I have been tying flies for 48 years, but I have only been cementing the wings on Carrie Stevens streamer patterns for about nine months. Even so I still think that I have some advice to offer, based on the combination of my extensive fly tying career and my limited application of cementing about 250 pairs of streamer wings since last June.
Last summer one afternoon I was tying some Carrie Stevens streamer patterns and ran into particular difficulty setting the finished wings on one fly. The pattern in question was my first effort at tying the Big Ben, and is the actual fly in the photo below, a Stevens pattern named after Benjamin Pearson of Byfield, Massachusetts. In fact this photo, posted some months ago in the summer on my blog, features four Carrie Stevens patterns:
Gray Ghost, Merry Widow, Big Ben, America
When I got to tying the Big Ben that day, the wing components just would not settle into place as they should and normally would. I was using the same technique that I had used for 47 years, which in this case, meant tying in the wing feathers all at once; then one shoulder, then the other shoulder, then one cheek at a time. On this fly my usual method was failing me. The completed wing just was not cooperating. A fellow fly tier then suggested I try cementing the components together, and of course I balked. “I never did it that way before,” I said. But I finally gave in and decided I had nothing to lose. I built both sides of the wing in the manner that Carrie Stevens did; cementing the hackles to each other, then cementing the shoulder to the wings, and finally the jungle cock cheek to the shoulder. To my amazement I discovered that when I placed both completed wing assemblies in place on the hook at the head of the fly, they wound on with ease, and it looked perfect. I learned something new that day about tying flies. For a number of years now, I have learned that it is both surprising, and not surprising at all to learn something new in fly tying. Author, fly tier, and angler Poul Jorgenson once said, “Fly tying is a school from which no one ever graduates.”
The Big Ben in this picture is the first streamer fly I ever tied with cemented wings. This set of flies in the photo above is unique in that it is one-of-a-kind collection; three of the flies are tied using my former manner of wing assembly with separately tied-in components, and the Big Ben has the previously assembled, completely cemented wing. The flies in this boxed set are also different because the bands on the heads are all painted on, not made with the tying thread using my specialized technique that I developed a couple months after I began the use the application of banded heads on Carrie Stevens patterns (After not doing banding the heads on Stevens patterns since the late 1980’s). There are a couple other posts here about that topic.They can be found by clicking on the tags at the end of this post. When I got home and continued tying Carrie Stevens patterns, I began to use the “new” cementing technique in earnest. More of this involved making the completed wing assemblies, which I discovered that I liked that process itself very much, kind of like model-building I suppose. I have literally cemented every wing on all the streamers I have tied since then, all Carrie Stevens patterns so far, well over one hundred-fifty individual flies in more than fifty of her different patterns.
When I was once asked what cement I was using, I indicated that I was relying on Elmer’s rubber cement. Basically because that was the only cement I had on hand that was suitable. I would have used Flexament but my bottle was pretty much set up into the consistency of molasses in the middle of a Mooselucmaguntic winter, and I had no thinner. Since E. Hille – The Angler’s Supply House in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, since 1936 closed last March, and the nearest fly shop is now a 44-mile round trip, I looked for a substitute. The tier I was discussing this with had never heard of the use of Elmer’s rubber cement for streamer wings, and our discussion on this cement centered on whether it would hold up, if the bond would last, how strong it was, and was it waterproof, etc. So rather than defend the unknown I decided to put Elmer’s rubber cement to the test. I know that other tiers out there use a variety of cements for cementing streamer wings. Angler’s Corner cement, Sally Hansen, Flexament, etc. I’ve even heard of a tier who used contact cement, but I would hesitate on that because contact cement doesn’t like to have the cemented components moved once “contact” is made, hence its name. Perhaps I got lucky because I really like the job that Elmer’s rubber cement does. Maybe I am being a tad stubborn, but I am very satisfied with the results I am presently achieving and have no desire to experiment. The old adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ comes to mind. And I’ve stated that before. The Elmer’s cement allows repositioning and slight adjustment of the pieces as they are assembled to permit precise alignment of the feather stems. The photo below is of a completed wing for the Stevens pattern, the Jitterbug, with an inner wing of green, then orange, and a shorter pink hackle on the outside. It’s an underwater photo; the wing is shown resting in a bowl of water where it had been for thirty-six hours prior to this shot.
Jitterbug Wing, cemented with Elmer’s rubber cement. This is an underwater photo. The wing assembly was soaked in this bowl of water for 36 hours.
The next thing I did was to remove the wing from the water and give it the “shake test.” For this, I grabbed the wing by the tip of the inside of the three feathers in this pattern and started shaking my wrist. I shook it hard, counting to one-hundred. I shook it so hard my wrist got sore. Then I laid it aside and did something less strenuous. About five minutes later I returned to the scene and, using my left hand, gave this wing the shake test again. Another hundred, hard, arm-numbing shakes. And I’m right-handed so my left arm got more sore and sooner. I had enough and walked away. But I vowed to return. When I made my third visit, I employed another hundred active right-hand wrist shakes, and while a bit shaken from the ordeal, the wing remained intact. The photo below is the Jitterbug wing after a 36-hour soaking and three-hundred hard shakes of my wrists.
Still wet, the intact Jitterbug wing after 36 hours in water and 300 hard shakes of my wrist to test the bonding strength and practicality of Elmer’s rubber cement.
Close-up of the Jitterbug wing. The only effect my test had was a slight splitting of the jungle cock nail.
When I cement the wings for Rangeley Style streamers, I generally apply the cement up the shaft of all the feathers used about the same distance as the length of the jungle cock nail feather. Usually this is about half to five-eighths of an inch. On larger trolling size hooks I’ll cement up to 3/4 of an inch. This technique and the Elmer’s rubber cement work very well.
I really enjoy preparing and cementing the wings for streamer flies; that process in itself is a fun part of the creativity of fly tying.
The text below was added this morning, March 6th, as an edit, thinking this information may be of added benefit to other fly tiers. This follows a comment on the post by Marc Fauvet of The Limp Cobra:
As I noted in the article, my personal experience with cementing streamer wings, a technique pioneered by Carrie Stevens of Maine in the late ’20′s or early 1930′s, was that I knew about it but never had the need or interest to try it. Once I tried it, I fell in love with it. I like the assembly portion of the fly construction, but the main reason I like cementing the wings ahead of time is that it makes setting streamer wings a piece of cake. For me at least. I always position and hold the wings in place, and then make 3 – 4 very tight, at-maximum tension, initial thread wraps. These are made right at the base of the stems and at the every rear edge of the head of the fly. At which point I release my left hand grasp of the wing and check it out. Most of the time it is perfect or nearly so, and if off, it’s only by a few degrees of angular tilt, sometimes vertically, but mostly any misalignment is horizontal along the shank of the hook. A little thumbnail tweak of the butt ends of the stems provides adjustment of the wings, whereupon correction of wing position and attitude, subsequent, strategically-placed tight wraps then permit me to trim any remaining butt ends of feather stems, if necessary. I also prefer to make the heads of Carrie Stevens patterns that I tie a bit elongated as she did, feeling that to accurately replicate another fly tier’s work one should mimic the original style.
I have an idea for my next fly tying demonstration, and that is to incorporate wing-setting into my efforts and make that aspect – setting wings on both wet flies and streamers, a tying-demo priority…for the benefit of viewers and students.
Here is another add-on edit with a bit more info on selecting hackles:
When it comes to selecting streamer feathers, I use whatever is suitable – both neck and saddles. I am fortunate to have a supply of rooster capes bought up to 20 years ago, before genetic engineering of chickens altered the desirable shapes of what streamer tiers look for. Even Carrie Stevens had some degree of inconsistency in the feather tips of the wings on her flies; this can be seen by study of photographs of her originals. With presently available sources, the shape of the tips of feathers varies from bird to bird and pack to pack of strung saddle and neck hackle. Some packages / different manufacturers of strung saddle provide some good streamer feathers, others not. All I can say is visit fly shops and / or buy multiple packs on line of strung saddle hackle, not every feather in a pack will be suitable streamer material, but you’ll get some useable stuff that way. It’s a good idea to also tie bass poppers, deceivers, and woolly buggers where the non-streamer feathers can be used. One could also sell or give these feathers away to friends or fly tying kid’s programs that can use them.