Take a Gamebird Fishing


6 flies you can tie from upland bird feathers

By Nick Simonson

Any upland gamebird in the gamebag offers more than just a meal fit for kings. Feathers from quail, pheasants, and all manner of both prairie and forest grouse, offer another kind of trophy: fishing flies.

Nymphs, dries, hoppers, streamers, simple, challenging, basic and ornate — all things are possible with gamebird feathers. And in late season, feathers are mature and at their finest for both color and condition. 
Even seemingly dull feathers, barred in brown and black, make great flies that will catch everything from the wiliest wild rainbow trout to summer bluegills which attack with reckless abandon.

While rooster pheasant tailfeathers so commonly used in the bodies, tails and legs of various flies are the first ones thought of by hunters as well as tackle crafters, there are a variety of other feathers that truly make upland birds shine in the wild and when it comes to crafting fly patterns at the vise.

Underbody plumes from quail or pheasants ro grouse, soft and wispy in nature, can easily replace strung marabou in streamer patterns such as that found in the tail of the ubiquitous woolly bugger. Rump feathers and church windows on the back of the bird make marvelous soft hackling for collars that look great to fish in simple offerings.


Saving just one gamebird pelt can provide feathers for a winter’s worth of tying. The ideal pelt will be from an older bird; their feathers are the biggest and most well-developed of any in the game bag, but choose a bird not beat up by shot or dog.


Fly fishing and fly tying are for everybody and anybody! Any fish that swims — and eats — can be caught on the fly, and likely on a pattern tied from feathers. The challenge of creating each pattern can be mastered with a bit of practice by even individuals with digital dexterity that registers on the “all thumbs” end of the scale!

  Getting started in fly fishing itself requires only a basic 5-weight rod-and-reel combination (which often retails for under a hundred bucks)  and can handle most anything from sunfish, crappies and trout on up to medium-sized pike and bass; and all those fish can be caught on upland bird feather patterns.

Tying one’s own flies is even less expensive. The basic tools required are a vise, scissors, bobbin and whip finisher. The entire kit shouldn’t cost more than $50 from any online retailer and often comes with secondary implements such as a hackle pliers and hair stacker for more advanced tying techniques.

The vise holds the hook, the scissors trim and cut materials to shape for placement, and the bobbin secures it all together with thread wraps before the whip finisher locks it all down with a final knot.
There are countless tutorials on the web in both print and video format to help new fly tiers up the learning curve, but finding a mentor or area fly tying club with members looking to share their wisdom helps even more.
Two-material flies, or even those with just one, are the best way to understand how to adjust tension on a vise and bobbin, secure and manipulate materials on the hook shank, and get that little bit of extra practice needed to build thread heads and tie off the fly with a whip finish knot.


Start with larger-sized nymphs and wet flies and other simple streamer patterns such as the woolly bugger or a marabou leech, then work on smaller or more intricate patterns later. Six patterns with materials coming from game bird feathers follow. Experiment with each one and add personal flair and other alterations.



HOOK: Nymph Size 10-16
THREAD: Black 6/0
BODY: Peacock Herl
SHELL: PT Fibers
WING: Folded PT Fibers
The Swept Hackle Wing All-Purpose Fly (or SHWAPF), designed by the late Black Hills fly angler Al Campbell, can be modified to match any insect. Tie in 8 pheasant tail fibers at the bend so they’re about twice the length of the hook shank, and then 3 strands of krystal flash. Advance the thread and wrap the flash forward for the underbody. Then tie the flash off and trim the excess. Fold the PT fibers forward to form the shell and secure with a couple thread wraps. Once locked in, fold them back to form the wing and make a thread head before tying off with a whip finisher.


HOOK: 2X Long Nymph, Size 10-14
THREAD: Black 6/0
TAILS & BODY: Dark Grouse Rump Fibers
RIB: Medium Copper Wire
A pulsing mini-leech for trout and panfish, this pattern by Jim Teeny wiggles its three sets of tied-in grouse fibers in an undulating fashion. Try using red or orange thread to form the head to make it a mini egg-sucking leech and to add some attractive color to the pattern when fish call for it.


HOOK: 2X Long Nymph, Size 10-14
THREAD: Black 6/0
HEAD: Black Bead
TAIL: 8 Moose or Deer Hairs 
DUBBING: Peacock Ice Dub
COLLAR: 2 Turns of Quail Breast Feathers 
Quail feathers make great collaring for soft-hackle flies and can be used throughout the body or just up behind the head.


HOOK: Curved Dry, Size 10-14
TAILS & BODY: 8 Moose or Deer Hair Fibers
HACKLE: Bobwhite Quail Breast Feathers 
POST: Bunched White Pheasant Neck Feathers
Designed to imitate a transitioning insect such as a mayfly in its most vulnerable state when stuck on the surface, this pattern was originally designed by Norwegian fly guru Einar Bratteng and combines the meatiness of a nymph with the surface draw of a dry fly. Grease up the hackle with some floatant and keep an eye on the white neck feather post as it drifts.


HOOK: Dry Size 12-16
HACKLE: Bobwhite Quail Breast Feather 
Trimmed in Back, Left Full in Front
WING: Quail Breast Feather
With tightly wrapped hackle, this surface fly skitters like the real thing. Brush a bit of Sally Hansen’s Hard as Nails over the feathers to ensure easy folding and durability, and color with a black sharpie and use darker hackle to imitate black caddis species.


HOOK: Collarless Jig 1/32  -1/ 64  oz
TAIL: Grouse Rump Feathers
BODY: Medium Chenille
HACKLE: Quail Breast Feathers
COLLAR: 2 Turns of Church Window Feather 
Named for a state park in southwestern Minnesota and its stretch of Redwood River loaded with eager browns, the Camden Crunch is a trout jig that pulls double-duty on the fly rod and light tackle. Keep the tails short to cut down on missed strikes and trim the hackle for that “crunchy” look. Works great on crappies too!

Nick Simonson is an outdoor journalist from Bismarck, North Dakota. He is a previous Pheasants Forever Volunteer of the Year (Minnesota) and hunts and fishes with his Lab Ole throughout the Upper Midwest.