Disclaimer: the views expressed by our Master Fly Tyer Contributor Ben Spinks, are solely Ben's views and not necessarily shared by anyone else here at Sexyloops, nor indeed anyone else on the planet. In fact it is questionable whether in fact Ben himself has these views and he wrote it. It is true, however, that some selfish people do use condoms in flytying but this is not, I repeat NOT, to stop the fish from getting pregnant.
So, we have established feathers to be both useful and fairly uncomplicated, or have we? Up until now we have dealt with nice cheap friendly birds whose main aim in life is to make us happy. Many animal rights activists don't actually know this but contrary to popular belief most birds actually enjoy being plucked and fully understand the artistic reasons behind their sacrifice.
However, some birds are not so obliging. When we as flytyers grow tired of the norm and start wanting after something new and exciting we must look to the dark side. The cock and hen tirelessly oppose the giving of feathers to our worthy cause and therefore require skilful persuasion. This is not easy, birds that don't commit and fail to acquire a dry fly donor card are sent to China whereupon they take part in the world cock fighting championships.
Fortunately we don't see this side of the business very often but now you know the truth. We envisage coming face to face with the golden fleece of fly tying, the beautiful, shiny, full, crazy, sexy, cool item known as a dry fly cape. A man significantly madder than I (not possible - Paul) once wrote of fly tying orgasms upon coming face to feather with one. I see his point although premature excitement of this manner usually fades upon eye contact with the price sticker.
The capes and saddles of hens and cocks are the number one hackle providers. Imagine a chicken, the cape is the collection of feathers around the front of the neck. It is cut off whole and sold in its natural form (feather on skin). The saddle on the other hand is taken from the back of the bird. Whenever I think of this I start imagining little leather saddles strapped to chickens for some reason, go figure. Saddle, neck, hen and cock have different uses and come in different grades (as if it wasn't difficult enough).
Cock and Bull, Neck and Cape - Cock feathers are used primarily for dry fly hackle. They are characterized by stiff barbs positioned very close together and when wound form a rather stiff collar suited to standing proud of the water's surface. There are generally three kinds of cock cape/saddle available. Indian, Chinese and Posh. The latter will have (in the case of the neck) masses of long, narrow feathers for tying small flies. The saddle will be a larger item providing much longer and wider feathers. Due to the length of saddle hackles it's possible to tie several flies with only one feather. Companies such as Whiting farm, Metz and Spencer provide posh capes and saddles. Their prices range from about £15 to £80. Yes, it is a wide price range; this is due to the grading system.
All posh hackles come in grades ranging from 1 to 3 or gold to silver etc, the higher the grade the higher the price. As you go up the grades the feathers become narrower, the barbs become denser, shinier and stiffer and the colours become more vivid. Top grade hackles are usually used for very small flies (18 and up), middle grade for medium flies (12 - 16) and low for large (below 12). To make it a little clearer, when wound the tips of the hackle should not protrude any further than one and a half times the width of the gape. I would advise that when buying a cape of this sort to find somewhere you can actually see the item for yourself before buying to check its suitability for your purposes.
This is the general consensus but as with everything else it varies. You will get larger feathers under the small ones on all capes and saddles so most have more than one use and despite being fairly expensive, you do get what you pay for. Stiff barbs create high floating, durable, nicely coloured and very cool dry flies. I like my dries to be perfect so I invest, you don't have to buy a whole cape, halves are available and whilst still costing up to £30 will last for hundreds of flies. Hackle selections can also be bought in packs for a reasonable price although in most cases you can't pick and choose which size feather you receive and therefore run the risk of acquiring something completely useless. That's just me though, I know of anglers who buy one cape in a low grade, light colour and after completing their flies trim the hackle and colours with a waterproof marker pen. They look like crap but they catch fish. There are other alternatives by the way.
Indian and Chinese capes are very different; they're not posh or cool but are very cheap. Both examples are much smaller than the Posh capes with the Chinese being the bigger of the two. Feathers of China capes are fairly large (wide) and soft making them unsuitable for most dry flies but good for wets and salmon patterns. The Indian cape will have sharper narrower feathers more suited to dry flies. Unfortunately Indian and Chinese capes come ungraded, which results in a sort of hit and miss buying experience. Quality is dependant on two things, supplier and breeding.
Perfect feathers such as those found upon high-grade Whiting capes do not get that way through sheer luck. They are genetic capes, specially tended for flytyers. Birds such as these have access to sun beds, saunas, cocktail bars and are fed lobster and caviar whilst being attended by Swedish blondes. Birds not cared for in this manner will be cheap flea bitten things that when stripped are sent away to be coated in a blend of secret herbs and spices. Genetic feathers are better but that's not saying everything else is crap. A multitude of uses can be found for practically anything from wets and salmon flies to tails and wings. In fact when it comes to Chinese capes I don't really care. For dry flies however a genetic Indian is the way to go, they're cheap, decent and average about £5 in price. But take note, whilst being of good quality they'll not be suited to very small flies (16 up). I see capes like this as good practice items, when you've got confidence with the actual tying procedure and know you won't be wasting feathers then move up to something a little better like a Metz cape. Finally, when you want to go one step further, move on to a Whiting.
And no, genetic Indians do not live in tepees.
Up until now we have dealt with cocks alone (if you'll pardon the expression), fortunately most of the previous discussion is applicable to hens too; so I won't have to bore you any further. The main differences are that the cape/saddle of a hen typically contain rather shorter, wider, softer, webbed feathers that are more suited to flies of the sinking kind. They appear similar to certain cock hackles (Chinese) but are quite a bit webbier. The tips of good quality hen hackles are often used as wings on flies such as the Adams. Well I don't know about you but I think that's enough about feathers.
Fly tying materials don't even have to come off animals! Yes it's true, practically everything apart from feathers can be synthetic, even vegans can tie flies. There are huge ranges of dubbing made for every purpose, flosses of many kinds (even Lycra ones!), tinsels, yarns, sparkly braided things, foam slices and what seems like an ever expanding range of rubbery type products such as flexibody, shrimp foil and nymph skin etc. This is getting a little silly, the general public already thinks we're weird, are waders not kinky enough? Condoms, I'm not joking, people actually use them to tie flies. Now I'm sorry but NO, even if you have no use for them don't, it's the principle, are we not men?!
God damn it!
No not condoms again, nothing as exciting as that. A rib is more a fly component than a material. Anything that can be wound around a completed body can be a rib; metal wires, tinsels, mono, tying thread, hair, feather quills and herl. The rib has two main functions. One, to give the fly a segmented appearance representational of the natural insect, and two, for increased durability. By their very nature feathers are not that tough and if caught will break, unwind and repel fish (or was that my casting). The same could be said for many other materials. Adding a rib solves this problem by keeping everything in its place and therefore acting as a tractor beam on trout.
Beam me up Scotty.
In certain situations only flies with muscles prove attractive to fish, a little lemon juice, a nice chilled sauvignon and a bit of Van playing softly in the background should do the trick. Alternatively, rather than tempting them closer you could pay them a visit yourself; this is where weighting comes in (seamless, I know). At times to reach feeding fish it's essential that your fly be matched accordingly to the depth and/or current speed (depending on where you're fishing), adding weight in varying amounts makes this possible. A good example as to why can be found under upstream nymphing in either the glossary J or flow L.
Weight can be applied directly to the fly in three ways: one, as an underbody, two, as a rib or body and three, in the form of a bead. Yes ok 4 if you want to nit pick. Underbody materials range from copper wire to lead foil. Copper wire has its pros and cons; in its thicker sizes it's stiff and awkward whilst in its finer guise you'll probably be winding it on for about two days before you get anywhere. I use copper underbodies more for their visual advantages rather than their weight, I use them under pale sparse body materials to garner the same translucent effects gained by using different thread underbodies. Why not scrap the body material completely? Leave it copper and use the lovely shiny segmented result to your advantage. I know I would.
If you just want weight however then go for lead. I use sticky back lead foil ninety percent of the time; it's great for really sexy smooth underbodies when you want a lot of weight yet still need a slim profile. On other occasions slimness may be the least of your worries, I use square lead wire at these times. You get gaps when you wind something of a round profile around something else so it makes sense that by filling these gaps the fly will be heavier. Square lead is great for really heavy chunky monster bugs and unlike foil has the advantage of no sticky backing to take up room. Couple this with either a lead, brass or tungsten bead threaded on before tying and you'll have something really serious that'll bring new meaning to the words 'chuck and duck'.
To finish we must look towards the upper layers, the bright side of the road where flies drift merrily along just under the surface and all is cool and groovy. Just a little teensy weensy (yes I did say teensy weensy) bit of weight is needed to help your fly under, a fine copper rib, perfect! Job done. And now for something completely different.
But you'll have to wait for that.
And no I haven't forgotten.