I’m not sure if it was nature or nurture, but I grew up with a disdain for letting anything go to waste. Alongside the rock posters and baseball gear, my bedroom walls and shelves were covered with the hides, feathers, feet, bones and skulls of the various animals I’d shot, caught or found. Some were mere decorations, for others I found useful purposes.
One of the primary reasons people hunt is for food, but game birds and mammals provide more than just all-natural protein. Feathers and fur can be put to several useful purposes, not the least of which is tying flies. The following are just a few examples.
Duck hunters will want to save the side or flank feathers of several species including the mallard and wood duck, the latter being among the most highly prized. Their most common use is dry fly “winging.” However, they can also be used for streamer shoulders – replacing the silver pheasant on some New England patterns – as well as tails and legs on mayfly nymphs and emergers.
If you tie patterns with iridescence, the speculum or inner-wing feathers of almost any duck will do. You get nice blues and purples from mallards, while the green-winged teal provides an obvious alternative from which it gets its name.
CDC emergers are made using feathers from around a duck’s oil gland, found on its rear – CDC standing for cul-de-canard, French for “bottom of the duck.” The top and underside of a mallard wing have very small grey and dun colored feathers that are ideal for patterns imitating the wings of emerging mayflies. You can use teal wings for smaller flies.
A single fiber from the leading edge of a primary wing feather is called a biot. These short, stiff fibers have a natural curve making them great for tails and wingcases and can also be used for body material.
Perhaps your preferred game is the king of North American game birds. In full sunlight the body feathers of a male turkey also have a marvelous natural iridescence that lends itself very nicely to several fly patterns. As its name implies, the group of feathers on the underside of the base of the tail – sometimes called the fluff – consists of fluffy, downy feathers referred to by fly tiers as marabou. Their characteristics give life to a variety of flies as well as panfish jigs.
If you’re an upland hunter you’ve probably marveled at the brown and tan cryptic pattern of grouse feathers. They lend a nice effect to soft-hackled nymphs. And soft woodcock body feathers provide a subtle movement to soft-hackle collars for fishing clear, still waters.
Though our deer numbers may be lower (much lower in many cases), being from a northern state does offer fly-tying deer hunters one decided advantage. The coarse hair on a deer’s winter coat is hollow, providing natural flotation for a variety of floating fresh and saltwater flies including poppers, nymphs and minnow, frog and insect patterns. Body hair can be used as hackle bodies, heads, wings, tails and legs. White belly hair can be used as is, or dyed to the hue of your desire. And you can probably figure out where bucktail jigs got their name from.
Squirrel hunting isn’t as popular in Maine as in more southerly states, perhaps partly because we just don’t have as many squirrels as they do in regions dominated by mast-bearing hardwoods. Regardless, squirrel tails are used in streamers, wet flies and nymph dubbing, to name a few. And if you decide not to use them, you can still sell them to the Mepps company, which uses them in making their world-renowned spinning lures.
I don’t know too many folks – OK, I don’t know anyone – who intentionally hunts porcupines. But they’re easy enough to find on the roadside, and I’ve always thought there ought to be some use for their quills. It turns out they make very sensitive floats for panfishing. And yes, they can also be used for fly tying.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org