Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana
If you search on-line for “Featherhead” you are likely to get hits on many of the “hair extension” websites like finefeatherheads.com. Definitionally, Featherhead is often said to be: “A frivolous or feather-brained person.” For as many flies that I tie that never see the water, that definition might well apply to me. But it has another meaning more in tune with what we fly tiers are interested in. It’s a fly pattern (more like a style) name that has apparently been rather short-lived and remains a bit obscure these days. I have subscribed to Fly Tyer magazine for at least 20 years and still have most, if not all editions back into the 1990s. Occasionally, I’ll leave my fly tying desk, sit down near one of my bookshelves and begin pursing through old issues of Fly Tyer for inspiration. They are stacked in no particular order, so I just start at the top of the pile and look at the pictures to see if something strikes my fancy. Every once and a while I stumble on some tying technique that helps me improve my tying or directions around some common pattern that make for better flies. More importantly, I’ll see some new pattern or style that looks intriguing and decide to give it a go. Such was the case with “Featherheads”.
In the Spring 2005 issue of Fly Tyer, the cover and lead article was: Fabulous Featherheads-Featherhead Minnows. Authored by Art Scheck, a fly tier of some repute, the article introduced readers to a novel method of creating intriguing looking heads on baitfish patterns. Scheck touted the technique as applicable to just about any type or size of baitfish pattern for both fresh and saltwater use. I am sure I probably read the article in 2005 but didn’t do any tying based on it for one good reason. In 2005, Scheck relied on a homemade concoction of toluene and Goop to form the head of his featherhead flies. The concoction was necessary to create fast-setting heads, something that wasn’t possible with epoxy or silicon preparations in use by fly tiers. Smelly, flammable, and toxic, using toluene at my fly bench in a rather unventilated space didn’t seem like a good idea at the time. But times change and new materials can open new avenues of fly tying. The unique aspect of the Featherhead Minnow style is captured in the name itself. The head of a Featherhead Minnow is completed with from one to three saddle or Spey hackles wrapped and pulled back tight along the fly body and then sealed with a thick, flexible goo. The resulting fly displays hackle fibers at the head of the fly that create contrasts and suggest pectoral and pelvic fins and possibly dorsal fins as well. Scheck’s technique required the tier to hold the hackle fibers tight for several minutes while applying and waiting for his goop concoction to set. Additional application of goop and eyes required the use of a piece of polyethylene film and a clothespin. All in all, Scheck’s technique as described in the article might take more than an hour to complete a single fly. But to his credit, he implored his reader to experiment with all sorts of body and wing materials to create useful “Featherhead” baitfish patterns.
So, when I read the article in early February 2017, more than a decade after it was written, I immediately saw the solution to avoiding the toluene and Goop approach. For a number of years now, the ultraviolet cured head cements have revolutionized fly tying and have overcome the limitations and tediousness of epoxies and goops. My first introduction into the UV cured products was Loon Knot Sense. I still have my original tube bought years ago and it still performs well. I started using Loon UV Clear Fly Finish last year and have been extremely pleased with its results. The whole UV curing method is now supported with multiple brands and product configurations. It seemed like the perfect solution for “Featherheads”–an instant, clear finish with no mess, fuss, or toxic fumes. So, I started tying some baitfish patterns, “Featherhead” style.
The backend of a “Featherhead” can be anything you want it to be. Sparse, long, short, any combination of materials, colors and textures; weighted or un-weighted. It’s the frontend that’s different. Regardless of the hook chosen—long fresh or saltwater streamer or short shanked, a “Featherhead” requires about 3/16” to ¼” of space behind the hook eye. Featherheads can be formed on tube flies as well. Art Scheck recommended securing the first hackle by the tip, but I’ve tried both tip and butt and each works fine. Like any hackle, once the saddle or Spey hackle is secure, it is wound forward and secured. One or two more hackles are added if the space allows. At this point the thread is secured with a few half-hitches and cut. Using hackles of different shades creates a mottled, contrasting effect when the fly is finished. If the hackle fibers are of different lengths, the longer hackles should be wound first. Although Scheck’s article didn’t use them, you can add additional feathers such as pheasant church windows, partridge, jungle cock or starling along each side before finishing the head. Once everything is secure, it is time to featherhead the “Featherhead”.
I must admit that the final step in finishing this style of fly took a bit of practice and patience, especially given the instantaneous curing nature of the UV fly finish. Before starting this step, be sure and have your UV fly finish and UV light within easy reach and ready to go. With the fly in the vise, use your fingers to fold back and hold two hackles tight against the body of the fly. On a normal sized baitfish pattern, this should form a bullet-shaped head with at least one quarter inch exposed between your fingertips and the hook eye. While holding the hackle fibers with your fingers apply a coat of UV fly finish to the head, let it level and then cure with the UV light. I found this a bit treacherous as there is a tendency to loosen your grip on the hackles before you get to the curing step. This can make for some messy heads and once the UV Fly finish is cured, there’s no going back. To compensate for the treachery, I devised two alternate methods of holding the hackle fibers back, both of which proved far more reliable.
The first involved cutting a small X hole (~1/8 to ¼”) with a razor blade in a thin, but stiff piece of paperboard (typical packaging for many different fly tying materials). The piece of paperboard is then slipped over the hook eye and slid back a short distance to hold down the hackles. The smaller the hole, the tighter the featherhead will be. Once the UV Fly finish is cured, the paperboard can either be cut away or slid back and off the hook. The second method employed a common household item—a drinking straw. In this case, a short section of straw (~ ¼”) is slipped over the hook eye and slid back to compress the hackle fibers. Both these methods allowed more freedom and control over the final appearance of the head as any stray fibers could be trimmed if necessary before applying the UV Fly finish. The only drawback to the straw technique is the availability of different diameter straws which is limited. I have used both thick and thin finishes with good results. The thick finish creates a much bulkier head on the first application while the thin finish does a good job of securing the hackles in position, but requires additional coats to finish the fly. Once the first UV Fly finish coat is cured, eyes can be added if desired and additional coats of UV Fly finish or other finishes such as Loon Hard Head can be applied to finish the fly.
My Featherhead Gallery
It may seem frivolous to try and resurrect by-gone patterns like the “Featherhead” style, but I think Art Scheck was on to something back in 2005. They are fabulous looking flies and the style, enhanced by modern UV fly finishes, has wide applicability for both fresh and saltwater baitfish patterns.