Choosing Hair for Fly Tying

antelope_grab_bigFly tying hair can be broken into two main categories:  Big Game and Small Game.  Big Game animals include; Elk, Deer, Bear, Caribou, Moose, Antelope.  Small game animals include; Fox, Squirrel, Rabbit, Skunk, Badger, Woodchuck, Mole, Nutria, Beaver, Muskrat, Mink.

Most Big Game animal hair is used for winging materials.  Some is hollow and very buoyant, while others are solid fibers, or mostly solid fibers that are best suited to wet flies.  Hollow big game hairs are often used for body materials as well.  When spun or stacked, then clipped to shape, the result is a high-floating fly – most often seen in hopper patterns, muddler heads,  bass poppers and steelhead skaters or bombers.

Most Small Game animal hair (or fur) is used to make dubbing materials.  The under-fur, which is closest to the hide and usually very dense, is used in dry fly dubbing.  The guard hairs, which are longer and thicker, can be blended with the under-fur to make great nymph and wet fly dubbing.  However, some small animal hair (primarily from the tail) can make great winging material – Squirrel, Fox and Raccoon have very bushy tails with longer fibers.  Woodchuck, Badger, Raccoon and other small game animal body fur makes great wings as well.  You do have to pull a lot of under-fur from the hair, but the results are well worth it!

Types of Hair and their uses

Let’s break this down a little further and talk about specific types of hair and some of the uses in fly tying.

Big Game:

Black Bear – Fairly long (2”-4”) mostly solid hair strands used for winging of wet flies.  Used quite often in Steelhead and Salmon Flies.  Most of the body hair is sort of “wavy” or “crinkly”, except the rump region which is very dense, thick and straight.  The under-fur of a bear hide can be used as dubbing.

Elk Ranges from very coarse, to moderately coarse, depending on the region of the body the hide comes from:

  • Mane – Coarse and long – up to 5”
  • Back – Very Coarse and medium length – 2”-4”
  • Sides – Coarse and shorter length – 1”-3”
  • Hock – Shorter and Finer – ½” – 1”
  • Rump – Very Coarse and medium length – 2”-3”

Used in a variety of dry fly patterns for wings, posts, tails, antenna, etc.   Elk hair is very durable and highly buoyant.  Yearling Elk is finer and generally has very nice tips.  Bull Elk is very coarse and is best suited to larger flies like Stimulators, hoppers and adult stonefly patterns..  Cow Elk hair is “middle of the road” and a bit more flexible.  It can be used for spinning in some patterns.

Deer – Deer hair is not quite as durable, or as buoyant as Elk, but has many of the same great qualities.

  • Back –  Coarse and medium length – 2”-3”
  • Sides – Fine and shorter length – 1”-2”
  • Hock – Shorter and very fine – 1/4” – 3/4”
  • Belly and Rump – Lighter colored (brilliant white on Whitetail deer), with very hollow cores.  Great spinning hair, takes and holds color well.

Bucktail – Fine and long 3”-4” and fairly solid core.  Great for tails and wings for wet flies, streamers and saltwater patterns as it takes and holds color very well.

Like Elk, it is in a variety of dry fly patterns for wings, posts, tails, antenna, etc.  Coastal Blacktail Deer is the finest of the North American species and great for smaller fly posts and wings (16-20), Whitetail Deer hair is medium density and used in medium sized flies (10-16), Mule Deer hair is the coarsest and used in the larger dry fly patterns and is suitable for spinning.

Antelope –   Medium length (1”-3”) and the most hollow of big game hair.  It is extremely buoyant, but also somewhat fragile.  Great spinning hair when care is taken with the amount of thread pressure.  Back, sides and rump hair is about the only useable portion of the hide.  The mask, belly and hock regions are very short (less than ¼”).

Moose – Coarse and very long (body up to 5”, mane up to 8”).  It is very stiff and can be tough to work with.  Make great antenna, tails and wound bodies though.

Caribou – Fine and fairly hollow.  It is very good spinning hair for small flies. Nice coloration.

Small Game:

Squirrel Tail – Grey, Red, Fox or Silver squirrel tails are generally very bushy and have long (1”-3”), crinkly, and somewhat stiff hair fibers.  With a variety of coloration changes from base to tip, these hairs make excellent wings on a variety of fly patterns – wet, dry, steelhead and salmon.

Woodchuck – Also known as Groundhog.   It has great coloration from base to tips.  It is generally black at the base, lighter in the middle with nice golden brown tips.

Skunk – I know what you’re thinking and the question you’re going to ask… the answer is “very carefully”.  Seriously though, the back hide portion of a Skunk, especially the white stripe, is great wing material for Steelhead and Salmon flies.  Commonly used as a substitute for Polar Bear.  Both the Black and White hairs are very shiny and somewhat translucent.  The tail region is a little coarser, but also makes interesting wings with both black and white markings.

Fox Tail – Similar to Squirrel Tail, but generally softer.  They have great coloration in most species of foxes; Red, Grey, Kit, Swift.  Arctic Fox (white) tails will take and hold color very well and make very nice wings on Salmon, Steelhead and Saltwater patterns.

Badger – Badger fur is very similar to woodchuck with nice color variations, more grey tones.

Raccoon – The body hair is similar to woodchuck or badger with grey and black tones.  The tail is similar to squirrel with slightly shorter hair fibers (½”-1 ½”) and nice barred colors.

Rabbit – Rabbit hair (fur) is generally sheared from the hide and used to make dubbing.  However, when left on the hide and cut into strips, these strips can be used in many ways.  Zonker Strips (cut with the direction the hair lays) are used for leach and other patterns calling for a long wing/back.  Cross-cut Strips (perpendicular to the direction the hair lays) are useful for a number of patterns as a full flowing body or collar and are generally wrapped around the hook shank.

Tight Lines!


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