Skip to main content

From Wing to String: Using Upland Bird Feathers for Fly Tying

If you can't get enough of feathers during the fall hunting season, tying flies could quickly become your newest off-season obsession.

From Wing to String: Using Upland Bird Feathers for Fly Tying

If you’re covered in feathers and looking to evolve your passions, tying flies from your upland bird feathers is a great way to spend the time in wait for opening day. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Ask any passionate upland bird hunter what they enjoy most about bird hunting, and aside from good dog work, many are likely to respond in some way to the pursuit, the search, or the quest of a bird hunt. Fly fishing isn’t that much different than bird hunting. It’s a hunt of its own, just in a different venue with a quarry that swims instead of flies, but it’s the pursuit of a bird or fish that trips our trigger. In this way, it’s no surprise that many bird hunters double as fly fishers during the off-season, taking the thrill of the hunt from wing to string. For many of them, tying flies with bird feathers bridges all the gaps between the two hobbies. 

Now, you don’t have to become a full-out fly tyer and avid fly angler to begin to appreciate your bird feathers after the hunt. There are some hunters out there who simply enjoy spending time on the vice and twisting up flies for fun, and the end results can become an artform of their own. If you’ve been looking for something to hold you over from the last day of the season to opening day, you might want to consider spending some time on the fly-tying bench.


Making Feathers Fly

Although fly fishing and fly tying came first for Craig MacDerment of Essex, Vermont, he soon added bird hunting to his list of hobbies when Dewey, a Black Mouth Cur, came into the picture. Dewey’s drive to chase upland birds and small game led the pair into the woods in a new pursuit. As his passion for fly fishing and bird hunting grew together, MacDerment eventually found the perfect way to marry these favorite pastimes, in what he describes as a natural evolution. “I never had a lightbulb moment; it was always there. I’d spend time in the fly shop looking through the flies and seeing the tying materials, and then it just clicked once I started bird hunting and had a steady supply of my own tying materials.”

tying a fly at bench using pheasant feathers
Tying flies with your own bird feathers is a fun way to combine your passion for fins and feathers. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Find Your Feathers

Whether you’re brand-new to fly tying or otherwise need a friendly reminder, MacDerment first suggests not to get too hung up on exactly replicating the fly patterns you see in a book or the bugs you see in the wild when tying your own flies. “Colors catch anglers,” he adds, and goes on to mention that shape and profile are more important than color and exact size. “I started flipping over rocks and taking pictures of bugs, then went to my pile of feathers and started making something that looked like what I saw. You don’t need to replicate things perfectly; you want to try to match them the best you can. It’s not about copying three turns of this and use this feather here on a #18 hook or you won’t catch fish, so if you like the look of something and have confidence when you’re casting it, just go with it.”

With that in mind, MacDerment reveals that nearly all of the feathers on the upland birds and waterfowl we bag across North America have feathers fit for the vice, each with their own unique purpose based on their physical properties. Once you start working with different feathers, you’ll better understand their specific attributes and how they can best be used when tying different flies.

grouse fan feathers and pheasant tail feathers for fly tying
It's easier than you think to get started tying flies, and you'll have a lifetime of flies in just a handful of feathers. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

“There’s no right or wrong way, but there are certain things that one feather will be better at over another,” he instructs. “For example, most of the soft, webby feathers with the little barbules that you’re going to see on most birds, are ideal for soft hackle on nymphs and streamers, and are used as wings and legs on flies because they’re soft and move in the water. The stiffer tail feathers of say a rooster, make for great tails and wing cases; think of the “pheasant tail” fly, but these stiffer feathers can also be used on dry flies. And sometimes, you may even use a whole, single feather for the color pattern it has, like one of my favorite flies, the “feather game changer,” with spots that look like the eyes of a minnow.” 

MacDerment offers one last pro tip, in that the fur or hair of big game animals like deer, or small game such as rabbits and squirrel can also be utilized, especially for fly body material, also known as “dubbing”—and in a major pinch, a clump of your dog’s fur makes for excellent dubbing material.

Easy Flies to Tie with Bird Feathers

If you’re looking for a few simple patterns to get started on, MacDerment points to a few that aren’t too intimidating for beginning tyers.

walt's worm fly
The "Walt's worm fly is one of the easiest for beginners to get started. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

The “Walt’s worm” fly utilizes dubbing or pheasant tail feathers wrapped around a hook—just about the easiest fly to tie. Don’t worry about it looking asymmetric or irregular. There’s no wings or tail and it looks very “buggy” and they just work.

frenchi fly
The "Frenchi" fly is another easy pattern for new tyers. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

The “Frenchie” is another easy fly to tie. It is essentially a “Walt’s worm” body with pheasant tail feathers as the fly’s tail and some wire wrapped around the body. Have some fun with this pattern and try different color dubbing and wire wrap, and experiment with various feathers as the tail material.

pheasant tail fly
The "pheasant tail fly" is composed entirely of a rooster tail feather for all of its parts. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

The “pheasant tail” is a fly that uses pheasant tail feathers for all of its parts, including the body, tail, and wing case hump. This one has a few more steps to properly position the wings and to make a tight wing case, but you’ll have a lifetime supply of feathers to try this fly with a day’s limit of roosters.

[reveal ad]

Caring For Your Feathers

If you’re thinking that twisting up some bugs is in your future after this fall, MacDerment provides some helpful hints to ensure your feathers will be in optimal condition when it comes time to tie, and it all starts with good habits right after the shot. “Especially the tail feathers, if you can keep them long and straight, that’s the best,” he adds. “As long as you’re caring for your feathers from the field, they’ll last a lifetime. It starts with how well your dog handles birds and how you carry them in your vest, but even if the bird comes home in a mess, you should be able to salvage some feathers from it. Once you get them dry, store them in bags to keep out moisture and bacteria and avoid spreading germs to your other feathers. I like to bag and freeze my feathers for a few weeks to kill everything off.”

If you’re the industrious type and have the means, MacDerment suggests that caping a bird is possibly the best way to preserve the natural structure and form of the feathers and allows you to strategically use the various feather sizes and types. “It’s so much better than pulling clumps of feathers, and the yield from caping is going to allow you to use all of that bird,” he advocates. 

caped ring-necked pheasant for fly tying
Caping a bird will provide the most effective way to store and use feathers for tying flies. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Let It Fly

MacDerment says that catching fish on flies he’s tied using feathers from the bird he’s killed with his dog is a very rewarding experience. “It’s such a great use of the resource and these wild bird feathers have much more muted, natural tones and mottled colorations that more closely resemble bugs in the wild—you just won’t get that from synthetic materials.” 

Whether you’re looking for a new off-season hobby or a creative way to evolve your combined passions, tying flies with feathers from birds you’ve taken can be a gratifying way to keep birds on the brain all year long. But just like upland hunting and dog training, fly tying and fly fishing can be a bit intimidating and create several barriers to entry. But we’re a tight knit community and most of us are ready and able to help out a newcomer that demonstrates a willingness to learn. 

MacDerment encourages anyone who is interested to find someone who ties or to join a tying group for help getting started. And he shares that if you really want to make fast friends, donating your bird feathers to local tyers could quickly lead to help on the tying vice or an invitation to a fishing trip. Even a single bird can provide enough tying material for several lifetimes, so if nothing else, consider sharing your stockpile of feathers with others to make the most of your birds, and give a generous gift to the avid fly tyer.


To Continue Reading

Go Premium Today.

Get everything Gun Dog has to offer. What's Included

  • Receive (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers

  • Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

  • Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

  • Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

  • Ad-free experience at GunDogMag.com.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or start your online account

Get the Newletter Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Gun Dog articles delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Gun Dog subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now
Dog jumping out of phone with Gun Dog website in the background
Make the Jump to Gun Dog Premium

Gun Dog Premium is the go-to choice for sporting dog owners and upland hunting enthusiasts. Go Premium to recieve the follwing benefits:

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account

Go Premium

and get everything Gun Dog has to offer.

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account