Howl of the Wulff: Part 1

The Royal Wulff catches trout and salmon all over the world, but can you tie one? Learn these important tips for making this famous pattern and its many variations.

[by Al and Gretchen Beatty]

Robert W. Streeter wrote about the Wulff series of flies for the July/August 2017 issue of our sister publication, American Angler. In that excellent article, Streeter described the evolution of these patterns from the 1930s to today. The history of the Wulffs is very interesting, but reviewing it is not our purpose; instead, we will share with you how we tie this family of flies.

ADAMS WULFF

Hook: Standard dry fly hook, sizes 22 to 2.
Thread: Gray 6/0 (140 denier) or 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Brown and grizzly hackle fibers. On this fly, we substituted squirrel tail hair.
Wings: Calf hair.
Body: Gray dubbing.
Hackle: Grizzly and brown.

We have made many thousands of dozens of Royal Wulffs and its variations for more than 30 years, and we have learned a few tricks that will help you make these famous flies. To be a successful commercial tier, you must make your flies must look consistent. American commercial tiers face less-expensive competition from many corners of the world, and consistency is one of the key factors that make it possible to tie and sell flies in the United States. Your flies must look the same between orders, and they must be consistent from one year to the next. Three things lead to this type of exact consistency: correct material selection, proper material preparation, and consistent tying technique. Each factor is equally important to successful commercial tying, or if you just want to take your personal tying to a higher level.

Good tying technique cannot compensate for selecting the wrong ingredients or preparing them incorrectly. The secret to advancing your tying starts with the materials you use; this is especially true when making any of the Wulff series of flies.

We are not going to review all the materials used in constructing a typical Wulff pattern. We are making the assumption that you already have a basic understanding of how to use dubbing, yarn, floss, peacock herl, and hackle. Instead, we will focus on selecting and preparing deer and calf hair for consistently tying great-looking Wulffs. Please do not skip over this section and jump forward to the fly tying steps; you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you do.

Selecting and Preparing Calf Hair

Calf hair is one of the most important ingredients for tying a Wulff. Notice we did not specify tail or body hair. This is because many anglers believe that calftail hair floats better than body hair. From the experiments we have conducted, we also believe that tail hair floats better, but these materials are interchangeable, so you should have the knowledge for how to select and prepare both ingredients.

WERE WULFF

Hook: Standard dry fly hook, sizes 22 to 2.
Thread: Brown or tan 6/0 (140 denier) or 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Deer or moose hair.
Wings: Calf hair.
Body: Hare’s-ear dubbing.
Hackle: Grizzly and brown.

Whatever your belief about calf hair, you may use either material; we use calftail hair in the accompanying tying photographs.

Selecting good calf body hair is fairly easy. Unless you harvest the calf hide, you will purchase a patch of material that is already cleaned and tanned. There are three considerations when deciding which package of material to purchase from your local fly shop: the hairs on the patch should be straight, they should be long enough to do the job, and there should be very few broken tips. The material you select should need no additional cleaning, but mixing a light dusting of baby or talcum powder into the hairs will make it easier to even the tips in a hair stacker.

Calftails, on the other hand, are not tanned and can be a bit dirtier than a patch of body hair. We wash all our calftails in a solution of warm water and Woolite. After rinsing, hang the tail to dry for a couple of days. While the tail is still wet, comb the hair from the base to the tip to remove any kink from the fibers. After the tail is dry, work a light dusting of baby or talcum powder into the hairs. Your calftail is now ready to use.

White-tailed Deer Hair Is Best

When using deer hair, we use only material from whitetailed deer. We prefer whitetail hair because the natural markings on the fibers are fairly consistent. We’ve tried using mule deer hair, but the markings are not so consistent. Refer to the sidebar about hair selection; the markings on the mule deer hair seem a bit irregular, so we prefer using whitetail hair.

GHOST WING WULFF

Hook: Standard dry fly hook, sizes 22 to 2.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier) or 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Moose or deer hair dyed black.
First wings: Deer hair dyed black.
Second wings: Calf hair.
Body: Black dubbing or floss.
Hackle: Black and dun.

When looking for a patch of deer hair for tying wings and tails on Wulffs, try to select material from the narrow strip of hide located along the backbone of the animal. The hair on this part of the hide has the correct density to produce wings and tails that flare very little under thread tension. The hair from the rib or belly of the animal tends to flare much more, so save that material for spinning bass bugs and making the heads on Muddler Minnows.

It is easier to select the correct material if you get your deer hair from a taxidermist or harvest your own deer. Few of us, however, have access to a complete hide. If you get your deer hair from a fly shop, it is next to impossible to determine exactly where that little patch of material came from on the animal, so look for the following properties when making your selection.

Examine several hairs. The top one-third of the fibers has dark tips with tan bands. When selecting from patches of hair hanging on the pegboard in the fly shop, focus your attention of the bottom two-thirds of the fibers. The color in that section will determine if the material is good for tying wings and tails on Wulffs, or if it is better for making bass bugs and Muddler Minnows. Dark gray hair is best for tying Wulffs, and light gray hair is better for spinning.

GRIZZLY WULFF

Hook: Standard dry fly hook, sizes 22 to 2.
Thread: Black or yellow 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Deer or elk hair.
Wings: Deer or elk hair.
Body: Yellow floss.
Hackle: Grizzly and brown.

Finding hair fibers that are dark all the way to the bottom is next to impossible, and you don’t need dark fibers much longer than the parts of the fly they will produce. We call the relationship between the dark and lighter parts of the fibers the light-to-dark ratio (LDR). For tying wings and tails, use hair with at least a 60 percent LDR, and remember to select a patch of hair containing the least amount of broken tips.

Preparing deer hair is very similar to using calf hair. If the hide has already been tanned, it is most likely clean enough for immediate use. If it is freshly harvested, remove all the fat and tissue from the flesh side, wash the hide in a solution of Woolite and warm water, rinse it well, spread salt on the raw side, and stretch it on a drying frame or tack it to a board to dry. We also comb the hair so it will dry as straight as possible. Finally, once the hair is dry, work baby or talcum powder into the fibers.

If the fibers don’t want to stack in a hair stacker, or if they adhere to you and your tying tools, static electricity is probably the culprit. Spray the hair, your tools, and even your hands with Static Guard before tying. You’ll remain static electricity–free for about an hour, and then apply more spray. If you don’t like the smell of a spray, wipe your materials, tools, and hands with a fabric softener sheet. Both products do a good job of eliminating static electricity.

Good Fiber, Bad Fiber

We have chosen the right hair for making Wulffs, but we still have one more thing to do before making our flies. After clipping a bunch of hair for making a tail or wing, we must remove the unwanted fibers before tying the material to the hook.

CRIPPLED WULFF

Hook: Standard dry fly hook, sizes 22 to 2.
Thread: Gray or black 6/0 (140 denier) or 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Deer hair.
Wings: Deer hair, stacked, tilted forward, and divided.
Back tuft: Trimmed butt ends from the wings.
Body: Gray dubbing.
Rib: Peacock herl.
Hackle: Grizzly.

You probably know to brush out the fuzzy underfur from the base of the bundle, but you will also want to discard about half the remaining fibers within the bunch. Check out the sidebar titled “How to Prepare Deer Hair.” Al has cut a clump of hair from the hide, grasped the tips of the longest fibers with his left forefinger and thumb, and pulled those hairs to the side. Al continues grasping these tips of the long fibers, and brushes out the shorter hairs and underfur; he will discard the unwanted material and tie the fly using the longer hairs.

You may also tie a Wulff using other types of hair. Moose and squirrel-tail hair are great choices for making tails, and they are very easy to use. If the hairs are straight, simply clean out the waste, even the tips in a stacker, and lash the bundle to the hook using the recommended measurements. Elk hair requires the same selection process as deer hair but it is usually lighter in color and not so easy to identify, and antelope and caribou hair are both unusable for tying Wulff-style patterns.

Use these tips for choosing the best hair for tying Wulffs. Pay close attention to materials selection and preparation, and develop consistent tying techniques. It won’t be long before all your Wulffs have a consistent appearance and your tying reaches a higher level of perfection.

Select the Best Hair for Tying a Wulff
  1. Here we see a calftail lying across a patch of calf body hair. Body hair is useful, but calftail fibers are a bit thicker than the body hair; that might be the reason tail hair floats better.
  2. We prefer using white-tailed deer hair (on the right) for tying the tails on Wulffs because the natural markings on the fibers are fairly consistent. We’ve tried using mule deer hair (on the left), but the markings are not so consistent.
  3. When tying the wings and tails on Wulffs, try selecting material from the narrow strip of hide located along the backbone of the animal. The hair on this part of the hide has the correct density to produce wings and tails that flare very little under thread tension.
  4. When selecting from the patches of deer hair in a fly shop, focus your attention of the bottom two-thirds of the fibers. The color in that section will determine if the material is good for tying wings and tails on Wulffs, or if it is better for making bass bugs and Muddler Minnows. Dark gray hair (on the right) will flare less and is best for tying Wulffs; light gray hair (on the left) will flare and is better for spinning.

Al and Gretchen Beatty have contributed many articles to our magazine. When they are not filling orders for their flies, they might be demonstrating fly tying at a fly fishing show, working on a new video—or fishing! Al and Gretchen live in Idaho.