Wings and Things

Wings and Things

Some thoughts on wings and wing-burners

  • By: Darrel Martin
My son, Michael, recently wrote about his recurring dream: "As we drove through the desert, Dad lectured on the advantages of winged patterns, but I was more intent upon visions of rising trout. After hours of highway, we turned onto a dry track. Heavy dust swirled and floated behind us. Soon, Dad pulled off the track and parked, waiting for the dust to settle. Quickly armed with rod and vest, he said there was no need for waders. We made our way through scrub and channeled scabland down to a dry, ancient riverbed, scattered with rocks white in the sun.Always the first to fish, Dad tied on a winged Dust Devil and made a cast. It settled lightly on a rock. He slowly pulled it off onto the sand. Suddenly, dust and rocks exploded as a fish-half grayling and half mudskipper-struck the fly. Dad quickly landed the fish. Grinning, with fish in hand, he turned and said: 'Now it's your turn.'" Wings-delicate and seductive wings-may be the only reason why fish would rise in a dusty, dry riverbed. There are complete books devoted to wings and winging. Charles Walker's Old Flies in New Dresses (1898) focuses on mounting wings in the natural position. His explicit thesis is "to work out and bring down to a definite rule" the wing position of the various imitations. "The wings of a fly undoubtedly play an important part in forming the outline, and consequently the general appearance of the fly. Therefore, if they are not put in the natural position, the whole contour of the imitation must be entirely different from that of the natural fly." Walker then catalogs the various wing positions of the naturals and the various winging methods. To Walker, the winged profile was far more important than pattern color. Antique fly patterns, imitating the natural, often wore wings. Though wings are not always required, they somehow seem to complete many patterns. Colonel E. W. Harding, in The Flyfisher&The Trout's Point of View (1931), would readily replace the traditional quill wing with a wrapped hackle. There is "a large and successful school of fly fishers who question the necessity for winging a fly at all. "A hackle of a colour and density which represents the combined effect of the legs and wings of the natural fly is considered to represent the fly more accurately on the water and makes the fly lighter in weight and easier to fish." Nevertheless, he reluctantly adds, "but it seems to me that there are occasions when the general silhouette and colour effect of the wings can be obtained in no other way except by direct representation of wings in the conventional manner." Like most tiers, I would rather wrap a hackle than mount matched wings. However, wings are often attractive and functional. Moreover, some methods make winging as easy as wrapping. Colonel Harding noted that "The suggestion of outspread wings is essential for a spent spinner pattern and how to obtain it is one of the most difficult problems in fly dressing." He rejects hackle tip wings: they are forced under the bend and, when wet, become useless for support. Despite Colonel Harding's censure, hackle tip wings-when properly mounted-neither wrap nor sink. In any case, for transparent spinners, Harding wrapped double hackles. "In using two hackles, the first is wound and adjusted to simulate wings, the under fibres being cut away and not more than three turns of the second hackle." This method may have many variations for both dun and spinner. Double-Hackle Wings First, mount the "leg" hackle (barb length equals 3/4-shank length). Then mount the "wing" hackle (barb length equals shank length). Wrap a dense "wing" hackle, secure and trim excess. Next, carefully trim all under barbs. Finally, wrap the "leg" hackle through the wing barbs, secure and trim excess. With standard hackles, the pale underbarbs melt into dark wings. When wrapping "hackle through hackle," do not avoid barbs by weaving through them. Merely, match the barb angle of the first hackle and then ignore the barbs as you wrap the second hackle. Trapped barbs usually snap back into place. Wrapping two different colored hackles creates a soft and subtle color blend that appeals to both tier and trout. With modern micro-hackles, this method also creates the swollen thorax of small spinners and duns. For double-hackle spinners, trim both top and bottom of the "wing" hackle and then wrap a short-barbed hackle to suggest the swollen thorax or legs. The thorax hackle increases flotation and visibility. The CDC spinner wears a quill body and CDC wings formed with a wing burner. Though not as durable as some spinners, the stiff stems and splayed barbs do float the pattern well. Insert CDC barbs into a split-thread loop, spin and figure-eight for hackle. This creates a gauzy and graceful spinner. Like a natural spinner wing, the CDC barbs imprint the surface with minute bubbles and sparkles. THE FAN-WING Usually regarded as niggling and annoying, mounting fan-wings challenges many tiers. Finding quality fan feathers also poses a problem. The small, white breast feathers of a wood duck or Mandarin duck are often considered the best. Try this method for mounting fan-wings for quill patterns and coachmen. 1) Wrap a thread foundation for the wings. No matter what the pattern, mount the wings first. Select two breast feathers that have modest stem curvature. Reject those that have twisted or splayed barbs. The feathers should match in curvature, width and length. Feather matching is best done by selecting feathers that grow in close proximity on the bird. Strip surplus barbs so that wing length matches shank length. Match wing width at top of feather. Leave stems long for mounting. 2) Stem curve (often an extravagant curve) prohibits gluing the stems together. After matching and sizing the feathers, place a small dot of superglue gel at the base of the barbs on one feather as illustrated. Apply the gel "micro" dot with a fine needle. Avoid the thinner, "wicking" superglues; thin superglue, through capillary action, will invade the wing barbs. 3) Next, carefully join the two feathers-convex side to convex side-and set aside to dry. The flat barb base keeps the feathers flat and parallel. 4) When dried, "saddle" the wings on the shank: straddle a stem on each side. Mount the wings with figure-eight thread wraps (fore and aft) over the stems. Each wrap should capture both stems. 5) After securing the wings, trim the stems to about 1/8-inch and fold back. "Lock" the wings with several wraps over the folded stems. Sometimes it is necessary to flatten thick stems prior to mounting or folding back. Merely flatten thick stems with small pliers. 6) Finally, complete the pattern with tail, body and hackle. The following pattern is a fan-wing quill. Though fan wings are not as popular as they once were, they are attractive and, with this method, charmingly simple. The greatest challenge, however, is finding and matching, quality breast feathers. THE ROLLED AND DIVIDED WINGS This antique method still creates some lovely patterns. Rolled wings, also known as bunched wings, are merely barb fibers or hairs matched, bundled and mounted. Rolled wings may be mounted as a single wing on smaller patterns or divided to form paired wings on larger patterns. The natural tips are usually matched to create a sharp wing profile. J. Edson Leonard, in Flies (1950), advocated rolling soft breast-feather barbs back and forth between the fingers to quash their natural lay. I suggest rolling the fibers gently between the fingers to avoid twisting or bending the barbs. Long, soft barbs-such as wood duck breast feather barbs-do not stack. The best method for aligning the natural tips is to remove a few barb "panels" at a time. Then carefully align the natural tips by pulling or rocking the panel with the fingers. Finger stack several tip-aligned panels for mounting. Reverse mount the bundled wing, i.e., butts facing aft and natural tips over the hook eye. Erect the wings with fore-wraps and divide the wings with figure-eights. Finally, complete the pattern with tail, body and hackle. THE HACKLE-TIP WING Mounting hackle-tip wings for the ubiquitous Adams and their relatives requires a modified method. I like to select grizzly hen hackles that are rectangular with high-contrast bands. The softer hen hackles are easily mounted and often have full width to their tips. This makes an attractive wing, unlike the more common, pointed or tapered cock hackles. If proper rectangular hackle tips are not available, wings may be burnt from soft cock or hen capes. Hen grizzly hackle, especially the large hackles, usually lack the narrow, close bands or bars common in smaller cock hackles. When possible, always select those hackles that have narrow, contrasting bars and straight stems. Merely position the hackle within the wing burner and, with propane lighter, remove the excess. Mount burner hackle wings in the same manner as natural hackle wings. 1) First, select matching (length and width) hackles. Strip off those barbs not required for wing length. For most patterns, wing length should equal shank length. 2) Place a drop of superglue gel at the barb base and stem. Neck hackles and stems are usually flat, thus the stems may be cemented together. The glue should just enter, rather than invade, the barb base. Set the wing assembly aside to dry. When dry, place the doubled stem on top of the hook shank at wing position and over wrap. When mounting wings, position natural tips to the right: overwrap firmly to secure. Fold wings back to erect them. Note that the doubled stems create a shallow furrow for the hook shank. Trim excess stem length. 3) Finally, fold the hackles back to erect them. Place 3 thread wraps in front of wing to preserve stance. Complete the pattern. Hackle tip wings may be mounted spinner style. J. Edson Leonard suggests a vibrator mount: "Hackle tips cocked so far forward they are nearly parallel with the shank, thus vibrating when the fly is set in motion by either the current or the retrieve." A secure spinner mount comes from Major Sir Gerald Burrard's Fly-Tying: Principles and Practice (1945). The hackle-tip stems cross the shank. Figure-eight wraps hold the wings in place. Cement the stem crossing and, when dry, fold forward and secure. It may be best, however, to crush the stems prior to mounting and after mounting fold them back to become the underbody for the thorax. THE WING BURNER A wing burner is a metal template that holds feathers or fabric so that a flame, usually a butane lighter flame, burns the surplus, thereby forming a shaped wing for fly-tying. Wing burners come in a variety of shapes for adult or nymph, mayfly, caddis and stonefly wings. Wing burners offer several advantages: 1) a wide variety of sizes, 2) realistic shapes, and 3) no blades to dull. Wing cutter blades eventually dull and may deform the feather. For many patterns, commercial wing burners are either the wrong shape or the wrong size. To solve this, I often make wing burners by modifying commercial burners or by shaping brass strips. Depending upon the template size required, brass strips, in various lengths and thickness, are available from most hobby or hardware stores and catalogs. Burners for wings, legs and other pattern parts, are readily made from brass strips, 1/2" or 1/4" wide and .032" thick. Thinner strips, such as .016" thick, form more easily, but bend or deform readily. Such strips are readily shaped with metal shears, files and grinders. Merely draw the desired shape on the end of the brass strip. Note: Remember to use protective eyewear and dust mask when shaping metal. 1) First, draw wing shape and then rough-shape the template with metal shears. 2) With files and grinders, take the metal down to within a couple of millimeters from the final desired shape. A small Minimite Dremel tool, mounted with 1/4", 3/8" and 1/2" cap or drum sander/grinder works well in this close shaping. Select fine or extra-fine grit sanders. Cutting disks also quickly shape the template. 3) Once the template is close shaped, fold and match both ends together. I generally fold the strip so that the burner is approximately 4" long. Short wing burners index or match better than long ones. Now, firmly tape the folded strip to match the ends for final shaping. Then, trim and rough-cut the other matched end. 4) Finally, bring the template down to final form with the Dremel and disk grinder. Polish when done. Grinders may heat the metal. If required, cool the metal by emersion in water. Make certain that both templates accurately match. Sometimes I inscribe a stem-line on both sides of the burner for wing replication. For the Adam's wing, I make a rather narrow wing shape with a slightly advanced wing tip. A narrow wing suggests a hackle-tip wing (rather than a natural wing shape) and reduces casting flutter. A single wing burner may accommodate two or more hook sizes. I also use burners to make delicate, wispy CDC wings. These wings float well and neither spin nor plane during the cast. For wing burning, select patterned hen feathers that have the barbs at right angles or nearly so. Acutely angled barbs may be burned through at the base, resulting in a truncated or angular wing. Match the wing burner base with the barb angle. This creates an off-center wing stem and avoids a truncated wing base. When making or selecting a burner consider these following features: 1) An appropriate wing size and shape 2) A well-matched template edge for a clean, sharp wing edges 3) The proper metal thickness to prevent warp or fuzzed wing edges 4) An adequate length for cool handling 5) A secure clamping of the feather 6) A variable feather positioning to accommodate dun, thoracic dun and spinner wings 7) A template design that permits various stem angles. Imitating the precise wing shape is seldom, if ever, required. Wings, however, can be distinctive. Insect families often have a distinctive shape: the small circle (Caenidae); the small, elongated oval (Baetidae); medium, elongated oval (Ephemerellidae and Leptophlebiidae)); medium triangle (Heptageniidae); large triangle (Ephemeridae and Potomanthidae) and so on. Some insects, such as the Ephemeridae, have a large hind wing that may be incorporated into the forewing shape. Though most tiers use a generic wing shape, specific shapes may be replicated with individual burners. Size, however, is generally considered more important than the specific wing shape. The following shapes replicate some standard insect wings. GRASSHOPPER LEGS The most realistic grasshopper legs are burnt yellow grizzly hackles. The grizzly banding creates a realistic leg. Insect legs, such as those of the grasshopper, are easily burnt. Some judicious trimming may be required to slim and match the legs. Once shaped, bend the legs as illustrated. DUBBING TEASER An interesting addition to one's tying is a dubbing teaser made from brass. While you are shaping templates, why not make a dubbing teaser? Merely make a handle with a narrow extension. The teaser is shaped and then adhesive Velcro hook is mounted on the shaped teaser. Shape the dubbing teaser the same way that you shape a wing burner. Polish and then mount the adhesive Velro hook fabric. Trim the excess to create the teaser. To fluff a fly, merely pet or caress the dubbing with the hooks. Use the opposite side of the dubbing teaser to apply the proper amount of wax to a dubbing loop. It is easier to control the amount of wax on a flat blade than the amount of wax from a wax tube. A wax blade should be rather broad and, of course, cleaned periodically. Sometimes, wings can be the trigger to a rise. Moreover, wings often complete a pattern. Perhaps delicate, seductive wings can even make a fish rise through dust and rock in an ancient streambed. Do not tell me it was just a dream. Dreams are part of fishing, and daydreams surely are part of fly tying. Of course, that part about my always being first to fish is surely wrong. How could anyone dream such a thing! NOTE: Tools and materials for making wing burners are available from most hardware and hobby stores. Consult also Micro-Mark: The Small Tool Specialist, 340 Snyder Avenue, Berkeley Heights, NJ 07922-1595, 1-800-225-1066 and online www.micromark.com