A Master's Guide to Tying with Stripped Quills
Learn what you need to know to make perfect dry-fly bodies.

There seems to be more than a little confusion about tying with stripped hackle quills. I receive dozens of e-mails about this topic, and I see it discussed on many fly-tying Web sites. Like many things related to fly tying, there are quite few myths and questions about using this important material. For example, should you soak quills in hair softener or a mixture of glycerin and water to prevent cracking and splitting? Should you coat the finished body with head cement or Zap-A-Gap, or reverse-wrap the body with fine gold or silver wire to increase durability? The good news is that you do not need to do any of these things.

Cracks are most visible across the diameter of a quill. Cracks will occur before you even begin tying with the quill. A split, on the other hand, occurs along the length of a quill. A split occurs when a quill spends too much time soaking in a mixture of Clorox and water; this solution is used to burn the hackle fibers from the quill. While you will want to soak the quill in water to soften it before tying, no amount of soaking will repair cracks or splits.

Before tying, soak the quill in water for 15 minutes. DO NOT use hair softener or glycerin; after tying the fly, the water in the quill will evaporate and leave these chemicals. The softener or glycerin will take up space inside the pithy center of the quill and prevent fly flotant from penetrating into the body. In addition, these chemicals mix with water and the fly will become waterlogged on the first or second cast.

There is a perceived fragility associated with quill-body flies. I believe this myth derives from the Quill Gordon dry fly. The body of the Quill Gordon is not made from a rooster quill, however, but stripped peacock herl that does require some reinforcement. When properly prepared, a rooster hackle quill needs no reinforcement, and it will not crack or split.

Choose the Right Quills
What type of quills should we use? Strung Chinese neck hackles have quills that are excellent for making bodies on flies. These feathers are typically sold in two lengths: four to six inches, and six to eight inches. Purchase the six- to eight-inch-long feathers. The larger quill diameters of these longer feathers will allow you to tie on a wider variety of hook sizes. Unfortunately, strung Chinese neck hackle may become scarce due to the onset of avian flu. Hundreds of thousands of chickens are being killed in Asia to prevent the spread of the disease, and it is beginning to affect the supply of fly-tying materials.

Whiting Farms and other domestic poultry producers are producing feathers that are perfect for tying quill bodies. The Whiting Farms Black Lace line of feathers is particularly good for this purpose. Even though they’re named Black Lace, the centers of these feathers along the quills are white. Never use saddle hackle; the quills of these feathers are too fine to tie dry-fly bodies. The quills along the bottom edge of dry-fly necks are also too fine to tie the bodies of dry flies. While many fly shops sell packages of stripped quills, you can also prepare your own. (For a complete description of how to prepare feathers and quills for fly tying, check out A.K.’s book Dyeing and Bleaching Natural Fly Tying Materials. —Ed.) Some of my favorite quill-bodied dry flies include the Olive Quill Dun and Olive Quill Parachute; I use these patterns to imitate the various blue-winged olive hatches. The Red Quill Spinner is excellent for imitating a spent blue-winged olive or pale-morning dun, and the Red Quill Parachute has become my favorite go-to fly when prospecting when there are no visible hatches. The Melon Quill also interests trout during pale-morning dun hatches. These patterns, tied in various sizes, are always in my vest. And, by changing hook sizes and the color of the body, wings, and hackle, you can tie quill-bodied dry flies to imitate a wide variety of important mayfly duns and spinners.

Let’s spend the rest of our time together examining how to tie with stripped quills. I would also like to share with you the recipes for some of my favorite stripped-quill dry flies. I think these patterns will become some of your favorite go-to flies, too.

For more information pick up the Fall 2007 copy of Fly Tyer.

A. K. Best is a leading fly designer, teacher, and author. A. K. also appears on many excellent fly-tying videos and DVDs. He lives in Colorado.


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