Slickwater Quill-Body Flies

Pale Morning Dun. Photo: Ted Fauceglia

Quill-body flies effectively imitate segmented insect abdomens, but they are a bear to tie with traditional quill-body materials like biots and stripped hackles or herls. Many of those materials break easily; hackle stems have to be soaked prior to use; and biots are too short and hard to handle. In addition, many anglers feel that flies tied with those materials lack buoyancy on the water.

When matching naturals such as Pale Morning Duns, a segmented fly tied with porcupine can fool discriminating trout on smooth, clear water. Photo: David J. Siegfried

Rob McLean, a North Platte River fly-fishing guide and professional fly tier, knows that finicky trout prefer the segmented realism of quill-body flies, but he's never been satisfied with the qualities of the traditional materials. He believes he's found a better natural fiber for quill bodies: porcupine guard hairs. These guard hairs, McLean says, more accurately imitate the smooth, segmented body of a mayfly. They are more durable while you handle them at the vise, and they are more buoyant.

McLean discovered the effectiveness of porcupine guard hairs while experimenting with porcupine quills, which he was trying for grasshopper legs. After he plucked the quills from the hide, he studied a few guard hairs. They had excellent strength, and to his delight, when he ran his thumbnail down the hair, the fiber flattened, suggesting a degree of hollowness. McLean knew he'd found a material that could enhance the buoyancy of a dry fly, yet maintain both realism and esthetics in the pattern.

If you study a fly tied with wrapped porcupine hair, you will immediately notice the imitative quality of the material — so will demanding trout. The material's sheen suggests the chitinous plates (protective exoskeleton) of an insect's abdomen. (You can decrease this buggy sheen by ribbing the abdomen with monofilament.) In addition to dry flies, larval and nymph patterns benefit from the effect of this segmentation.

McLean's early attempts at dyeing the porcupine hair resulted in a brittle fiber no more durable than hackle stems. Trial and error led to a technique that renders the dyed fibers pliant yet strong. During his experimentation, McLean also noticed that hackle stems absorb dye more than two times faster than porcupine guard hairs, suggesting that hackle stems soak up more water, and therefore sink faster, than porcupine.

While the fiber is difficult to break with a straight pull and it rarely breaks while wrapping, it is easily cut by trout teeth or hemostats. To make the flies more durable, apply a drop of head cement when you tie in the hair and again when you tie off.

The tapered fibers allow you to tie flies ranging in sizes from #10 down to the smallest midge, even a #26! The commercial hair is packaged in large and small diameters. Surprisingly, even at its smallest diameter, the hair is extremely durable.

McLean offers two tying tips for using porcupine guard hair. First, when tying off the hair after you form the abdomen, make several loose, gathering wraps with the thread before you increase the tension. Small-diameter thread can cut the hair fiber if the initial wraps deliver too much force. Second, the natural taper of the hair can yield a tapered effect to the abdomen, but you can get better proportions if you taper the thread base.

Quill-body flies tied with porcupine hair are effective on the Pale Morning Dun (PMD) hatches of Yellowstone Park, the Trico spinner falls on Wyoming's North Platte River, the challenging Baetis hatches of New Mexico's San Juan River, and a host of other hatch situations. McLean dyes the hair in 12 colors and markets the product as McLean's Quill Body. A packet of 25 quills costs $3.85. He also processes porcupine hair for Umpqua Feather Merchants and Rocky Mountain Dubbing.

For more information on the materials mentioned in this article and his Slickwater quill-body fly series, contact Rob McLean, Freestone Flies — Materials and Guide Service, 214 Los Altos Drive, Rawlins, WY 82301, (307) 324-2014. You can order his supplies at

More Tying Tips

McLean dubs the thorax of his flies with McLean's Velveteen Natural Dry Fly Dubbing, a short-napped rabbit underfur without the longer, coarser guard hairs. The velvet-like fur is water resistant and fine for tying extremely small flies.

The tail material for the fly in the tying sequence is marketed by McLean in five colors under the name Super Tail. The material is the most select of porcupine hair. There are no kinks throughout the fiber and only the very tip has black coloration, enabling effective dyeing. When the stiff fibers become slightly bent, straighten them with gentle finger pressure.

Fly patterns are more durable if lacquered after every step. Many salmon and steelhead fly tiers use Sally Hansen's Hard as Nails as their lacquer of choice. Thin the product with acetone to gain better penetration, and do not glob the thinned liquid onto the fly. McLean uses a surgical artery clamp for hackle pliers. Both hackles and the porcupine guard hair are handled easily with this tool.

Stephen Hays is a freelance writer and dentist. He lives in Rawlins, Wyoming.

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