Cul de Canard flies on a rock
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Tying with Cul de Canard

Thoughts on CDC and designing better trout flies.

[by Holland Hans van Klinken]

CUL DE CANARD (CDC) FEATHERS HAVE GOTTEN A LOT OF ATTENTION during the past 30 years, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States. Suddenly, a lot of tiers claim to have discovered this material for making flies. To avoid confusion about this, I can tell you that the idea for using CDC for fly tying came from Central Europe sometime in the late 1950’s. Professional fly dresser Henri Bresson, from France, invented the term cul de canard for a pattern he created using these feathers, and tiers in the Swiss and French Jura have used CDC for almost a century.

The late Marjan Fratnik, from Slovenia, popularized CDC in the early 1980’s with his F Fly series. Marjan became inspired after he read Jules Rindlisbacher’s book titled Der Praktische Fliegenfischer: Technik und Taktik des Flugangelns in Wort und Bild (The Practical Fly Fisher: Technique and Tactics about Fly Fishing in Words and Pictures). This was also one of my favorite books, and Jules was probably among the first authors to write about CDC flies. Switzerland’s Marc Petitjean is another great fly tier who is famous for his superb designs using cul de canard; he is keeping the Swiss fly-tying tradition alive and is continuously creating new patterns. My home country of Holland went through a similar phase when fishing journalist Kees Ketting popularized using cul de canard in the early 1980’s. As a result, the Dutch have been experimenting with dressings incorporating CDC, developing and refining patterns for all types of fishing.

If you want to know even more about the history of cul de canard, read Leon Links’s book titled Tying Flies With CDC. It is a marvelous treatise on the entire subject. Tying Flies With CDC is published by Merlin Unwin Books in England, and Stackpole Books in the United States.

 There’s More to Say

Despite all of the many well-written articles, reviewing specific tying techniques will help tiers still wishing to use CDC. In this article I will tell you something about my own way of using CDC. I will also give you some detailed information about some of my own CDC patterns and explain how I fish them.

Yukon086

Cul de canard is one of the author’s favorite tying materials. He uses it to design many fish-catching patterns.

I have used cul de canard for more than 25 years, and I have tied many different CDC patterns, but I fish with just a few of these flies. My use of CDC patterns goes in cycles; there are periods—even entire seasons—when I hardly touch them, and other times when I use them exclusively. It depends a lot on where I am fishing. In warm regions, such as Italy or the Balkans, I use a lot more CDC flies than when I am fishing Arctic waters.

My different style of fishing requires special patterns. The fact that my long-distance vision isn’t very good, and my preference for fishing broken water, are reflected in most of my dry-fly designs. I have also found very good uses for CDC for creating flies for fishing lakes and very quiet, moving water.

High and Dry

Many tiers still do not know where cul de canard feathers come from. CDC is found near the preen glands of water birds; the feathers from wild ducks are the most popular. The color of these feathers is perfect for matching a multitude of hatches. These feathers are light and naturally coated with the oil from the preen glands. Many authors claim that this oil makes CDC extremely water-repellent. Further investigation, however, has proven that the structure of CDC fibers has a lot to do with the high buoyancy of these very special feathers. Use a magnifying glass and you will see that each fiber has hundreds of tiny hook-like barbules. These barbules increase the surface area of the feather and actually trap small air bubbles, both of which make CDC buoyant.

Fine CDC fibers are also very mobile. This is another reason why cul de canard is such a powerful ingredient for creating fish-catching patterns. The feathers flutter in the slightest breeze to simulate life, and are perfect for imitating wings. When a pattern is just under the surface of the water, these wispy fibers give the fly excellent lifelike appeal.

Cul de canard feathers

Here is a selection of prime cul de canard feathers. A good CDC feather has a lot of fibers that help a fly stay afloat.

cul de canard feather

Do you see the hundreds of tiny hooks on the fibers of this cul de canard feather? Those hooks increase the surface area of the feather and catch small air bubbles. The hooks are the real secret behind the feather’s amazing buoyancy.

The most important factors for tying a successful insect imitation are size, shape, and color. When I started using cul de canard, I added mobility to this list. This is why I never cut a single CDC fiber from any of my flies.

Well-tied CDC patterns are good floaters, but they are not unsinkable. Several of the best patterns are tied sparse and become easily waterlogged after catching only one or two fish. If you don’t treat the fly after hooking a fish, it will easily sink, especially in rapids and on turbulent currents.

An Amadou dry-fly patch helps dry the fibers; I love it. Fly floatants, however, will clog and mat the fine fibers, and destroy the effectiveness of the pattern; never use any sticky floatant on your CDC patterns. I have used CDC oil in the past, but with a normal or sparsely tied CDC pattern, it is often much easier to tie on a fresh fly rather than struggle to dry a saturated one.

My personal cul de canard patterns are not lightly dressed, but you should not underestimate the value of the lightly dressed CDC flies of the current experts and from the past. On certain waters these flies can be extremely successful. Over the years I discovered that some traditional CDC flies fish better just under the surface film, and I still use them in this emerger role, especially when fishing lakes.

The Culard Sedge Breaks All the Rules

My first breakthrough with CDC occurred while tying a pattern called the Racklehanen using mostly cul de canard. The natural color of CDC was perfect for imitating a dark gray sedge, and I named this fly the Rugged Caddis.

Culard-Sedge fly

Culard Sedge

Hook: Daiichi 1180 or 1190,
sizes 24 to 16.
Thread: Black
8/0 (70 denier).
Body: Herl fibers from a peacock black wing feather.
Rib: Extra fine gold wire or yellow Pearsall’s silk floss.
Wing: Cul de canard feather clipped half way up the body.
Hackle: Dark blue dun (very fine and much smaller than usual) or a starling body feather for a Culard Sedge for fishing below the surface film.

I tied the Rugged Caddis in four sections, each containing four CDC feathers. The Rugged Caddis was a very expensive fly because good-quality cul de canard isn’t cheap. The pattern originally had a long, big wing containing at least 16 feathers, mainly because I assumed that the more CDC I used, the better the pattern would float. I cut the feathers into the shape of a caddisfly wing. However funny it might sound, I was using this pattern to catch Atlantic salmon in the northern part of Norway, and it was rather effective. I then began experimenting with smaller sizes and using less CDC, and discovered something surprising: flies with shorter wings yielded better results.

I ended up using patterns that had wings measuring only half the length of the hook shanks, and they still floated well. Although they were difficult to see on the water, the strikes were so aggressive I rarely missed fish. I then added hackle collars, and the Culard Sedge was born. Today, the Culard Sedge is the smallest pattern in my entire CDC fly collection.

My technique for tying the Culard Sedge breaks all the rules. I retain the stiff quills from the middle of the CDC feathers; most tiers use only the softer tips. Many tiers also say that you should never clip the CDC fibers, but I do because this fits my particular style of flies. I trim the fibers after tying in the feathers. The resulting wing is stiffer so it dries more easily and fluffs up with only one or two false casts. If you don’t trim the wing, the finer fibers tend to stick together and are almost impossible to dry by false casting.

The Culard Sedge is one of my best small dry flies. It is an excellent fly on the rivers in Central Europe, and it is a great lake fly. Sometimes it is even more deadly fished deeper in the surface; on still waters, moisten the Culard Sedge and fish it as an emerger just under the surface.

The Rise of the Once and Away

The Once and Away is the next CDC pattern I want to share with you. This fly is one of my best and most beautiful emerger patterns. It is almost unsinkable and suitable for fishing all kinds of water.


ONCE AND AWAY

Hook: Daiichi 1160 and 1167 Klinkhåmer
hooks (or substitute with another light-wire
curved-shank hook), sizes 20 to 10.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Abdomen: One peccary or javalina fiber. (You
may substitute with a stripped hackle quill.)
Thorax: Three strands of peacock herl.
Wing: Four large cul de canard feathers.
Wing case: The cul de canard feathers
used to tie the wing.

Tying the Once and Away

I developed the Once and Away in 1987 while fishing a private reservoir in Holland that was stocked with rainbow trout. The fish had been in the water for several months and were fairly educated. On the first day of my trip, there was a lot of wind and the trout were hard to catch. After a few hours with no success, I decided to fish in front of some trees where I could stay out of the terrible wind. I saw trout jumping and some showing in a head-and-tail rise form. I immediately started fishing with my Klinkhåmer, which is usually a deadly fly for catching rising trout. I had some responses and missed one fish when I tried playing with the fly in the surface. I was convinced that these fish were rising to the small insects blowing from the trees onto the water.

After another half-hour with no success, and just when I started to doubt that I would get any strikes at all, a big rainbow came to the surface just a few feet in front of me. He snatched something and disappeared into the depths. There was only one explanation for this behavior: that trout was feeding just under the surface and was not interested in my floating Klinkhåmer. I changed to the Culard Sedge and fished it as an emerger just below the surface. I caught nine fish that afternoon and saved the day.

I was still not satisfied, however, because too many trout refused to take the Culard Sedge and turned their heads when they came close to it. The next day I caught a few emerging insects that had thin abdomens and large thoraxes. Returning to my car, I tried tying a suitable imitation. I had only a few materials with me, so this was not an easy task. I eventually put together a fly with a body of tying thread, and I added some CDC feathers I plucked off a dead duck I found beside the road that morning. After a few attempts, I finally had a fly that I thought might be successful.

After just a few casts, I became confident that I had hit upon a winning pattern. In just one hour, I caught more fish than during the entire previous day. I called the new fly the Once and Away because, after catching just one fish, I had a great deal of difficulty getting the pattern to float again.

When I returned home, I substituted materials and created a better-looking and more durable pattern. Finding a reasonable solution was not easy, and I found the answer in my Rugged Caddis and Culard Sedge. I didn’t cut the wing into any shape; I just shortened the wing and purposely left the stiff quills on the fly. While cutting the wing, I noticed how the action of the scissors pushed the fine fibers into the perfect shape. This shape became my best alternative for tying a parachute style fly, but I use no hackle. Once more, I developed a pattern using cul de canard against all rules.


Hans van Klinken is one of Europe’s leading pattern designers. Hans lives in Holland but travels the world in search of good fishing and to teach fly-tying classes. You can follow him on his website, www.flyfishinggazette.com.