Every year, fly tiers scour their local fly shops to find new materials. Retailers turn their shelves upside down and re-arrange to make room for all of the new goodies. Most new materials are man-made fibers like yarn, flash, dubbing, or synthetic hair.
Natural materials have been around since fly tying began, so there is rarely anything new. However, some of these old materials often create the most productive, exciting flies if used properly.
One of the most beautiful, useful natural materials is marabou. Marabou moves and breathes with life at the slightest movement or push of current and is an important ingredient in a variety of flies, from the always-deadly Woolly Bugger to mayfly nymphs and steelhead flies.
As with all natural materials, tiers should consider quality when selecting marabou. Most fly shops sell packages of strung marabou labeled Woolly Bugger Marabou, so it is only natural to think this is the right material for that fly. However, select single-plume marabou feathers have longer feather barbs with tapered tips, which I think make better looking, more effective Woolly Buggers than those made from packaged Woolly Bugger marabou. The feather barbs on Woolly Bugger marabou often create a blunt-looking tail with less movement in the water and less aesthetic appeal.
Some fly-tying instructions recommend pulling a single feather from the string and tying the whole feather to the hook shank for the tail of a Woolly Bugger. Many people do it exactly that way, even though it’s the most common way to ruin a good fly pattern. This amount of marabou makes the tie-in point bulky and is overkill on almost any size hook because it hinders the fibers from moving freely.
We use marabou in Woolly Bugger tails because of its fluid motion in the water. To get the most movement and action from the tail, use only a small pinch of marabou stripped from the stem. Stillwater master angler Denny Rickards ties his marabou tails the same way to get maximum action. The one thing that holds true in almost every fly-tying scenario is that more material is not always better.
The “whole feather” technique also inhibits movement because it includes the marabou stem in the tail, which is much stiffer than the independent marabou feather barbs. To make an effective and elegant Woolly Bugger tail, use select or blood quill marabou. Remove a pinch of the long flowing fibers found at the base of the feather stem and use those for a tail. A Woolly Bugger tail should be about the length of the hook shank.
When you use the best Woolly Bugger marabou on the quill, you are left with the wispy fibers on the top section of the feather. This portion is not good for tails because it lacks the fluffy barbules found on the feather barbs lower on the stem. It is great for large hackles on Spey flies as well as for collars on leech patterns and Woolly Buggers.
As with the tail, apply a marabou hackle collar sparingly. Tie the marabou feather in by the tip, take one or two wraps, and whip-finish. Wrapping marabou on the stem is best on larger flies, but you can also spin or flare the marabou hackle fibers—stripped from the stem—around the shank of any size hook.
The technique is much like spinning deer hair. First stroke a bundle of feather barbs with your fingers until you get the length and quantity you want, then peel fibers from the stem.
Start by pinching the marabou bundle against the closest side of the hook shank with your left thumb. The marabou tips should extend to a point near the hook point. Slowly take the thread over the top of the hook shank and catch the marabou and continue onto the other side and back around. Thread torque should distribute the marabou around the hook shank. Take several wraps of thread to hold the marabou in place, trim the fibers as close to the tie-in point as possible, and then wrap over the trimmed butts. To get the most movement from a marabou hackle collar, place a bump of chenille or dubbing right behind it so the marabou splays out. If you want to be creative, try tying in two different colors of marabou for the hackle.
Wings and Bodies
Since the soft fibers flowing from the stem of a good marabou plume are much longer than those found on most strung marabou sold for Woolly Buggers, you can use it to wrap incredibly lifelike fly bodies. For a damselfly nymph body, take three or four olive marabou fibers and hold the tips between your left thumb and index finger. Dip your right index finger into some Softex and smear a small amount between your thumb and middle finger. With your right thumb and middle finger, grab the marabou and twist and stroke it, embedding the Softex into the marabou to create a durable, flexible damselfly body with a soft free-flowing marabou tail.
You can also mix different colors of marabou like brown and olive for a more mottled, natural appearance. You can make two dozen bodies this way in 15 minutes or less. The bodies dry in about 15 minutes. I carry these flies at all times when fishing stillwaters just in case everything else fails.
Another use for marabou is to create flowing wings on streamers. The most common method is to pull the marabou from the stem and tie it in behind the hook eye with the marabou extending back to the hook bend. Use different colors and mix in Krystal Flash to create different effects or imitate specific baitfish. Steelhead patterns like Randall Kaufmann’s Signal Light use this type of marabou wing, while the Popsicle uses a marabou wing tied so it encircles the hook shank.
One of my favorite streamers for imitating baitfish is the Hare Fry. The wing is normally made from rabbit Zonker strips or squirrel strips with a body of 5-minute epoxy, but I substitute bunches of marabou and have had great success with trout and bass.
Marabou comes in a variety of colors but you can also easily dye white marabou feathers using Rit dye and warm water. Do not use boiling water because it damages the feather.
Marabou may not be the latest and greatest synthetic material, but it is indispensable on any fly tiers’ bench. When you sit down to tie a fly, consider what you want the fly to do in the water and this should help you use the correct marabou for the job, and use it correctly.
Shane Stalcup is a professional fly tier in Denver, Colorado. Visit his website at stalcupflies.com/.