Peninsula Fly Fishers

The Four Temperaments of Peacock Herl

by Rodney Chun

March 2005

Peacock feather
Figure 1. Basic peacock eye feather.

If you've been tying flies for any length of time, you start to notice subtle differences between the appearance of your own flies and those tied by more experienced tiers. To me – a rank amateur at best – this feeling hits me most when visiting the winter fly fishing exhibitions like the San Mateo and San Rafael shows. The fly tying exhibitors are always crafting spectacular flies. The finishes are always luxurious and tidy, and the line-ups of flies look like they are ready for shadow boxes. I've always told myself that the difference must be a result of the higher quality materials that the "pros" use.

Of course, this is just denial. More often than not, there are tricks in the application of materials which greatly enhance the final quality of the fly. This article illustrates one of these tricks in the use of peacock herl, a material used in some of my favorites flies such as the Peasant Tail, the Copper John, and the ubiquitous Royal Wulff. I should note that I learned this from Phil Fischer of Phil's Custom Trout Flies who was tying at the ISE show between Ukiah Charlie and Dave Kruss. I am very grateful that he stopped work on his creations to show me something as basic as the lesson here.

Four ties
Figure 2. Four different effects from the same peacock herl.

Figure 2 illustrates the basic theme. All four "clumps" in Figure 2 were tied with peacock herl taken from the single feather in Figure 1. Each clump consists of exactly 10 turns of herl. I think you would agree that there are some obvious differences among all four clumps, and if I were tying Royal Wulffs, the longest, bushiest, and most luxurious abdomen would come from clump "D" followed by clump "B." I hope you would also agree that "A" and "C" are just plain lame and look like herl on a fly bought from K-Mart.

The secret here is that there are four ways of selecting and tying peacock herl. Unless you are constructing a dubbing loop with your herl, knowing this technique will substantially improve the quality of your ties. Clumps "A" and "B" were tied using a herl taken from the right side of the peacock feather, while "C" and "D" were tied using herl from the left side. The following discussion applies if you are a right-handed tier and you tie in the conventional direction – e.g. you tie so that the bobbin starts between you and the hook, then goes up and over the top and around the back. If you are left-handed (or Dave Kruss), I think you will have to reverse everything that I'm about to tell you.

Left Herl
Figure 3. Herl from the left-side of the feather

Figures 3 and 4 present diagrams of herl taken from the left and right side of the peacock feather respectively. If you cut a piece of herl off the feather and squint at it, you will realize that it is far from symmetrical. If you removed the herl from the left-side of the feather and you orient it as shown in Figure 3, there will be short bristles to the left and long bristles to the right. The stem itself has an interesting shape too. The "top" of the herl is relatively flat while the bottom is usually a "ridge" of material that is perpendicular to the plane made by the bristles. On herl taken from the right-side of the feather, (Figure 4) the left bristles will be the long ones and the right bristles will be short.

Right Herl
Figure 4. Herl from the right-side of the feather

This asymmetry gives us a clue why there are four ways to tie herl. Once we've attached the herl, either the short or the long bristles can be outward facing (radially away from the hook's long axis, like spokes from a bicycle hub). Furthermore, the herl can be attached so that the flat herl "top" is facing left (back towards the hook bend) or facing right (forward towards the hook eye). This results in four possible combinations. To get the correct orientation, follow these two rules:

Rule 1: Tie on the herl so that the flat herl "top" is facing left. If you wrap carefully and keep the herl oriented in this direction, each consecutive wrap can be made very close to the previous wrap, without inadvertently trapping any of the bristles from previous turns. On the other hand, if you fail to do this, each wrap would be separated by the herl "ridge" leading to skimpy coverage as exhibited by clumps "A" and "C" in Figure 2.

Rule 2: Attach the herl to the hook so that the long bristles will be oriented out (and the short bristles in) as you wrap. Thus, if you want to satisfy Rule 1 and simultaneously have the long bristles facing out, you can only use the herl from the left side of the peacock feather – e.g. the herl shown in Figure 3. In fact this results in clump "D." Clump "B" resulted from respecting the first rule, but breaking the second rule. This is why "B" is dense, but shorter than clump "D."

So the bottom line is that if you are right handed, select herl from the left side of the peacock feather and attach it to the hook carefully so the flat herl tops face left. This will guarantee that you get the longest and densest abdomens and bodies. Also, another lesson here is that strung peacock herl is inferior to using feather-herl because it will take time to determine the herl's orientation.

Finally, readers who are really good at spatial relationships might note that everything I've said here assumes that we are tying the herl to our hooks at the stem's thick end, and not by its tips. Of course, if we allow for this additional degree of freedom, the total number of possibilities increases to eight! But I won't go there. As most of my professors have uttered on many occasions, "This is left as an exercise for the reader."

As a closing anecdote, while Phil was showing this to me at the ISE Show, the woman standing next to me gasped as if she had had an epiphany. We turned to look at her and she blurted out, "That's why so-and-so was giving me free peacock feathers with the left side missing."

Tight threads!

– Rodney Chun

© The Peninsula Fly Fishers 1976-2023
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software