Fur & Feather

by Scott Sadil

I know I’m not alone when I recall exploring the possibility of harvesting a pelt or two of saddle hackle when it came time to do away with a few old laying hens – in this case the usual  Leghorns, Barred Rock, and Rhode Island Reds I kept in a coop alongside a backyard vegetable garden in La Jolla.  

Recent success in the local and Baja California surf had increased the need for the big feathers we used, sometimes extravagantly, in our Deceiver-type streamers; why not employ this ready abundance of raw material to help defer the expanding cost of tying supplies, the budget for which was already stretched thin?

The best I can say about this experiment is that it eventually led me to a peculiar and almost passable French recipe, Breast of Old Hen – which, incidentally, you probably don’t want to search for, nowadays, online.

Just saying.

Anyway, my advice today? Leave it to the pros: there’s a long and storied history to the craft of procuring tying materials from both wild and domestic animals, and I doubt very many of us want to embark upon a decades-long breeding and culling project to raise, say, peacocks that produce Kevlar-strength herl – perhaps in all shades of a sunset?  

Still, now and then there comes the opportunity to glean a mess of fur or feather from a hunter’s recent kill.  If you’re tempted, take it – as long as you’re willing to practice a few precautionary measures to ensure your windfall isn’t wasted. 

Or, that your tying station – and stash of other materials – isn’t infested with the worst kinds of ruinous bugs.

It happens. The truth is, however, simply preparing, preserving, and storing fur and feathers for fly tying is easy enough that it falls into that category of useful, hands-on jobs, like splitting firewood or baking bread, that commends itself if for no other reason than it reduces our time spent staring at a screen.  

Secondary turkey tail feathers
Secondary turkey tail feathers

The irony, of course, is that the internet offers a wealth of information about just this sort of job. Opinions vary, but the gist of the process is straightforward enough.  Or watch Mike Richardson, say, from Whitetail Fly Tieing (their spelling, not mine), in North Carolina, wash and dry some bird skins and loose feathers, and you can proceed with confidence if somebody hands you a bag of mallard flank feathers or the skin of a Hungarian partridge.

One caveat: Make sure whatever game you get is legal to possess.  Years ago, on my way before dawn to a framing job in Fairbanks Ranch, up the San Dieguito River, I spotted a juvenile Great Horned Owl lying in the middle of the road.  Perfectly intact but for an eye blown apart by what must have been a collision with, probably, another worker’s truck.  I put the bird in mine and after work called a taxidermist, who said he’d be happy to do something with it as long as I had a permit.  Permit?  I called fish and wildlife, who informed me permits weren’t available for raptors of any kind.

“But I found a dead owl on the road,” I explained.

“You cannot possess an owl, dead or alive, without a permit,” said the voice on the other end of the line.  “And permits for owls, or any other raptors, are not available.”

These days, I get my share of fur and feather from friends who hunt.  Turkey, ducks, swatches of elk.  If you do it right, you can end up with a lifetime’s worth of any one material – with enough left over to give as gifts to your fly-tying friends.

If you’ve got any old hens, on the other hand, that have stopped laying, please call someone else.

Gray’s Angling editor Scott Sadil has been waiting for years for someone to pass him a couple of moorhen wings so he can tie a lineup of genuine Waterhen Bloas.