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Feathered Friends

Not all tying feathers come from chickens. Here’s a brief tour of the many useful feathers found on North American game birds.

[by Al Ritt]

THE CHOCOLATE LAB JERKED TO THE RIGHT, her glossy coat glowing in the sun and contrasting with the flat golden hue of the native grasses. Her nose pulled her along until the multicolored pheasant exploded skyward like a land mine. Scenes like this have occurred ever since humans discovered how delicious and nutritious game birds are, but fly tiers enjoy an additional bonus from autumn’s bounty.

Before we had plastic flash fibers, synthetic yarns and hairs, and silicone rubber legs, tiers worked with only natural hair, feathers, and fur. If you hunt, autumn is the time to replenish your supply of these attractive and useful natural materials. If you’re not a hunter, this is a great time to touch base with your friends who are, or maybe meet some new friends. Soft-hackle collars are a popular and widely recognized use of game bird feathers, but there are many other uses for wild bird plumage. Let’s look at some of the birds we are likely to encounter and what feathers we might use.

Ring-necked Pheasant for Flies

Ring-necked pheasants are one of the most popular North American game birds. Originally from Asia, they were imported to the United States and released in Oregon in the early 1880s. The PheasantTail Nymph may be the pattern most frequently identified with any game bird, and while this pattern is still very popular, it uses only rooster tail feather fibers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone say that pheasants have many beautiful feathers suitable for making other flies; I completely agree, and I think tiers are missing the boat if they don’t use these feathers on more patterns.

 

Use pheasant tail feathers for making wing cases, legs, and tails on both nymphs and dry flies. Slips clipped from wing quill feathers, which have more patterning than duck or goose quills, work as wing cases and upright dry fly wings.

Body feathers make colorful soft-hackles, legs, nymph tails, wing cases, and streamer cheeks. Rump feathers, also known as “church window” feathers, have beautiful patterning, and the fibers are long enough for making Spey hackles and long hackle collars. And I frequently use pheasant flank feathers in place of golden pheasant for tying the General Practitioner.

Don’t forget hen pheasant feathers. There are certain situations where hunting hens is legal, and you can use hen feathers much like rooster feathers. Although they are slightly smaller, hen pheasant feathers have a nice buff color to go with the olive/ bronze tones of the roosters.

Grouse Galore and More

There are several species of grouse: ruffed, sharptailed, sage, blue (blue grouse is a broad category encompassing dusky, sooty, and spruce grouse), prairie chicken, and ptarmigan. Grouse are less brilliantly colored than rooster ring-necked pheasants, but they come in a wide range of earth tones, grays, and even white. (Ptarmigan are white in the winter.) Most have barred or speckled feathers that vary from subtle to distinctive shading. In general, grouse feathers are slightly smaller than pheasant feathers, but they are often used in the same manner. Having a selection of different grouse and pheasant skins will allow you to tie flies in many hook sizes using feathers containing a wide spectrum of colors and shades.

Two species of partridge live in the United States: chukar and Hungarian. Ruffed grouse are sometimes called partridge in the Northeast and Midwest, but they are in fact a species of grouse. Partridge are slightly smaller than grouse, making them candidates for tying smaller flies. The colors are primarily brown or gray, and breast feathers are heavily speckled. Wings and tails are relatively small and may be useful for making wing cases but not so much for quill-slip wings. If you don’t hunt or know someone who does, Hungarian partridge are some of the easiest pelts to find in fly shops; they even come in a range of dyed colors.

Quail are typically our smallest upland game birds and include Gambel’s, scaled, mountain, California, and bobwhite. Quail feathers may be gray, blue gray, brown, tan, or white. Many have speckled or barred patterning. Quail feathers are primarily used for making soft-hackle collars on wet flies, and legs and wing cases on nymphs. Due to their diminutive size, however, quail feathers are usually limited to tying very small flies.

“Gobble, Gobble”

If you tie trout flies, you will want to have a supply of turkey feathers on hand. Eastern, Rio Grande, Merriam’s, and Osceola are all North American wild turkeys. Gould’s turkey is a fifth species, but populations of those birds are very low, with limited opportunities for hunting, so those feathers are generally unavailable to fly tiers.

Turkey tail feathers have distinct barring and speckling. Colors range from rich chocolate brown to light tan or buff. Wing feathers are also strikingly barred. Use both types of feathers for making nymph wing cases, grasshopper wings, wings on Muddler Minnows, and other streamer wings. Turkey feathers are also used for making wings on some fancy Atlantic salmon flies. You can even wrap the bodies of flies using long slips clipped from large turkey wing and tail feathers.

Turkey body feathers are iridescent with shades of copper, green, gold, and purple; they make striking wing cases and streamer cheeks. Fibers from body feathers are an attractive choice as nymph tails, legs, shell cases, and beetle shellbacks. Marabou, which once came from the marabou stork, is now obtained from domesticated turkeys, but wild turkeys have these same feathers. Although they are smaller than marabou from domestic birds, you’ll find these brown or gray plumes on the thighs of wild turkeys.

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