Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Ahhh, free-sub…we start out liking it, because there are thirty eight kids who want in on the kickball game but only one kickball. Free-sub gives us hope that we too can rotate in before the recess bell. Then a few years later we establish ourselves, maybe in another sport, maybe as a strong-side front line volleyball spiker…and free-sub becomes a bore, ensuring that once we rotate out we never get back in. Then we evolve further and become a fan, and the picture gets cloudy…I mean, we can accept footballers running on and off the field with abandon but it just doesn’t sit right that a baseball pitcher doesn’t have to hit…and years later still, we appreciate the free-sub concept again, when we start coaching kiddie sports and the parents are counting how many minutes their little booger-eater was in the game compared to Johnny.

Free-substitution is a mixed bag of blessings and curses. By the time we start applying it to fly tying materials, we appreciate the ability to use fluff off an old sweater when the Aussie Possum runs out–we do appreciate that. But it’s the curse side of materials substitution I want to dwell on today.

Don’t get me wrong — there are few on the planet more prone to use “found” or “similar” materials than I. I greatly enjoy the creative juice aspect, and I celebrate when my “faked” handiwork fools a fish. But over the years I have realized that the downside of free materials substitution is that people long ago were really smart. So when the pattern calls for something specific from nature, there are generally good reason, and switching something else in is often a desperate, rather than genius, move.

A few examples:

Elk Hair

Dude, just use any cervine/caprioline mammal’s hair for your Elk Hair Caddis — deer, elk, antelope, moose, whatever. If it’s antlered and hooved, then its hair is probably hollow, so it all floats, right? …and it’s probably compressible, so I’m sure it all flares the same. Or just use that craft fur stuff! Hair is hair, ain’t it? Substitute away…you may end up with a nice ratty department-store-looking fly that a starving hatchery fish might snag itself on.

Or, you could become better acquainted with the different properties not only of different antlered species, but also of different genders, different ages, different times of the year, different regions of the continent, and different parts of the animal’s hide. This has all been mapped out ages ago by highly intelligent people; there are charts that mark up a hide like a butcher’s poster shows dissection lines for meat.

Figure 1 — Hair Chart

For deer, short and fine hair comes from some body areas and in some seasons, and is used for small flies where flaring is not much desired; cow rump and belly hair can flare almost 90 degrees and is terrific for spinning and hoppers. Bucktail mostly isn’t even hollow, so it’s a streamer play. For elk, cow is straightest and thus the most universal, but again the part of the body determines the flare-ability, with belly and rump being most compressible…and autumn or early winter cow elk hair is long, coarse and incomparable for spinning. Yearling and early spring hair is very fine, compresses some, and the tips tend to be dark. Bull elk tends to be dark-tipped but otherwise blonde or deliciously creamy in color.  Antelope can be used too, but it appears to be less diligently studied, given the general absence of wild herds in Olde Englande. You’ll have to stop letting them trick you into thinking that a “comparadun” is an exotic critter, and also stop thinking that a hunk of its hide is going to serve all your antlered animal hair needs, because it won’t. And then there’s the big old primal moose, with rugged dark body hair and mane hair as coarse as the transatlantic cable.

So substitute if you must, but try to educate on the precise stuff the old-timers recommended, and use it if you can get your hands on it. It all differs, species to species, gender to gender, season to season, age to age and rump to belly to haunch. There are many varieties and you’ll need to label not only what each is but what its properties are and what it’s best for as well.

Figure 2 – Antlered Critter Hair

Hare’s Mask Dubbing

There are all sorts of dubs, and these days some need heavy stickum…or a dubbing loop…to even do the job at all. The original underfur of a bunny’s face is, by contrast, the very definition of elegance. It’s why the old timers swore by it. There’s other ol’ standby fur too — Aussie Possum for example. They do a good job trying to match the feel of these materials with synthetics, but they never exceed the quality. Take a step back into the days when the expertise was born, and earned. The old-time “best” dubbing materials are not to be mocked.

Arctic Seal

This one is a moot point.  Suffice it to say that it can be found, usually from the lining of old World War aviator jackets or some other highly limited source, but it’s best not to dwell on how good the stuff was.  They make all sorts of synthetic “copies” said to simulate that “perfect” dubbing, but whether it feels the same is anybody’s guess.

Turkey Feather

Nothing, but nothing, beats a hunk of parallel turkey feather barbs for wing cases. Turkey feather barbs are natural, they’re fantastically mottled, and they’re as tough as leather.  They’re also a delight to use. I’ve peeled bits from hawk feather and duck feather, I’ve used the synthetic vinyl sheet stuff, but there’s something just plain better about the real thing.  When you’ve got it, go with it. When you don’t, stock up.

Pheasant Tail

These barbs are also used for wing case material, but in my humble opinion their forte is body ribbing. Plastic D-shaped ribbing, wire…none of it looks as buggy as a body ribbed with pheasant tail barbs, each of which has micro-barbs of its own. It may need a little glue to keep it durable, but looks-wise it is unsurpassed.

Peacock Herl

There are peacock-colored synthetics, and peacock-colored dubbing…but please, just please. The real thing is so fish-pleasing-superior it doesn’t bear discussing. Peacock herl doesn’t even have pigment — it gets its color from the bending of light around microscopic hairs spaced so perfectly they make nothing less than visual magic. Make it durable with counter-wound thread or a sub-base of glue or whatever, but go with the real stuff…and don’t let anybody dye it on you, either…it ain’t estaz. It’s Nature’s light miracle.

Hungarian Partridge

I have used hen feathers and other webby stuff for soft hackle wet flies, and I would again if I had to, but in the end I’ve realized the incomparable properties of what a ‘Hungarian’ partridge skin provides. Dark brown, medium brown, light tan, blue-grey, light grey, even white…and all just about the perfect size for two or so turns.  All barbs are soft, all are nicely mottled and barred, none cling much to the next barb. The stems are beautifully supple and generally strong (although I’ve learned to avoid wasting an occasional feather by trimming the schlappen from the stem instead of peeling it). Partridge feathers are called out by the classic pattern recipes quite frankly because they’re far and away superior. Yes, starling exists, and other stuff is good too, but partridge remains king.

Figure 3 – Hungarian Partridge Skin

Past attempts to substitute for partridge feathers have compelled me to also substitute techniques, for example when trying to utilize soft hackle that’s far too long for the fly. I came up with ways to “use up” the extra barb length and in the process fatten up the fly’s body…only to discover on the stream that extra air was trapped around the hook shank in so doing, and even a weighted wet fly would not sink on quiet water without it being treated with sink-faster juice, or partnered with a split shot larger than number 4, or slapped down with bull-whip technique. So while I thought I was getting away with the substitution, I wasn’t really, and my tying technique had to be modified further. All that struggle went away when I just went with the partridge…plus the stems were now beautifully workably thin and I began to automatically get the perfect amount of hackle onto the fly.

There are a lot of other small ground-based birds, including ptarmigan, chukar, grouse, woodcock…a lot of different seaside birds…but the so-called “Hungarian” partridge is the famous one in soft hackle lore. Those old-timers knew what they were talking about.

Dog, Fox, or Wolf Hair

This doesn’t get specified in classic pattern recipes so often, but there is precious little material that combines strength with truly wonderful suppleness quite like Fido and his extended pack. For everything from streamer material to wet fly tail, if you can find the color you want you cannot go wrong. It’s true enough that individual canines differ in their coat quality, with coyotes providing a ratty primal look and the offspring of golden retriever silky-fur champions having a superb feel and fluid motion in the water…and it’s noted that some canine hair is findable only via unfortunate roadkill and via allowable laws… but overall the long guard hairs, even of wild things, is terrific in its soft undulation and its durable resilience to trout teeth. We might be tempted to use artificial hair products, possibly for their convenience and their special out-of-this-world colors, but unless there’s an excellent reason don’t overlook the genuine article, because it’s incomparable.

So while I remain a big fan of creative modification, credit is due the ‘real’ thing.  We can make do with other stuff, we can experiment to our hearts’ content, we can fly in the face of what The Masters chose…but we should remember that the traditional materials became so because they were great for the job.

And most importantly, they’re a joy to use.


    1. Hi Ken, I’ve never heard of a nyatt. An internet search turns up only some youth tournament for quarter horse riders, and I doubt you’re looking for mane hair from competition nags. Myself, I never take the approach of identifying an animal and then looking up patterns that call for its hair, although that approach could prove interesting. I generally take the approach of coming up against a need — a suppleness or stiffness, a color, a straightness or rattiness, floatation properties, workability…etc…and then I seek for a material that’s accessible and that might do the job. In the past if nothing from J.Stockard works for some odd tying application, I’ve tried synthetic materials intended for other purposes (with mixed results), human hair (with worse than mixed results), hair from a puppy (with stellar results), underfur from a camel that I once found at the zoo (darn good dubbing), feathers from a variety of wild things around where I live (with mixed results), etc.

      So I’ve never heard of a “nyatt” and I don’t know what its hair properties would be. (It almost sounds like a three stooges kind of word.) I think one of the pro tyers here on the J.Stockard blog might have a better shot at knowing something useful; I’ll never be accomplished (or fast) enough as a tyer to be in their class or know all that they know. Sorry.

      – Mike

        1. The spelled-right creature appears to be some sort of domestically bred arctic farm animal…some kind of pony related to but genetically divergent from the Arctic Pony; the name appears to mean “Snow Runner.” Its semi-soft hair is said to shed water quickly without matting. I’ve never seen it or tied with it, so let’s ask Daniel.

          The spelled-wrong creature’s identity remains elusive, and the best clues are still to be found in Three Stooges dialog….

    2. I use nyatt on occasion. I watched several videos in which Giovanni DePace uses the stuff almost exclusively. It’s fantastic! Mostly used for streamers as it is a long fiber. I believe it comes from an Icelandic horse that has really long hair to combat the cold. It is a natural hair and as with most natural products, moves beautifully.

    1. Hi Domingo, that’s a diagram I found online; I used it simply to illustrate how different parts of a deer or elk hide are often observed to represent different properties. Looking at it, “6” clearly means bucktail hair (which as the article says is not hollow…except sometimes very near the tail’s base…and is used for streamers, especially those that need long strands), “4” clearly means (cross-referencing it with the article) very hollow hair that spins and flares extremely well, etc. “5” looks like leg hair and that would be shorter hair, but its other properties I’m less clear on…probably not very compressible given that hollow hair is a thermal insulation and floatation feature for the animal and would be more logically distributed around the animal’s core and where floatation would help keep it upright in water…but I’m only a student of this hide lore too.. “2” is clearly spine hair which I’m guessing would be stiffer up near the mane.

      I also don’t know if the numbers in that diagram are universal in their definitions or locations on the hide; I would doubt it. It looks to be just one stab at demarkation to me.

      Probably people who skin the animals and cut the pieces to sell would have a lot more detail; I’ve listed the primary properties we look for in fly tying.

      I hope this helps,

      – Mike

  1. Great article. I’ve always been a believer in the tried and true materials. I use Brahma Hen for wet fly hackle when I want color, but you just can’t match the buggy look of Hungarian Partridge. Recently I’ve moved back to wool, either Shetland wool yarn for Tenkara Kebari flies or I am also experimenting with blending Shetland wool in a coffee grinder with hares mask and squirrel. While wool soaks up water and makes it a good candidate for wet flies and nymphs, it also soaks up dry fly floatant.

    It’s too easy to get enamored by all of the choices in materials. I know I’m tempted by all the current patterns that use new synthetic materials thinking that these will improve my catch. But then there is a little voice in the back of my mind that tells me otherwise. It’s like fly rods….I’ve fallen in love with 20th century fiberglass to the point that I fish with nine glass rods and one carbon fiber rod. The way I see it, if these rods worked so well in the past, they should work as well in the present.

    I think we reach a point where what is available meets our needs, but our thirst to make everything “better” gets out of hand at times. It’s like comparing Tenkara to Western fly fishing….Tenkara is fly fishing at it’s simplest form and it works. As a friend would say when I asked him how he was doing, his response was “good enough”.

    1. I agree with you about the overabundance of choices we have, Steve. Perhaps metal rods aside, old-time equipment just plain worked. Old-time techniques just plain work too (I’m a huge believer in swinging wetflies…I almost never dead-drift anything anymore and I prefer fishing downstream from my position whenever possible…it works so well and is so much fun). I like medium-action rods instead of the newer types that do all their flexing at the tip. I appreciate modern tippet of course, but that’s a true improvement rather than just a change. Changing technique based on magazine fads loses venerable lore; changing gear without really improving anything removes cash from our pockets and adds churn to our lives. It might be in “this year’s colors” but next year we’ll ask ourselves why we did it. I built my own rod years ago and the hours and love I poured into it help me remain loyal to it as my primary.

      For fly materials, almost nothing beats natural — it looks buggy and the right stuff is a joy to use. If I must use synthetic, I always finish it off with natural.

      There are exceptions to such a philosophy…I went decades wearing old Hansen ski boots, claiming that “snow hasn’t changed” and that yester-year’s boots would work as well as modern ones. Well, circumstances compelled me to try on a pair of modern boots…and…I admit I never looked back. Snow had not changed, but the comfort of modern materials sure had. One caves in when one must.

      – Mike

  2. I once lacked a fluorescent green dubbing to imitate the egg sac of the caddis coming off in blizzards. I picked the green wool from the tops of my tennis shoes. Perfect match. Even dyed some grey dubbing brown with tree bark and coffee grounds while on a trip far from my tying desk.

    1. Funny! And I agree that a little creative thinking can save the day. Plus it’s fun! It’s a challenge in its own right before we ever get to the stream. But I got so accustomed to “free” substitution (freely selected, acquired for free too) that I began to lose respect for the real thing. It was really the Hungarian partridge soft hackle that pulled my attitudes back on track and got me to see that I’d become too flippant with materials. Appearance is one thing, but other properties — suppleness, hydrophilic/hydrophobic attributes, size, workability at the vise — go beyond simple color or sheen. I’ll still use what’s available, but these days I try to apply a little forethought (and research) and stock the good stuff in advance, so that it’s there when I need it. But I salute your green wooly shoes! Well done.

      – Mike

  3. When I started out tying just for my ex’s trip to NY to salmon fish or local small trout streams, I used what I had. I was a seamstress and I made jewelry on the side. I also did my nails. So I had thread, beads, some wire, and Nail polish for head cement. As I later had extra money I would invest in the real deal, fly tying thread and tungsten bead heads and UV head cement. Hungarian Partridge is the best material for wet fly hackle. I purchased my first fly rod and reel, one that I could afford after all these years, under $100. Reviews supported my first purchase, but do I want to invest 3 times that for waders, and another $250 for boots. Think I will try out the rod/reel first in the spring from locations I can just walk up to. Before investing another $500. I just want the pleasure of trying out my flies that I spend so much time and effort to tie. I enjoy tying but want the joy of knowing they work. I do have a young neighbor that is just getting into fly fishing, I give him free samples of my flies to try. Not much feedback of late. I think schoolwork and other projects have been taking up much of his time. A special shout out to a Pro Tier here from Warren, PA that gave me some wet and dry hackle that really helped me out with lack of affordable product. He asked if I tied a Yellow Sally I now do thanks for asking. My first time tying Cow, and Elk Hair, it was much easier than I thought.

    1. Hi Leah,

      Thanks for your thoughts. For waders I have always paid only between $100 and $120. I find a mfgr that upon inspection seems to make a product of equal quality to the high-priced brands, and then before using it I reinforce all the seams from the ankle downward with real AquaSeal (don’t use anything else, most other gooey products are solvent-evaporative-cured, and the embedded solvent eats the wterproof membrane of the fabric). It’s those low seams that spring leaks when we pull waders on and off. It’s also worth being careful when getting in and out of them of course…avoid stretching seems by not driving the car while wearing them, etc. Since the expensive wader brands don’t guarantee their product via free repairs either anymore, my approach has saved me a LOT of money over the years. One does have to have an eye for rugged construction, but as a seamstress that’ll be your forte. I use the Frog Toggs “Sierran” model of wader; it’s got lots of high-quality pockets & features, it’s as ruggedly made as the best Simms and Orvis model (I’ve compared carefully), it fits well, dries fast, looks good, and I just never looked back. They can sometimes be found on sale…WalMart had them for $99 online a fw years ago.

      Also, in the summer, wet-wading is actually pretty nice too.

      For boots I also save a ton of money — I went years just finding an oversized rubber-soled hiking boot, one I could slide my neoprened feet into easily, at some thrift store…each time the boots lasted at least five years. Leather does last but can’t be left wet for weeks after use. Now I’m using a cheap boot I got at Walmart that has a side zipper — said to be a “first responder” boot — the combination of side opening and laces makes it even easier to get into and out of. That pair is on track to go a good ten years…again for about $35.

      For traction I made myself a pair of aluminum-bottomed crampons, but I almost never use them because I get to know my streams and where I can stand and walk risk-free…and a wading staff helps in the rare cases.

      I hate spending money, yet I want my gear to perform really well…and the above practices keep me fishing and feeling smart about it. My approach may be seen as heresy by some, but it works like a charm. My focus remains on the fishing.

      How are the Yellow Sallies working? I have never caught a fish on one but then I don’t see those hatches either.

      – Mike

  4. Very nice article!

    I’ve been using EP Trigger Point Supreme in various colors as a deer/elk substitute. It works in some patterns, but not all. Floats longer. Doesn’t flare though.

    No mention so far of CDC. It’s wonderful to tie with as well as fish with. I doubt there is a good substitute.

    I also have sparsely dubbed our Labradoodles fine underbody ear hair onto Spiders, like the Waterhen Bloa. Looks nice!


    1. Hi Dale, thanks for your thoughts on this. I confess I don’t tie with CDC (or schlappen either) — just can’t seem to get past the old notion I’d developed years ago that that stuff was throw-away material. The truth is I haven’t much of a clue how to use it. I’d welcome being schooled on that, because CDC in particular is said to trap air and float well, and like you I doubt that a synthetic material could compare — man-made stuff seems to float mostly by displacement (eg polypropylene is just more voluminous than water for the same weight). Maybe if I fished dries more, I’d be using it more.

      Never used the EP Trigger Point stuff either, but I can see some good uses for strands that float without flaring — there are patterns I sometimes tie that need a small float force properly positioned on the fly, to remain upright (to look more alive & to keep the hook point facing up away from the bottom). I’ll try it; thanks.

      Glad to hear your Labradoodle hair is getting the job done! This past weekend I caught one of the nicest rainbows I’ve brought to net in the last few years, which absolutely HAMMERED — you guessed it — one of my “Partridge and Ruffles” soft hackle wet flies. Just about took the rod from my hand on the strike. I came home and gave my doggie an extra treat for that. : )

      – Mike

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