Dry Fly Tails & Quill, Hackle Stem or Biot Bodies

Guest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody WY, Former National Park Superintendent

For many years I used hackle, Coq de leon, pheasant, deer hair, moose hair, and a lot of other hair choices for the tails of my dry flies. When the artificial tapered nylon mayfly tail material became available in various colors, I switched to them exclusively for all dry flies. The material is buoyant and imitates typical dry fly tails extremely well. The survival of emerging duns long enough to molt and become “spinners” for mating is because they emerge in high numbers and many survive the feeding trout in very large numbers. This is the time when the water looks like it is “boiling” as the fish feed voraciously. Many of the massive numbers emerging eventually molt and become strong fliers and begin mating. Their life span then depends on the species I which often ends minutes after mating.

It is quite a mystery that when the water is virtually covered with emerging duns and I cast my dry fly imitation into the massive pile of crowded insects floating by that any trout would strike my imitation. My flies are not ugly or poorly tied, but even to my eyes they don’t look like the thousands of duns on the water during a hatch. Yet my artificial fly is frequently selected by fish. Why is that?

This past summer I set up an experiment to see if a full tailed fly of various hair was any different in the selection by trout when compared to flies tied with two or three splayed mayfly tails of artificial nylon that are a realistic representation of a mayfly’s tail. The short answer is that when a full tailed fly is cast among the thousands of emerging duns, it is selected just as well as a fly tied with the more realistic tails of the tapered nylon. I couldn’t be sure, but the full tailed fly of hair might even be preferred when presented among the thousands of hatching duns. To be statistically more definitive would require many more times where the two types of flies was compared.

However, when there is not a hatch in progress and you are casting a dry fly imitation in expectation that a trout will take your presentation; then I would prefer my fly was tied with the more realistic, separated nylon tails. Properly separated the fly is more buoyant and sets more naturally on the water, which might be more important to encouraging a strike than what the tail is made of. I’m sure most fly fishermen have seen trout rise and look over your fly then retreat without striking. But that may be because the fly was the wrong color or not the right size or because the line was dragging, not the type of tail on the fly.

To present a more realistic appearance of a mayfly’s body I use a stripped peacock quill, a hackle stem or biots from turkey or goose I soak all the quills in water to make them more pliable and less likely to break when being wound. I color the quills to match the fly pattern being tied with permanent ink magic markers. I also coat the finished body with several coats of clear cement to make them more durable. On every dry fly being tied with a quill I wind the quill to the back of the wings then dub a small amount of extra-fine dry fly dubbing and make one turn behind the wings and one or two turns in front of the wings. This is then overlapped with the hackle. If using a biot for the body the procedure is the same as described for a peacock quill or a hackle stem. The result is a slender and realistic may fly body.

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