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Splitting Hairs

Deer hair is one of the most important—and misunderstood—fly tying materials. The author tells us what we need to know to use this common ingredient.

[by Barry Clarke]


I have been a passionate fly tier and deer hunter for most of my life, so it was natural to embrace the material these animals provide for making flies. I wanted to learn everything I could about the qualities and applications of the different kinds of deer hair. Yes, these common animals offer many varieties of hair. Although there are many types of materials—both natural and synthetic—only hackle and deer hair lend themselves to so many fly tying applications. Make tails, wings, bodies, heads, legs, posts, and more on your favorite patterns using deer hair. And you can create the smallest, most delicate dry flies using deer hair, or dye, spin, pack, sculpt, and sand this inexpensive material into the largest predator-catching bugs. Achieve all this using the deer hair you find in your local fly shop!

Not All Deer Hair Is Created Equal

Deer hair is one of our most valuable fly tying materials, but not all hair is created equal. While almost all the hair from a hide is useful, some material is better suited for making specific types of patterns. Here is a basic description of the seven areas of a deer hide, the types of hair you will find on each area, and how you can use it at the vise.

1 – Mask The hair on a deer’s face comes in a wide range of natural colors. This short hair is fine to coarse in texture, and is useful for tying size 8 down to the tiniest flies. It is especially useful for tying the wings on caddisfly imitations.

2 – Neck and Back This is the strip of hair running from the base of the head to the rump. The hair is fine to medium textured, and is perfect for tying size 6 and smaller flies. It is perfect for making compact spun bodies for the Goddard’s Caddis and Irresistible.

3 – Flank The flanks run from the top of each leg from the neck to the rump, and down the sides from the back to the belly. This hair is not so straight and nicely marked as the hair on the neck and back, but it is excellent for spinning the bodies of Bombers and the heads on Muddler Minnows.

4 – Rump This is the posterior of the deer. Rump hair is long and coarse, and is good for spinning big bass bugs and making the collars on large diving patterns.

5 – Hock The upper part of the legs. Hock hair is short and stiff. It is a poor choice for spinning, but is ideal for making the wings of small caddisfly patterns and Compara-Duns.

6 – Belly This is the undercarriage of the deer. This hair is very coarse and dense, and is often used for bleaching and dyeing. Use this material for spinning medium to jumbo, multicolored hair bugs.

7 – Bucktail The tail of the deer. Bucktails vary in size, and the hair varies in length and texture. The hair on the base of the tail flares under thread tension. The long hair on the top two-thirds of the tail does not flare; use it for tying bucktail streamers.