Fly Tying Recipe: Classic Dry Fly - Hackle Tip Wings
Here, author, fly tyer and blogger Matt Grobert is going to tie a Catskill-style dry fly with hackle-tip wings. It being October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, he’ll tie with bright pink materials, but any color can be used to produce this pattern. Both of our families have been profoundly affected by this disease and we urge you to support efforts to find a cure.
Matt starts with a Mustad 94840, a classic dry fly hook if there ever was one, in a size 12. He then loads a bobbin with a spool of fluorescent pink 70 Denier Ultra thread. Start your thread on the hook shank, leaving a full hook eye length of bare shank exposed behind the eye. Take a few wraps rearward before snipping or breaking off the tag. Leave your thread just slightly forward of the midpoint of the hook shank.
From a dry fly neck, select 2 feathers for the wings, good ones can usually be found in the upper third of the neck and out toward the edge. Pull the 2 feathers free from the skin. Snip off the lower half or so of the feathers to make them more manageable. Reorient them so their shiny sides are facing each other, with the dull or back sides of the feathers facing out. Then, align their tips. While squeezing tightly with the thumb and index finger of your left hand, pull down and strip off the lower hackle fibers with your right. Once you have a bit of stem exposed, snip off the excess butt ends. Keep stripping away fibers until the hackle tips are approximately a full hook in length. When you’re satisfied with the results, flip the hackle tips around, give their length one last check and then lay the bare stems on top of the hook shank and take 2 or 3 thread wraps forward to secure them. Your wraps should go forward precisely to the 1/3 point on the hook shank.
Pull the wings back and give the stems a little crease with your thumbnail. Wrap forward and take a few wraps immediately in front of the stems to brace the wings in an upright position. Then take a wrap or two behind them. This will essentially “save” your work up to this point. Don’t worry if some of the hackle fibers didn’t get pulled up to vertical. Simply snip them off with your tying scissors so none extend out over the hook eye. With your scissors in hand, it’s also a good idea to trim off the excess rearward-pointing stems. One single cross-wrap between the wings, followed by a few more regular wraps in front will really help to lock the wings in the correct position, like so.
Go back to your hackle neck and this time select a feather with long, straight, stiff fibers that will be used to form the tail of the fly. Pull a single feather free from the skin. Gently preen the fibers down until they’re perpendicular to the stem. Find a segment of nice, straight fibers and strip about 1/4” free. You want to try to keep the tips aligned during this process. If they get out of whack, you can correct them by aligning the butt ends. Measure to form a tail that, like the wing, is a full hook in length. In other words, from the front edge of the eye to the back edge of the bend.
Take thread wraps rearward to halfway between the hook point and the barb and secure the butt ends of the fibers to the top of the hook shank. Continue taking thread wraps rearward, right to the start of the bend. Once you’re satisfied with the length and orientation of the tail, take a few more tight thread wraps forward to absolutely lock the fibers in place. You can double-check the hook length against the tail length by using the tips of your tying scissors as calipers.
While bracing the hook, pull down on your bobbin to expose about 4-5 inches of tying thread. Sticking with the pink theme, Matt uses sow and scud dubbing in a color called “Bighorn pink”. Although not really intended for dry flies, this stuff dubs quite well and has a nice shimmer to it. A small pinch is all you need. Build a long, thin dubbing noodle on your tying thread that’s tapered at both ends. Start taking wraps so the dubbing begins right at the base of the tail and make touching wraps forward to build up a well tapered body on the fly.
Go back to your hackle neck once again and this time, select an appropriately sized feather for the fly’s hackle collar. Matt likes, to ever-so-slightly, oversize the hackle fibers on his Catskill dries. You can see here they extend just barely beyond the size 12 range on his hackle gauge. Prepare the hackle for tie-in by snipping off the lower webby part of the feather and then pulling down and stripping off about 1/4” of fibers from both sides of the stem.
Advance your tying thread to in front of the wings and, with the dull side of the feather facing forward, place the bare stem against the underside of the hook shank and make cross wraps to orient the feather perpendicular to the shank. Keep taking thread wraps rearward to pull back and bind down the excess stem. With this done, relocate your tying thread to immediately in front of the feather.
Get hold of the feather’s tip with hackle pliers and begin making slightly open wraps down the hook shank. Take a wrap that lands directly under the wings in order to navigate past them. Ideally, the dull or backside of the feather should be facing forward during this entire process. When you reach the dubbing, reverse direction and start wrapping forward, zig-zagging your way through so as not to trap fibers. Once you get to bare hook shank, pull the fibers back and take 3 or 4 tight wraps to firmly anchor the stem. If done correctly, the hackle wraps should not have disturbed the orientation of the wings. Using the very tips of your tying scissors, snip the excess hackle off close. Do a 3 or 4 turn whip finish and then snip or cut your tying thread free.
A properly proportioned Catskill dry is a thing of beauty but getting them just right can take years of practice. All of the components need to be correctly sized and placed in order to get the fly to land and ride on the water’s surface in the ideal orientation. It’s a worthy pursuit.