Working with a good piece of deer or elk hair is one of my favorite simple pleasures. A great piece of hair inspires me with the potential for beautiful flies, clean upright or down wings and wonderful floatability, but many tyers dread the very thought and are cursed to fish flies tied only with cut-to-length synthetics that just aren’t nearly as pretty or practical. It seems most beginning tyers (as well as many of the more seasoned yet stubborn varieties) just don’t understand the basic idea behind anchoring a clump of hair in place, but it’s really a simple process when broken down and practiced a bit. The following are my top tips to ease the process of mounting an elk hair wing along with a few general handling tips that can be of great use even to more experienced tyers. Many of these same tips can be applied to mounting hair of any type in a wing or tail application. Don’t be that guy that fears the hair anymore, read on and let’s work through it…
Clean it out!
Caption: Note the dubbing-like underfur and shorter, wispy hairs that have been removed from the main clump.
This is something most new tyers just have not mastered. Cleaning the short hairs and underfur from a clump of hair requires a little bit of thinking and even less labor. After you’ve cut the clump from the hide, (as close to the skin as you can to maximize the working length) hold the hair as close to the tips as you can manage. This will prevent you from holding onto the underfur and short hairs you are trying to remove from the clump. Roll the tips slightly in your fingers to fan the clump out just a bit and starting just below your fingertips, work down toward the base of the hair with a comb or even just the fingers of your other hand. Hold firmly onto the tips of the hair while you pull out ALL of the dense underfur and short hairs from the clump. Underfur will make the hair harder to stack and soaks up water, making the fly less buoyant and any shorter than average hairs also tend to be finer and wispier than the main clump. What we want when we are done is a clump of hair that is all about the same length, and just as importantly, a clump of hairs that are all about the same diameter and consistency.
How much hair to use?
The amount of hair needed is best determined after you have cleaned and stacked the hair. Once you have removed the underfur and short hairs and run the clump through your stacker you’ll have a much better idea of exactly how much useable hair you have left. The precise amount will vary with the size of the fly and the pattern you are tying, as well as the hardness of the hair, but my point is to gauge the amount after you have the hair cleaned and stacked so you’re selecting from an entirely useable clump rather than starting with what seems like the right amount from the hide and thinning it down considerably during the thinning process. Trial and error is your best friend until you’ve done this a few times. Some big-shot-magazine-article-writing-fly-tyer-guy could tell you that a size fourteen Elk Hair Caddis should have 137 hairs in the wing, but really, what good is that going to do you?
Use a hair stacker!
I know there are a lot of good tyers out there who do not advocate for using a hair stacker reasoning that a good clump of hair comes off the hide with the tips pretty even to begin with, but those guys will just never be great tyers. Stacking the hair not only evens the tips of the hair into a beautiful clean edge, it also aligns the hairs evenly so you are now working with a consistent bunch of hairs that are of all the same length and, given proper cleaning, diameter. This step will help assure that all the hair in your clump is tied in at about the same spot along their lengths and will flare at the same rate. It’s about consistency as much as beauty.
Often, even with the best of intentions, you may end up needing to switch the hair from one hand to another to direct the tips to either the front or rear of the hook shank after stacking. The trick to keeping the hair neatly aligned during this switch is to simply open and close your fingers on the hair as you pass it carefully from one hand to the other. Don’t let your fingertips slide back and forth or shift at all. Think of your fingers as a clamp and all they’re going to do is grasp the hair, not shift it or slide it or otherwise disturb the alignment. Or you can also just think ahead a bit and take the hair out of the stacker so it’s going the right direction in the first place.
Use a thread base.
Always wrap a thin, smooth layer of thread as a base for your wing to give the hook some texture and “grab”. Tying hard hair to a slick metal hook shank is a recipe for frustration, so always start with a thread base. Leave the thread hanging at the exact point on this base at which you want to initially anchor the front of the wing.
Pay attention to your grip!
Do NOT set the wing in at an angle, keep it parallel.
Think about how and where you are going to mount the hair on the hook before you grasp the clump. In most cases, you’ll want to begin mounting the hair so it is lying as close to parallel to the hook shank as you can manage. I can’t think of a single instance where this is not true. Yes, of course there are instances where you will stand the tips up and form them into upright wings, or flare the hair in place for a down wing style fly, but in all instances, think of initially mounting the hair so it lies parallel with the shank of the hook and don’t let the idea of the finished angle creep into your thoughts. To that end, position your initial grasp of the hair toward the edges of your fingertips so you can place the hair flush against the hook shank. The thread tension and wraps will determine the flare and angle from there, but the actual mounting should always be parallel. Also, keep this parallel line in mind when measuring the hair for the wing. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points so take steps to make sure your measurements are based on one.
Pay attention to the amount of inherent twist in your thread right before mounting a hair wing. I generally like to spin my bobbin to cord my thread up a bit immediately before making the first wraps around the base of a clump of hair. Thread that has been twisted becomes narrower and slightly harder allowing the thread to bite into the hair better, cinching it down tighter. Twisted thread also has a bit more “tread” or texture to it, making it less likely to slip and slide.
The First Wraps; don’t let go!
With very few exceptions, all hair wings are mounted in the same basic way. The hair must lie as parallel to the hook shank as possible, the thread should be slightly twisted into a cord to provide bite and traction, and must be hanging on the hook exactly in place with where you want to anchor the hair. Most tyers go awry on these first couple wraps so I’ll try to explain the process here as best I can. What ought to happen is the hair should be held firmly in place with the measured point exactly in line with the hanging thread and your fingertips firmly butted right up to that point. The thread should then come up along the near side of the hair clump with a very small amount of tension on it. Think of this as not so slack as to allow the twist in the thread to double up and buckle the thread but 5% more tension than that.
With that same amount of tension, the thread should now come over the top of the wing and quickly down over the far side without disrupting the position of the hair! If you stop and think about it you have just made the letter U with your thread…it started on the near side and it is now on the far side of the wing but has yet to completely encircle the hair. Now you can bring the thread to the near side of the hook and draw it just tight enough to just begin to crease the hair under the wrap.
Halfway through the second turn of thread.
Make the second wrap in the same manner as the first, again, with very little tension so as not to push the hair over the hook shank. This second turn will be placed immediately behind the first turn, touching the back edges of the first wrap and fitting neatly in place in the slightly creased hair. Bring the thread all the way around under the hook to the near side so the thread is pointing directly at you and the bobbin is at a right angle to the thread. Hold the hair firmly in place with your material hand both now and during this entire process.
Note the placement and position of the bobbin as tension is applied to the thread.
Draw the bobbin firmly toward you to tighten thread wraps around the base of the hair, again, while holding the hair firmly in position with your material hand. With two turns of thread around the base of the hair, the wraps will encircle the bunch and start to compress the hair while your material hand keeps the bunch anchored and positioned. These first two wraps need to be drawn down as tightly as possible, so watch the loose ends of the hair (in this case, the tips) as you tighten the thread as they flare and compress under the thread tension. Obviously, you want to be just short of the breaking strength of the thread here, but as close to it as you can get.
Now, without letting go of the hair in your material hand, make several tight, abutting wraps of thread forming a band to secure the hair in place. This band of thread should travel toward the bend of the hook toward your fingertips that are grasping the hair. Never should you try to wrap forward over the loose ends of the hair, be they butts or tips, lest you allow the thread torque to twist them around the shank and out of whack…always wrap toward your support hand! The first two turns compress the hair and establish a tie in point on the top of the hook, but this tight band of thread is what will keep the wing anchored in place and allow you to do what you will with the rest of the winging process. The band of thread should be at least a hook eye length long and should be of equal tightness to the first two wraps. You should now have a nicely stacked bunch of hair tied to the top of the hook shank and readily awaiting the rest of the winging process.