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The April-May 2020: Available in both print and digital.
This Month in Fly Fisherman:
Problem Child: How to Create a Small Soft-Hackle Collar Using Coq de León Hen Hackle
By Charlie Craven
It’s no secret that I am inspired by great materials, whether it’s a beautiful piece of deer or elk hair, an exciting new dubbing blend, or a patch of feathers. Some materials just beg to be used, and it’s my job to figure out how to best use them.
When I first encountered Whiting Farms coq de León hen saddles, I was blown away by their outstanding mottling, perfect shape, huge color range, and extreme webbiness. These hen feathers share no traits with the long, stiff, glassy fibered feathers from coq de León roosters.
Coq de León hen saddles are about three or four times the size of Indian hen saddles, and the feathers themselves are much larger as well.
The longer length of the fibers makes them a lot easier to work with for the somewhat obvious uses of tails and legs on nymph patterns, but the downside to this large size and long length is I’ve always felt like I was missing out on using them on a conventionally wrapped soft-hackle collar. While the webbiness, fiber thickness, and variegation all hit the top of the list for a nice soft hackle feather, their extreme fiber length ruled them out for anything except fairly large streamer patterns.
I brewed this conundrum around in my head for a long time before I discovered a method that would allow me to use these perfect fibers in a downsized application.
As it turns out, the answer to using these longer-fibered feathers in smaller patterns was right in front of me—steelheaders have been doing it forever. Many modern steelhead flies are tied using dubbing loops loaded with long ostrich, rhea, and pheasant fibers to create a wrappable thread loop in lieu of the inherently thick and stiff center quill these larger feathers all share.
Extrapolating this idea to smaller flies—where I wanted to downsize the fiber length and collar size to match the hooks—was, I thought, an easy transference. My idea was to simply cut some of the coq de León hen fibers to the proper length, and insert them into a dubbing loop to create my own thread-centered feather, custom cut to size and density.
In practice, this process turned out to be a test of steadiness and patience, and in the end it’s just too complicated to be viable. Only when I inadvertently placed some of the cut-to-length fibers on top of a small trace of dubbing did I discover the healing powers of this adapted compound loop trick.
The dubbing fibers act as a vehicle to help transfer the tenuously married hackle fibers into the dubbing loop without allowing them to separate or fall out. The tiny amount of dubbing that ends up in the actual loop also adds density and color to the collar of the pattern without being overwhelming.
Further experimentation resulted in collars made with mixed colors, the ability to vary the length of the fibers in the same loop, and carefully selected dubbing colors and textures to add to the finished effect.
Prince Nymph Alternative
For years I have been intermittently working on a Prince Nymph substitute, something elevated from the norm with more variational capability, and this collar technique is exactly what I needed. The Problem Child is more dense than a beadhead Prince Nymph, has a more natural curved body, and the collar doesn’t just make the fly look better, it adds subtle natural movements that can make a difference between catching fish and not catching fish.
I begin this fly with a curved-shank hook, a Daiichi 1160 to be precise. This is the original Klinkhammer-style hook with a lovely black nickel finish, which adds just a bit of a tactical aspect to the finished fly.
I selected dyed turkey biots for the tail, and opposed and split them over a small, resin-coated thread hot spot. The rib is 1/100" opal Mirage Lateral scale wrapped tightly through the abdomen.
When it came to dubbing choices for the new pattern, I was overwhelmed. Something as simple as natural or dyed hare’s mask makes a beautiful body for a more subtle pattern, and when I tie the Problem Child in brighter colors I opt for Nature’s Spirit Emergence Dubbing, often toned down just a bit with a pinch of natural fur mixed in.
The thorax area proved challenging until I decided to go with double tungsten beads to add both weight and color variation. The space between the two beads makes a perfect slot to wrap the hackle fiber dubbing loop, and allows the rear bead to keep the collar spread and sloping brilliantly.
Finished with a dubbed collar and another pair of outward-sweeping turkey biots, the Problem Child presents a caddis-stonefly-attractor hybrid silhouette that has been great on a dropper and really fun to fish.
I have always loved designing flies, and great materials inspire me to make better use of them. Whiting Farms coq de León hen saddles are exquisite and really set this pattern off nicely from the crowd.
When I finally finished this fly, I knew I was going to name it after my youngest son Jonathan. He’s been, to put it mildly, a handful over his younger years, but he’s made of good stuff, solves problems in unique ways, and works harder than most adults I know. This one’s for you, son.
Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie’s Fly Box, recently moved to 7279 W. 52nd Ave in Arvada, Colorado. He is the author of two books: Charlie’s Fly Box (Stackpole Books, 2011) and Tying Nymphs: Essential Flies and Techniques for the Top Patterns (Stackpole Books/Headwater Books, 2016).
Fly Tier's Bench
Hook: #14 Daiichi 1160.
Beads: Purple and red 7/64" Umpqua Radiant Tungsten Beads.
Thread: Red 14/0 Veevus.
Tag: Thread coated with Solarez Bone Dry.
Tail: Purple Turkey Biot.
Ribbing: 1/100" Opal Mirage Lateral Scale.
Abdomen: Purple Nature’s Spirit Emergence Dubbing.
Collar: Whiting coq de León hen saddle fibers, spun in a loop using the same dubbing as the abdomen.
Horns: Purple turkey biot.
- Begin by sliding two tungsten beads up to the hook eye. Start the thread behind the beads and wrap a thread base to the bend. Create a small thread nub just beyond the hook point. Coat the nub with Solarez Bone Dry and cure it with your UV lamp.
- Tie in a pair of opposing turkey biots in front of the nub. They should be about a shank length long. Wrap over the butt ends to the bead and clip the excess. Tie in a single strand of Opal Mirage Lateral Scale and wrap back over it to the base of the biot butt ends.
- Dub a tapered abdomen from the base of the tail to just short of the back of the front bead. Don’t jam the beads tightly together with the dubbing. Spiral the tinsel forward over the abdomen and tie it off behind the bead. Clip the excess tinsel, then whip-finish the thread behind the rear bead.
- Jam the rear bead tight against the front of the abdomen and start the thread in front of it. Build up a few wraps of thread to force the rear bead back, and create a short dubbing loop between the beads.
- Now, for the fun part. Select two colors of coq de León hen feathers and prep them by stripping the fluff from the base. Separate a sparse trace of the dubbing you used for the abdomen and align it into a flattened bunch about an inch or so long. Place this clump on the edge of your desk within easy reach.
- Select the first color of coq de León and preen a clump of fibers out from the stem so the tips are even.
- Carefully hold the aligned hackle fibers right above the clump of dubbing and cut the fibers from the stem so they fall on top of the dubbing. I usually shoot for one half to three quarters of a shank length long for the fiber length. Repeat this process with the second color. Keep in mind the color farther from you will be the under-collar color, and be veiled by the color closer to you. Sometimes I make the second color fibers just a bit longer so they are staggered. Use the flat edge of your scissors to push the fibers down tightly onto the dubbing.
- Carefully pick up the dubbing/hackle fiber combo and place it between the legs of the dubbing loop. I align the cut edge close to the thread loop. The dubbing here really is only acting as a vehicle to help in the transfer, although it does add a bit of color and sparkle to the finished hackle fiber brush. Pinch the loop just below the fibers and spin the loop using a dubbing whirl. Let the twist work up between your pinched fingers to create the finished hackle fiber brush.
- Wrap the dubbing loop just as you would wrap a soft-hackle collar, complete with the folding and backward stroking of the fibers after each turn. Tie off the loop on bare thread and secure tightly in place with a couple more turns of thread behind the bead.
- Select two wide turkey biots from lower down on the feather and clip them from the stem. Tie one in on each side of the fly just behind the front bead. These biots should be just a touch longer than a half shank, and curving outward. If you tie them curving in, you’ll not only catch fewer fish but your credit score may go down as well.
- Fold the long end of the biots back on each side and capture them under a couple firm wraps of thread. This fold keeps them from pulling out later, and is a great trick to improve durability. Once they’re folded back, trim the butt ends flush to the thread wraps.
- Dub a short collar behind the front bead and slightly overlapping onto the front of the rear bead. Whip-finish the thread by letting it slide off the back edge of the front bead and sink down under the dubbing. Clip the thread. Use a dubbing brush or piece of Velcro to tease out the dubbing collar.