Getting Hairy


Tying flies with hair can be an exhilarating experience, in fact it can be both terrifying and exciting all wrapped into one neat little package. Things don't always go according to plan, treat it poorly and you may end up in a field somewhere with a daffodil up your bum and a drowned cat tied round your ankle. I will not stress this enough, you must possess a clear mind when dealing with hair; there is simply no other way of coping.

As I've said on many other occasions, "you can take fly tying in any direction you please", you must first simply find a base. A level of knowledge that will encourage you to go off the rails and approach from a different angle, a position from where you work in conjunction with other opinions, rather than being imprisoned by them.

The following is a general look at the properties of hair and a selection of some key variations that may – I hope – provide a little information for both those looking for a beginning and those looking for that little bit extra.

Hair and Hair Alike 

Today I am putting my foot down; whilst public hair may be fun to collect it is just not practical, so this week I will be excluding it from the agenda. Disappointing I know, but that's life, so please put that lady down now.  Instead, things must get manly… and gruff.  I will not be dealing with the so-called 'dubbing' animals such as bunnies, squirrels, kittens, puppies and gerbils. No! These are the materials are for depraved banjo playing southerners with wonky teeth.

Manly beasts, beasts such as Elk, Bambi, Antelope, Moose and Calf are today's killers.


On my best behaviour (and not a bunny in sight)

Unlike public hair the above examples behave in different ways according to the animal species and the position from which the hair was stolen.  The physical differences from hair to hair holds the key as to whether your nice new dry will appear as a perfect mimic of the natural, being met with a gentle sip, or else a dead hedgehog. To avoid this kind of agony and ritual humiliation, a spooky phenomenon known as flare must be taken into account. 

Flare is simply a reaction made by certain hair types to pressure being gradually applied to them. For example, take a drinking straw; place your finger on top (in the middle) and push down. Unless something has gone horribly wrong the pressure applied to the middle of the straw should have caused the tips at either end to rise up.

This is flare; the less dense (more hollow) the hair is the more dramatic the effect.  Now try the same experiment with a rolled up piece of paper, on this occasion the same will have happened, although the effect will be less pronounced. Finally, do the same with a pencil, no need to say what is happening now.

Antelope is an example of a hair that reacts very positively; with only a little thread pressure it will flare up ninety degrees from the hook shank. Tie in a bunch and you get a ball of antelope, literally. Trim this to shape and you have a muddler, plus possibly a bald antelope. If however you don't go for stuff like that and want a nice straight tail or less a neat caddis wing you'd be better off looking for a hair that's not so willing to flare.

I doubt I really need to say this, but the "Aarrgghh" factor of hair selection can be a bit infuriating. Help is at hand however and to make things a little easier hair can be divided by it's texture, and therefore flare, into three distinct categories.

  • Fine - virtually no flare. Good for up-right wings and tails. Comparable to being locked in a dark room with a nymphomaniac granny.
  • Medium - limited flare, up to 45º. Useful for caddis, humpies and comparaduns. Good for drunken fun.
  • Course - medium to maximum flare, up to 90º. Perfect for muddlers, sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Using this scale each type of hair can be classified and linked to a specific use. I won't go through all types, but here are some of the commonest hair types along with the category they fall into.

I'm an elk; I'm good for caddis fliesElk 

Durable and buoyant, Elk in its various guises can account for a wide range of excellent patterns. It is available everywhere in both natural and dyed variations. My favourite hair, yes it is *that* good (highly recommended). 

The most popular Elk Variations are as follows:

  • Yearling Elk -  A nice hair of fine to medium texture that has well defined tips and can be used for flies ranging from 12 to 20 such as comparaduns, humpies and small elk hair caddis. A good all round winging hair.
  • Bull Elk - A medium texture hair that is coarser than yearling and not quite as well suited to small flies. Will tie from 10 to 16 with ease and is generally considered to be the hair of choice for the elk hair caddis. 
  • Cow Elk - a coarse hair that is more flexible than bull or yearling elk. Typically lending itself to wings on large flies (12 and below), it can also be an effective spinning hair. 

Hi, I'm Bambi; I'm best for muddlersDeer

Roe, red, fallow, whitetail and mule deer are all used in fly tying, however, most deer hair conforms to *similar* make up (distribution and climatic variation being the determining factors) so I'm going to be daring and lump it all together at first, followed by a few specific examples. (Gulp).

Deer hair isn't quite as durable as Elk and also tends to be slightly less buoyant due to its denser tips. As with elk however it is suited to all manner of flies and is available in a wide range of styles and colours.


  • Mask  - short, fine to medium hair with very little flare. Good for wings and tails.
  • Back - fine to medium textured hair that is fairly long. A good winging material.
  • Sides - medium to course texture. A nice spinning hair.
  • Rump and belly -  coarse  hair with a soft and hollow structure that displays moderate to maximum flair. Nice for muddler heads and extended bodies.
  • Legs - very short fine hair that is good for small winged imitations.
  • Bucktail - long and fine, virtually no flare. Most commonly used in the tying of lures and streamers.


  • Texas whitetail - very fine hair that is suitable for tails and upright wings 
  • Yearling deer - quite fine with very little flare. Good for up-right wings and tails.
  • Coastal deer - a very good medium texture hair that has a small diameter making it suitable for flies as small as size 20's. It is primarily used as a winging material on small and medium mayfly imitations. Comparaduns and such like.
  • Mule deer - a medium to coarse hair. Prefect for spinning on muddler style flies, but not so great for winging. When you encounter stores selling 'deer hair' this is probably what it will be.
  • English roe deer - a very coarse hair that is almost exclusively used for spinning.

I would like to point out that all this is pretty general; I have put down what you're most likely to have dropping on your doorstep after ordering from an average mail order company. A whole mule deer will have more variation than I've mentioned, so don't take it too literally. 

Bugger offMoose

Being rather dense and stiff, moose hair tends to have a limited number of uses.  It will not flare to any great extent and is pretty crappy for most applications, but as with anything it does have its pro's. If you're looking for tails and antennae for example it is hard to beat. Plus, a little creativity with a patch of moose mane and some very good wound bodies can be achieved.  There are two kinds of moose commonly available:

  • Moose body - a straight, dense, stiff and very durable hair that makes a nice tail material.
  • Moose mane -  a very long (up to 8") wavy hair that is very flexible and durable. It has a nice black and white colouration that is very attractive when wound as a body.

Note: please do not get this confused with chocolate mouse, whilst it is very nice it is no good for fly tying and may clog up your humpies.

I'm an antelope; I'm the most buoyant of allAntelope 

A very course hair that flares easier than anything else currently available, antelope is almost entirely hollow, resulting in it also being the most buoyant hair. Just try pushing an antelope under water if you don't believe me. On the down side however it is a very fragile hair that does tend to break fairly easily and will most likely, due to the animals harsh home environment, possess broken tips upon purchase.  Recommended only for spinning.


Caribou has a fine to medium textured hair that is very soft and easy to flare. Good for small spun bodies such as those found upon irresistibles.  

I'm a lion; now back off.Calf

Calf hair is a fine, solid and very durable material that will not flare.  It is typically used for wings on dry flies such as the royal wulff and parachute posts on many more (I can feel Lars wincing). There are two main varieties currently available:

  • Calf body - a short, straight hair that is quite soft. Generally used for winging.
  • Calf tail - a longer, finer hair with a slight crinkle to it. Used as above, but also in the tying of some salmon flies and streamers. 

Both do similar things, so in the case of dry fly wings it's your choice, do you crinkle or not?

Thus concludes this week's hairstravaganza. (And no naked hippies anywhere)


Next time: Selection, Preparation and Stacking.

Ben Spinks studies fishery science, "I have to complete 3 environmental survey reports, 2 netting operations, 4 exams and a seminar on lake restoration. This is insane, I only went to uni for sex, drugs, rock and roll and sex" and is our flytying moderator on the bulletin board. He also ties a mean fly... so what are you waiting for, ladies?

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