A Guide to Feathers Used in Fly Tying
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Feathers are an integral part of fly tying, yet it can be confusing reading the variety of feathers used in fly pattern recipes. It can be frustrating buying packages of feathers only to find out they were not the right kind for what the fly pattern needed. Also, some feathers can also be difficult to come by and it would be nice to know about any substitutes.
Below is a general guide on common feathers used in fly tying like: CDC, turkey biots, wood duck, quills, peacock herl, pheasant tails, and so on. I will cover what the feathers are commonly used for, offer up some substitute feathers, provide links for further information, and give a few suggested fly patterns that incorporate the described feathers.
This guide will not cover every possible use of these feathers, there are just far too many. The purpose is to provide a one-stop-shop for general feather questions in order to better understand how they are used in fly tying. Lastly, much of fly tying is about experimenting and trying out unique ways to create flies, so substitute feathers, tie them in different ways, combine them on fly patterns. There are no hard and fast rules to fly tying. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them in the comments section below.
There is a wide array of chicken feathers in fly tying including dry fly hackle, soft hackle (wet fly hackle), schlappen, strung saddles, CDL (coq de Leon), saddles and capes, tailing materials, etc. Rather than trying to squeeze all of that into this guide I created a separate article: A Guide to Chicken Feathers Used for Fly Tying.
These feathers are used in a wide assortment of fly patterns and in an array of applications like: tails for dries and nymphs, collars on wet flies or streamers, wings and wing posts, nymph legs, wing cases, antennae, wings on streamers, and so on. The duck species that are mainly used in fly patterns are wood duck, mallard, and teal. All these feathers have long soft fibers, they can have barring (though how much barring depends on the species of duck), and are lightly colored.
Breast and flank feathers can be tied on as collars and can be used as a substitute for patterns that call for guinea fowl, and there are also CDC and duck quills (which I will get to further below). First, let's look over the similarities and differences between wood duck, mallard, and teal.
Wood duck can be dyed and used for many things like dry and wet fly wings, collars, streamer wings and shoulders. Some wood duck feathers also have a heavy black and white barring near the tip of the feather, and these are known for their use in classic salmon flies. On the other hand, lemon barred wood duck feathers are the signature feathers used in the traditional Catskill-style dry flies to make the split wings.
The issue with wood duck is that it has been harder to come by and as a result are expensive, luckily there are substitutes. Both mallard and teal flank feathers can be a substitute for wood duck, they are also cheaper than wood duck so you won't break the bank tying flies. With any of these feathers (especially mallard and teal) they usually come in small packages that are either sorted for quality or not. When you get these packages it helps to sort the feathers and pick out ones that will work for things like wings or collars and then others can be used for tailing, nymph legs, etc.
Mallard flank feathers come from under the wing of the bird. These feathers can be a substitute for wood duck, they can even be dyed to match the wood duck color or a variety of other colors. The barring on the feathers is a little more faded than wood duck and the feather fibers can be somewhat softer than wood duck. Some fly shops will also sell packages of sorted larger mallard flank feathers which makes it convenient when you need the larger sizes for tying streamers.
There is also bronze mallard feathers which are found on the back of the bird along the shoulders. They are larger than normal mallard flank feathers but are not dyed. Bronze mallard feathers are great for matched wings in trout and spey flies, and are also used in salmon, steelhead, and nymph patterns.
(Suggested fly patterns: Used in place of wood duck in Catskill style flies like a Hendrickson and Red Quill, and wet flies like the Bird's Nest Sulphur Emerger. Some other patterns: Swim Coach, Wally Wing, Zoo Cougar)
Teal ducks are another substitute for wood duck, and like mallard have slightly softer fibers than wood duck. These are smaller birds so their flank feathers are generally smaller than mallard and wood duck, however they have a nice dark barring that is more pronounced than mallard. Teal flank feathers can also be dyed to match the color of wood duck as well as many other colors.
(Suggested fly patterns: Used in place of wood duck in Catskill style flies like a Hendrickson and Red Quill, and wet flies like the Bird's Nest Sulphur Emerger. Some other patterns: Callibaetis Comparadun, Wally Wing Callibaetis)
Cul de canard (CDC) is french for "duck bottom" or less eloquently "duck's butt" and these feathers come from the preen glands of ducks (in fact other waterfowl have these preen glands and you could find goose CDC products for example). Although the word refers to a duck's behind the preen glands are actually on their backs, it's what you see when a duck has its head turned around collecting up those water-repellency oils that it then uses to coat other feathers with in order to float and stay dry.
There are a few main reasons why fly tyers like using CDC in their patterns. The first is that these feathers have those preening oils which provides natural floatant to flies. Second, CDC feathers have a network of fibers that branch out into even smaller fibers which increases surface tension by trapping air bubbles and helps flies to float. Third, all those fibers provide amazing movement particularly when used in nymph or emerger patterns underwater which turns up the "bugginess" of the fly pattern.
When buying CDC it typically comes in packages and will either be sorted/graded or not, they can be dyed, and feathers can be categorized into large, medium, small or oiler puffs/tufts. The larger CDC is more expensive (because ducks do not grow as many) and can be used for wrapping around a hook shank to create bodies, twisting into a dubbing loop to make a variety of things, forming bigger wings, and many other applications. Goose CDC could also be a substitute for larger duck CDC feathers.
Medium to smaller CDC are good for para loops, collars for nymphs and wet flies, small wings and emerger wings, etc. The oiler puffs/CDC tufts are tiny feathers that lack any sizable stem and are great for emerger wings and wing cases.
One final thing about CDC, when you use a fly that has CDC and it starts to get water logged or slimy from a fish's mouth it is best to use CDC-specific floatant oil (like Veniards CDC Oil), an amadou patch, or dry fly desiccant. Typical floatants like Gink just mat down the fibers and reduces the CDC's effectiveness to float.
Duck Quills/Primary Wing Feathers/Duck Slips
Duck quills (aka mallard quills, mallard primary wing feathers) are taken from a mallard's wing and have webby/thicker feather fibers. They are most often used for winged wet flies, dry fly wings, and no hackle dry flies. They are commonly sold as 'matched pairs' (one from each wing of the bird) which helps you to match up 'slips' of quills to create wings.
(Suggested fly patterns: How to Tie Mallard Slip Wings (on a Cahill Dry Fly), Ginger Quill, Henryville Special, Royal Coachman, Lawson's No Hackle PMD)
The ruffed grouse is the most popular species of grouse for fly tying, and when you see patterns that call for grouse it is most likely ruffed grouse (and it can be a male or female grouse). Frequently, grouse is sold as entire bird skin or just a package of the soft hackle feathers. An entire skin can provide feathers for soft hackles, tailing material, wing slips, even cape feathers for dry fly hackle. In the pelt there can also be a considerable mix of natural colors with browns, blacks, tans, whites, and lots of speckled feathers.
If you do not have grouse and a fly pattern calls for it then a good substitute is pheasant (pheasant feathers will be a tad bigger than grouse). Other substitutes (for soft hackles) are hen, CDL hen, or brahma hen capes/saddles, and starling for smaller feathers. You could also substitute duck quills for the grouse quills in order to tie wing slips.
Guinea or Guineafowl are native bird to Africa but have been domesticated in other parts of the world. In fact, Whiting Farms out in Colorado has been breeding guinea and they provide a range of guinea fly tying feathers. Like other exotic birds, these have been in fly tying for centuries and are most notably used in classic salmon flies.
Feathers from guineafowl are unique in that they can have a mottled look with spots of varying sizes. A full guinea skin can be used for soft hackles, collars, nymph legs and wing cases, in other words lots of options just like with a full grouse skin. Whiting Farms also dyes guinea into a range of colors and sells the full skin or pieces of it. Other producers (such as Hareline) have packages of select feathers with or without dyed colors.
Ostrich and Rhea
This is another feather material that has traditional use in salmon flies dating back to the 18th century. Today, the material is still used for those flies but can be applied to many other patterns. Ostrich is typically sold by the feather and you can get either usually buy an herl plume or marabou.
The herl plumes have very long feather fibers that are either fluffy or slender, it just depends on the package you get. They can also be dyed in a various colors and be barred or dotted. Herl can be wrapped or stacked to tie intruder patterns, it can be used to create wings on streamers, it can be a ribbing material for nymph bodies, and can also be sparingly used to create gills/legs and collars on nymphs. The ostrich marabou is larger than turkey marabou and hen chickabou, and is great for wrapping bodies on streamers, used for spey hackle, and making streamer tails.
A similar bird to ostrich is the rhea, its herl plume feathers have sparser and thinner fibers than ostrich but they are a tad stronger and will give a thinner profile to flies than ostrich which some tyers prefer. The rhea plume feathers can also be used on intruder, spey patterns, saltwater patterns like deceivers, and more.
If wood duck is the staple for wings in Catskill-style dry flies, partridge is a staple for soft hackle/wet flies. There are numerous species of partridge but hungarian partridge is most commonly used when you see 'partridge' listed in a fly pattern. The feathers are used a lot in wet flies because of the softness of the feather and the natural mottled look that fly tyers crave. Both male and female pelts are used and you can buy a full skin which will have a spectrum of earth-tone colors like tan, black, rust, white, and so on (much like grouse, but partridge feathers are smaller than grouse feathers).
A full skin can also provide tail and wing feathers that can be used to create wing slips, nymph tails, and wrapped bodies You can also buy a package of partridge soft hackle feathers but quality can vary depending on the producer or fly shop that packs them (and feather sizes typically range from 12/14s down to 16s and maybe 18s). The feathers do not take dyes easily so any color outside of the natural earth-tones and olive/yellow are difficult to come by.
The downside to partridge, just like wood duck, is that it is expensive due to limited availability. If you are looking for a substitute feather that still has that partridge mottled-look then check out Brahma capes from Whiting Farms. For more information check out my other guide and look under the section labeled Brahma capes.
There are a multitude of ways to tie with pheasant. There are also a lot of species, but I will cover the most common which is ringneck pheasant. A full skin of this bird has incredible versatility and range of colors. If you ever wanted to experiment with fly patterns then using a pheasant skin to see what you can come up with is a good place to start.
A male bird (rooster ringneck pheasant) is what most tiers refer to when they include pheasant in their fly recipes (unless specified otherwise). Pheasant is generally sold as a full skin, tail feathers, or a rump patch. Body feathers (from a full skin) are great for soft hackle, nymph legs, and tails on flies. Rooster tail feather fibers are used a lot for nymph wing cases, as tails, or wrapping bodies on nymphs/emergers/wet flies/dry flies, and creating legs for grasshopper patterns. Pheasant tail feathers are shorter than turkey tail feathers so I like to use them on smaller patterns and turkey on larger ones when I am wrapping the fibers.
Rump feathers can be tied on spey flies, shrimp patterns, hackle collars, and streamers. Church window feathers (from a full skin and taken from their backs) are beautiful rusty brown feathers with a mottled white 'eye' and can be used for wings on streamers, shoulders and cheeks on streamers, and larger dry fly wings. On a full skin you can even have small marabou-like feathers.
This is by no means a complete list of everything you can do with pheasant and the other feathers that are available on a full skin pelt.
When it comes to peacock most of what fly tyers are interested in are the peacock eye feathers which are the bright feathers that have those iridescent eyes in the center. You can either buy the entire peacock eye or parts of it. The peacock eye contains two really handy materials: herl and quills. The herl are mainly the feathers outside of the peacock eye (the fully 'green' fibers) and can be cut and wrapped to make incredible bodies and thoraxes. The quill comes from the peacock eye but the herl fibers need to be stripped off the quill in order to make quill bodies (like on a Quill Gordon), and quills can be stripped in a number of ways and dyed to almost any color. You can buy better quality of peacock eyes which will yield better herl and thicker/larger quills. Herl can also be bought in packages of strung herl, and even quills can be bought pre-stripped/dyed like Polish Quills, and there are even synthetic quills.
There are also peacock body feathers and peacock swords. Body feather are blue, green, or gold colored with the blue and green feathers being larger and better suited for cheeks or collars while gold are thicker yet shorter and more tailored for cheeks, tails, and legs on flies. Peacock swords are sold as matched feathers and are typically used on salmon and steelhead flies, wings and tails for nymphs, and streamers.
Finally, there is synthetic peacock dubbing which can be a substitute for peacock herl in patterns. The dubbing is coarse but can be wrapped to make bodies and thoraxes on flies for a very buggy look. Even though it is a synthetic material is a great additional to your fly tying table to add a different look/texture than peacock herl.
Further info on tying quill bodies.
An invasive bird in the U.S. the starling may be a nuisance but it makes great soft hackle material from size 12 all the way down to 20s and 22s (which are difficult to come by in partridge, grouse, and hen feathers). Some of the feathers are tipped with a brownish-orange pop of color which can make for some cool wings or eyes on wet flies. Also, besides these qualities starling is also very cheap and those colored tipped feathers can even be substitutes for jungle cock.
Turkey wing (also called quills) and tail feathers are very functional and can be used to make tails and wing slips (like on a muddler minnow), wrap bodies on nymph/emerger/dry flies, create grasshopper wings, and form wing cases on nymphs. They are usually sold as matched pairs and there are also various colors, mottling, and barring that turkey feathers can have, so looking at the feather in-person or a photo of the actual product can help you to see the pattern/color you are buying.
There are turkey biots (also called biot quills) and these can be used as tails, wing cases, or create segmented bodies on nymph/emerger/dry flies. A smaller substitute for turkey biots are goose biots which are also a little more rigid. Goose biots may be a better choice on smaller hook sizes (16s and 18s) in order to create nicely segmented bodies because the turkey biots could be too large. For way more information on biots and tying with biots check out this article.
There are also turkey flats which can be substitutes for duck quills in order to make wings and wing posts (here is a how-to article on tying turkey flat wing posts).
Lastly, there is turkey marabou which is larger than chickabou but smaller than ostrich marabou and comes in numerous colors with or without barring. Over the last several years, multiple marabou products have come out in all sizes and grades and rather than trying to list out all the various differences there is a short video by Kelly Galloup where he discusses choosing the right marabou (I highly recommend watching that).
Hopefully this guide has helped to clear up some of the confusion you might have about the various applications for chicken feathers. Again, check out A Guide to Chicken Feathers Used for Fly Tying for information that covers: dry fly hackle, wet fly hackle, hen vs rooster feathers, what is schlappen, and much more. Lastly, if you have any questions or comments please feel free to post them in the comments below.