deer hair guide barry ord clarke

The ultimate guide to deer hair part 1.

Having been a passionate fly tyer and deer hunter for the best part of my life, It became a natural progression for me to embrace the material these animals have provided me with over the years and learn everything I could about their different qualities and applications within fly tying.

Although the fly tyres world is filled with a magnitude of materials both natural and synthetic, there is probably only hackle that can lend itself to so many applications and techniques as deer hair can.  Tails, wings, bodies, heads, legs, posts even hackles and parachutes. It can be used to create the smallest delicate dries and dyed, spun, packed and sculpted with a blade and sand paper to make the largest predator alien hair bugs. All this can all be achieved with only deer hair!

The properties of deer hair, it’s versatility and abundant availability, have made it an integral part of the international fly tying scene. In Europe after the introduction of the spun and clipped Muddler head in the 50s from across the Atlantic, fly tyres knew that deer hair was not only a good tying material, but deer hair flies where also catching fish!  But fly tyers where inexperienced in its uses.  Moreover it was felt that deer hair was extremely variable in quality, sometimes an unreliable, brittle material, that did not always full fill the required tasks. This was not only due to a general poor understanding of deer hair types and uses, but also seasons and processing techniques that determined the character of the end product. 

The great Chris Helm watching me tie with deer hair.

In the 1990s all this changed for the better, due largely to Steve Kennerk of Rocky Mountain Dubbing Company in Wyoming, and Christopher Helm from Toledo, Ohio who at the time, ran Whitetail Fly Tieing Supplies. Firstly, RMD introduced quality deer hair into the European market and Chris became active at shows in the UK and Europe. Through his enthusiastic and pedagogic demonstrations, seminars and articles published in the fishing press, a whole new understanding of the material was opened for the British and European fly tyer.

A hairs difference.

In 1994 Steve Kennerk and the late British fly tyer and photographer Terry Griffiths produced a small four page leaflet entitled A Hairs difference – the ultimate guide to tying with deer hair  which was a very helpful introduction to the selection of the right type of hair for the job at hand.

Quite amusing. I just photographed these two leaflets on the floor of my tying room, but it wasn’t until I put them on a large screen that I noticed all the fly tying paraphernalia on and in-between the floor boards!

Juxtaposed to this where Chris Helms seminar notes entitled ‘Tips for Selecting Deer Hair‘ which was also an invaluable aid and contained maps showing the range of mule deer subspecies, ranges of whitetail deer subspecies and a numbered diagram of the skin of a Northern Woodland Whitetail deer indicating the types of hair available from different locations on the hide and their primary applications. 

The term ‘deer hair‘ loosely describes hair from seventeen subspecies of whitetail deer, eight subspecies of mule deer, elk, antelope, caribou and moose. In addition the European market offers, reindeer, roe, red, fallow and muntjac. The characteristics of all these animals hair will vary depending on age, sex, diet, and hereditary influence.  If that were not enough to get your head around, climate, geography, and when in the calendar it was killed will also provide some of the most important variables along with the end processes of skinning, tanning, bleaching and dying. 

However, the two species of deer most commonly processed for the international fly tying industry as ‘deer hair‘ are Northern Woodland whitetail and Rocky Mountain mule deer. The other hairs that are commonly used are those of the Texas whitetail and the West Coast Columbian whitetail. ‘Coastal’ deer hair is today a general term referring to hair of animals from the western coast of the US. 

Climate and geography:

This is probably the most singular determining factor as to the final structure of deer hair and its uses for the fly tyer. Although seasons vary depending on geographic location, this is a good guide to understanding the key factors as to seasonal effects on deer hair and the best times and factors for harvesting. There is also a chain of thought that the climate plays little if no role what so ever, in determining the summer or winter coat of deer, and this is entirely determined by the deers pineal gland and photoperiod sensitivity of the animal, which functions (simplified) on how many hours daylight there are in a 24hr period. i.e.; The less daylight the thicker the coat the more daylight the thinner the coat. So the further North you go during the winter the shorter the days, and in the summer the longer the days…easy!

European Roe deer summer coat and European Roe winter coat below. All three of these animals where shot within 200 yards of each other. The early season coat on the 16 August, the mid season 22 October and the winter on the 23 December, all in the same year.

Early season:

Here in Northern Europe in my home town in Norway, where I do most of my deer hunting, we are blessed with long days and moderately warm summers and long harsh winters with only a few hours of daylight per day. Normally with a temperature difference between the two of around 50 C. Our hunting season for roebucks begins at the tail end of summer on the 16 August. If the summer has been warm and dry the hair is short, straight, extremely fine structured, somewhat stiff, with deep red brown tips and a pale grey base, with extremely fine tapered points, almost paint brush quality. In addition to this the hide is without any noticeable fat layer when skinned. This combination with little rain also means that the hair will be almost fat free and totally void of underfur. All these factors make the hair from the summer coat effortless to stack and with hardly any flaring when compressed, making it ideal for traditional tails and wings on dry flies. 

European Roe deer mid season hide. The hair during this ‘transitional’ period is extremely difficult and cumbersome to work with and of a questionable quality as its a mixture of late summer hair and early winter hair, of markably different lengths.

Mid season:

Later in the year we can have unbelievably wet Autumns with huge amounts of rainfall throughout September and October. The first cold snap and snowfall however can arrive as early as October. This wet and then cold change also means that the roe has also to change to its winter coat. But unlike us who can change our shorts and t shirt for a warmer attire, this change in deer takes time. The hair during this ‘transitional’ period is extremely difficult and cumbersome to work with and of a questionable quality as its a mixture of late summer hair and early winter hair, of markably different lengths, (not grown out) structure and diameter. This is of little use to the fly tyer for nothing other than, a coarse dubbing. But it has also began the colour transition from red brown to a mottled dark grey with barred tips. A little later in October-November when the roe’s coat has acclimatised and stabilised in length and structure, is what is normally marketed as, mid season deer hair. This is a excellent all-purpose spinning hair for small to medium sized patterns such as Muddler minnows, larger caddis, hoppers, sculpins etc.

European Roe deer winter coat, perfect hair for buoyant flies and spinning.

Late season:

During the darkest and coldest months of the year with the shortest days, the roe adopts its thickest most dense coat. With up to a meter or more snow on the ground for several months, and for the most temperatures in double figures on the wrong side of the thermometer, this is when the roe needs the extra insulation. This hair is thick and spongey when squeezed, with a good amount of underfur for extra insulation and a noticeably more fatty/waxy feel to the touch. The diameter of each individual hair has also increased, containing more and larger air cell honeycombing than at any other time of the year. Creating optimal flaring of 90 degrees when compressed under the pressure of tying thread. This makes it perfect for larger spun deer hair flies. This late season hair can be spun, packed and clipped into almost any desired shape, so tightly that it doesn’t at all resemble deer hair. This is the very best hair for large bass bugs.

The proof is in the pudding. Winter and summer coat comparison. Very different but they both have there uses.

Deer hair technique my video tutorial

My deer hair pattern

Techniques for tying with deer hair Spinning and burning.

Spinning ultra tight bodies with deer hair

My Shove, Shave, Singe and Sand technique for the tightest deer hair bodies.

To be continued…

The ultimate guide to deer hair part 2

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