Seasons

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

There’s a haunting lyric in a “Phantom of the Opera” song (now, stay with me here, I won’t take this gooey culture stuff very far) that goes something like, “Flowers fade, the fruits of summer fade; they have their seasons, so do we….”

The fact is that everything has its seasons–apples, screech owls, mountainsides, trout, athletics, human beings…and fly tying materials. In a world that has us tying flashabou this and antron that, using mylar sheet material for wing case covers and trilobal streamer hair, adding latex wiggly-legs, and watching as even synthetic hackle makes its way onto the market, Mother Nature can sometimes take an unintended back seat. A “season” to us is the length of time the fishing license remains current. We default to engineered polyester dubbing; we install long perfect monofilament mayfly tails. We skip the body-tapering step entirely and just shoe-goo on a hotdog-shaped piece of open-cell foam. Depending on the species we target and our capacity for patience, it can be easy to go periods of time without ever using natural materials.

If we do try to go “au natural,” we can find we’ve stocked hair soaked in UV-enhancing coatings; we find we’ve bought peacock herl encrusted with paint.

But old-time fly fishermen and tyers will now and then remind us, with a comment here or there about the qualities of this or that pelt, that once upon a time there was a lot of lore accumulated relating to the seasons of the materials with which a classic fly is tied.

Myself, I’m still a novice at exploring this wrinkle in materials accumulation. I always will be. I know enough to poke around through individual hackle necks in the rare times I’m in a fly shop, but like most of us I mostly get my materials sight-unseen. Like my fellow tyers, I come to rely on companies with good names, and collectively we value consistency as much as we do peak quality, because only through consistency do we know what we’re getting. We expect “ginger” color to be ginger in color; we expect “grizzly” to mean what it always has, and not be re-defined to include variant barring or cree just because variant cree needs to be shipped.

And most brand names respond to us, and the uniformity of what we use, pack to pack, comes to be very good. But while consistency is a worthy virtue, it does have one small downside: While it is filtering out the sub-par, it also filters out the seasonal and the exceptional and the unique.

<Figure 1: Ptarmigans in Winter & Summer Coats >

Birds in particular, but all creatures that must adapt to real summers and real winters can change drastically with the season. Last winter on a walk around the outskirts of the neighborhood with my daughter, she spied a pack of gorgeous Alaskan huskies romping in a yard. We chatted with the lady who lives there and she let it slip that they give those dogs a good haircut every May to keep them from overheating in summer. So in late April I left a note on their door and got a call from them letting me know the haircuts were being given that next weekend. I explained my interest and a week later received a large bag of long-strand white and black dog hair. Those doggies waltzed around the neighborhood all summer looking like shaved pigs, but I have a decade’s supply of the longest most beautiful supple streamer hair a fly tyer could ever imagine. Seasons.

I acquired some winter fox hair once for the same reason–from an unfortunate road kill on a deep-woods snowy night. It was of a color and length one just doesn’t normally find. I honored the wild thing that provided it by appreciating it for many years.

<Figure 2: Partridge in Summer >

I like to fish peacock herl-bodied wetflies; one that has become a go-to pattern for me is the grey-hackle peacock, an age-old pattern from the 1700’s made re-popular in recent decades by Ray Bergman and used in all kinds of water, from still to wild. Up to now I get the requisite mottled light-grey hackle from partridge skins, but each skin usually only has so many of them that are perfect for a #14 version of this prolific fly. Recently however, I’ve realized that while the high quality Hungarian partridge skins I normally buy are mostly a nice natural brown, skins acquired from birds in the dead of a real winter can consist almost entirely of mottled greyish and whitist feathers. These are stunningly beautiful seasonal coats; one skin can provide years of soft-hackle of this effective color. Such a skin is not normally found, and will never replace my intention to stock brown-toned partridge skins, but having seen one, it’s on my specialty want-list.

<Figure 3: Winter Partridge Pelt >

Of course the effects of gender and environ are more mainstreamed in our modern lore…and that’s not really “season.” Male and female birds typically sport vastly different plumage colors and properties. Coastal deer hair is usually shorter than hair from their mountain cousins but can have more hairs per square inch; as such it’s often labelled as “comparadun hair” because its length is not a detriment but its uniformity is an advantage, for comparadun patterns. Likewise, tying material obtained from different parts of an animal’s body each have their own effect, although package labelling tends to make that evident: belly hair vs tail vs mane. Differences are generally obvious. But the focus on season is fading as the decades go by.

 

 

<Figure 4: Hair >

Phase of life is another kind of “season” and is worth attention; animal age can be as important as time of year. Yearling elk hair exhibits qualities different from older adults: It has a finer diameter, which makes it less compressible so it flairs less when spun…but that can be an advantage when less flair is the goal. As with comparadun hair, yearling elk hair tips are very even, being all quite similar in length, which makes it easily stacked and in fact often not in need of stacking at all. It’s reasonably stiff but more supple than the hair of older elk. Because of these qualities, yearling elk hair is often preferred for hairwing flies like the Elk Hair Caddis (especially on smaller hooks) and other hairwing dries, and its reduced flair tendencies are a boon in parachute patterns.

By contrast, deer hair from animals three to five years old is prized. Although not as fine as hair from younger deer, it’s usually superior in terms of qualities sought for spinning–compressibility and flair, and durability. Such hair makes great muddler heads, mouse patterns, topwater bass flies, etc. It can be less than easy to obtain hides from deer of that age, though, since only half a percent of them live to be five years old.

<Figure 5: Winter Bull Moose >

And sometimes you can just tell from the long, thick, knotted, matted gnarly stuff that it’s from a big ol’ ugly dead-of-winter bull.

For tying materials, a world of factors make seasonal considerations important: Durability, suppleness, color, dimension, ability to take dye…and availability. Our materials supply chain is extraordinary anymore; with J. Stockard in our corner, a Tennessee tyer can produce flies sporting the jungle cock feather look, and a North Woods tyer can make Tarpon-tempters of Italian fibers. For the thread-winders of history, today’s acquisition options would be a dream come true. But hanging onto the old-time seasonal materials knowledge still connects us with the past, makes our tying that much more enjoyable, and can result in unique and very productive flies.

So if you ever find yourself gussied up in a gallery while the operetta heroine, uh, belts one out, just sit back and daydream of the changing seasons of feather and fur; I would.

2 thoughts on “Seasons

  1. Joe Dellaria

    Hi Mike,
    I agree, collecting fly tying materials from various sources can provide unique materials and save lots of money. My first find was a fur hat my mom was going to throw out. The fur had become scraggly with some bare patches. She was about to throw it out and I asked if I could have it. She was surprised but gladly gave it to me. I still have the hat and use it to tie light cahill bodies.
    It also pays to be friends with those who hunt. I have a lifetime supply of all types of pheasant feathers when I traded my neighbor a trout dinner for 8 pheasant skins. Another friend gave me his turkey skin, and I have several friends who give me pieces of their deer pelts.
    The only downside is you must learn how to tan these to prevent mold and/or maggots. A small price for a prince’s ransom worth of excellent fly tying materials!
    Nice job on the article.
    All the best, Joe

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      Hi Joe,

      You’re a lucky man to have all those hunter friends. I’ll bet you can get fur and feather of all kinds of seasonal coats. I suffered the supreme indignity when I traded my farming upbringing, a world that featured ponies and foxes and wild rabbits and squrrels and deer and owls with 5-foot wing spans, for a suburban life and a cubicle by day. And I hardly ever hunt. I do keep an eye out for road kill when I head out onto country roads, and I have my eye on the many wild turkeys we have in these parts, which flock the roads in broad daylight…strangely except for the two weeks right before Thanksgiving.

      I once inquired about preservation methods, from an amateur supplier, because my daughter is prone to asthma and I didn’t want to trigger an attack with germs or molds. (Salmonella is a natural part of a bird’s existence, for example, and pretty much any kind of acute infection or virus can put an asthma-prone kid in the ICU.) I was told that putting materials in the deep freeze for some number of days is all that’s needed to ensure no micro-critters make it into the materials bin. And as I recall from my youth, all one really needs to render skin dry and safe is to rub salt into the muscle-side of the hide. I suspect doing the salt thing, then drying it thoroughly in direct sunlight (for the UV germ-killing effect), then freezing it for a few days would be a simple way for you to permanently preserve skin. I’d like to hear what methods you use.

      But Joe, that “light cahill” story seems a little weak…can you honestly tell us…honestly…that all these years you’ve not actually been wearing your mother’s old hat around town? Come on now, no fibbing.

      – Mike

      Reply

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