Before the tsunami of synthetic materials flooded the craft of fly tying, natural materials comprised the bulk of elements used to create saltwater flies. Seasoned tiers acknowledged the subtle nuances found in natural materials and recognized what to look for and what to avoid when selecting them. Without question, the vast array of artificial alternatives have provided tiers a new world of possibilities, but in all the excitement of holographic Flashabou and UV-protected acrylics, the fundamental knowledge for cherry-picking the classic components seems to have become a dying art.
Feathers, bucktails and rabbit strips (zonker strips) are the three natural materials fundamental to all saltwater-fly tiers. They’re easily accessible, relatively inexpensive and can be found in an assortment of colors. However, not all natural materials are the same; there are a few characteristics to look for and several to avoid when shopping.
First and foremost, if you are purchasing natural materials online (sight unseen), in essence you are taking a leap of faith and you have to take what they give you. Whenever possible, try to buy locally so you can inspect what you’re buying.
That being said, let’s start with feathers. Saltwater capes or strung saddle hackle are typically what you will find on the shelf at your local saltwater fly shop. Because hooks range between size No. 4 and 1/0 for most patterns, look for capes that have the highest concentration of feathers in the 2- to 5-inch range. The middle third of the cape is what you will use the most.
Whenever possible, open the package and take the feathers out so you can inspect them closely. Flex the cape back and fan the feathers. The feathers should be clean, not oily or showing any greasy fat spots. You should also inspect how straight the feathers in the cape are — it’s almost impossible to tie properly when the feathers you are using have kinks or sharp bends in the stem. There will always be some curvature to the feathers located at the far left and right sides of the cape, and that’s OK, but for the most part, the feathers located in the center of the cape should be relatively straight. Be sure to look closely at the tips, barbs and stems of the feathers as well. What you don’t want are feathers with broken tips or twisted, crooked, bent or brittle stems. Older feathers have a tendency to become brittle and are easily broken when palmered. Bent tips are pretty common; this happens frequently when a natural material is too long for the packaging and it’s stuffed in at an angle to make it fit. Although soaking or steaming can correct many of these problems, it is better to avoid the headaches right off the bat. Larger capes may contain more fly-tying fodder, but bigger is not necessarily better. The quality of the materials is far more important than the quantity.
The quality and texture of hair found on the bucktail is vastly different depending on the animal from which it is harvested. The balance of rigidity and flexibility is what makes it such an effective fly-tying material. Of all saltwater fly patterns, a good percentage of them call for long, coarse hairs, which makes bucktail an obvious choice.
You can typically recognize the best tails in the package by their fullness and broad width. Usually, when the bag looks like it’s going to explode, you know you’ve got a good bucktail. The added texture and thickness of crimped hair is pivotal in creating larger and wider-profile flies. The crinkly hairs force the water to travel around the strands in a more irregular path, which pushes significantly more water in an inconsistent fashion as the fly is stripped. These abnormal vibrations and waves are more detectable to fish genetically programmed to seek out the erratic behavior of a wounded baitfish.
Flies produced with straight hair do not act the same in the water. Water moves past and around straight hair in a smooth and even path, with less resistance. For this reason these flies often sink faster, and they do not move as much water when they are stripped. Straight hair with very little texture to it has a tendency to lie flat, producing a very thin, sleek profile.
Examine the underside of the bucktail. The tanned skin should be flat, not curled or kinked. Avoid tails that are bent or twisted. In general, you are looking for the straightest tail possible. This is very important because the hair follows the direction of the skin and becomes twisted and unusable if it is haphazardly packaged. This is an easy flaw to look for, so take the time to flip the tail over; don’t just grab one off the shelf in the color you are looking for and assume that it’s going to get the job done.
** Rabbit Strips**
A rabbit or zonker strip is a thinly cut strip of fur with the tanned skin still attached. Soft and supple, the fur seems to come alive when submerged. As a bonus, the leather strip magically snakes along as it is drawn through the water. Unlike those in feathers or bucktails, imperfections in rabbit strips are more difficult to spot right away. Nevertheless, there are inconsistencies that you need to be aware of.
As you work more and more with zonker-style materials, you will start to notice subtle differences in the pliability of the leather. This is due to the slight difference in the leather’s thickness. When given the option to compare, I try to choose zonker strips with the thinnest leather possible. Although you lose some of its durability, the difference in action is notable, especially in the wider, “magnum cut” strips. Thicker strips hold more water, and this can make a big difference in the weight of flies when palmering around the hook shank.
When selecting zonker strips, be sure to take a close look at thickness of the hair. Older or inferior strips will often have spotty or sparse hair throughout the strip. Also pay close attention to the condition of the leather. Brittle, dry or cracked hides will break off after a few casts and should be avoided.
Other undesirable characteristics to be aware of are short hairs and broken tips. Strips with shorter hairs will still work; however, they will not have as much lifelike movement in the current when sitting still.
If you are tying numerous flies that utilize zonker strips, whole rabbit pelts are the way to go to cut down on the cost. It’s also nice to use an entire pelt because you can determine how thick you want the strips to be. The same rules apply when buying whole pelts; however, you also need to look for thin spots, rips or any other undesirable signs.