Standard hackled dry and wet flies are great, but the author says patterns tied with emu feathers are even better.
by Mark Salkowitz
USING EMU FEATHERS AS HACKLE ISN’T NOVEL, but most previous efforts have fallen short of providing good results. There are a few secrets to unlocking emu’s near-magical potential. Let me reveal the transformative techniques that turn these curious pieces of plumage into exemplary hackle. With a better understanding of how to select and tie with these feathers, you will find that emu adds new dimensions to older favorite patterns, and it is possible to create entirely new designs. And as anglers realize the full extent of emu’s utility above and below the surface, these feathers will become as important as rooster, hen, and partridge hackles.
What’s the Difference?
Emu is completely different from more familiar hackles. It is a hybrid hackle, possessing both softness and firmness, along with its own unique attributes. This combination of unusual physical properties makes emu very special. Each of these properties confers unique characteristics to a fly in ways you have never seen.
The fibers create an exquisite, buggylegged appearance and jointlike action under the water. The fibers can also trap small air bubbles. And when wrapped around the hook or the base of a wing post, the splayed fibers create a wonderful starred effect that imitates insect legs.
To illustrate the properties of emu used as hackle, I will demonstrate how to tie two styles of flies. The first is a standard softhackle wet fly that would make Sylvester Nemes, famed for his soft-hackle patterns, proud. I’ll demonstrate the basic wrapping techniques using this soft-hackle fly.
The second pattern, Salk’s Symmetrical, is a parachute dry fly that will make you the envy of the pool. When tied correctly, the apex of the hook sits perfectly flush in the surface film, hence the name of this pattern. The symmetrical design gives the fly great latitude to represent an emerger, dun, spinner, or even terrestrial. At the surface, emu’s appeal comes from its star-shape flare and the light pattern produced by a trapped bubble of air.
In the Beginning
Very little has been written about using this dynamic feather. In 2005, Bob Quigley wrote about using emu as hackle for tying the Quigley Cripple. Despite that pattern’s popularity, later references call for using rooster hackle. While Quigley was definitely onto something, his selection of feathers was too arbitrary and wrapping technique incomplete, and emu never caught on.
I discovered emu because of my passion for fishing with soft-hackle wet flies. I love working spiders down stretches of braided water. The problem is that softer hackles, such as partridge, collapse in the current; stiffer hen or duck covert feathers, used to maintain a flared silhouette, have less movement in the water. I wanted feathers that held their shape in the current and still moved like soft hackles. My search led to emu, and I have been using emu flies almost exclusively ever since.
In the water, emu provides the most lifelike action of any feather. Amazingly, these hackles have two separate motions that occur simultaneously. Just like a living insect, an emu wet fly is always moving.
First, emu fibers have a jointlike action. The bottom two-thirds of the tapered fibers hold their shape while the top one-third moves when pressured against the current. Whereas partridge fibers move like fingers flexing at the knuckle, emu fibers move like fingers flexing at the middle joint.
The second movement comes from the hairlike follicles on the individual fibers. In a dead drift, these hairy follicles spread and wiggle, but when swung through the current, they collapse around the main fiber shaft.
Emu Imitates Life
The mayflies and caddis we imitate with our flies have six legs. When examining most nymphs, duns, and adult caddisflies, the spacing between the legs is remarkably similar to the spacing between the fibers of a wrapped emu feather. For many anglers, flies tied using materials that trap small air bubbles are the holy grail. Whether used on wet or dry flies, emu fibers trap these small bubbles. When talking about air bubbles, our thoughts often turn to emergers and pupae, so wet fly aficionados can rejoice; emu is a game changer.
Things get really interesting when using emu to float dry flies and create realistic surface light patterns. Our idea of what a dry fly looks like and how it is constructed depends upon the available tying materials. A new type of hackle creates new possibilities. Taking together the splaying effect of the individual fibers and the organized surface light pattern they create, emu hackles form the beginning of a new dry fly paradigm.
Tying with Emu
Experience creates expectations of how a feather will perform on the bench and in the water. Emu hackles challenge old assumptions.
To maximize the movement of emu on a subsurface fly, make fewer wraps using the softer fibers near the base of the feather. To maximize the air bubble, use the same soft fibers, but make more wraps. To maximize the splayed, buggy-legged appearance, make a sparse-to-medium number of wraps using the middle section of the feather.
As the number of fibers increases, the amount of movement decreases. Also, creating realistic movement and that air bubble, although not mutually exclusive, is somewhat inversely related. Likewise, the buggy appearance and the bubble have an inverse relationship. When designing a pattern, balancing these relationships become second nature.
When tying a dry fly, focus on balancing the buggy appearance of the fibers with capturing a small bubble of air. Similarly, when wrapping a wet fly collar, balance appearance with movement. Any amount of emu will catch a bit of air, but at some point during the drift, that bubble will float away.
An emu feather has about five distinct sections. The top and bottom portions are of no value to us, but the three middle sections are useful. The first section contains the upper transitional fibers; these look the buggiest. Next there is a middle section, followed by a softer lower section before the fibers become fluffy. There tends to be a natural break between these sections.
Fiber spacing varies along the length of the feather so the number of wraps doesn’t determine the sparseness of a fly; instead, the total number of fibers is more important. For example, a sparse collar using the upper transitional section might require four or more wraps and will consist of only 12 to 15 fibers.
As fiber density increases toward the base of the feather, however, a sparse collar might require only a couple wraps yielding a similar number of wider fibers. Strip the fibers from one side of the feather. Sometimes the stripped side peels off in one continuous curlicue. You can use this long strip of fibers to tie another fly. While using the curlicue is optional, it is not a matter of frugality; this stripped side will wrap as well as, or better than, the other side because the stem is softer and narrower. From one to four flies may be comfortably hackled using a single emu feather.
Symmetrical Emu Dry Flies
The key to tying an emu dry fly is symmetry. In order to ride correctly, a parachute emu fly needs the help of the hook to stay parallel in the film; the hook acts as a counterbalance on an emu parachute pattern. Without a proper counterbalance, the fibers will sit angled, break through the meniscus, and not trap air. To achieve this critical counterbalance, position the wing post at or near the hook’s center of gravity. A hook with a dramatic bend will better balance the fly on the surface.
Emu comes in packages, so you’ll have to sort the feathers by size. Expect to discard a third or more of each package. Only about a quarter of the feathers in each bag will be the desirable size. Having sorted the feathers by size, the next challenge is consistency; a dozen flies of the same pattern will not all look exactly the same. Although trout prefer this variety, some tiers do not.
The last drawback is finding the right box for storing your carefully tied emu flies. Trends in fishing have influenced fly design and the boxes that hold them. Competitive fly fishing, along with European nymph-fishing techniques, has turned dry flies into bobbers and nymphs into jigs. Consequently, most new fly boxes accommodate vertically hackled flies very poorly. Look for a box that is at least one inch in depth to protect the hackles on your new emu flies.
The reign of the hackled dry fly peaked in the 1950s. Since then, there has been a steady erosion in the popularity of hackled flies; by the 1970s, innovative patterns designed by Bob Nastasi and Al Caucci eliminated hackles altogether. Emu, however, is a meaningful addition to the tier’s quiver. Much of our tying and angling history revolved around the addition of stiff dry fly hackle, and it seems fitting that the next new hackle has the qualities of both stiffness and softness.
I’m excited to share emu with you. It’s easy to foresee a grin on your face as you as behold those hairy little legs sprawled out around your flies. Emu, after all, is not some newfangled synthetic material, extruded from an industrial machine, but a natural ingredient seemingly created for tying flies.
(See step-by-step instructions for tying Mark’s Favorite below)
Mark Salkowitz has tied flies for more than 25 years. Mark lives near Binghamton, New York, and guides in the Catskills. You can reach Mark through his website, www.catskillangler.com.