Tying With Deer Hair
Techniques that make it easy
by Dave Whitlock
Deerhair is an extremely important natural fly-tying material. Hackle isits only equal. I am convinced this unique hair adds a particular look toan artificial fly that gives it strong fish appeal. Yet many tiers avoidusing deerhair because it is thought of as difficult to handle and workwith. But, after learning to understand this valuable, plentiful hair,most tiers find it as easy to use as hackle or any other tying material.Once you master its use, your overall tying potential will increasesignificantly. Deer hair is useful for forming bodies, heads, wings,tails, legs and even hackle for both floating and sinking freshwater andsaltwater flies.
What is Deer Hair?
Deer hair is a general term used to identify a uniquetype of hair that comes from the body of animals such as deer, antelope,elk, wild sheep, mountain goat, carabou and moose. Deer hair combines thetwo types of animal body hair, guard hair and underfur, found in many otheranimals such as beaver, squirrel, rabbit, and fox into one protecting andinsulating hair.
Deer hair is much larger in diameter than either guard hair or underfur ofmost other animals and, usually, soft or spongy and hollow. Its texture,shape and insulating properties result from the hair’s tiny multicellularmake-up. This cellular structure gives the hair buoyancy and a softnessthat is highly desirable for imitating natural food shapes, textures anddensities. Hair from the neck, back, sides and upper legs of deer andother similar animals have this unique structure… do not confuse it withtail or mane hair.
[Illustration: Choosing Deer Hair (9k)]
Deer bucktail and other tail hair from these animals have a somewhat hard,solid hair shaft that is quite different in its tying characteristics andfunction. It is also important to know where on each animal particularhair colors, lengths and textures are located for specific uses.
Deer hair that comes from summer- or warm-climate-killed animals issparse, finer and stiffer than hair from animals in “winter hair” in cold,damp climates. Both types are very useful, but for different tyingpurposes. Coarse, large-diameter, soft, hollow, cold-weather hair is bestfor bass-bug and dry-fly bodies, muddler and sculpin heads and otherapplications calling for spun deerhair. Finer, stiffer, more solid,warm-climate hair is best used to tie antennae, tails, wings, legs andhackles.
[Illustration: Deer Hair Anatomy (12k)]
Deer hair is generally short and thick compared to other hair. It isthick in diameter at the base and midshaft and thin and pointed at the tip.The “fat” portion of the hair, the part closer to the skin, is usuallysofter and more buoyant. Near the tip it is narrower, stiffer and far lessbuoyant. So within any given piece of deer hair the hair can be selectedto suit a particular use. For example, the 3/4-inch tip of a 2 1/2-inchlong hair may make fine dry-fly tails or hair wings, while the remaining 13/4-inch portion might work nicely for a clipped deer-hair body on the same fly… or a small bass bug’s body.
Deer Hair and Thread Tension
When wrapped against the hook shank andtightened down with tying thread, deer hair reacts differently than solidhair, feather quills, yarns and other nonhollow materials. Understandingwhat happens when deer hair is tied to the hook will allow you to use itbetter in tying various patterns.
Deer hair compresses or crushes much like a hollow soda straw or wheatstraw will, bending, kinking and flaring each end toward the pressure, whentightened around a hook shank with tying thread. It does this inproportion to its texture and how much thread pressure is used. Hard,stiff, fine hair flares less than soft, coarse hair. So, when formingwings or tails, which require less flaring, less thread pressure is used toprevent excessive flaring and tip end separation. If you want a wing withwidely separated tips, as in the elk-hair caddis, or whenforming a bassbug body or muddler head, flare the hair with strong thread pressure.
The tying thread’s friction against and around the deer hair imparts twoimportant actions. The first is a torquing effect created by the wrappingmotion of the thread. This pushing/rotating motion can drive you nuts orit can be a valuable technique. The second action is a tightening/holdingeffect, as the tension on the thread against the hair and hook isincreased. By using these two actions, deer hair can be skillfully fashioned intomany shapes and angles on the hook to provide various fly parts.
[Illustration: Spinning and Flaring Deer Hair (20k)]
Spinning and flaring deer-hair bodies and muddler heads are good examplesof this thread technique. To spin deer hair, hold a bunch of it parallelto the unobstructed hook shank, loosely circle the middle of the hair bunchtwice with the tying thread and then as the third wrap is made, release thehair and tighten the thread. Deer hair must be spun on a bare hook shank.If the hook shank is covered with tying thread the hair will not spinproperly. This technique pushes the hair around the shank, causing it toflare or radiate 360 degrees out from the hook at an angle of 90 degreesfrom the shank. The body size is proportional to the size of the hairbunch and how many bunches are spun onto the hook shank.
[Illustration: Tying Deer-hair tails (12k)]
To form a tail, encircle the end of the hair with thread while holdingthe hair in place, shape the tail, then tighten the butt ends down withthread tension. Once the hair ends are tied and anchored securely to thehook shank with tying thread, wrap thread back just snuggly around theremainder of the tail hair forming, not flaring, the hair.
[Illustration: Deer-hair Wings (15k)]
Divided hair wings, such as those on Wulff- and Humpy-type flies, are donewith a technique similar to the one used for the tail material. Wingsbunch or flare according to the tension used for the last 6 or 8 wraps attheir bases. The hair is divided with figure-8 thread wraps.
[Illustration: Making Extended Hair Bodies (18k)]
Extended deer-hair bodies imitate longer-bodied insects such as thelargest mayflies, damselflies and dragonflies. To make extended bodies,begin with a similar thread/hair base end attachment to the hook as usedfor tails. Now rib the thread over the hair, around the shank and extendit past the bend over or around the hair until the length and shape of thebody is formed. Then tighten the thread to anchor the rib at the end ofthe body and return it, using the ribbing technique, to the base of thebody.
For the extended bodies, stronger, longer elk or moose body hair is morepopular. Longer, coarser rump or mane hair is particularly good forextended bodies.
[Illustration: Stacking Deer Hair (23K)]
Spinning, Flaring and Stacking
A few years ago I became interested inmaking flared-deer hair, frog-type, bug bodies and sculpin minnow heads toimitate more accurately the color patterns of the naturals. This calledfor light colors on the bottom of the fly and darker bands, bars and spotson the sides and top. The technique I worked out uses a combination ofspinning, flaring and stacking various colored deer hair.
The light-colored underside hair is applied first with a modified spinningand flaring technique. Cut a bunch of deer hair, hold it on top of theunobstructed (bare) shank. Wrap the thread around the center of the haironce or twice, then release your grip and with the next wrap allow thethread to push or spin the hair under the shank.
Now place your index finger over the top and side of the hook shank so thehair cannot rotate any further… and tighten the thread wrap to flare andsecure the hair to the bottom of the shank. Make one or two more securingwraps in the same thread position as the first three wraps.
For the sides and top of the body or head, select and cut hair bunches ofthe appropriate colors and place the colors, one at a time, in the orderdictated by the color pattern you have chosen, directly over the hook shankwhere the bottom hair is tied on. Make one loose wrap around each bunch,holding it down over the shank in position. Now make one more wrap andtighten the thread while holding the hair in place. Repeat this procedurewith additional colors as planned for in the pattern. I advise you to usejust two colors when practicing this technique initially. Also I wouldadvise you to work with short bunches of hair, about 3/4- to 1 1/4-incheslong, for tying ease and neater results. When the hair is too long or tooshort, the results are not consistent.
Once you have two or more colors stacked and flared at a single positionon the hook shank and you want to continue building more body or headlength, bring the thread forward of the hair bunches to the bare shank areaand repeat the procedure.
It is vital that each group of stacked and flared hair be carefully heldin place and pushed tightly back against the other bunches to compact theminto a solid, durable shape. Use your thumb and index finger or adeer-hair packing tool to push each succeeding hair group against the onetied in before it. A simple metal or plastic tube makes an effectivepacking tool. Thickly-compacted, flared bunches give the fly much greaterdurability and floatation than skimpy loose hair.
Deer-Hair Shaping, Trimming and Cementing
When forming flared hair bodiesor heads it is necessary to trim or cut excess hair ends away to form thesmooth shape and contour called for by the particular pattern being tied.
Scissors or razor blades both work well to cut and shape this soft hair,but scissors are more practical than razor blades if you trim many largerflies. Either must be extremely sharp to do a smooth neat job. I prefercurved blades. Deer hair has a tendency to slide along scissor bladesbefore the blades can actually cut the hair. Scissors that have one edgeslightly serrated, such as Thompson’s Supreme and Midge Supreme scissors,grab the hair while cutting, reducing the slipping problem.
When trimming small flies, size 10 and smaller, small fine-pointedscissors are ideal, but for big bugs, muddlers and sculpins, use larger,heavier, long-blade scissors.
Double-edged razor blades can also be used to trim deerhair, althoughhandling of these very sharp blades requires extreme care. A slicingstroke of the blade is all it takes to shave deerhair. A new, sharp razorblade makes quick work of trimming even the largest deer-hair fly, so userestraint in trimming with them or you can reduce a wild, rough ball ofdeer hair to useless stubble before you know what you have done. Becauseof their cutting ability, razor blades are best used to do rough trimming,such as flattening the bottom of sculpin heads. Then do the final shapingand trimming with scissors.
Smooth, even shaping and trimming of flared deer hair is a bit easier ifyou spray the hair with women’s hair spray or a plastic coating spray (suchas Krylon clear acrylic or an art fixative). Either will slightly stiffenand hold hair without matting it, making for much easier trimming. When cementing tails, wing bases or extended bodies, as well as clipped,flared hair areas, use a thin, penetrating, fast-drying, flexible cement.Dave’s Flexament, vinyl cement and rod varnish work well, but Flexament issuperior for maintaining natural flexibility and strength.
Tying Thread for Deer Hair
The best all around thread for tying deer hairis Danville’s single-strand, flat, waxed nylon floss. It is strong,conforms to hair shape, and, being lightly waxed, it does not fray easily.
Danville Monocord and Belding Nymo are also good threads to use whereextra strength is not needed to flare harder or larger bunches of hair.
For flaring extra-heavy hair, Kevlar super thread is the very best choice.It has little stretch and is incredibly strong. I do not recommend it fortying softer hair, simply because it is so strong it will cut the hairright off the hook if you use too much tension.
If the deer hair you have is a bit too hard and resists 100-percentflaring before the thread breaks, either throw it away or steam it a fewminutes to soften it for much easier flaring.
Deer hair is available in many colors. White deer hair dyes to brightartificial colors, while the various natural shades of gray, tan, and browngive more natural “dun” dyed colors common to natural live foods.
Jay Buchner showed me a unique way of mixing deer-hair colors to gain evenmore precise, natural, spectrumized colors. Jay cuts various colors ofdeer hair into equal lengths and places them, after removing all the fineunderfur with a toothbrush or fine-toothed comb, in a hair stacker (a tubeused to align hair tip ends). He stirs the hair around in the tube of thestacker with a bodkin or needle, mixing the colors into an even brindlespectrum and then evens the tips. It works like a charm.
Another most important deer-hair tying technique is the aligning andevening of the hair tip ends to make even, neat wings and tails. Mosttypes of deer hair have uneven tips when the hair is cut from the hide, butevening the hair in a hair-stacking tool results in much better lookingswings, tails and collars.
To use a hair stacker, cut a bunch of deer hair from the hide and removeall the underfuzz and short hairs by holding the hair by its tips andstroking or combing away the unwanted “shorts” (short hair fibers) and fuzzwith a brush or comb. Now, place the tip ends down into the tool, tap itbriskly on a hard surface, and the tip ends slip down against the bottom,perfectly aligning themselves. Then, carefully remove the hair from thetube and tie with it, keeping the tips in line as much as possible.
Hackle-type Deerhair Collars
For certain dry flies that require extra longhackle fibers, longer than available rooster hackle, very stiff deer haircan be used. Flies such as skaters, spiders and crane flies that are twoinches or more in diameter are examples of patterns that can use deer-hairhackle.
[Illustration: Making a Hair-Hackle Skater (15K)]
Select stiff, straight, long hair from elk mane, moose or mule deer. Cuttwo bunches, comb out all the shorts and fuzz and straighten the tips asdescribed. Tie on, spin and flare the first bunch with the tips forward.Repeat this procedure with the second bunch, except on this bunch have thetips pointing back. Push both bunches tightly together forming aperpendicular hackle-like collar. Each bunch reinforces the other to makea strong, stiff collar ideal for skittering and skating.
Floating and Sinking Deerhair Flies
Deer hair has natural buoyancy but itwill absorb water after prolonged fishing, making the fly sink and addingweight that makes the fly difficult to cast. By spraying the finished flywith water repellants such as silicon, plastic, lacquer or coating themwith paste silicons or waxes, deer hair remains light, dry and buoyant.
When a fly such as a shrimp or sculpin is made with deer hair, the flymust be soaked for a while before it sinks. A drop of wetting agent ordetergent mixed with an ounce of water in a ziplock bag makes an idealprewetting method for sinking deer hair flies. Just place each fly in thebag for a few minutes before you intend to use it.
Guide to Common North American Deer Hair
White-tailed deer is the most common deer and its hair is available. Thehair is ideal for most deer-hair work. This deer has a white underside andbarred brown/gray sides and back. White-tailed deer hair dyes very well.
Mule deer is also common, second only to the whitetail, and its hair isalso available. It is excellent for most deer-hair tying, and is a bitcoarser hair than white-tail. Mule deer have white undersides and black,white and gray-barred sides and back. The hair dyes well.
Western Blacktail is less available than white-tailed or mule deer, butplentiful on the west coast. Its very similar in use and color to thewhite-tailed deer and some mule deer.
Elk is plentiful, and the hair is long and coarse. Elk hair is useful formany deer-hair tying needs. Tan, brown and cream are the natural colors.
Moose is a relatively plentiful hair, that is very coarse, thick, andstiff. Natural colors are mixed black, brown, gray, cream and white. Mooseis better for wings, tails, extended bodies and hackle than flared bodiesand heads.
Pronghorn antelope is a very coarse, soft, tender hair that is in goodsupply. It is available in two natural colors, white to gray and richbrown. Antelope is good for flared bodies but poor for wings and tails.
Dall sheep is a rare, fine, soft, tender, white hair that flares well forbodies of small flies and bugs.
Bighorn sheep is the same as Dall, except for its brindle color of gray,tan, white and cream colors.
Mountain goat is a rare, long, coarse to fine white hair that’s good formost deer-hair work.
Caribou is a plentiful, short, thick, fine, soft hair with a gray orwhitish color. It’s good for small fly bodies.
The ability to tie with deer hair gives any fly tier added versatility.He can tie effective proven fly designs and create many new designs toduplicate nearly all the foods fish eat. Don’t put off tying with deerhair. Practice will show you it is easy and fun to master. Deer haircertainly is my most useful, innovative material.