Fly & Field presents...
by Davy Wotton
Davy Wotton explores the versatility of the hare's mask
If I was totally restricted to a single choice of natural fur then, without question, I would plump for hare. If there is one natural fibre that combines to produce the largest, most widely used range of flies, it has to be this one. Why this should be so I'm not quite sure. Perhaps it's the enormous amount of fibre variation, colour and structure from mask, ears and body that contribute to such versatility, but its probably another attribute that draws fly-tying anglers to this material: hare fur possesses certain characteristics that greatly appeal to the fish's eye -- and that is by far the most important consideration!
Hare fur has many features in its favour. Physically, it scores points all round. I have already mentioned its versatility, but in addition to this it can be mixed with other materials (both natural and synthetic) which can further enhance the sparkle and life of the material, and it may also be dyed to suitable colours without any subsequent loss in structure of the fibres.
From a historical point of view, hare fur has often featured in many of the classic wet and dry fly patterns. Times have moved on, and the development of other patterns utilising the fur have more or less taken over from those commonly used in the old days. It's worth stating, however, that those patterns of yesteryear are probably every bit as good today as they were fifty years ago.
Geographically, things are no different where hare fur and fly-fishing are concerned. Having fished on many different waters throughout the world, I can safely say that there is probably no water on this globe where hare-fur flies will not catch fish. With credentials like those listed above, can you afford to ignore flies dressed with hare fur? Only at your peril!
To get to grips with hare-fur flies you need to start at the beginning, and this means choosing a hare's mask of high quality. There are some poor quality masks about, so you need to avoid them. The following checklist will help you sort out the wheat from the chaff:
Dyed masks are becoming popular, but bear in mind that dyeing a mask to A1 quality is a difficult operation. If it is not done correctly hair from the ears will be lost and the fibres can form a tight, solid mass. So choose your dyed mask with care.
- You will need the full range of fibres, so check that the ears and the outside fo both cheeks are intact;
- The whole mask should be clean of all dirt and blood;
- It should be reasonably flat, not screwed up like a hard shell, which makes it difficult to remove fur from selected areas;
- The hair should be loose, free and unclogged;
- Look for a wide variance in shade and colour throughout the mask (older animals generally produce better pelts);
- The hair itself should be bright and springy in texture.
Hare skins are very useful to the fly-tyer and are much underrated. Again, when purchasing look for clean, washed fur. Ironically, the hair found on the legs and feet is also very useful, but this is not easily obtainable unless you come across a road kill or happen to know a shooting friend.
The mask, however, is the most widely available source of hare fur and it is on this that I will now concentrate my attention.
You will, no doubt, have read many dressings which include hare's ear fibres. When you take a look at the fly picture you will see that this appears to be a sandy-gingery shade. You will find it difficult to match that particular shade because the ear area only contains a very short fibre with a very dark, almost black, base with lighter fringes. In fact, the sandy-gingery shade does not come from the ears at all, but tradition has seen that we define it this way. Strictly speaking, modern fly-dressing instructions should dictate the exact position from which the fur is taken; it would then avoid a lot of confusion.
Fur that is taken from the ears is best employed for dark-toned fly bodies such as Duns and the dark thoracic regions of nymphs. It also makes for a good dry fly body with a hackle also formed from hare guard hair, which is also found on the mask. Alternatively, a wide range of dry fly patterns can be tied simply by using a hare-fur body in combination with the relevant colour of cock hackle. To remove ear fur use either scissors or a Waldron Ceramiscrape.
As we move down the ear, closer to the top of the head, things begin to change. Between the ears at the crown of the head the fur is much softer and longer (up to an inch in some cases). It is generally of a light, sandy shade with light, or even white, tips. This makes it ideal for the mobile tails of nymphs and may also be used as a standard light share of dubbing for dry fly bodies and nymphs in general. When patterns refer to "hare lug" it is from here that the dubbing should be taken. It is also well suited to the dressing of a useful Ginger Midge Pupa, using the darker ear fur for the thorax.
Moving to the area surrounding the base of the ear the hair is similar to that found on the ear, but it is longer and coarser and suitable for dark buggy nymph bodies. By mixing a 50:50 blend of this hair and that from the ear a dubbing with an overall softer texture is produced. Many fly dressers will find this mix is easier to work than hair solely from the ear, which tends to be difficult to dub due to the shortness of the fibres. Alternatively, a well-waxed thread will overcome many of the dubbing problems associated with the short fibres of the hare's ear. Such a mixture is excellent for Dry Caddis patterns, and it also works well when combined in a dubbing loop for bulky bodied Cased Caddis.
Further down the head, the fur between the eyes possesses a similar tone to that at the root of the ear; lighter sandy tips graduating to a dark grey-black and then to a lighter grey-fawn to the skin. These longish guard hairs are ideal for tail whisks on dry fly patterns. Blending the guard hair with the underfur will produce a good, buggy dubbing especially if you heed the following advice: do not cut the fur from the skin, because if you do you will almost certainly have far too much underfur in relation to guard hair, which will ruin the shaggy, buggy, effect of the dubbing, as the fine underfur will compress and choke the guard hairs.
There are two ways to remove hair and get the ideal combination of guard hair to underfur. You can either pinch the hair and pull it out, or you can use the Waldron Ceramiscrape, which is an excellent tool for this job. You can use it to dictate the percentage of underfur you remove with the guard hair, and in the act of removal it will blend the fibres together ready for dubbing.
Here's a little test I've always used to demonstrate the difference between a good and a bad dubbing blend. After you have picked out your fur, lay it down in a pre-dub "mat", then lay it flat in the palm of your hand. Now place your other hand on top, press down and slide it away from you. You should find that it will roll into a neat spindle, just as it should do when dubbed onto the thread. Do the same with a lump of fur which has been cut with scissors from between the hare's eyes and you will not get this effect.
I've always stated that pre-preparation of your material is paramount to a good fly -- even before the thread is reached! In this case a good dubbing is that which has the correct combination of different structures of fibre, in the correct proportions.
Now let's move across the face of the hare to the area high on the right or left-hand side of the eye. You will see that the hair is lighter in shade here, and it is from here that I take my hair for the so-called Hare's Ear Nymphs, although I do conform by using the darker shade of true ear fur for the thorax. This area of the mask also provides a stiffer hair than from between the ears, and is a good source of dry fly tail whisks and nymph tails.
Moving down the mask, but still staying to the left and right of the eye, the hair is generally of a much lighter shade with a light base underfur. Depending on your mask, this hair may be straight or have a slight curve to it. I use hair from this area a great deal. It is not only a great fibre for tails, I also use it for split-hair emerger wings, for which I have developed my own tying technique for use on Caddis and larger upwings and any other species which require a degree of support in the surface film for the body yet need to retain some movement. This is the area which I favour to take hair for forming a hare hackle. Here's how:
You will need two small (1 in. [2.5cm]) bulldog clips. Bend the mask so you can insert the clip so that it grasps a strip of hair, making sure that the edge of the clip is close to the skin. Release the clip and allow it to hang. Clip off the gripped fur close to the skin. The clip will fall away with a strip of hair entrapped.
Clip le clip
Grasp the base of the fibres with the other clip. You will now clearly be able to see how much of the guard hair you have exposed. Judge the length of the amount you require and attach the other clip to it. When you remove the other clip you should be able to tease out the base under-fur, leaving you with the finer guard hair still retained in the clip. Lay this to one side whilst you form a dubbing loop or, better still use my split thread method to open up the thread.
Pick up the clip loaded with the guard hair and feed it between the loop of thread. Judge the size of "hackle" you wish to form. Obviously, the longer the fibres from the centre of the thread, the longer the resultant hackle fibres. To get a narrow "hackle" width you can cut the base ends of the guard hairs shorter. Obviously, you need to take the hook size into account when determining your 'hackle' size.
Make certain that the hair is spread evenly within the thread loop, otherwise a perfect flare cannot be achieved. Spin the loop to flare the hackle, but just before you do, remember this little trick: pull the loop downwards as you cause it to spin by holding the thread above the whirl or bobbin. If you do not do this the hair will tend to climb up and bunch on the thread.
Having formed your hackle of hair you can now wind it in the normal fashion. Of course, this method can also be used to form palmer hackles of hare guard fur, but you will need to practise the technique to perfect it.
On the outer edges of older masks you will find a nice, soft fur. This material is great for mobile tails on nymphs and emergers.
Finally, don't forget the whiskers! If they are dyed black they make great Mayfly tails and dyed in other colours they can also be used for Prawn and Shrimp flies.
Hare body fur is very useful, but great care must be taken to ensure you set out with a correctly balanced dub of underfur to guard hair. Attention to this detail will result in a more deadly fly when you come to fish it.
Hare fur responds well to standard dubbing techniques and these will suit standard type nymph and dry-fly patterns and emergers. If you have a problem in getting your fur to adhere to the thread, then check your blend -- this is the most usual cause of dubbing difficulty. If you have to, sparingly apply a little dubbing wax to the thread, but be careful not to overdo it otherwise the hair will mat and ball up into a tight clump -- exactly what we are trying to avoid.
For more bushy, buggy patterns and Caddis-type flies employ double-thread loop methods. The double-thread method can also be used to form hackles as we have already seen, but remember that these need not be wound only in the conventional style, the parachute hare hackle is well worth experiment.
To get the most from your hare fur in terms of movement and translucency on slim profile nymphs use my split thread method as it reduces thread bulk to the bare minimum and allows the hair fibres to work at their maximum potential.
The patterns illustrated show the variety of flies that this low-cost, readily available material can provide. Why not try a different hare-style next season? You may find it suits you!