pheasant feathers

Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury MN

Over the years I have made friends with numerous people who hunt birds, small game, and large game. Many of them have invited me to join them. In every instance I have said no emphatically. Most look at me and say, “Why?” My answer is always the same, “I don’t need another expensive, time intensive hobby!” Inevitably this leads to a weird smile followed by an “Oh.”

It’s not that I don’t like the idea of hunting. Rather, I know I will like it. If I start, it will be the first step off the proverbial cliff leading to new equipment, learning how to use it, and trying to figure out the best places to use it well. I don’t have the time, and don’t have enough money to spend on new hobbies as my other time-intensive, expensive hobbies, fishing and woodworking, do an excellent job of depleting my hobby spending account.

Fortunately, my hunting friends have not disowned me and we have retained good relationships over the years. This can provide a productive source of feathers and fur. One day I was talking to my new neighbor asking about his hobbies. His favorite hobby was pheasant hunting. Off he went on a long description of his latest exploits. I had never seen anyone field dress a pheasant so I asked how he did it. To my horror I found out that he pulled out the breast meat and disposed of everything else in the garbage. I could hardly contain myself thinking of how many flies I could tie with just a couple of those skins.

I kept my cool and casually asked when he planned his next pheasant hunting excursion. As fortune would have it, he was going the next month. As nonchalantly as I could, I inquired if he could save a few skins for me.

To my great delight he quickly retorted, “How many do you want?”

To which I replied, “Well, how many will you have?”

He was going with a group of guys so he thought it could easily be as many as 20-30 birds.

So, I said, “Five or six would be fine.”

He knew I trout fished and finished with, “For a couple of trout dinners, I can get you double that.”

I quickly responded, “Done!

A few weeks later a huge garbage bag of pheasant skins showed up next to my garage door overnight. I have to warn you, it can be pretty ugly when you open bags like this. He had taken no precautions and just kept tossing the skins into the bag until he could just barely carry it. It was fall so it was cool enough that the smell was not completely repulsive when I first opened the bag. After sorting through the bag, I kept 4-5 skins and all the tail feathers that were usable.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert. Others may have better ways to do this. I did a little searching on the internet to get going and went with the easiest thing I could find. In the end, this will provide preserved skins for small animals and birds that will last indefinitely if they are kept dry after the process is completed.

The process I describe below can be used to preserve any small game pelt or bird skin. Their skins are much thinner and easily dried. Larger animals have thicker skins and require a different process to properly preserve the skin and fur. I have done part of a deer skin once. It takes 3-4 weeks to go through the process. I am glad I did it, but will probably not try to do it again until I deplete my stock.

First, I will give the general steps. Afterwards I will provide some details for each step.

  1. Start quickly: Begin the process as soon as you can. Hours are better than days.
  2. Clean it first: Use soap and water to wash all of the blood, dirt, etc. off
  3. Rinse thoroughly: Thoroughly rinse with warm water (mostly so your hands don’t get cold)
  4. Partially dry: Let it dry until the skin is still moist and pliable
  5. Stretch and pin: Stretch and pin the skin with the fur/feathers on the down side
  6. Remove any tissue or fat: Scrape off any remaining flesh or fat
  7. Apply the drying agent: Liberally cover the flesh side of the skin with borax
  8. Wait: Wait until the skin is hard
  9. Remove the drying agent and pins: Carefully remove the borax and the pins.
  10. Start tying: The skin is ready to store or use!


  1. Start quickly: The longer you wait, the more likely the skin or pelt is to shed the fur or feathers; this is referred to as casting. A good friend of mine had a squirrel problem at his house and saved several squirrel tails for me over the summer. When I grabbed the first tail and pulled it out, all I got was a naked tail. All the hair fell off. Not one tail was usable.
  2. Clean it first: Nothing fancy here. Simply wash in warm water to remove blood, dirt, etc. You may need to use a little dish washing detergent to get everything off.
  3. Rinse thoroughly: if you use any soap, make sure to rinse thoroughly with warm water.
  4. Partially dry: Allow the piece to air dry until it is moist and still pliable. If you let it dry too long it usually curls and becomes brittle. You can soak it in water and let it partially dry without ruining the skin (unless you wait too long, in which case the fur/feathers may start falling off).
  5. Stretch and pin: If the skin is pliable it is time to stretch and pin the skin. I use the foam boards you use for presentations to stretch out the skin or hide using sewing pins or push pins. Put the feather or fur side down and the muscle side up.  I prefer sewing pins as they make smaller holes and lead to less tearing. If you use sewing pins, I like to grip the pin in a needle nose plier when I push the pin through the skin into the foam board. You don’t have to use the pliers, but if you are doing more than 20 pins, I find my hand gets pretty sore. I place the pins 2-3 inches apart and try to get the skin taught but not too tight. The skin will shrink as it dries. If you get it too taught when you are pinning it down, the skin may tear as it dries. Try to place the pins within ¼” or less of the edge. This helps to prevent the skin from rolling up as it dries.
  6. Remove any tissue or fat: Using a putty knife, scrape off any remaining muscle tissue or fat. Usually you will find a membrane between the muscle or fat and the skin. Try to get all of it off. Start scraping gently and increase pressure until you start removing muscle, fat, or the membrane. You can scrape firmly, but be careful not to scrape too hard or you will tear the skin. It’s not the end of the earth if you do, but it makes applying and removing the drying agent easier and less messy if you don’t tear the skin.
  7. Apply the drying agent: Coat the muscle side of the skin with 1/16” to 1/8” thick layer of Borax (you can buy still buy Borax 20 mule team – I googled it and it looks like Target has it. One box lasts a long time – I am still on my first box.). Borax is a boric acid salt, it serves as a dehydrating agent (it removes all moisture from the skin). You can use table salt too. However, you want to use non-iodized salt. I prefer borax as it is a finer powder which covers more evenly. It is also less corrosive than salt. I recommend using disposable gloves to apply the borax/salt. This prevents drying out your hands. If you don’t use gloves, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with water after you are done.
  8. Wait: This is the easiest step but the hardest to do. I always want to see the finished product so waiting is painful. It can go as quickly as a few hours if the skin is thin or up to 1-3 days for thicker skins. You can tell when the skin is dry as it gets very stiff . Make sure there are no moist spots left.
  9. Remove the drying agent and pins: This is straight forward. Take the pinned board to a waste basket or garbage can and tip the board until all the salt comes off. You may need to lightly brush the skin with an old paint brush to dislodge any salt that sticks to the skin. Remove the pins.
  10. Start tying: The skin is good to go you can start tying. As long as the skin remains dry, you should not have any problems with bugs, mold, etc. Some of the pieces in the pictures of my stash below have been stored for over 10 years without any loss in quality!

pheasant feathers
pheasant feathers
deer hair

I find doing this fun. It also saves some money so you can buy other things at J. Stockard for your fly-tying or fly-fishing arsenal. There is another big benefit. As you examine the pelts and skins you are likely to find some unusual feathers that can lead to some productive flies. One example of this is the fine marabou feathers found at the base of many of the turkey feathers on the skin. I decided to use these to palmer the body of a bead head nymph. It looks great in the water, and better yet, it catches fish. 

feather and fly

So, give it a try. For an hour or two of work you can get a lifetime supply of some pretty amazing tying supplies. In addition, now you have a reason to make friends with people who hunt.

WARNING: There are certain feathers and furs that are illegal to have in your possession unless you are a registered dealer (Eagle feathers most notably). Be sure to check your state DNR regulations for possession of whatever you intend to dry. Also, selling certain furs and feathers can be illegal. Be sure to ensure whatever you intend to sell is permissible. State DNR penalties can be quite stiff for violations in either of these instances.

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