Before the tsunami of synthetic materials flooded the craft of fly tying, natural materials comprised the bulk of elements used to create saltwater flies. Seasoned tiers acknowledged the subtle nuances found in natural materials and recognized what to look for and what to avoid when selecting them. Without question, the vast array of artificial alternatives have provided tiers a new world of possibilities, but in all the excitement of holographic Flashabou and UV-protected acrylics, the fundamental knowledge for cherry-picking the classic components seems to have become a dying art.
Feathers, bucktails and rabbit strips (zonker strips) are the three natural materials fundamental to all saltwater-fly tiers. They’re easily accessible, relatively inexpensive and can be found in an assortment of colors. However, not all natural materials are the same; there are a few characteristics to look for and several to avoid when shopping.
First and foremost, if you are purchasing natural materials online (sight unseen), in essence you are taking a leap of faith and you have to take what they give you. Whenever possible, try to buy locally so you can inspect what you’re buying.
That being said, let’s start with feathers. Saltwater capes or strung saddle hackle are typically what you will find on the shelf at your local saltwater fly shop. Because hooks range between size No. 4 and 1/0 for most patterns, look for capes that have the highest concentration of feathers in the 2- to 5-inch range. The middle third of the cape is what you will use the most.
Whenever possible, open the package and take the feathers out so you can inspect them closely. Flex the cape back and fan the feathers. The feathers should be clean, not oily or showing any greasy fat spots. You should also inspect how straight the feathers in the cape are — it’s almost impossible to tie properly when the feathers you are using have kinks or sharp bends in the stem. There will always be some curvature to the feathers located at the far left and right sides of the cape, and that’s OK, but for the most part, the feathers located in the center of the cape should be relatively straight. Be sure to look closely at the tips, barbs and stems of the feathers as well. What you don’t want are feathers with broken tips or twisted, crooked, bent or brittle stems. Older feathers have a tendency to become brittle and are easily broken when palmered. Bent tips are pretty common; this happens frequently when a natural material is too long for the packaging and it’s stuffed in at an angle to make it fit. Although soaking or steaming can correct many of these problems, it is better to avoid the headaches right off the bat. Larger capes may contain more fly-tying fodder, but bigger is not necessarily better. The quality of the materials is far more important than the quantity.