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Quality control

By Steve Cooper

Steve Cooper tells us what we should be looking for when it comes to selecting good feathers for our flies

To tie flies of the highest quality you need materials of the highest quality.
To tie flies of the highest quality you need materials of the highest quality.

To tie flies of a high quality it is imperative to use materials of the highest quality available. This is not too difficult in the field of synthetic materials but where natural materials are concerned, it is a completely different matter.

Most natural materials used in fly tying are by-products of some other process, usually the food industry or pest control. Generally speaking, they are of very low financial value to the person collecting them. As a result little effort goes into selecting the best for fly tying purposes. This is reflected in the quality of materials on offer to fly dressers on a commercial basis. The one exception to this rule is genetic hackles which have been specifically bred for fly-tying and are, generally, of excellent quality.

Most fly dressers have been down the mail order route in search of quality natural materials and most have been sorely disappointed along the way. The key to resourcing materials of high quality is to be able to select the best from whatever is available at the time. This means that the fly dresser needs to have an understanding of the factors affecting quality and be able to use them in the selection process.

These factors relate to a unique set of conditions that have affected the individual bird or mammal from which the materials have been harvested. Some of these factors are obvious, whereas others are much more subtle. They are best illustrated using specific examples.

Sex of the individual
Sexual dimorphism (the difference between the male and female of a species) is very apparent in many species but in others is less obvious. All fly dressers can readily differentiate between a cock and hen pheasant. With partridges it is a different matter (see above). The hen bird has feathers which are much browner and more heavily marked. These presumably afford the hen bird a greater degree of camouflage, as she does the bulk of the incubation. These feathers are best suited to the tying of Nymph patterns. It is the cock bird, with its more finely marked hackles, that gives the feathers for tying the classic Spider flies such as Partridge & Orange. We will see however that the situation is slightly more complex than this.

Age of the Individual
Almost without exception, most birds produce better quality feathers for fly dressing purposes in the second and subsequent years of their lives. Most gamebirds, however, do not live long enough to do so, as they are shot in the first winter of their lives (less than one year old at time of harvest). A comparison of two partridge skins (see above) shows a skin from an immature bird and from a bird of at least two years old.  The older bird is larger and has a greater feather density. This is especially true in the neck region which yields the smaller feathers suitable for tying the smallest flies. When examined closely the skin of the immature shows a pale beige area of feathering on the upper neck. This is a residual patch of poult feathers (immature plumage) which had not yet been moulted, so the most sought after small feathers are missing.

With cock pheasant tails we have all sought long and hard for those long luscious 2.5 inch long fibres tinged with a rich plum colour. These longest fibred tails come from mature birds of two years plus in age. Here we see three tails, one from a bird of less than one year of age (right), one from a bird of two years of age (centre) and one from a bird aged three years plus (left). Only a very small percentage of pheasants survive to be more than two years of age, hence the lack of the real top-class feathers.

All birds moult at least once a year, replacing every feather. They do this because their feathers become old and worn, reducing their efficiency as insulators or for flight. In simple terms they are discarded because they are of no further use to the bird. If they are of no use to the bird then you can rest assured they will not be ideal for fly dressing purposes. A feather is at its best when it is fully emerged and the quill has hardened off. After this point the feather will slowly wear, becoming more and more damaged up to the point at which it is moulted. Figure 4 shows two peacock wing-quills, one of which is a fresh feather from a bird which was wild bred and presumably killed and eaten, the other is a moulted feather. The moulted feather is very worn and has lost many of the tiny fibres which comprise the feather, it appears almost transparent and will be of little use for fly dressing, especially for the tying of married wings. The fresh feather is much more opaque and has all its feather components intact, it is a far superior feather for all aspects of fly tying.

Individual variation
All living things of a species differ from one individual to the next due to the effects of genetic variation. In the quest for the ideal partridge hackle we have already ascertained that we will be seeking hackles from a male bird that is at least two years old. To add to the confusion if we refer to the classic texts such as those written by Edmonds and Lee or Pritt, we are advised that the correct hackle should be a brown mottled not barred feather from the back of a male partridge. Not all male partridges have feathers which are correctly coloured and marked. In fact, the majority have some degree of chestnut barring across the feather, only about ten percent of birds have unbarred hackles. The image of the two feathers shows two hackles one showing extreme chestnut barring and the other the sought-after unbarred feather. This individual variation is a feature of all natural materials (above) shows a whole series of peacock wing quills showing a range of variation from one extreme to the other.


General condition of the individual
Even having taken all the above factors into account there is still no guarantee that suitable materials will be selected. The overall physical condition of the individual is still vital in ensuring the quality of the feathers. If the bird in question has been subjected to injury, disease or trauma especially at the time of the moult, then it is likely that insufficient nutrients will have been channelled into feather development. The resulting feathers will be poorly formed often with ‘stress’ or ‘hunger marks’. These imperfections will have implications on the suitability of the material for fly dressing purposes.

In summary, the overall quality and suitability of natural materials is dependent on the following five criteria:
• Sex of the individual
• Age of the individual
• Time of harvest
• Individual variation
• General condition of the individual

It is only if all the above criteria are met adequately that natural materials will be of the highest quality and suitability for the job in hand. The onus is on the fly dresser to be able to select the exact materials for their specific needs. The ability to select top quality materials only comes with time and experience. Each type of natural material will have key pointers which are indicative of maximum quality and optimum suitability for the dressing of flies of a size and type.

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