Put simply, bucktail is easy to find, inexpensive, versatile and colorful. It rules when it comes to material for tying flies. Walk into any fly shop and you’ll generally find one wall reserved for a variety of them. To the new tier, these colorful displays look about the same from tail to tail, but a seasoned tier will spend a long time searching through the pack to find the tail with the “right stuff.” When you start making flies to more demanding standards, this selection becomes very important. The experienced fly tier will choose different tails for different flies.
The common denominator of bucktail hair is its inherent taper. Individual hairs are thicker at the base and finer at the tips. This natural taper allows the bucktail to pulsate or move enticingly through the water. This trait has yet to be successfully copied with any synthetics, so bucktail flies provide impressive action that is still hard to outdo or imitate.
Length of hair fibers is probably the easiest attribute to assess at a glance. Long, short, or somewhere in between – there are many different lengths from tail to tail. Most common is 2 to 5 inches, but occasionally you can find tails with 6- or 7-inch hairs, and they are coveted. Normally, a range of lengths can be found on the same tail, with the longest hairs at the base and shorter ones toward the tip. The range on a given tail will not be significant for any one length, so the tier must have an inventory of multiple tails to cover more tying situations. This may seem trivial, but I often see tiers try to tie short imitations with the tips from long fibers. The fly always loses its demeanor in the end. If you want shorter flies, you must use shorthaired bucktail or the fly will suffer.
The next aspect of a bucktail to consider is the conformation of the hairs. Some tails possess ramrod straight hairs that make them ideal for very slender bait imitations such as sand eels. In contrast, fuller flies, like pilchard or bunker-style patterns, are more easily achieved with wavy hairs because the kinks create more space between the fibers. The wavy materials are also preferred for use in collars for Deceivers because they give the needed dimension and bulk that contribute to the fly’s famous action and visual appeal.
Texture is also important. Softer fibers are more desirable because they’re easier to work with and yield results that are far more appealing. Coarse hairs are simply harder and more frustrating to control and usually create unsightly flies that defy description. Dividing the tail into three equal sections from top to bottom, the finest and softest hairs are at the top, longer but soft hairs occur in the middle, while the longest but most unruly fibers grow at the base. Some tails may have a section of extremely coarse bucktail right at the very bottom. These hairs will readily flare when tied tightly or spun and compacted for shaping with scissors, and that’s not always bad.
Maximizing the Tail
Outside of choosing the right bucktail for the job, proper handling is most important. Since I use them for my Hollow Fleyes, Bucktail Deceivers and Jiggies, I need to maximize the use of all the hairs on every tail. From the longest fibers near the bottom to the softer ones at the tip, a bucktail can be used until there is virtually nothing left. The bucktail, once deboned, produces the longest hairs directly opposite the brown ones in the middle. The short hairs lie between the longest hairs and the brown ones. About three to four different lengths of hair make up the entire tail, but the shortest and softest hairs will always lie adjacent to the brown ones. They can all be useful for tying if handled properly.
Dealing with and saving the so-called short hairs is one key. Commonly, the short hairs get preened away from the longer ones after the bundle of hair is cut. I recommend that you preen them while they are still attached to the tail. Instead of grasping the chosen hairs at their base, grab their tips, pull the fibers straight up, and slide away as many of the short hairs as possible from the long ones. Cut away the long hairs for use in the fly, leaving the short hairs for use in other flies, thus maximizing yield.
Select the hairs immediately adjacent to the brown ones for shorthair collars on Deceivers or flies that need volume. These fibers are usually wavy and soft, and the count runs high providing a fuller buildup along the hook shank. As in most tails, however, these fibers exist in varying amounts – some tails have them, while others do not. At the base of the bucktail, there are often some coarse hairs that are good for spinning. I also use them to build density in the collar of my Hollow Fleyes or for soft-spun heads. A judicious tier can even make use of the brown hairs in various smaller flies.
Lastly, it is important to note that bucktail is not fully appreciated for its usefulness. Its action goes mostly unheralded while fly-fishermen sing the praises of feathers and rabbit fur. I prefer to think of all those bucktail tips moving in the water currents with every strip. All the action lies in those tips, so the more tips the greater the action. Even sparse flies obtain greater action as the water swims through the hairs. The action of bucktail is subtle, natural and never overstated. When it comes to the best material for fly tying, make mine bucktail.