An Expletive that Catches Fish

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Now, I know what you’re going to say: “Mike, stop trying to sound tough; you’re no street-cred-wielding expletive-user…you wouldn’t know an expletive from extra cheese.“ Well, let me tell you, that there’s a bunch of horse patootie, that is.

Expletives of one sort or another can roll thick and fast from my lips when I’m tying flies. Feather and fur have minds of their own, and sometimes just won’t do what they’re told, and I’m forever schooling the stuff verbally, to my family’s eternal embarrassment.

For example, when tying any kind of dry fly or wet fly that needs a tail, in my stupid haste I can sometimes make the mistake of letting the hackle fibers slide around the slippery hook wire and execute a very impressive barrel roll–the result is some tail fibers partially snaked under the hook bend, some partially coming from one side or the other, some partially angling down from on top, all at a mish-mash of angles that won’t do at all. Enter the razor blade. Exit a perfectly good clump of tail fibers. Cue the frustration. Start again. Expletive!

I tie a lot of soft hackle wet flies, in great part because I love that style of fishing, and of course because the lion’s share of trout that come to my net have taken such a fly. But while many soft hackle wet flies use tiny hackle feathers such as partridge, starling, or other very small bird feathers, some patterns I love need barbs from wood duck or Gadwall feathers, or from other larger flank feathers, and the barbs of such feathers can be somewhere between long and extra long. You can’t just wind a flank feather stem around a size 16 hook shank like you can a little partridge hackle feather, or your soft hackle “legs” will end up eight times the length of the hook.

So how to size and apply this kind of long feather barb to smaller flies?  I’ve tried so many methods. I’ve searched for and long since used up the smallest wood duck feathers I had, still suffering comically long “legs” on the resulting fly. I’ve used only the shortest barbs at the tips of such feathers, wasting most of the rest of the feather and still not getting the “legs“ to splay out acceptably “in the round.“  I’ve removed barbs from the feather stem, cut them to length as best I can, and tried to trap them in a dubbing loop, fighting their tendency to droop and fall out and change length on me, then to hate the rattiness their thick ends cause as they form what looks like a clumsy wad of cactus spines on my fly.

Mostly I’ve snipped barbs from the feather stems and laid them against the sides of the fly by hand, strapping them down with thread, doing what I could to snip out the stubs of the thick ends, and painstakingly trying for “in the round“ coverage, to minimal avail. The fly generally ends up looking flat.  I’ve even tried what I hoped might be an orderly version of the dubbing loop concept but using painters tape, in an attempt to control length and distribution, but always having issues with bare spots and/or tape removal, and always still having to accept a flat-looking fly.

Expletive, expletive, expletive.

And then it hit me–and this might be common knowledge to some wet fly tyers, but to me it was a revelation: Why not use an effect that elicits expletives in one scenario to avoid them in another?

And so I set about to use the problem I sometimes have with tail fibers to produce the effect I want with wet fly hackle. It’s the best technique I’ve ever come up with to solve the long-hackle-barbs problem, and I’ll describe it now:

Figure 1:  Cut the Clump of Hackle

First, cut the clump of long barbs from the feather stem and lay them at the ready.  A 3/8 inch swath of barbs makes a slightly sparse but quite good fly for a #16 hook…wider swaths would yield progressively more heavily dressed flies.

Next, before anything else goes onto the hook shank, the wet fly hackle must go on. Apply just enough initial thread wraps to hold the thread to the shank, but do it back closer to the hook bend than to the eye, keeping most of the hook shank slippery and bare between those first thread wraps and the eye. You’ll need that smooth cold steel to “get your expletive on.”

Figure 2:  Start Thread Well Back

Now take the butt-ends of the snipped wad of hackle barbs that you’ll use for the fly’s “legs” between finger and thumb, and extend the pointy ends forward in what seems like the Tenkara direction, out over the hook eye, hanging out past the hook eye about 3mm less than the “leg” length you want for the fly.  Tie the hackle barbs to the shank back where your thread is hanging, encouraging them a bit with your fingers to slip and spin around the shank as you tie the clump down. Use only a couple of thread turns for now. Tying them down that far back gives them a chance to spin yet more as you wind your thread over them toward the hook’s eye. As you loose-spiral the thread up the shank, with each turn of the thread, encourage the clump of barbs to spin around the shank to its heart’s delight.

Figure 3:  Spinning the Hackle Barbs

Your final tie-down spot is about 3mm behind the eye, making the currently-forward-stretching hackle exactly the length you want the fly’s “legs” to be.

Cut off the thick ends back near the hook bend, as they’re probably a bit clunky for good tail fibers.

From this point on, and with the hackle very much out of your way like it is, take whatever steps you’d take to tie and finish your fly (even including the addition of weight-wire, which would go on over both shank and hackle bundle). I show a succession of images (Figures 4 through 6) for the materials and steps of this particular (favorite) wet fly.

Figure 4:  Adding Weight-Wire

 

Figure 5:  Ready to Dub

 

Figure 6:  Dubbed and Ribbed

When any optional weight wire, plus tail (avoid the cursing, now), dubbing, abdomen, ribbing, thorax, etc., are all applied and trimmed as needed, gently stroke those forward-pointing hackle barbs backward away from the hook eye with fingers, bodkin, or whatever you like. Keep them as radial to the shank as you can. The gentler you are with them, the longer they’ll last on the stream.

Figure 7:  Stroke Hackle Back

Hop the thread to the high side of the soft hackle barbs without pinning any of them down, and build a head, up against the hackle so it won’t flop back forward over the hook eye.  Let the barbs splay radially out so they’ll wave in the current.

Figure 8:  Building the Head

I applied purple thread to the head on this one, to signal to myself on the stream that I’ve added some weight. If you want the hackle standing more straight out, don’t crowd it quite as much with the head thread (I may have very slightly over-crowded this one). You can see how hackle barbs that started several times the length of this hook so easily became perfectly sized for this fly.  If I’d wanted a larger quantity of radial “legs” on the fly, i.e. a fuller look, I’d simply have started with more barbs when I cut the original clump from the feather stem.

Figure 9:  Finished Wet Fly

There may possibly arise complications if trying to use a bead head instead of weight-wire. I don’t normally apply weight via beads, so I haven’t tried it…although I suspect a small bead could be managed with relative ease.

Benefits of the technique include a near-certainty that the head of the fly will be very clean, free of feather fragments protruding around or into the hook eye.  Also It allows a single feather such as a wood duck or gadwall or grouse or other flank or larger hen hackle feather to supply hackle for up to quite a few flies, which ensures you won’t run out of proper length hackle.  It brings into play a lot of webby larger feathers in your kit and lets you harvest high quality soft hackle from them.  (It can also appeal to one’s frugal side–very little need go to waste.)  It works easily down to size 18 and even smaller, regardless of barb length—and you won’t be tempted to trim off the pointed ends of the barbs (which move the most naturally in the water). Finally, it’s not only the most satisfactory, it’s also by far the easiest of the methods I’ve ever found.

Thus is an expletive-worthy materials phenomenon leveraged to become the choice method for applying long-barb soft hackle to smaller flies.  I’m so jazzed by how well it works and how repeatable the results are that I’m tying up a bunch of my favorite soft-hackles, even though I have several years’ supply of this pattern already stocked up. It’s probably a technique used by many, but whether or not, it deserves describing here, and deserves the praise.

So stick that in your @&!#@ net, bub.  Street cred???  Yer lookin’ at it.  But…should I call this tying technique the “patootie method”?  Fiddlesticks, sez I while doing me toughest swagger, Mother Macree would just say phooey to that.

2 thoughts on “An Expletive that Catches Fish

  1. Paul

    That’s a great way to tie on hackle for a wet fly. I learned that little trick this past winter in a local TU master fly tying class. If you tie wet flies or need a hackle collar on a fly… try it. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed! Oh and just like the author, if I couldn’t swear when tying flies, I would forget how to tie most patterns. Sometimes it never goes as planned…not even close.

    Reply

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