Fine-Tuning Fuzz
We take on dubbing with the help of a mix master and find much to consider.
by Bill “Bugs” Logan
Grab a pinch of fluff in about the right color, twist it around the thread, and start wrapping.

Who gives much more attention to dubbing than that? It requires no more thought, right? Yet, if we give our choice of dubbing a bit of consideration and a little extra effort, we’ll tie better flies.

To help us down this path of enlightenment, I’ve enlisted the aid of a mighty mix master. Although his real name is Eric Schmuecker, he deserves to be dubbed (oh, shameless pun) the Fuzz King. Henceforth, let him also be considered generous with knowledge, eager to tell a humorous story, and very deserving of our gratitude.
Eric is one of Tom Schmuecker’s sons. Tom, you may recall, owns Wapsi Fly, Inc., the world’s largest distributor of fly-tying materials. What must the back rooms at Wapsi be like? It’s there, where the deepest secrets are zealously guarded, that the Fuzz King’s domain truly lies.

Eric has labored long and hard in our behalf. Did you know that Wapsi produces more Superfine Dubbing than there are hooks made to dress with it? I’m not talking just dry-fly hooks, but all fly-fishing hooks put together! And that’s just one brand of dubbing. What the heck are we to do with these mountains of fluff? Perhaps we could make our own customized blends!

But how?

Let’s set ourselves this task, and be two-faced about it. Where dry-fly dubbings are concerned, we’ll be the very models of refined taste and restraint, and work tirelessly to achieve subtle shades. And what of our subsurface concoctions? There we will become mad chefs, eager to throw almost anything into the stew for curiosity’s sake! What I’m about to set forth for you, under the Fuzz King’s watchful eye, are the basics of how to fuss with fuzz.

ImageA Dubbing Evolves
With good dry flies, color is the key. In this photo (from left to right), I combined natural rabbit fur and three commercial blends of Antron and fur. The result is a seemingly ideal mix for tying a March Brown. Ah, but is that it? Further lightening yielded the circled pair of dubbings, the lower of which, once sodden, again matches the ideal.
Last in line is a wet fly–nymph blend. I’ve increased the character and coarsened the texture by adding fox and woodchuck guard hairs, as well as a generous helping of shaggy, very shiny, synthetic salmon fly dubbing.

Of Baking Cakes and Dubbing
The wise Fuzz King says that blending dubbing is like mixing a cake. First, you need a binder. Have you ever had dubbing that refused to stay together or fell off your thread when you were trying to twist it on? If so, the fibers were either too smooth, too straight, or too coarse. When seen under magnification, good binding fur, such as that taken from rabbits, squirrels, or opossums, is not straight but is slightly crinkled. Think of fine lines with little squiggles or crimps, and you have the picture. It’s easy to imagine such fur getting tangled with its hapless neighbors. An example of a mix that holds together brilliantly is Antron (a binder), rabbit (another binder), and angora (which is straight).

You may blend dubbing by hand if you need enough for only one or two dozen flies. Begin by stacking a bit of each ingredient on top of another, as though making a sandwich. Next, pinch all the material together, pull the clump in half, and lay one half next to the other. Repeat this process to continue blending the dubbing. This process is perfect for mixing small batches of dubbing.

If you wish to blend larger batches of dubbing, you’ll need an old blender or coffee grinder. Combine the straight or coarse materials first to prevent clumping, and then slowly add the binder. The final product probably won’t be completely satisfactory, so you’ll have to finish mixing by hand. Another idea is to purchase a pair of wire-bristled dog or sheep brushes, and finish mixing the dubbing the way a spinner blends wool. Have you ever watched someone combing raw wool prior to spinning yarn? They blend and align the fibers by working them between the bristles of two opposing brushes. Use this same method to mix and align the dubbing fibers.

The Finer Points of Dry-Fly Dubbing
Steer clear of coarse or spiky fibers for dry-fly dubbing; instead, opt for fine-fibered blends that will twist tightly around tying thread. Antron in the mix is always a winner because it adds quiet sparkle.

Here’s something else to consider: fur from water mammals such as beavers and muskrats is naturally water repellent, while that from land dwellers, like bunnies, is often thirsty as a sponge. I’ve been told that woodchuck fur and hair are exceptions, and I think I believe it; they’re awfully oily critters, and this seems to help my caddis imitations stay afloat. (Think of the time-honored Woodchuck Caddis.) However it works out, many commercial dry-fly blends containing fur have been specially treated with waterproofing agents. Why not use them as the starting point for private mixes?

When it comes to wet-fly dubbings, everything is fair game. Subsurface blends ought to have character. Think impressionistic. A fly with some glitter appears to have movement in it. Things that stick out of the dubbing are almost always good; not only do they mimic gills, legs, antennae, or other buggish bits, but coarse, spiky dubbing also traps air bubbles. That never seems to hurt.

The Fuzz King is particularly keen on using dubbing fibers that contain speckles, spots, or light and dark tips. He feels these markings add the illusion of movement. Has he let slip a trade secret, or better yet a personal one? Regardless, it’s ours now!

Image Low-Tech at Your Fingertips
Dirt cheap, endlessly ex-pandable, and easy to maintain: that’s the system of organization for me! Once I’d recovered from my arduous journey to the nearest office supply store to purchase a loose-ring binder, it took mere moments to roughly sort my dubbing by color and string it all together. Even if the punched hole in a dubbing bag wears out, just puncture a new one. In fact, you can store almost all materials, except for the very largest tails and feathers, in a binder. I’ve had a happy decade of easily finding what I need. What lazy bliss!

Dispelling a Myth
One stubbornly held and yet completely false belief is that flies having bad hair days contain built-in wiggle. This just isn’t true. Dubbing fibers must be exceptionally limber to exhibit any true movement. Few hair fibers meet our expectations. If you wish to explore further in this direction, start by experimenting with dubbing loops and cul de canard or marabou feathers. For that matter, we strip off and discard an awful lot of hackle fuzz in the course of everyday tying; try placing this in a dubbing loop and tie some flies. After-shaft feathers are yet another thought; look for these feathers attached to the stems of the body feathers of pheasants, grouse, chickens, and the like. I’ve seen after-shaft feathers only in gray, the lightest cream, and white, but they offer tantalizing possibilities.
There are so many possibilities for mixing our own dubbing that we forgot to ask an important question: Is there anything we shouldn’t do? First, don’t use fur from anything taken straight from the road. And don’t use dirty product. If you take the time to wash it, your dubbing will last a long time and remain free of insect pests. Oh, and if you use a blender or grinder to mix dubbing, watch your fingers!

Before I left him, Eric the Fuzz King offered one more piece of profound advice: “If you come up with a really fine blend, keep the secret to yourself. Well, maybe tell me!”

Bill “Bugs” Logan—exceptional fly tier, talented author, and artist extraordinaire—lives in New Jersey.
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