Free Substitutions

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

Ahhh, free-sub…we start out liking it, because there are thirty eight kids who want in on the kickball game but only one kickball. Free-sub gives us hope that we too can rotate in before the recess bell. Then a few years later we establish ourselves, maybe in another sport, maybe as a strong-side front line volleyball spiker…and free-sub becomes a bore, ensuring that once we rotate out we never get back in. Then we evolve further and become a fan, and the picture gets cloudy…I mean, we can accept footballers running on and off the field with abandon but it just doesn’t sit right that a baseball pitcher doesn’t have to hit…and years later still, we appreciate the free-sub concept again, when we start coaching kiddie sports and the parents are counting how many minutes their little booger-eater was in the game compared to Johnny.

Free-substitution is a mixed bag of blessings and curses. By the time we start applying it to fly tying materials, we appreciate the ability to use fluff off an old sweater when the Aussie Possum runs out–we do appreciate that. But it’s the curse side of materials substitution I want to dwell on today.

Don’t get me wrong — there are few on the planet more prone to use “found” or “similar” materials than I. I greatly enjoy the creative juice aspect, and I celebrate when my “faked” handiwork fools a fish. But over the years I have realized that the downside of free materials substitution is that people long ago were really smart. So when the pattern calls for something specific from nature, there are generally good reason, and switching something else in is often a desperate, rather than genius, move.

A few examples:

Elk Hair

Dude, just use any cervine/caprioline mammal’s hair for your Elk Hair Caddis — deer, elk, antelope, moose, whatever. If it’s antlered and hooved, then its hair is probably hollow, so it all floats, right? …and it’s probably compressible, so I’m sure it all flares the same. Or just use that craft fur stuff! Hair is hair, ain’t it? Substitute away…you may end up with a nice ratty department-store-looking fly that a starving hatchery fish might snag itself on.

Or, you could become better acquainted with the different properties not only of different antlered species, but also of different genders, different ages, different times of the year, different regions of the continent, and different parts of the animal’s hide. This has all been mapped out ages ago by highly intelligent people; there are charts that mark up a hide like a butcher’s poster shows dissection lines for meat.

Figure 1 — Hair Chart

For deer, short and fine hair comes from some body areas and in some seasons, and is used for small flies where flaring is not much desired; cow rump and belly hair can flare almost 90 degrees and is terrific for spinning and hoppers. Bucktail mostly isn’t even hollow, so it’s a streamer play. For elk, cow is straightest and thus the most universal, but again the part of the body determines the flare-ability, with belly and rump being most compressible…and autumn or early winter cow elk hair is long, coarse and incomparable for spinning. Yearling and early spring hair is very fine, compresses some, and the tips tend to be dark. Bull elk tends to be dark-tipped but otherwise blonde or deliciously creamy in color.  Antelope can be used too, but it appears to be less diligently studied, given the general absence of wild herds in Olde Englande. You’ll have to stop letting them trick you into thinking that a “comparadun” is an exotic critter, and also stop thinking that a hunk of its hide is going to serve all your antlered animal hair needs, because it won’t. And then there’s the big old primal moose, with rugged dark body hair and mane hair as coarse as the transatlantic cable.

So substitute if you must, but try to educate on the precise stuff the old-timers recommended, and use it if you can get your hands on it. It all differs, species to species, gender to gender, season to season, age to age and rump to belly to haunch. There are many varieties and you’ll need to label not only what each is but what its properties are and what it’s best for as well.

Figure 2 – Antlered Critter Hair

Hare’s Mask Dubbing

There are all sorts of dubs, and these days some need heavy stickum…or a dubbing loop…to even do the job at all. The original underfur of a bunny’s face is, by contrast, the very definition of elegance. It’s why the old timers swore by it. There’s other ol’ standby fur too — Aussie Possum for example. They do a good job trying to match the feel of these materials with synthetics, but they never exceed the quality. Take a step back into the days when the expertise was born, and earned. The old-time “best” dubbing materials are not to be mocked.

Arctic Seal

This one is a moot point.  Suffice it to say that it can be found, usually from the lining of old World War aviator jackets or some other highly limited source, but it’s best not to dwell on how good the stuff was.  They make all sorts of synthetic “copies” said to simulate that “perfect” dubbing, but whether it feels the same is anybody’s guess.

Turkey Feather

Nothing, but nothing, beats a hunk of parallel turkey feather barbs for wing cases. Turkey feather barbs are natural, they’re fantastically mottled, and they’re as tough as leather.  They’re also a delight to use. I’ve peeled bits from hawk feather and duck feather, I’ve used the synthetic vinyl sheet stuff, but there’s something just plain better about the real thing.  When you’ve got it, go with it. When you don’t, stock up.

Pheasant Tail

These barbs are also used for wing case material, but in my humble opinion their forte is body ribbing. Plastic D-shaped ribbing, wire…none of it looks as buggy as a body ribbed with pheasant tail barbs, each of which has micro-barbs of its own. It may need a little glue to keep it durable, but looks-wise it is unsurpassed.

Peacock Herl

There are peacock-colored synthetics, and peacock-colored dubbing…but please, just please. The real thing is so fish-pleasing-superior it doesn’t bear discussing. Peacock herl doesn’t even have pigment — it gets its color from the bending of light around microscopic hairs spaced so perfectly they make nothing less than visual magic. Make it durable with counter-wound thread or a sub-base of glue or whatever, but go with the real stuff…and don’t let anybody dye it on you, either…it ain’t estaz. It’s Nature’s light miracle.

Hungarian Partridge

I have used hen feathers and other webby stuff for soft hackle wet flies, and I would again if I had to, but in the end I’ve realized the incomparable properties of what a ‘Hungarian’ partridge skin provides. Dark brown, medium brown, light tan, blue-grey, light grey, even white…and all just about the perfect size for two or so turns.  All barbs are soft, all are nicely mottled and barred, none cling much to the next barb. The stems are beautifully supple and generally strong (although I’ve learned to avoid wasting an occasional feather by trimming the schlappen from the stem instead of peeling it). Partridge feathers are called out by the classic pattern recipes quite frankly because they’re far and away superior. Yes, starling exists, and other stuff is good too, but partridge remains king.

Figure 3 – Hungarian Partridge Skin

Past attempts to substitute for partridge feathers have compelled me to also substitute techniques, for example when trying to utilize soft hackle that’s far too long for the fly. I came up with ways to “use up” the extra barb length and in the process fatten up the fly’s body…only to discover on the stream that extra air was trapped around the hook shank in so doing, and even a weighted wet fly would not sink on quiet water without it being treated with sink-faster juice, or partnered with a split shot larger than number 4, or slapped down with bull-whip technique. So while I thought I was getting away with the substitution, I wasn’t really, and my tying technique had to be modified further. All that struggle went away when I just went with the partridge…plus the stems were now beautifully workably thin and I began to automatically get the perfect amount of hackle onto the fly.

There are a lot of other small ground-based birds, including ptarmigan, chukar, grouse, woodcock…a lot of different seaside birds…but the so-called “Hungarian” partridge is the famous one in soft hackle lore. Those old-timers knew what they were talking about.

Dog, Fox, or Wolf Hair

This doesn’t get specified in classic pattern recipes so often, but there is precious little material that combines strength with truly wonderful suppleness quite like Fido and his extended pack. For everything from streamer material to wet fly tail, if you can find the color you want you cannot go wrong. It’s true enough that individual canines differ in their coat quality, with coyotes providing a ratty primal look and the offspring of golden retriever silky-fur champions having a superb feel and fluid motion in the water…and it’s noted that some canine hair is findable only via unfortunate roadkill and via allowable laws… but overall the long guard hairs, even of wild things, is terrific in its soft undulation and its durable resilience to trout teeth. We might be tempted to use artificial hair products, possibly for their convenience and their special out-of-this-world colors, but unless there’s an excellent reason don’t overlook the genuine article, because it’s incomparable.

So while I remain a big fan of creative modification, credit is due the ‘real’ thing.  We can make do with other stuff, we can experiment to our hearts’ content, we can fly in the face of what The Masters chose…but we should remember that the traditional materials became so because they were great for the job.

And most importantly, they’re a joy to use.

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