A Guide to Feathers Used in Fly Tying

Updated: Mar 5, 2021  This Is An Article by Marc Fryt   Everyday I am learning more and more of the components used in Trout To Salmon, Bass to Pan Fish, Tarpon and Saltwater FlyFishing, Spey, Nymph, Tenkara, and Keiryu.   

Then I found a few articles with merit and knowledge,  I am abbreviating, fitting my web style, process and listing their location for you to get the whole picture. They are a heck of a lot more knowledgeable about fishing with feathers than I am.  My experience was with pillows and hats.  There are great leads and forwards to prolific and deeper info on his site.  He really gets into the real stuff you should know.  And makes great suggestions on what to make with the data.

  • Feathers are an integral part of fly tying, yet it can be confusing reading the variety of feathers used in fly pattern recipes. It can be frustrating buying packages of feathers only to find out they were not the right kind for what the fly pattern needed.

  • Also, some feathers can also be difficult to come by and it would be nice to know about any substitutes. Below is a general guide on common feathers used in fly tying like: CDC, turkey biots, wood duck, quills, peacock herl, pheasant tails, and so on. 

  • Lastly, much of fly tying is about experimenting and trying out unique ways to create flies, so substitute feathers, tie them in different ways, combine them on fly patterns. There are no hard and fast rules to fly tying. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them in the comments section below.

Chickens —  

  • There is a wide array of chicken feathers in fly tying including dry fly hackle, soft hackle (wet fly hackle), schlappen, strung saddles, CDL (coq de Leon), saddles and capes, tailing materials, etc. 

  • Rather than trying to squeeze all of that into this guide I created a separate article: A Guide to Chicken Feathers Used for Fly Tying.

Duck —  

  • These feathers are used in a wide assortment of fly patterns and in an array of applications like: tails for dries and nymphs, collars on wet flies or streamers, wings and wing posts, nymph legs, wing cases, antennae, wings on streamers, and so on. 
  • The duck species that are mainly used in fly patterns are wood duck, mallard, and teal. All these feathers have long soft fibers, they can have barring (though how much barring depends on the species of duck), and are lightly colored.

                                                    Wally Wing pattern tied with duck feathers

Wood Duck  

  • Wood duck can be dyed and used for many things like dry and wet fly wings, collars, streamer wings and shoulders. Some wood duck feathers also have a heavy black and white barring near the tip of the feather, and these are known for their use in classic salmon flies. On the other hand, lemon barred wood duck feathers are the signature feathers used in the traditional Catskill-style dry flies to make the split wings.

  • The issue with wood duck is that it has been harder to come by and as a result are expensive, luckily there are substitutes. Both mallard and teal flank feathers can be a substitute for wood duck, they are also cheaper than wood duck so you won't break the bank tying flies. 


  • Mallard flank feathers come from under the wing of the bird. These feathers can be a substitute for wood duck, they can even be dyed to match the wood duck color or a variety of other colors. The barring on the feathers is a little more faded than wood duck and the feather fibers can be somewhat softer than wood duck. Some fly shops will also sell packages of sorted larger mallard flank feathers which makes it convenient when you need the larger sizes for tying streamers.
  • Teal    Teal ducks are another substitute for wood duck, and like mallard have slightly softer fibers than wood duck. These are smaller birds so their flank feathers are generally smaller than mallard and wood duck, however they have a nice dark barring that is more pronounced than mallard.

CDC   Cul de Canard  

  • CDC is french for "duck bottom" or less eloquently "duck's butt" and these feathers come from the preen glands of ducks .

  • There are a few main reasons why fly tyers like using CDC in their patterns. The first is that these feathers have those preening oils which provides natural floatant to flies. 

  • Second, CDC feathers have a network of fibers that branch out into even smaller fibers which increases surface tension by trapping air bubbles and helps flies to float.
                                                                                                                                         CDC used in a nymph pattern
  •  Third, all those fibers provide amazing movement particularly when used in nymph or emerger patterns underwater which turns up the "bugginess" of the fly pattern.                                                               

Duck Quills/Primary Wing Feathers/Duck Slips   

  • Duck quills (aka mallard quills, mallard primary wing feathers) are taken from a mallard's wing and have webby/thicker feather fibers. They are most often used for winged wet flies, dry fly wings, and no hackle dry flies. They are commonly sold as 'matched pairs' (one from each wing of the bird) which helps you to match up 'slips' of quills to create wings.


  • The ruffed grouse is the most popular species of grouse for fly tying, and when you see patterns that call for grouse it is most likely ruffed grouse (and it can be a male or female grouse). Frequently, grouse is sold as entire bird skin or just a package of the soft hackle feathers. An entire skin can provide feathers for soft hackles, tailing material, wing slips, even cape feathers for dry fly hackle. In the pelt there can also be a considerable mix of natural colors with browns, blacks, tans, whites, and lots of speckled feathers.


  • Guinea or Guinea fowl are native bird to Africa but have been domesticated in other parts of the world. In fact, Whiting Farms out in Colorado has been breeding guinea and they provide a range of guinea fly tying feathers. Like other exotic birds, these have been in fly tying for centuries and are most notably used in classic salmon flies.

  • Feathers from Guinea fowl are unique in that they can have a mottled look with spots of varying sizes. A full guinea skin can be used for soft hackles, collars, nymph legs and wing cases, in other words lots of options just like with a full grouse skin. Whiting Farms also dyes guinea into a range of colors and sells the full skin or pieces of it. 

Ostrich and Rhea  

  • This is another feather material that has traditional use in salmon flies dating back to the 18th century. Today, the material is still used for those flies but can be applied to many other patterns. Ostrich is typically sold by the feather and you can get either usually buy an herl plume or marabou.

  • The herl plumes have very long feather fibers that are either fluffy or slender, it just depends on the package you get. They can also be dyed in a various colors and be barred or dotted. Herl can be wrapped or stacked to tie intruder patterns, it can be used to create wings on streamers, it can be a ribbing material for nymph bodies, and can also be sparingly used to create gills/legs and collars on nymphs. 


  • If wood duck is the staple for wings in Catskill-style dry flies, partridge is a staple for soft hackle/wet flies. There are numerous species of partridge but Hungarian partridge is most commonly used when you see 'partridge' listed in a fly pattern.

  • The feathers are used a lot in wet flies because of the softness of the feather and the natural mottled look that fly-tiers crave. Both male and female pelts are used and you can buy a full skin which will have a spectrum of earth-tone colors like tan, black, rust, white, and so on (much like grouse, but partridge feathers are smaller than grouse feathers).                                                                                                        Caddis pupa tied with partridge


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  • There are a multitude of ways to tie with pheasant. There are also a lot of species, but I will cover the most common which is ringneck pheasant. 

  • A full skin of this bird has incredible versatility and range of colors. If you ever wanted to experiment with fly patterns then using a pheasant skin to see what you can come up with is a good place to start.




  • When it comes to peacock most of what fly tyers are interested in are the peacock eye feathers which are the bright feathers that have those iridescent eyes in the center. You can either buy the entire peacock eye or parts of it. 

  • The peacock eye contains two really handy materials: herl and quills. The herl are mainly the feathers outside of the peacock eye (the fully 'green' fibers) and can be cut and wrapped to make incredible bodies and thoraxes.                                                                                                                                                
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Starling —  

  • An invasive bird in the U.S. the starling may be a nuisance but it makes great soft hackle material from size 12 all the way down to 20s and 22s (which are difficult to come by in partridge, grouse, and hen feathers).

  • Some of the feathers are tipped with a brownish-orange pop of color which can make for some cool wings or eyes on wet flies
  • Also, besides these qualities starling is also very cheap and those colored tipped feathers can even be substitutes for jungle cock.

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  • Turkey wing (also called quills) and tail feathers are very functional and can be used to make tails and wing slips (like on a muddler minnow), wrap bodies on nymph/emerger/dry flies, create grasshopper wings, and form wing cases on nymphs.

  • They are usually sold as matched pairs and there are also various colors, mottling, and barring that turkey feathers can have, so looking at the feather in-person or a photo of the actual product can help you to see the pattern/color you are buying.

  • There are turkey biots (also called biot quills) and these can be used as tails, wing cases, or create segmented bodies on nymph/emerger/dry flies. Smaller goose biot compared to turkey biot

  • There are also turkey flats which can be substitutes for duck quills in order to make wings and wing posts 

  • Lastly, there is turkey marabou which is larger than chickabou but smaller than ostrich marabou and comes in numerous colors with or without barring. Over the last several years, multiple marabou products have come out in all sizes and grades and rather than trying to list out all the various differences there is a short video by Kelly Galloup where he discusses choosing the right marabou (I highly recommend watching that).

Again this is only a small part of the site that is an encyclopedia of feathers  He has posted suggestions, leads, where to, whose got what, to usage and combinations, selection, quality and fly suggestions that work  by someone I am learning from.