by Fly Fisherman

We will describe the three basic types of wings first. Any of the three can be tied upright, at a 45° angle or spent. They can be tied so that the line of wing lies more or less horizontally above the body, at an angle with the body, vertical or slightly forward. In other words match the natural wings, of the fly being simulated, as closely as possible. The subject of
“WINGS” is the first of the two major controversial aspects among fly tiers. The length of wings is a sub-controversial subject. Wings of the natural fly are as long, and in many cases slightly longer, than the body of the fly. Eastern tiers tend to exaggerate the length of the wings and the Western tiers do the reverse. The only advantages I can see are that the longer wings are more visible to both fish and fisherman. The shorter wings have less tendency to dip over on their side and the short wing flies are more skillfully placed on the water by the amateur or semi-amateur caster.


Some tiers prepare and tie in the wings before the body is wound. In this method the wings are fastened on with the tips out over the eye of the hook either right side up or upside down. Right side up means with the natural concave curve of the feather edge down. Upside down means the reverse, naturally, with the points of the feather pointing upward. When the wings are raised to a standing position in the first case the curve points forward and in the second they point backward. 1 could go on with this kind of description for a page or more but it would result probably in just more confusion. Note the illustrations picturing these wings. There are noted tiers in both schools. My suggestion is to try both ways. Pick the one you like best and you will not be alone in the method. Neither one holds up unless the wings are treated with cement or lacquer and this is an abominable practice. The other method is to tie the wings in after the body is formed and in this case the tips point backward with the butt of the segments toward the eye. They can be tied right side up or upside down this way also. On wet flies the majority of good fly tiers use the upside down wings.

In tying these wings, cut identical segments from a “Right” and a “Left” quill. Place the backs of the convex curve surfaces together so that the points are even. Grasp closely between thumb and forefinger of the left hand, determine the length of wing you want and the point at which your thread will grip the wing butts. Hold over the hook at the point you wish to tie. Pull or manipulate the thread in between your finger and thumb, with the thread looped over the selected tying point, hold tightly with the thumb and finger, actually squeeze the wings, then pull STRAIGHT DOWNWARD—loop again before you release your grip with the left hand. If the wings are tilted either way do them over. If wings ride correctly on top of hook and are not folded, start winding thread behind or in front of them to raise them to a vertical position. Then carefully wind a couple figure eight turns of the thread between the wings to separate them. Raising them to a vertical position and separating them applies, of course, to dry fly wings. Many of the old English patterns call for double wings. Why, I don’t know!

The next type of wings are those formed of woodduck or mallard flank plumage and similar material including clumps of barbs from hackle quills. Again these wings can be tied in either before or after the body is constructed and they also can be tied forward or backward, whichever suits the convenience of the fly tier. This is the easiest type of wing to tie. Some tiers use the tip of the flank feather only—others use, if the feather is suitable, each side and the tip, getting three flies from one feather. This is possible in the smaller flies. Merely strip or cut the section you have prepared by spreading the barbs until the tips are even then holding tightly while cutting. Roll the clump lightly between thumb and index finger—determine length you wish wing to be—place on the hook and tic in so that it rests on top. Throw a loop or two of thread completely around the clump ON TOP SIDE OF HOOK (this holds the barbs together closely at their base)—wrap thread behind or in front of wings to raise them to a vertical position. Splitting the clump into two parts and spreading slightly with figure eight winds is done by some but is not particularly essential. The actual wings of the insect at rest or riding the water are perfectly vertical most of the time. Other than a few delicate partings of the wings during the drying stage when the wings are separated they’re in use and the fly isn’t on the water anyway. In tying this material for wet flies it is fastened in with the tips pointing to the rear. Some tiers leave the wing in this down position, some raise the wings to an approximate 450 angle with the body (more action in water). On wet flies the wings are applied generally after the hackle is wound.

The third type of wing is the “Hackle Tip” and the kind I am convinced is becoming more and more used to replace the antiquated flight quill cut wings. Although not the easiest set of wings to tie they are the most rugged and if correctly tied will last the full life of the flies’ use. The smaller hackle quills are more suitable for hackle tips although the larger ones can be trimmed with scissors to a proper size. This does not mean the extremely large hackle feathers because the stalk would be out of proportion generally.

In fastening the tips to the fly under construction hold the two hackles at their extreme ends and judge as closely as you can the point where they will be secured to the hook. Carefully strip the hackle barbs for a distance below this point or better, trim with scissors. Still holding the tips between the left thumb and index finger place on top of hook and tie in, taking pains to see that they are secure ON TOP and not down the side of the hook. Wrap thread Vs inch over butts toward eye and return thread to first point of tying in. Clip the extruding butts closely. Now grasp the wings and raise them to an upright position, taking a few turns of the thread behind them to hold the tips in this position. If wings are to be divided or are to be tied spent, with needle or scissor points, separate the tips and wind between wings with thread to place them in the position you wish. Hackle tip wings, too, can be tied, as with the other wings, before body is wound or after. That’s your choice.

The one other popular type wing is the down or flat style such as those of the stone flies, caddis, sedges, etc. These are built of most generally used wing materials and more. They usually consist of two segments of whatever material from which you are fashioning the wings. One hint to follow in getting the wings to lie flat is in building the body. At the point where the wings will be secured build to a larger dimension than the body proper with spun fur or yarn. This gives something to bite into without fastening the wings on a lower level thus raising them against the body.

Most tiers tie each of the segments in separately to get the proper “lay” of the wing which should follow the line of the body with only a slight spread at the rear end of the wings. Where tied in, the segments are an almost perfect overlap.
Tying “Hair” wings, which includes bucktail, badger, squirrel, capras, etc., the correct sized clump, usually 1/2 inch or less in diameter for the average fly, is cut from the hide. The butt ends are cleaned of fuzz or under fur, the right length of wing is determined and the clump is cut to fit. The butts then are touched or dipped in cement, placed on the hook and tied in carefully. Much of the hair for wings is hard and pains should be taken to see that they are really secure. A wrap of tying thread around the clump itself immediately behind the point where tied to the hook is advantageous in holding the hairs together. This also to raise the tips somewhat, which may or may not be desired. Again, hair wings can be tied in reverse or forward if one wishes, then the clump forced back into position and tied in. This procedure makes for security but also builds a sizable shoulder, which is not conducive to a pleasing appearance.

Imitating “Shell Wings,” as on beetles (shrimp are tied the same way even though they haven’t yet sprouted wings) is accomplished by securing the overlapping material or element, whether it be hair or plumage, by the finer ends at the base of the tail before the body is wrapped. After the body has been completed and secured, the overlapping material is brought forward over the top half of the body and tied down. Some materials require that the “shell” be treated with lacquer or fly head cement, after finishing, to give it a glossy appearance. Jungle cock shoulders, hackles, etc., supplementing wings are usually tied in after the wings are complete. These additions are tied in one at a time so that perfect balance can be secured.

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