Whether you’re a believer in the divine, dabble in the pseudo-science of intelligent design, embrace the wonder of serendipity, or accept that humans sometimes just get lucky, there is no escaping the fact that some things put on the earth are simply perfect. From humble bass bugs, to the lethal Swiss Army knife utilitarianism of Clousers, the magnificent movement of Beasts and myriad other go-to flies, for Andre van Wyk and his fellow obsessives, nothing beats fly tying with bucktail.
The natural world has gifted us fly-tiers with many incredible materials to tie onto hooks. From the old days of classic salmon flies and their use of ridiculously rare and endangered bird feathers, to the ass end of a duck (yip, that lovely CDC you dry fly boys love so much is from the dingleberry zone of a water fowl!) to the beautiful herls of a peacock, the short, soft naturally-buggy wonder that is hare’s fur, there are huge numbers of natural materials that have been gifted to us to be reborn as a fly. There has been massive growth in synthetic materials in both fresh and saltwater tying. But some materials simply cannot be imitated or beaten by a man-made creation.
“Especially for ‘predator flies’, the white-tailed deer is the G.O.A.T.”
While for some, the CDC, Peacock Herl or even Marabou may qualify as the greatest natural materials of all time, I’d be willing to bet almost anything that bucktail is the holder of that title. Especially for those who tie larger “predator flies”, either saltwater or fresh, the humble ass-cover of the white-tailed deer is the G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time).
My bucktail journey began when I was given Bob Popovic’s second book, Fleye Design by my good friend Platon Trakoshis. I’d had Bob’s brilliant first book, Pop Fleyes, for a decade. While there is a fair amount on bucktail in there, the main drive of that book was towards synthetics and epoxy and other aspects of Bob’s unique approach to tying. Fleye Design came along with perfect timing.
I was getting back into fly tying in a big way after a fairly long hiatus. The book was the perfect birthday gift, opening the door to a new obsession, one that lead me down the proverbial rabbit hole of education, frustration, amazement and enlightenment. Bob’s shift towards more natural materials and, in a big way, his journey with bucktail, reflected my own subconscious desire for and attraction to natural materials and, in turn, started my love affair with it.
Like any good love affair, it started with a bang, morphed into an obsession, and became a desire for nothing else. That single-minded focus in turn blocked out any negatives, or the need to take things slowly. I was impatient. I wanted to be a bucktail wizard like Bob and churn out enormous flies of perfect proportion and scale. The Holy Grail for me became huge Beasts and BULKHead patterns with perfect natural tapers and sweeping bellies that would dazzle any fish. The reality, however, was a little different. I ran before I walked. Hell, I hadn’t even learnt to crawl. And yet, in trying to emulate Bob, I was effectively attempting to take on Usain Bolt in the 100 metres.
Despair and frustration that my creations weren’t hitting the mark flooded my tying desk. Convinced that it was because I didn’t have the best bucktails, a crusade ensued to source the best. That’s how, a couple of months later, a friend who shall remain anonymous, managed to walk through customs at Cape Town International Airport on a return trip from the USA with a ridiculous number of premium bucktails carefully stashed inside a duffel bag. Armed now with the ultimate versions of the ultimate materials, I was all set to become the bucktail Demi-God I so aspired to be.
How quickly I learnt that arrogance and ignorance can trip you up quicker than a stick through the front wheel of a bicycle! Just because the material is perfect, doesn’t mean you can create something perfect out of it. Many high- end bucktails were sacrificed at my vice, merely to become (in my eyes) very sub-par flies. I realised that I needed to step back, slow down, and take the time to learn from my fly-tying idols.
Like anything worth doing properly, I needed to learn about the material, its ins and outs, its quirks, its strengths, its weaknesses and little idiosyncrasies. I needed to learn from folks who had taken the bucktail journey before me. The shamans of this mystic material trip. In doing so the full revelation of just what an incredible material bucktail is cemented itself in my heart and mind. Nothing has ever been the same since.
Nose to tail
Variety may be the spice of life. But when it comes to bucktail, that variety is both a gift and a curse, because no two tails are the same. The length, the density, the waviness, whether the fibres are coarse, fine, wispy, or stiff. Each tail is a unique creation, much like the animal it comes from. Part of the journey with bucktail is to realise this fact, followed by frustration, acceptance and then, if you stay the course, a deep love for working with the one-of-a-kind nature every tail brings to the tying bench.
I like to think about bucktail in much the same way a chef would look at an animal with Nose-to-Tail dining in mind. A good chef understands how best to use every cut of meat, and which dish will suit which parts best. Great chefs can take an entire animal, even the odd bits you might never have considered before (pig’s ear anyone?), and transform every part into a culinary masterpiece using new approaches and innovative thinking.
In diagrammatic terms, a fly would follow the same path in terms of which hairs you use off a tail, for which parts of a fly. Therefore, the nose would be the front of the fly, the back and belly would be the middle portion of the fly, and the tail would be… well, the tail. The tip of the tail is where you will find the longest, softest, wispiest fibres, the ones that make your fly look alive when it swims.
“The tailwill have the back end of your fly dancing like no natural could ever replicate.”
The shorter, crinklier, more hollow fibres at the base of the tail will give you more bulk, more flare, more “shoulders” to your fly. The back and belly middle sections of the fly will continue that profile, but add length and softness to grade out the taper. The tail, with those long delicious soft naturally tapered tips will give to the length and the movement that will have the back end of your fly dancing like no natural could ever replicate.
There are exceptions to every rule. You can use fibres from the base of a bucktail in the tail of your fly. You can use tail tip fibres in the nose of your fly. But, starting out with a nose to tail approach, front to back, is a great way to wrap your head around how the different fibres work and react under your thread at the vice, and how you can use them throughout different areas of your tying. Bob’s book covers the importance of understanding the different properties of the different types of fibres. Gunnar Brammer also covers this brilliantly in his videos.
Catch the rest of this story and individual profiles on Bob Popovics, Jason Taylor, Ben Whally, Gunnar Bremmer, Ruper Harvey, Paul Monaghan, Jari Koski and Gianni de Pace in issue 29 of The Mission below: