Wet Fly Wing Mounting Methods

Questions about wet fly wings are often raised with particular reference to the appearance of quill wings on the finished fly. Many years ago I learned to tie wet flies using a winging technique which is probably the most traditional method. My earliest wet fly tying followed Ray Bergman’s instruction in his book Trout. In the chapter “On Tying Flies” he presented the following method: “For wet flies, place the two even and concave edges together, with the tips pointing inward and touching each other.” This method faces the top, or dull side of the quill slips together.

Study of historic 20th century sources of wet fly dressings indicate that normally the barb sections which form the wings are tied in with the tips pointing up. The line drawings and Dr. Edgar Burke’s accurate color plate wet fly paintings in Trout clearly confirm the tip-up style. When tied in this way the wings flatten out somewhat. In the 1950 book Flies, by J. Edson Leonard, the author refers to this technique as the Closed Wing method; and he also states this is the most traditional and most accepted way to position wet fly wings.

Over the years my observations have led to the conclusion that wet fly wings can actually be tied in any of four different ways. These four wing-mounting styles begin in one of two methods: The previously mentioned Closed Wing and the Divided Wing, an alternative method discussed by Leonard in Flies. The Divided Wing faces the concave sides outward, producing a slightly flared attitude in the wing which can vary from fly to fly depending on the curvature of the quill sections used. It is important for fly tiers to understand whether using the Closed Wing or Divided Wing method that the actual attitude of the wings will vary from one fly to the next, even when multiple flies are made from the same pair of wing quills. This is due to the fact that feather barbs do not retain uniformity of character and curvature along the entire length of the useable portion of the stem.

Both of these methods traditionally attach the quills slips with the tips pointing up. However, within either Closed or Divided Wing methods, there are two additional methods of individual preference that position the wings with the tips pointing down. Flies, Lake Flies, and a good many of the Bass Flies, though some tiers who contributed to Marbury’s book, favored wings tied “”flaring outward” especially when using whole feathers. This provided an open and closing action when retrieved.

J. Edson Leonard states in his book Flies that his preferential wing style is the Divided Wing. He believed as I do, that the Divided Wing method, with its outward-flaring feather tips creates more action when fished. Imagine as the wing opens, closes, and pulses in the water, responding to line manipulation by the angler; this movement arguably increases the effectiveness of the fly. In comparison the action of wet flies with Closed Wings is somewhat dampened. The Divided Wing method also produces better balance of the wing because it eliminates the misalignment of the Closed Wing style that often results from exaggerated concave curves opposing each other. Additionally I believe that the Divided Wing style, facing the dull side of the feather outward, produces the best appearance due to the fact that the color and texture of the top side of the barbs is the most attractive and the most vivid. Visual impact is of utmost significance, though probably more so to fly tiers than to fish.

While I clearly have my preferences, I do not believe that one of these wing styles is the only acceptable method. A well-known proponent of the Closed Wing tip-down style is the prolific fly fishing and fly tying author Dave Hughes. He espouses and promotes the tip-down method. The venerable and opinionated Pennsylvania fly fishing and fly tying legend George Harvey preferred tip down, and as George, the “Dean of Fly Fishing,”  could occasionally be, he was very adamant about this. In the end it is a matter of personal preference.

This writing is excerpted from my Traditional Wet Flies article in the 2010 print edition of Hatches Magazine. Signed copies of this issue may be ordered by contacting me at: dwbastian@chilitech.net

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Silver Black Gnat displaying the four styles of wet fly wings. Clockwise from upper left: Closed Wing – Tip Up; Divided Wing – Tip Up; Divided Wing – Tip Down; and Closed Wing -Tip Down. Note: these flies are all hackled with the collar applied after the wing, which is just one of four styles of wet fly hackles.