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First published before January 1st 2000 - More than 13 years ago
Tying with Woodduck Flank
By Bob Petti
I have to admit a particular fondness for woodduck flank. Ever since I was given my first baggie of feathers from a duck hunting friend, I was smitten. The color - the texture - the barring of the feathers - like so many natural fly tying materials they have a natural beauty above and beyond the world of fly tying. The fact that they are so useful as a material for trout flies makes my modest stash of feathers one of my most prized possessions. Indeed, you truly can never have too many woodduck feathers.
The terms woodduck, summer duck, and mandarin duck are oftentimes used interchangeably in fly tying texts, most often in the context of the buff colored barred flank feathers. Summer duck is a nickname that has been used for both the mandarin duck and the woodduck, there are in fact two distinct birds behind all these feathers. The woodduck, Aix sponsa, is native to North America while the mandarin duck, Aix galericulata, is native to Asia. The two are closely related biologically, the hens being almost indistinguishable in appearance, but the drakes are quite distinct on the water. However, it is the flank feathers of the drakes that are of great interest to fly tyers. They are so nearly identical that one can easily be used as a substitute for the other in all but the most strict tying recipes.
Undoubtedly the most common and well known use for woodduck flank feathers is the wings of dry flies. In fact, the upright and split woodduck flank wings on such flies as the Quill Gordon and the Hendrickson is the hallmark of Catskill style dry flies. It's not the only use for these precious feathers, however. Woodduck flank feathers are used in flies ranging from tiny emerging midge imitations to large trolling smelt streamers.
In the early days of Catskill fly fishing, it seemed that each classic dry fly had a matching wet fly. While mainly out of fashion these days, a few of these old patterns remain quite effective in our trout streams. A few of my favorites include the Light Cahill, the Dark Cahill, the Hendrickson, and the Quill Gordon. The Quill Gordon wet, in particular, is an effective fly fished during a hatch because the dun emerges from it's nymphal shuck on the stream bottom and rises to the surface of the stream as with crumpled wings and flailing legs. While the Quill Gordon wet may not be a perfect anatomical representation of this stage of the emergence, it certainly is appropriate and it has brought many early season fish to hand.
Streamer Shoulders and Wings
If you look at a classic Rangeley style New England Streamer, you'll see one of the key features that separates these streamers from all other types of baitfish imitations. That is the use of a "shoulder" feather that simulates the head and gill plate of a baitfish. While many feathers are used for this purposes, there is little doubt that the Silver Pheasant is the most common. Woodduck flank is used on quite a few very beautiful streamers - from as far back as those designed by Carrie Stevens to modern flies designed by Mike Martinek, Jr. and his contemporaries. The woodduck with it's beautiful mottling and lovely "buff" color makes for a very striking shoulder on a streamer.
Nymphs and Emergers
The mottling and coloration of woodduck flank feathers make them very appropriate for tails and legs on mayfly nymphs and emergers. Since you only need a few fibers per tail or set of legs, it's a shame to waste a full feather for these purposes. When I prepare flank feathers for dry fly wings or wet fly wings, there always seems to be some leftover feather that can either be thrown away or save for nymph tails and legs.
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