When you spend years working in a fly shop, you become callous to the many items that surround you. I believe it’s an acquired defense mechanism that stops you from going broke by purchasing everything you see—sort of like my teenage summer job in a bagel shop, which prohibited me from eating cinnamon raisin bagels for the following decade. For a fly tier, this is especially true of the tying department, where we actually have an entire wall dedicated to chenille, enough dubbing to stuff a mattress, and too many dyed animal parts to count.
Most days, my eyes glaze over as I stare at the psychedelic array of colored materials covering our walls. But there are moments when just the right levels of nicotine and caffeine combine in my brain to provide clarity. It was one of these moments—after I suddenly took notice of the array of colored deer tails hanging from pegs—which gave me the idea for my bucktail-body dry flies.
I have always loved the look and fish-catching ability of quill-bodied dry flies. But taking pencil erasers to peacock herl, stripping feather fibers to procure poorly dyed hackle stems, or soaking various types of manufactured quills to make them pliable, have all diminished my desire to tie these flies. These body materials often produce brittle flies that can unravel when they are exposed to a large trout’s sharp teeth. They also limit color options by forcing tiers to create bodies with solid colors. Few things in nature, including aquatic insects, are monotone in color.
In Charlie Meck’s book The Hatches Made Simple, he eloquently describes the color of E. invaria sulphurs as “usually pale yellow with an orange (and sometimes olive-orange) cast.” Charlie was tying the flies in his book with dubbing, so various dubbing colors could be mixed to achieve his recommended body colors. But if you prefer quill-bodied flies, how are you supposed to imitate Sulphurs with a dyed hackle stem or the prepackaged sulphur Quill Body that most shops sell? You can’t do it with any single quill-body material. But you can do by combining various colors of bucktail and thread to create a body.
Bucktails can be found in seemingly endless color options in most fly shops. And once you purchase one, you have a near-lifetime supply of quill-body material in that color. Each fly takes only a couple fibers from the tail, and there’s a lot of hair on a buck’s back end.
The length of a standard bucktail fiber may become problematic when you tie flies size 10 and larger, but you can always purchase oversize saltwater bucktails for big drys. And the necessary bucktail fiber length is somewhat reduced by using dubbing for the thorax of the fly. Dubbing adds bulk to the thorax, and contributes to the overall body taper, which is important for imitating the proper form of most aquatic insects. The dubbing also helps a dry fly or emerger appear more refined by covering the butts of wings, whether they’re hair, hackle, or a synthetic material.
I hate using glues of any kind when tying dry flies. I’ve long believed glue to be little more than a crutch to help keep poorly tied drys from falling apart. But tiers often coat quill-bodied dry flies with head cement to keep their bodies from unraveling.
There is another way to ensure that the first trout to eat your fly doesn’t shred it. I twist my tying thread around the bucktail, forming a rope with the combined materials to keep the body together, and then wrap the rope around the shank to create the body.
Fly tiers have been using thread in conjunction with brittle peacock herl this way for a long time. When you wrap this rope on the hook, it lashesall the fibers many times along the shank. That way even if one bucktail fiber breaks, the rest is held in place by the preceding and following thread wraps. If a bucktail fiber breaks and protrudes from the body, you simply clip it off with your nippers and continue fishing.
There is another advantage to using your thread this way. You can choose a thread color that adds another shade to the body’s color. For instance, if I were tying the Sulphur that Charlie described in his book, I would take four pale yellow bucktail fibers mixed with two orange fibers, and twist them with light olive thread. Then there are elements of all the possible shades within the fly.
Aquatic insect colors vary from stream to stream, so the best course is to sample insects from your streams and then create the bucktail and thread combinations to match them.
You can incorporate bucktail bodies into any fly pattern, including caddis and stonefly drys. I also use them for tying nymphs and wet flies, often twisting strands of Krystal Flash with the hair and thread to add a little brilliance to the body.
When you use bucktail bodies in subsurface flies, the hair quickly absorbs water and helps the flies sink. But when they are tied as dry flies, they also absorb liquid or gel floatants, ensuring that the flies don’t sink. A quick dusting of dry desiccant after catching a fish revitalizes the flies and quickly has them riding the surface again.
Perhaps the truest test of the bucktail bodied fly’s effectiveness came during FUDR’s (Friends of the Upper Delaware River) annual One Bug fundraising tournament a few years ago. My partner, Andy Tumalo, and I each used my Hendrickson Snowshoe and Bucktail emergers. In the One Bug, you are limited to one fly per day, so if your fly falls apart, you’re done. But our flies remained intact, even after they caught the two 21-inch brown trout that won the competition for us.
If the Delaware’s famously selective wild brown trout eat bucktail dry flies on the river’s flat pools, they’ll work on your home waters too. Bucktail-bodied flies will be found in my boxes wherever I fish, even if there isn’t a clear Lucite trophy on the line.