The days are stretching and you can feel the new season approaching. The gaps in my fly boxes are proving to be painfully slow to fill but as I tie more flies some niggling questions need answered. Do we really need to tie such complex patterns for a start. Is it vital to add tags, flash, cheeks and legs for example.
Legs, now here is a subject to get fly tyers all riled up! I am old enough to remember when the only patterns to feature legs were daddies. For obvious reasons these were essential when making dry or wet versions to be good copies of the spindly-legged naturals but when exactly the idea of adding knotted fibre legs to any other flies is not known to me. Perhaps they just crept into a lot of flies. I first noticed them when the Gorgeous George and some hopper patterns came on the scene but now they are everywhere and I add them to some of my flies just like everyone else. So, do they make any difference to a fly, that is the question! I am going to pitch myself firmly astride the fence on this one, I think legs are a good addition to some flies but add nothing to others. Let’s take a look at them in detail.
We will begin by how to make your own legs. This is easy, just tie one or two overhand knots in the single fibres cut from a central tail feather of a cock pheasant. Cut off a fibre and hold the tip of it between your thumb and fore finger. Now form a loop and pinch it to hold it open. Use your other hand to move the thick end of the fibre under the loop then taking a needle or something similar tease the the thick end through the loop. Now pull the loop tight while sliding the knot into the position you want. This is one of those tasks that is easier to do than to explain. It is a little bit fiddly to start with but once you have done it a few times it becomes second nature. If your dexterity or eyesight mean you can’t make your own legs then simply buy pre-knotted pheasant tail feathers, Veniard do good ones. By far the most common legs in use are made with natural, undyed feathers but you can dye your own or even buy dyed bleached feathers so a whole ranges of different coloured legs are available to you. A word of caution, in my experience the bleached versions of dyed pheasant feathers have thin and brittle fibres which need to be handled very carefully. Common convention is that legs with a single knot in them are called ‘hopper’ legs while those with two knots are called ‘daddy’ legs. There is also the option to use two (or even more) fibres and knot them together making much thicker and sturdier legs for bigger flies. If this all sounds too much be assured that some natural fibres, knotted once, will cover you for 90% of the time.
I have tried using other materials for making legs but none of them are anything like as good as pheasant. Most are too soft and lack the good shape I look for. By all means, try some alternative feathers for yourself but I will be sticking with good old PT. In my kit I have a couple of Heron flight feathers that I picked up along the river bank many years ago and I keep meaning to try them for making legs (but have not got around to it yet).
Tying in these legs is simple, line up the tips and tie them in with a soft loop then tighten the silk. I tie in three or four legs on the near side of the hook first then tie in the same number on the far side of the hook. Cut off the waste ends and tidy up with a couple of wraps of tying silk. Length can vary a bit but if you aim to have the knot in the legs in line with the bend of the hook you won’t go far wrong. Legs are supposed to be untidy so don’t get too stressed if some legs are longer than others or the knots don’t all line up perfectly.
It is my personal view that legs are useful additions to imitative patterns such as daddies and hoppers but probably add less to other flies. We tyers like to add them because they look nice but I doubt if the trout are all that fussed it they are there or not. The pheasant fibres are weak and easily broken. I’ve seen flies which sported legs at the beginning of the day being chewed to the point where virtually no legs were left but still caught fish.
I tend to add legs when I think the fly needs a bit of a lift, something’extra’. Adding some red legs to a Bibio for example can look good and the fly is then even more suggestive of the redlegs natural. Hoppers, hogs and half-hogs benefit from legs too in my book. Mayfly patterns are also fair game I think, the legs on the natural are an obvious feature so maybe out imitations do benefit from adding some fake ones. Sticking some legs on dabbler patterns seems to be a waste of time to me. I’m also unconvinced that legs on Peters, Murroughs, Raymonds and such like lough patterns are any use either. These flies are already packed with fish attracting features so a few strands of knotted herl are not going to bring much to the party for me.
Having said all that I still tie in legs on flies when the feeling takes me. I make up legs in batches so there is none of the tedious knotting of fibres when I’m in the full flow of actually making flies. I’ll admit I hate taking a break to knot some fibres before tying them in, it upsets any rhythm I might have, slowing me down considerably. Others who have watched me making flies usually comment on the speed I knock them out. I suppose my time making flies on a semi-commercial basis taught me how to tie efficiently and not waste time or materials. Grabbing 6 pre-knotted legs out of a packet and whipping them in takes far less time than making the knots as you go along.
There are a huge amount of synthetic imitation leg materials available these days. As you have gathered from previous posts here, I am not a huge fan of synthetics for trout and salmon flies so I don’t use them too often. On the plus side they are generally hard wearing and easy to work with. Against them is their artificiality, they just don’t look natural to me.
In summary then, it’s my opinion that adding a few legs to some lough flies does add to their attractiveness but there is no need to go mad and stick them on every fly you tie. At the end of the day it is up to each individual tyer if they want to add legs or not.