Fly fishing and hunting have a lot of crossover between the two sports. Many anglers who enjoy the “hunt” of fly-fishing, tend to be hunters by nature. As turkey season fast approaches in Florida, a question I receive frequently from my hunting buddies is whether or not you can tie flies with turkey feathers.
While turkey feathers can be used to tie flies, their course fibers and thick quills make them difficult to tie with. Additionally, turkey feathers tend to be stiffer than other feathers which limits movement when in the water. As a result, it is not recommended to use them in most situations.
Although turkey feathers are not ideal for most applications, I do use them for one of my go-to flies. Below I will discuss when turkey feathers work well, what to look for when selecting feathers, and some easy to work with materials that look great in the water.
What type of flies can I tie with turkey feathers?
The first thing to understand about turkey feathers is that they are naturally designed to repel water. This will cause the feather to naturally float higher in the water column. Another thing to note is that turkey feathers do not palmer easily due to how coarse the fibers are. Understanding this will help you make the decision of when using a turkey feather makes sense.
When I was first given a pile of turkey feathers by a good friend, I was excited to give them a try as they look absolutely beautiful. I quickly realized, however, that they were not the easiest to work with. I played with multiple designs and found that the best application for these feathers was using them for claws on floating grab patterns. Turning the feathers downward helped the crab sit higher in the water. It also looked amazingly real when looking up from below!
Using the floating crab
In Northeast Florida, we have a lot of small fiddler crabs. They are either brown or black in color. During extreme high tides, these crabs will be displaced from the marsh and will be seen floating along grass edges. This makes them an easy target for redfish to come up from below and slurp them down.
The most ideal way to target these fish is by using a floating crab. The crab is best tied on a size 1 hook using a small piece of orange chenille tied around the bend of the hook. At this point, two small turkey feathers are tied in a splay directly behind the chenille. As a crab swims or is in a defensive motion, they will spread their two claws out, ready to pinch any predator who comes their way.
Once I have tied my two turkey feathers on, I will then tie down one side of a piece of black foam. This foam is cut into a 1 ½” rectangular shape. One side is tied down directly behind the splay of the two claw feathers. With one side of my foam tied down, I then wrap a piece of ½” tarantula brush from the bend of the hook up to the eye.
The next step is to pull the other side of the foam forward toward the eye of the hook and tie this down. The idea is to pull the foam forward tight enough to where the foam will roll over the sides, creating a rounded body. This will make the body of the fly imitate a crab body more closely. Once you have tied down the foam, simply add a weed guard, and the fly is ready to fish.
This fly is incredibly productive for redfish and will work for any species that feeds on small crabs and will eat on the surface.
What makes a good feather?
Turkey feathers may not make sense for the type of flies you need. You may choose to use a different type of feather. The majority of fly-fishing feathers referred to as “Hackle”, come from either the neck or the tail of the hen or rooster.
2 types of feathers
Feathers that come from the neck are referred to as “necks.” Feathers pulled from the tail area are known as “saddles.”
Neck hackle feathers are slightly shorter than the saddle. They work great for palmering necks of small flies or making claws on crab patterns.
Saddle feathers tend to be longer and have thicker webbing. This makes these feathers ideal for sinking flies. They absorb more water into the webbing. Saddles will also have greater movement under the water, giving them a more life-like appearance when tying flies that mimic baitfish.
What to look for when buying feathers
When making a selection of feathers, the main thing to examine is consistency. The feathers should be the same color or have the same grizzly pattern on them. There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to find matching feathers when tying a fly where symmetry is important.
Look for damage to the feathers. Try to choose packs where the feathers look natural in shape and have been taken care of. The idea is to have as many consistent feathers as possible because when using feathers, it is unlikely that you are using just one. Therefore we need to have matching feathers to tie on either side of the hook to make the body of a swimming baitfish or the claws of a crab.
Lastly, be careful when purchasing feathers from a craft store. The prices are often enticing, but keep in mind, these feathers are not designed with fly-tying in mind. Oftentimes these feathers are coarse and have thick quills. This makes them difficult to tie with, and gives them little natural movement in the water.
Check out my Recommended Products area for links to some online stores where you can pick good quality feathers up.
What are the best fly tying materials?
When first entering the world of fly-tying it is easy to get overwhelmed. There are so many different types of materials that knowing what to use for your intended application may be difficult. Here is a list of my go-to materials that every fly-tier should have in their arsenal:
- Finnish Racoon – Often sold in an oval shape, this is a section of tail from a raccoon. The fibers are fine and soft, yet have a lot of body, allowing a little bit to go a long way. This stuff is incredible for tying tails on bonefish and redfish tails. This material can be used to imitate crustaceans or small baitfish. The material will pulsate in the water as it is retrieved and has a lot of action.
- EP Brush – This is a synthetic material that comes in varying lengths from ¼” up to 4”. The fibers are intertwined into a small piece of wire and combed out. The idea is that since the material is connected to the wire, the wire can easily be wrapped around a hook to create full bodies. This is one of the easiest materials to tie with and has changed the game for making the profile of flies. The shorter brushes are typically used for shrimp and crab bodies, whereas the longer brushes are used for the body of a baitfish.
- Craft fur – Craft fur is another synthetic material. It is soft and works incredibly well for making tails on flies. I use this frequently for the tails of my mid-length saltwater flies. Using a permanent marker, the material can be barred to create the look of shrimp. Like a Finnish raccoon, it flares out when under the water giving more depth to your fly. A little bit of craft fur goes a long way. It allows you to make smaller, lighter flies while still having a big profile under the water.
- Bucktail – Just like the name suggests, this is the tail of a deer. It comes in multiple colors and is made of long coarse hairs. Bucktail is one of the oldest tying materials and is still one of the best. In fact, one of the greatest saltwater flies, the clouser, is tied almost exclusively using bucktail. The material naturally splays in the water and gives excellent movement when worked through the water. Bucktail is even used by spin fishermen to jigs for cobia and other offshore species.
- Rabbit strip – Last but not least is rabbit strips. No other material gives quite as much natural motion in the water as rabbit fur. Rabbit strips can be used as a tail or can be palmered around the hook to create a body or a head. It is a very versatile material that is incredibly durable. It is made from strips of the rabbit skin that still have the fur intact. The skin allows the material to be tough and withstand multiple fish hookups. Some of the best tarpon flies are made using the rabbit strip.
Fly-tyers are great at thinking outside of the box to create better and more realistic flies. It is no wonder that turkey feathers are part of that progression. While you can tie flies with turkey feathers, they are not the most practical or easy-to-use feather. Oftentimes a quality neck or saddle hackle will be a better fit or possibly even a different material. As more materials are tested, we are seeing a move away from traditional materials to easier-to-use items. When putting together your fly-tying arsenal it is a good idea to have a multitude of materials on hand for different applications.