards the end of the 19th Century, across the United Kingdom and in Norway, many fly anglers became fascinated with a style of fly tying that became known as the gaudy salmon fly. These artfully and heavily dressed fly patterns were fished exclusively for Atlantic salmon and many interesting materials from seal hair to macaw and jungle cock feathers were employed in the construction of these fishing creations. Feathers from the Lady Amherst pheasant were frequently included in many of these now classic salmon fly recipes. This birds distinctive white and black tippet feathers are often used as winging and the tail feathers have been used in nearly every component of these fly patterns. Today, these unique feathers are gaining popularity in streamer patterns fished in both fresh and saltwater due to their beautiful contrasting colors and the length of their supple fibers.
Turkey feathers are frequently utilized in both dry fly and nymph patterns. The most desirable of these feathers are quills, flats, and biots. Turkey feathers can be used for a range of fly tying applications including wings, wingcases, abdomens, tails, and legs. Some Atlantic salmon fly patterns will even require turkey quills for married wings. Tail feathers are commonly used in bodies and wing casings, while biot quills are excellent for V-shaped tails and body construction. Turkey flats (or body feathers) are most useful when tying mayfly patterns.
Typical waterfowl species used in fly tying are: mallard, teal, and CDC. Feathers from these species will be useful for a wide rangeg of fly tying applications. Mallard feathers are barred and often used when tying wings in dry flies. Fly tying mallard is commonly available in both natural and dyed colors with a popular dyed variety "woodduck" leading the pack. Mallard feathers are probably the most commonly utilized waterfowl feathers in fly tying.
Teal feathers are harvested from the flank of the common teal. These feathers are more strongly barred than those of the mallard and are perfect for tying parachute-style dry flies.
CDC feathers or "cul de canard" feathers are taken from near the preen glands of waterfowl. These feathers are more thoroughly explained in the section "CDC" above.