How to Tie a Fly with Deer Hair

Fly Fishing Expert Robert Levin explains the three main techniques to tie great flies with deer hair.

A reddish brow sculpin with green eyes.

Photo by Robert Levin

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One of the most popular materials used for fly tying is deer hair. Being a natural material, it can be inconsistent in texture and structure to a great degree. In this article, I will attempt to give you tips on how to select it for different applications and control some of its inconsistent characteristics.

Deer hides are harvested from a number of different deer species and at different times of the year. This alone causes a great number of the variations of this material in the marketplace. Hair growth on different parts of the hide is not uniform and accounts for many other variations. Let’s go over some of these variations you will see in samples being sold in the fly-tying material marketplace.

Guard Hairs

Most of the longer hairs on the pelt are guard hairs. For the most part, these hairs are hollow. The hair is not actually empty in the middle like a drinking straw; there is a network of air-filled cells in the middle and this trapped air adds to the insulation quality of the hide. This also makes the hair very buoyant.

Within this guard-hair growth there is a fine underfur that typically gets brushed out before tying with the hair. This is much more prevalent in the winter coat. Fly tying material suppliers typically include the location on the hide that the portion of hair came from, so let’s take a look at what some of the characteristics are of these different parts.

Variations on the Hide

Deer hair from the belly of late-season harvested northern whitetail hides is typically the longest and thickest hollow hair. It flares out at 90 degrees when compressed by the thread. It is used for large muddlers and bass bugs and is mostly spun in place or stacked. These methods will be illustrated later.

Hair from the neck and back is shorter, less hollow, straighter, and thinner. It can make good tails and wings. Hair from coastal deer (those not living in northern whitetail or mule deer territory) tends to have these same characteristics, making it better for small size flies.

Deer hair from other parts of the body is typically somewhere between these two. Many of the types of deer hair tying patches are bleached and then dyed in various colors. Thicker, longer hair tends to have a curl set, especially on the thinner, tapered, and more solid ends. When spinning heads on a bass bug, this part is trimmed off. When tying collars or skirts on a fly, straight hairs are much more preferable.

Here is a link to a good article on how to bring a patch of tying hair back to a straight form. If you are selecting deer hair patches at a shop and not buying them online, try to find the straightest ones on display.

Hair from related animals like elk, caribou, or even moose find their way to the tying bench but not nearly in as many patterns as deer hair. Of course, the Elk Hair Caddis is an exception and is a standard that is widely used.

Tying Methods

Spinning and Packing

Four photos demonstrate the spinning and packing method. The captions read "Position the hair bunch;" "Spin the hair by go of the bunch as you continue to wind on the thread;" "Continue to add bunches;" and "When all the hair is placed, trim to shape."

Photos by Robert Levin

The tying of muddlers, sculpins, bass bugs, and similar flies accounts for a large portion of the deer hair fly tying use. Let’s go over the methods to tie these.

Put a larger size hook, like a 1 or 2, in the vise. Clip off a bunch of hair from a deer hair patch about the diameter of a pencil. With your thread already started on the hook somewhere close to the middle, place the bunch of hair alongside the hook shank and make several soft turns of the thread around the hook shank and bundle of hair but don’t pull the thread tight yet.

Assuming you are right-handed, you will be holding the hair in place with your thumb and fingers of your left hand. As you begin to pull the thread tight with the bobbin in your right hand, you will release the hold of the bunch of hair and continue to pull tight while you make several more wraps around the hook. It needs to be done simultaneously.

As the first loops tighten on the bunch of hair, it cannot fall away from the hook and it begins to spin and flare out perpendicular to the hook shank, as shown below. You are not tying a completed fly just yet, but just practicing spinning on a bunch of hair. It is this timing you want to be comfortable with. Repeat this step until you are!

When you are actually tying a muddler or sculpin fly, you will have created the tail and body of the fly first. It is easier to practice with a blank hook shank. Each time you do this step of spinning on a small bundle of hair while tying the actual fly, you will “pack” the bundle and repeat the step in front of that bundle again and again until you have created the head. If you use different colored hair, you create rings around the head.

A multi-colored sculpin made with deer hair.

Photo by Robert Levin

Packing is the process of pressing back the flared hair into a tighter bundle as you go forward. This can be done with a purchased or homemade tool called a hair packer, which looks something like the image below. You can also use a short section of plastic tube, like an empty pen body.

Product image of hair packing tools.

Stacking

Some patterns call for “stacking” the colors, not spinning. Here is that process: Put a larger size hook, like a 1 or 2, in the vise. Clip off a bunch of hair from a deer hair patch about the diameter of a pencil. With your thread already started on the hook somewhere close to the middle, place the bunch of hair alongside the hook shank and make several soft turns of the thread around the hook shank and bundle of hair but don’t pull the thread tight yet.

Assuming you are right-handed, you will be holding the hair in place with your thumb and fingers of your left hand. As you begin to pull the thread tight, you will not release the hold of the bunch of hair and continue to pull tight as you make several more wraps around the hook. You keep the bunch of hair in place and just let it flare out. That is called stacking the hair. This allows you to create a pattern like a fish’s head.

A smaller tan and brown sculpin made with deer hair.

Photo by Robert Levin

Some flies, like the one above, have a deer-hair skirt tied on behind the head. Those hairs are not flared up at 90 degrees from the hook shank. The fly recipe will call for the appropriate hair type to do this; typically neck or hock hair.

Some flies, like the one above, have a deer-hair skirt tied on behind the head. Those hairs are not flared up at 90 degrees from the hook shank. The fly recipe will call for the appropriate hair type to do this; typically neck or hock hair.

Trimming

Many patterns you tie with deer hair require trimming the packed hair to a rounded head or body shape. This can be done in a number of ways. Seasoned fly tiers settle on a method that works best for them and the type of flies they like to do.

If you are new to this, I suggest you start with curved scissors designed for cutting hair. A number are offered in the marketplace. The ones with carbide edges will stand up over time and cut cleanly. Some have fine serrations along the edge of one side and that helps keep the hairs from sliding away as the blades close. The same type of blades are available as straight scissors as well as curved.

Go slowly when doing this step — once you clip the hair away, you can’t paste it back. It takes some practice to get comfortable with doing this, for sure. Have a reference photo or sketch of the finished fly in front of you when starting the trim. Be patient, it gets easier as you go along!

Some tiers who make a lot of these kinds of flies will at some point graduate to trimming with an arched double-edge razor blade. As you know, these are very sharp and a slip-up can be traumatic. There are tools designed to hold a blade in an arch, but be sure to wear eye protection if you try one of these. I hate to think of one of these blades popping out of the holder.

Any method you use will still create a bunch of waste hair particles. Do the trimming over an open waste bag or receptacle, or else you might end up with more than an over-trimmed fly to deal with.

The author's deer hair is stored in small plastic folders.

Photo by Robert Levin

Deer hair patches are offered everywhere fly-tying materials are available. The quality will not be all the same. If you find a source for what you are looking for—nice, straight hair—buy extra. Store in a cool place away from the light, preferably in a well-closed plastic container (not a Ziploc bag) to keep out critters and it can last a lifetime. Ziploc bags aren’t preferred because they don’t allow the patch to adjust to humidity and can cause the bending over of the hairs. Plastic organizers with open sleeves like those shown below are a great way to store the patches and have the hairs stay much straighter. See if you can find something that works for you here.

Samples of Flies Tied with Deer Hair

Examples of the flies the author has tied with deer hair. Patterns include the sculpin, the bass bug, the frog tie, and the mouse.

Photos by Robert Levin

This definitely is one of those materials where practice makes perfect. Fortunately, there is an abundance of this material in the marketplace and it is not particularly expensive. Once you get the feel of how the different thicknesses of hair respond to the pressure of the thread, you have good control of the flaring and can create shapes more easily. Obtain some samples of the different weights and experiment a bit with each. Before you know it you will be turning out some great surface flies that catch fish. If you have any questions, reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations. See you on the water with tight lines.

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Written By
Robert Levin
Robert Levin
Fly Fishing Expert
I have been an avid fisherperson since my teenage years. Caught the bug from my dad who fished exclusively with a fly rod. Not that he ever fished with a fly on that rod, he trusted the weight of the fly line as it would not break when he pulled a five foot Chain Pickerel out of the lily pads in the...
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