Working with a good piece of deer or elk hair is one of my favorite simple pleasures. A great piece of hair inspires me with the potential for beautiful flies, clean upright or downwings, and wonderful floatability, but many tiers dread the very thought of mounting hair wings, and are forever cursed to fish flies tied with cut-to-length synthetic wings that aren't nearly as pretty or practical.
It seems most beginning tiers (as well as many of the more seasoned yet stubborn varieties) just don't understand the basic idea behind anchoring a clump of hair in place, but it's really a simple process when broken down and practiced a bit. Most people have no problem standing the wing up, splitting the hair, and finishing the fly with hackle. The problems with a bad hair wing are often at the very root of the fly, when the hair is first mounted to the hook.
Here are my top tips to ease the process of mounting an elk-hair wing, along with a few general handling tips that can be helpful even to more experienced tiers. Many of these same tips can be applied to mounting hair of any type as both wings and tails. Don't be that guy who fears the hair anymore; use it and you'll learn to love it.
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Preparing The Hair Step 1 of 4
Grasp the fibers as close to the tips as possible and remove the underfur and short hairs from the clump.
Preparing The Hair Step 2 of 4
Using a hair stacker adds an extra step, but it also helps make flies more beautiful and consistent.
Preparing The Hair Step 3 of 4
When you pass the hair from one hand to the other, use your fingertips like a clamp, and do not allow the hairs to shift or slide from their neatly stacked alignment.
Preparing The Hair Step 4 of 4
Do not set the wing at an angle, keep the hair parallel to the hook shank.
The Key First Wraps Step 1 of 4
After slightly twisting the thread, hold the hair firmly in place with the measured point exactly in line with the hanging thread, and your fingertips right on that point. Lift the thread up along the near side of the hair with just enough tension to keep the thread in a straight line.
The Key First Wraps Step 2 of 4
Maintaining the same tension, bring the thread over the top of the wing and down over the far side without disrupting the position of the hair. Make the second wrap immediately behind the first turn, touching the back edges of the first wrap. Hold the hair firmly in place with your material hand during this entire process.
The Key First Wraps Step 3 of 4
With two turns of thread around the base of the hair, draw the bobbin firmly toward you to tighten the thread wraps. The wraps will encircle and compress the hair, while your material hand keeps the hair in position. These first two wraps need to be drawn down as tightly as possible, so use tension just short of the breaking strength of the thread.
The Key First Wraps Step 4 of 4
Without letting go of the hair in your material hand, make several tight, abutting wraps of thread, forming a narrow band to secure the hair. This band of thread should travel toward your fingertips. Never try to wrap forward over the loose ends of the hair; always wrap toward your support hand. You should now have a nicely stacked bunch of hair tied to the top of the hook shank, awaiting the rest of the winging process.
Clean the Hair
This is something most new tiers just have not mastered. If you don't clean the hair properly, you create for yourself an endless list of problems. The good news is that cleaning the shorter hairs and underfur from a clump requires only a little bit of thinking and even less labor.
After you've cut the clump from the hide, (as close to the skin as you can to maximize the working length) hold the hair as close to the tips as you can manage. This prevents you from holding onto the underfur and the shorter hairs you are trying to remove.
Roll the tips slightly in your fingers to fan the clump, and starting just below your fingertips, work down toward the base of the hair with a comb or even just the fingers of your other hand. Hold firmly onto the tips of the hair while you pull out all the underfur and shorter hairs from the clump.
Underfur makes the hair harder to stack and soaks up water, making the fly less buoyant, and any shorter-than-average hairs also tend to be finer and wispier than the main clump. What you want is a clump of hair that is all about the same length, and just as importantly, all about the same diameter and consistency.
Use a Stacker
There are a lot of tiers out there who say a good clump of hair comes off the hide with the tips fairly even to begin with, and you don't need to use a stacker. Those guys are wrong and will never be great tiers.
Stacking the hair evens the tips into a beautiful clean edge, and aligns the hairs evenly so you can work with a consistent bunch that are all the same length and, given proper cleaning, the same diameter. This step assures that all the hair in your clump is tied in at about the same spot along their lengths and will flare at the same rate. It's about consistency as much as beauty.
Here's another tip: Don't decide on the quantity of hair you'll actually use in the fly until you've cleaned and stacked the hair. Once you have removed the underfur and short hairs and run the clump through your stacker, you'll have a much better idea of exactly how much usable hair you have.
The precise amount of hair you use varies with the size of the fly and the pattern you are tying, as well as the hardness of the hair, but my point is to gauge the amount after you have the hair cleaned and stacked so you're selecting from an entirely usable clump, rather than starting with what seems like the right amount from the hide, and then thinning it down considerably during the cleaning process.
Trial and error is your best friend until you've tied a bunch of flies and gained your own experience. Some big-shot-magazine-article-writing-fly-tier-guy could tell you that a #14 Elk-hair Caddis should have 137 hairs in the wing, but really, what good is that going to do you?
Often, after stacking, you may need to switch the hair from one hand to another to direct the tips to either the front or rear of the hook shank for the wings or the tail. The trick to keeping the hair neatly aligned during the switch is to simply open and close your fingers on the hair as you pass it carefully from one hand to the other. Don't let your fingertips slide back and forth or shift at all.
Think of your fingers as a clamp, and all they're going to do is grasp the hair, not shift it or slide it or otherwise disturb the alignment. Or you can also just think ahead a bit and take the hair out of the stacker so it's going the right direction in the first place.
Build a Base
Always wrap a thin, smooth layer of thread as a base for your wing to give the hook some texture and "grab." Tying hard hair to a slick metal hook shank is a recipe for frustration, so always start with a thread base. Leave the thread hanging at the exact point on this base at which you want to initially anchor the front of the wing.
Control the Angle
In most cases, you should begin mounting the hair so it is lying as close to parallel to the hook shank as you can manage. Of course there are instances where you will stand the tips up and form them into upright wings, or flare the hair in place for a downwing, but in all instances, think of initially mounting the hair so it lies parallel with the hook shank, and don't let the idea of the finished angle creep into your thoughts.
During your initial grasp of the hair, position the clump toward the edges of your fingertips so you can place the hair flush against the shank. The thread tension and wraps will determine the flare and angle afterward, but the actual mounting should always be parallel.
The First Wraps
With very few exceptions, all hair wings are mounted in the same basic way. The hair must lie as parallel to the hook shank as possible, the thread should be slightly twisted into a cord, and must hang from the hook exactly in place with where you want to anchor the hair.
Thread that has been twisted becomes narrower, allowing the thread to bite into the hair better, cinching it down tighter. Twisted thread also has a bit more "tread" or texture to it, making it less likely to slip and slide.
Once you've got the hair mounted correctly with those important first wraps, the rest of the process — raising and splitting the hair and adding hackle — is a fairly simple, straightforward process. Using hair shouldn't be a misery. Once you've practiced and perfected the process, you'll learn to love it.
Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie's Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado, and is the author of Charlie's Fly Box (Stackpole Books, 2011). He is also the featured tier in the iPhone app FlyBench, available in the iTunes store.