It is often assumed that I, as a fly shop owner and all around big shot fly tyer guy, get preferential treatment by suppliers and receive only the highest grade materials for my personal use, but the reality of the situation is, in most instances, I buy my materials straight off the wall from my shop from the same suppliers nearly everyone else uses. The difference is I’ve always been a pretty detail oriented guy. That’s a polite way of putting it and as a fly tyer it’s a fairly handy affliction. Over the years I have come to learn that properly preparing materials ahead of time to suit their use goes a long way toward more beautiful and durable flies. As I’ve said many times before, the devil is in the details and I’m about to clue you all in to a few little details that will make for easier, happier tying.
All flies are made up of the sum of their parts and it doesn’t take many years of tying to figure out that material selection and preparation are key to producing good flies. I’m often asked what I am looking for when sorting through patches of hair or dry fly capes and many other materials, and I have written fairly extensively about those topics, but I find that proper preparation and selection shouldn’t end with the more glorified or expensive materials but indeed should extend to all natural materials.
A great case and point here is common marabou. One of the most popular tying materials, marabou feathers now typically come from domestic turkeys, and are the soft, downy feathers along the bottom of the bird. These feathers come in two basic types that can be referred to as the Stiff Stuff and the Silky Stuff. Blood quill marabou, the Stiff Stuff, really isn’t that stiff at all, but is characterized by its longer length with thinner barbs and barbules radiating from a thin center stem. Blood quill marabou is the most common type of marabou and is useful for a bunch of different tying applications, particularly those involving wrapping the whole feather like hackle as the thinner stems are more easily wrapped and the slightly stiffer fibers radiate adequately from the shank when wound. The stiffer fibers of BQ marabou also hold their shape a bit better, so when tied in a stacked color tail or as a wing, this is the material I choose. Larger sized versions of blood quill marabou are often sold as Extra Select Marabou and these bigger feathers tend to have much thicker stems, particularly toward their butt ends. Standard blood quill marabou seems to do the job better for me in most instances with far less trouble.
The Silky Stuff, commonly sold as Wooly Bugger Marabou, is shorter in overall length with shorter barbs and longer barbules. WB marabou is very soft and silky and has tremendous action in the water, although that shorter barb length and inherent limpness can, in some cases, limits its use. WB marabou also has a thicker stem throughout that precludes it from being wrapped like a hackle feather. Not surprisingly, WB Marabou does make beautiful bugger tails, or tails on any sort of appropriate fly and the soft, thick barbules can be easily torn to length with a thumbnail without leaving a clipped off, right angle edge.
While most of us simply run own to the local fly shop and pick up a pack of marabou to tie our flies, a little bit of preparation and selection goes a long way once this is accomplished. The first thing I do with a new pack of marabou is open it up and pull everything out. Typically, marabou is sold “strung”, which means the butt ends of the feathers are sewn together into a neatly aligned bundle. This is to keep the feathers together during the dying process and makes for cleaner packaging. I clip the string used to sew everything together about every inch along the length of the marabou bundle to remove the tension and make the feathers separate more easily. I then pull every feather free from the binding and make stacks of whole, usable feathers; those without broken tips or scraggly fibers, and another stack of the rejects. The rejected stuff goes straight into the trash. Marabou is cheap enough to justify tossing the scrap and not fighting with anything that is subpar.
The next thing I’ll do, particularly if tying a large batch of flies, is to actually wash and dry the feathers. In the old days, marabou was processed much more thoroughly than it is now. While the suppliers used to wash, and even more importantly, fluff dry the marabou, the stuff you get nowadays is almost all air dried. What this means is the marabou is matted and clumped and is usually pretty ratty looking. This is where a little bit of preparation goes a long way. Align the butt ends of the feathers and bind them with a length of heavy copper wire then run them under hot water in the sink with few drops of liquid dish soap to saturate them. I’ll then remove the feathers and squeeze the excess water out between a few sheets of paper towel. You’ll notice that a lot of the excess dye will come out of the feathers when they are washed, and this makes for both cleaner fingers when tying as well as eliminating that pesky color bleed when fishing. Now comes the good part. Next, using my wife’s hair dryer (Sorry, Honey!) I dry the feathers with a hot but not very hot, stream of air. The blow drying process fluffs the feathers and releases the barbules from the barbs, freeing them to stand up and flow better. The washing process also adds a bit of moisture to the stems, so in the case that you are wrapping the feathers, they become more pliable as well. Finally, I remove the wire binding the butt ends and strip the fibers from the stem along their bases to prepare the feather for the upcoming batch of flies. Properly prepared marabou is nothing like its previous incarnation and is much fuller and livelier as well as easier to work with. Sorting, high grading and prepping before you sit down to tie will make for far less frustration and smoother tying.
Here we have a blood quill marabou feather on top and a Wooly Bugger marabou feather on the bottom. The blood quill has longer barbs that are slightly thinner than those of the Wooly Bugger Marabou. The Bugger marabou also has a thicker center stem, precluding it from wrapped feather applications like steelhead patterns. Both are very useful, just not always for the same applications.
Start by separating the good from the bad. Cull anything with scraggly broken fibers or uneven dye. The condition of the tip of the feather may or may not be of consequence depending on the fly you are tying.
Bundle and wash the high graded feathers under hot water with a bit of liquid dish soap. Squeeze them as dry as possible in a few paper towels. This is where the commercial process typically stops after dyeing leaving matted, flattened and crimped feathers. We can fix this.