John Betts of Denver has been a pioneer in adapting
synthetic materials to fly tying. One of his outstanding contributions is
his discovery of White Sable artist brush fibers. This material is a
synthetic made in Japan and widely used in artists' brushes. Tapered
at one end, it is flexible, tough and possibly the finest dry fly tail
material ever. Betts markets this material under the name of Microfibetts.
He has also found many uses for polyethylene film, the sheet plastic
from which Ziploc bags are made.
For years I used sections of turkey quills
for nymph wing case but was always disappointed in their lack of
durability. When I learned of John Betts' use of poly film in flies
it prompted me to try the stuff for wing cases. I would cut them
to shape, tie them in and add color with a marking pen. The
material handled easily and dressed like a charm. But it wouldn't
accept color, which promptly rubbed off the slippery material.
When I told John Betts of the problem he had already found a
solution. The secret lies in lightly sanding both sides of the material
with a fine sandpaper, using a circular motion, until it is uniformly
whitish. Then it will accept color extremely well.
In its heavier gauges (2 mil or more) polyethylene
film is very durable. It can be purchased by the roll at stores such as K-Mart
for less than five bucks. The heavier Ziploc bags also serve the
For many years finding good hackle was a
constant problem confronting fly tyers because there were few
dependable sources. Farmers bred chickens for meat and eggs
and any roosters showing a potential for fly material were generally
killed before their meat became tough. Unfortunately, early killing
also prevented maturation of the hackle. Occassionally, we might
find a decent gamecock neck but the variety of colors was limited.
During the 1950s Paul Young's shop in Detroit always had a large
stock on hand but his tyers rarely tied smaller than #16 because
there was no demand. Consequently, Paul had many neck tops
available and he sold them for 10 cents a piece. These leftovers
had hackles sized at #18, #20 and #22 - just the sizes I needed for
spring creek fishing in Pennsylvania. Needless to say, I stocked
When Martha Young retired from the business
and moved to her cabin on the South Branch she began to import
hackle necks from the Phillippines to supply fly tying classes. The
necks were essentially smallish but the quality was fairly decent.
The colors were generally limited to brown, cream, chinchilla and
cree but the prices were right. I purchased many of these necks for
$1.75 to $2.50 each.
Shortly after we moved to Michigan, Dick
Talleur dropped by to visit us at our home on the North Branch. I
recall we spent most of an afternoon commiserating about the scarcity
of prime hackle. But soon afterwards a dramatic change came about
when genetic hackle began to appear on dealers' shelves. The likes of
Hoffman, Metz and Herbert were beginning to breed chickens specifically
for hackle quality and the results were spectacular.
Suddently we had long, swordlike hackles with
relatively short barbules and little waste. Even the saddles had barbs
short enough for hackling medium for large dries. The necks contained
a full range of sizes down to #24 and smaller. Where we previously
had to use two or three hackles in a dry fly, now we could often tie two
or more flies with a single hackle. A hundred years ago Halford would have
killed for this hackle.
Many of us old-timers tend to talk among ourselves
about the "good old days" and it's true there were many memorable
moments in the past. But in the craft of fly tying the best of days are
now. Fly tyers are enjoying the best tools and materials ever and their
skill levels are constantly rising. I have viewed framings of Halford's
flies at the Anglers' Club of New York and most of today's tyers
would - without being disrespectful - consider them grossly overdressed.
I have viewed some of Theodore Gordon's dries, whose hackle crowded
the eye to the extent it would be very difficult to attach them to a leader.
And in my own collection I have a couple of George La Branche's flies
which wouldn't pass muster by today's standards.
I make note of the above - not as a chest-beating
braggadocio - but as a recognition of the high level fly dressing has
If the craft continues at this rate for the next
millennium, anglers should be thankful for the philosophy of
catch-and-release. Otherwise, trout would be among our most
endangered species. ~ Chauncy Lively
Chauncy's article appears
in the Spring Issue of the RIVERWATCH, the quarterly publication
of the Anglers of the AuSable, Grayling Michigan.
FAOL is proud to be a member of this fine organization,
dedicated to the protection of the AuSable River, its watershed
and environs. Dues are $25 per
year. For membership contact:
The Anglers of the AuSable
403 Black Bear Drive
Grayling, Michigan 49738
and visit their