Long, long ago when I was learning to tie flies as a young fella back in Aberdeen I fell under the enchantment of the traditional salmon fly’s siren call. So I spent time and treasure on creating some of those gems from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, along the way learning how to make built wings, tie veilings and all the other oddities deemed so essential by our forefathers. Those Jock Scotts, Childers, Durham Rangers and such like have all gone now, lost or given away. What remains in my fly tying cabinet are boxes of big japanned irons and a few exotic feathers. The hooks I will never use but the feathers might just have a new lease of life. I don’t have a huge collection of exotic feathers and the ones I do have were mainly either gifted by old flytyers or turned up in second hand lots I had bought. I used most of them and there are only a few odd ones left, sad reminders of the days when I could tie just about anything with ease.
Blue and Yellow macaw tail feathers were used widely by the Victorian tyers. Fibres were tied on either side of the wings to make what were called ‘horns’. I would take an awful lot of convincing that they make one iota of difference to the performance of the flies! I have a pair of those brilliant blue and yellow feathers and after examining them closely the other day I decided they might be used for a trout fly, but in a totally different way. Taking just one of those bright blue and yellow fibres I wound a simple body of spider in a size 16 hook. A single turn of the body feather from a dead thrush which I found on a river bank made a complimentary hackle, the whole being held together with Pearsalls gossamer silk, shade number 4. It looks as if it should work when the Blue Winged Olives hatch out on the Robe next season.
From there I moved on to something less colourful. I have dozens of turkey feathers in all shades from whites to bronze. Long before the gaudy patterns of the Victorians came into fashion turkey feathers were the preferred winging feather on salmon flies. They fell out of favour a long time ago when brightly coloured feathers started to be imported for the millinery trade. This does not mean they do not have their uses though and I find turkey makes a lovely wing on murroughs. Just substitute any mallard or pheasant with turkey and you have a variation that will catch a few trout of a summer evening. I have put some of these feathers aside for experimenting when I do some dying this winter. Turkey dyed fiery brown might make a nice wing.
Many, many years ago I was gifted a battered cardboard box which belonged to a deceased Scottish angler. Inside was a treasure trove of small fishing items (devon minnows, ball-bearing swivels, small wooden plugs, wire traces etc) and some fly tying feathers. A dilapidated brown paper bag held a surprise, the head of an Indian crow! Over the years I have used many of the feathers both when making traditional salmon flies and on modern patterns. The poor auld crow must have died a century or more ago and the feathers are faded but I used them up by adding them to a topping tail on some flies. I like to think the old fella who passed away would have appreciated my nod to tradition. All the good feathers are almost gone now and I am left with the impressive beak and the blank, eyeless sockets of the orangy-red skull.
A couple of partly used Florican Bustard feathers were also in that same box. Incredibly rare and expensive now, these feathers came from the huge birds of the Russian steppe or the deserts of India. Shot almost to extinction, these are now protected birds so the feathers are very hard to source. I have toyed with using these rare feathers but for now they remain in the same condition that they were when I inherited they all those years ago.
Then there are two pairs of impressive peacock wing feathers which I bought at the height of my ‘fully dressed salmon fly’ phase. Beautifully marked, I can use them when making amazing wings on large murroughs.
A small cellophane packet contains a couple of Kingfisher feathers which were in another haul of second hand tackle I bought years ago. Killing those pretty birds for the sole purpose of making flies was a crime but I guess things were viewed very differently back in the days of empire. These are delicate blue feathers but to be honest a dyed substitute would be brighter and better. I might tie up a Sweep, just for old times sake. As a kid I tied flies for one of the local tackle shops and a popular pattern on the Dee back then was the Sweep. Even in the early seventies the kingfisher feathers used as cheeks in the original dressing were unobtainable, so blue dyed hackle tips were substituted. I must have tied hundreds of those flies! I recall how difficult it was to tie in the wings made from slips of crow so they sat just right and my joy when I was told to change from crow to dyed squirrel hair as that style was catching more salmon. Come to think of it I still have a few pairs of crow wings to use up too!
Of course there is Jungle Cock but virtually all of the useable feathers have been used over the years to make shrimp flies. What is left are the tiniest ones and the biggest ones. The small feathers find use as cheeks on lough flies, fiddly little lads that leave me wondering if they were worth the trouble to tie in at all. I make a variation of the Alexandra which works very well but tying in the four small jungle cock feathers makes it a pain in the backside! The big ones I split and even trim so I get some use out of them. I have started adding them as an underwing on some flies and am happy with how they look, especially under teal or widgeon.
Of course there are lots of packets of less exotic feathers in my collection too. Dyed swan and goose for example, in all sorts of colours were feathers I never seemed to have enough of. I was forever buying more of them to replace the ones I used making those wonderful built wings. Over the intervening years this cache has slowly dwindling as I also like the vibrancy of the bright colours on some of my trout flies. The red gets used up making the tails on Butchers and the Alexandra and I make a Wickhams Fancy for sea trout fishing which features wings made from dyed blue swan. White makes Coachman wings obviously while I make an under wing for a Raymond from married strips of yellow, orange and green goose. I know this is very old fashioned but I like using wings made from swan or goose, they make such pretty flies.