Fly & Field presents...
by Davy Wotton
The ability to tie a neat, streamlined hairwing often eludes the fly-dresser. There are many reasons why the hairwing can flare out at all angles, will not lay flat, or refuses to assume the correct shape of the intended pattern.
I have watched a number of good fly-dressers tying hairwings using several different methods, but there are certain points which require a fundamental understanding, in order to achieve a presentable fly - no matter what tying method is employed.
There are three major factors to consider: the hair to be used, the pattern of fly and the tying technique. All have a bearing on one other.
Let us deal first with the hair. Hairs come from different species, and understandably, their characteristics vary. Generally, four types are used - squirrel, goat, fox and deer.
The time of the year the animal was killed, as well as the region in which it lived, can radically alter the nature of the fur. For example, a winter coat will generally be harder than a summer one. In the fur trade, the winter coat is thought to be best.
Fox and squirrel are not what we would call compressible" hairs, but the hair of deer and some wild goat species does possess this characteristic - one of the main reasons why deer hair is the most suitable for Muddler heads. By "compressible", I mean that, when tying thread is taken around the hair and pulled tight, it will cause the hair to flare.
When deer hair is used for the tying of dry-fly Patterns, the species from which the hair is derived, and the position it was found on the animal must both be taken into account. Some hairs are of a finer and harder nature, less inclined to flare. These lend themselves to the dry-fly, especially hairs from elk and black-tailed deer.
Bucktail is the one type of hair that is beset with problems. If it is not initially selected correctly, it will flare at every angle, except for the one you want.The thick end of bucktail (closest to the skin) will, if tied in at this point, flare as deer hair would. There is, however, a tying technique to avoid this, and I shall explain it later.
As far as initial selection of bucktail is concerned, it is far from easy to remove a bunch of the hair and have all the fine ends reasonably well aligned. With a large tube-fly, this is not really a problem, as you will have plenty of bulk from the fine ends of the bucktail to the head of the tube. If you are using bucktail for a hook pattern, however, you will need a reasonable amount of hair running along the fly body.
A bunch of the hair, measured from the root, is likely to be at least three inches long, if not a great deal more. For most patterns you will need no more than l 1/2 in-2 in. Place the fine ends in a hair stacker, and cut the thick ends off - leaving at least two inches in total length - you will then find it easier to tamp it all down and get most of the fine ends (Fig. 1.).
Fig. 1. It is easier to tamp down the fibers of bucktail in a stacker if the thicker roots are first removed.
When you remove the hair, there should be sufficient, both in length and thickness,to form a good wing for the fly. More importantly, the tying-down point should be the sort of fibres that have neither the thickness nor the compressibility that would cause the bucktail to flare.
Squirrel tail can easily be removed so that the fine ends remain aligned. One tip of mine may help. Most of the hair on the first l 1/2 inches of the tail is of no use. I cut this all away, so as to leave a clean stem. It is then easier to pull the fibres out at right angles to the squirrel tail, and make a clean cut. Also, it is easier to work up the tail, as opposed to cutting out lumps at different points, generally making a mess and wasting much of the tail (see Fig 2.).
(a) Trim away waste (b) Cut as required
The removal of fox and goat hair will require a little care, as you may not always be able to work from a clean edge - you may have to cut the hair from a position in the skin. If it's possible, work in a manner that will permit most of the hair fibres to remain well together at their tip ends. Fox hair can usually be put into a hair-stacker, but goat, being very fine, will usually fail to tamp down well.
Most hairwings are used for the tying of streamer lures, and for salmon and sea-trout patterns. Generally, these flies will have a body of floss silk, although some patterns incorporate chenille or dubbed fur.
It is important that the foundation of the fly-body terminates at the hook eye in a manner which will not cause the hairwing to cock up. If you create bulk at the tying-in point of the hairwing, you have hindered yourself from the very onset.
Clumsy tying in of hair at the hook-eye can bedevil standard type wet-fly patterns, and is one of the reasons why problems are encountered when the wing is put on.
It is good practice to avoid the termination of the ribbing above the hook-shank, in other words, at the tying-in point of the wing. If a false, or beard, hackle is used, it makes no difference whether it is tied in before or after the wing - both ways work equally well. My preference, though is to tie in false hackles after the wing, for this reason: if the hackle goes in first, the subsequent turns of thread over the wing will cause the hackle to become a tight, solid mass below the hookshank.
Without doubt, the best and correct method is to fully wind a hackle before tying in the wing (Fig. 3.). It will give far more balance and symmetry to the fly, as well as more movement once it is in the water. It is also a good discipline in the correct elements of fly-tying technique. If a wound hackle is tied correctly, there should be no need to take further turns of silk to incline the fibres rearward, as some books on fly-tying advocate. Such turns should be made as the hackle is being wound; done correctly, they will make a perfect foundation for the wing.
The hook itself can make or mar a hairwing pattern. A double hook has a much flatter and wider surface at the tying-in position of the hair, which helps considerably. On a standard, round-wire shank, a little more care is required.
Tying thread is yet another very important element, not just for hairwing. Some brands of thread will flatten out when wound, while others are more tightly spun and will resist this tendency.
For tying hairwings, you need a silk that is tightly spun, and very strong. It will, with very few turns, bite down tightly on the hair. Only six turns or so should stop you from being able to pull out squirrel tail, unless a great deal of force is used.
I accept that not all fly-tyers can use fine-diameter threads. It does take a lot of practice to get used to its tensile strength. Nevertheless, it is important that a thread has a certain amount of elasticity, so that it does not snap without prior warning. I favour an 8/0 diameter thread, which is both strong and fairly elastic, and which facilitates a very neat, tight head.
I do not use varnish for added security, but there is no reason why you shouldn't, if you so wish. But restrict the varnish to squirrel tail. Deer hair or bucktail compresses to such an extent under the thread that, unvarnished, you will snap it off before you succeed in pulling it out.
The correct amount of hair to use for a pattern is not easy to convey. Suffice to say, if you use too much squirrel tail, you will have a problem with it pulling out. Also, the length and bulk of hair is, to some degree, down to personal choice.
The best way to learn how to tie a hairwing (or, for that matter, any other fly wing) is to do it on a bare hook, without any other element of the fly present. Once you have mastered the wing, it is merely a matter of tying the body correctly to accept it.
Getting down to specifics, the way to tie in bucktail is to make the first three or four turns of thread midway between the end of the fly-body and the hook eye (Fig-4.). Once the hair is compressed sufficiently to avoid it pulling out make several slacker turns of tying thread towards the fly-body position. Contrived, unnecessary tension will merely cause the hair to stick up and flare. All you are really aiming to do is to complete neatly this part of the fly-head (Fig. 5.). Once you have done this, unwanted fibres of bucktail may be trimmed down with very sharp scissors before the head is completed.
Squirrel hair requires a bit more attention if it is not to pull out. There is a method known as using a "locking turn". We are assuming that the hairwing is cut from the tail, gripped by the fine ends and denuded of all the shorter fibres. Don't neglect to remove the underfur at the fibres' base.
Offer the wing above the hookshank, so as to judge the correct length of the wing above and just past the tail-end of the fly. If you are unable to get the majority of the fibres of equal length, then use the hair-stacker.
Take the tying thread over the wing, then underneath it at a position about midway along the tying-in position (Fig. 6.). As you draw down on the thread, make sure that the wing is brought down central to the hookshank. You may at this point, if you so wish, add some varnish.
This method will bring all the fibres together at the tying-in point. Continue with further, very tight, turns of thread at this point, just enough so that the wing will not easily pull out.
Continue to take the thread towards the fly-body position, as explained for bucktail. By this time, the wing should be fully secure. if not, then tie it in again. When you are satisfied that the wing is tight, and at the correct angle, turn down the unwanted ends and complete the fly head.
Calf tail should be treated in exactly the same way as squirrel tail. Selection of the hair is of paramount importance - never buy a calf tail that appears ragged, with hair fibre pointing in all directions. Always aim to buy a calf tail which has the same general appearance and lay of fibres as a good-quality squirrel tail.
If you do this, you will find it significantly easier to cut off the required calf tail in uniform, straight and tidy amounts. The ability to recognize and buy a quality calf tail means you are three-quarters of the way to producing a decent hairwing.
I advise the above for beginners, but personally use another method:
FIRST, I tie down three or four tight turns of thread in the middle, almost on top of one another. I then take the thread to the position close to the fly-body and make one turn, then move it to the midway position of the first and make a further two, very tight turns (Fig. 7.). What I am in effect doing is to crimp down the hair very tightly. Do this correctly, and you will be surprised how few turns of thread you need to secure the hairwing.
The golden rules are: leave sufficient room to tie it in the first place ... do not use too much hair ... and make sure that the first six to eight turns of thread really do hold the hair tightly in place.
If you still have a problem, it may be related to the tying thread. This I know to be a common cause of wings pulling out. My choices are Uni-Thread 8/0, or a 6/0 version for heavy work.