Marabou With a Twist

Marabou is a common fly tying material. It’s usually used for making large streamers and Woolly Buggers, but it’s also a useful ingredient for crafting small trout flies.

[By John Wood]

OF ALL THE MATERIALS AVAILABLE TO FLY TIERS, marabou is one of the most underutilized. “Hold on,” you might say, “marabou is used in many applications: tails, wings, and shrouds to add bulk and movement.” True enough, but when it comes to tying small flies down to size 24, marabou is drastically overlooked.

HOOK: Mustad S80 nymph hook, sizes 14 to 8.
THREAD: Fluorescent orange 12/0 Veevus or the lightest thread you have.
TAIL AND ABDOMEN: Ginger marabou.
TAIL FLASH: Krystal Flash, root beer pearl.
THORAX: Peacock herl.
COLLAR: Hungarian partridge.

In their masterly book The Fly Tier’s Benchside Reference, Ted Leeson and Jim Schollmeyer address twisting marabou to tie fly bodies in only two sections. After a decade of experimenting, I can say there is far more to using twisted marabou than that would suggest.

I stumbled into tying small twisted-marabou flies by sheer accident. At the time, I was frequently targeting overfed cutthroat trout at a small, heavily weeded lake in northern Wyoming. The thick hydrilla, water milfoil, and curly pondweed make the ultimate nursery for damselflies, resulting in extended hatch migrations most years. During these months-long periods, the trout are pretty easy to catch using damselfly-nymph imitations, but the heavy weed growth makes landing these fish challenging. When hooked, they head straight for the vegetation, resulting in a disproportionate number of lost flies.

I don’t cry over an occasional lost trout or fly, but when the pattern has been meticulously assembled using an array of materials to create detailed appendages, eyes, and defined color patterns, oh the pain! Making realistic flies is one of the joys of tying, and I’ll gladly invest an excessive amount of time tying a creative pattern. Losing such a fly after only two casts, however, is something I haven’t the emotional depth to handle, so I guard myself.

Tie a Better Damselfly Nymph Using Twisted Marabou

Observing damselfly behavior is one of the great things about fishing this particular lake from a float tube. More specifically, I can observe the fluid movement of the swimming nymphs, and marabou seems like a great material for imitating this action.

Egg Puff
HOOK: Firehole 315, size 16.
THREAD: Red 6/0 (140 denier).
EGG: Pink marabou.
COLLAR: White rooster hackle.

I tied the tail and body of a damselfly pattern using a bunch of about 20 fibers pulled from the quill of a marabou feather and twisted into a narrow rope. I then sat back to consider the next step. I saw the rough silhouette of a very simple swimming damselfly nymph, but would it catch fish? Subsequent outings to other area lakes provided a resounding yes!

Because I am an obsessive tinkerer, the thought of using a single material, while smugly satisfying, represents a perceived creative void only a serious fly tier can comprehend. Ensuing experimentation opened a plethora of possibilities for making patterns using twisted marabou fibers, but there was an issue: when using material from different feathers in a package, or even just a single feather, the results were too inconsistent. Closely examining feathers from a few dozen packages revealed the reason for the varied profiles and offered an enlightening answer on how to deal with the issue.

Not All Marabou Is Equal, It’s Just Sold That Way

Marabou is derived from commercial turkey farming. Feathers are collected during the harvest process and shipped in bulk to facilities where they are loosely graded, the butt ends are sewn together (we call this “strung” marabou), washed, dyed, and shipped to distributors. The distributors portion, package, label, and then deliver the marabou to retailers. While other feathers such as hackles are scrupulously graded before packaging, a lot of marabou isn’t graded at all; at most you might find some labeled as “Woolly Bugger” or “extra-select” marabou. With little demand for precisely graded marabou, it doesn’t make financial sense to grade it more carefully, and the average package of blood feathers contains material most tiers will never use.

HOOK: Mustad C49S, sizes 22 to 14.
THREAD: Brown 10/0 Veevus or the lightest thread you have.
TAIL: Antron yarn, clear.
BODY: Brown marabou.
WING PADS AND BREATHERS: Oral-B Super Floss. Color the breathers, located on the sides of the thorax area, using an orange marker.

Woolly Bugger marabou doesn’t have the long slender fibers required for creating a segmented, tapered body profile. Extra-select marabou predominantly has fibers that look great but have grown so long and slender that they often aren’t strong enough to twist without breaking, and they certainly won’t hold up well when fishing the finished fly.

It’s hard to beat a well-graded package of marabou blood quills for producing beautifully tied marabou body flies, but even then you must examine each feather to determine its usefulness. Although this seems time consuming, it requires no more effort than sorting any natural material. I leave the feathers strung together and select single quills as needed. View each feather individually, like selecting a dry fly hackle from a rooster neck or a soft hackle from a hen neck. With practice you’ll learn to quickly spot the feathers with the right fibers.

Look for feathers with short, slender fibers near the tips of the quills; these are best for tying flies in sizes 24 to 18. The longer fibers located along the center of the quill are suitable for creating well-tapered segmented bodies on the Simple Nymph up to size 10, and even a larger Foam Back. Use the fibers located near the butt of the quill for tying patterns with larger profiles, such as the Super Dragon and Egg Puff, or relegate them to making wings and tails on other flies. The fibers located at the tips of some marabou feathers are stiff and have little or no growth; these are not suitable for twisting to form fly bodies.

Stronger Than You Think

Super Dragon
HOOK: 2X-long nymph hook, size 8 or 6.
THREAD: Olive 6/0 (140 denier).
TAIL AND ABDOMEN: Burnt olive marabou.
THORAX: Dark brown marabou.
LEGS: Pheasant body feather.
HEAD: Peacock herl.

A common misconception about twisted-marabou flies is that they are too delicate to stand up to onstream use. Wrapping a rib over the body or adding a single strand of thread to the twisted marabou adds durability, and you’ll catch dozens of fish before the fly finally unravels. I prefer including thread in the twisted marabou. This method eliminates the need to add a rib, and when done properly, creates perfect segmentation.

Another misconception is that marabou changes color underwater. It’s true that when viewed in the hand, a saturated marabou fly appears much darker than when it is dry. When viewed in the water, however, any color change is all but imperceptible. The reason a wet marabou fly appears darker in your hand is because of the inability of light to pass freely between the fibers. The space between the fibers is eliminated and filled with water, blocking light passage and darkening the color.

Experiment when making the bodies of your flies. Mix multiple shades of marabou, or include a contrasting color of thread before twisting the marabou fibers together. Use your imagination and have fun with a twist.

This is John Wood’s first contribution to our magazine, and he promises more. John lives in Montana.