Availability of Spider Materials Today

Moderators: William Anderson, letumgo

Posts: 319
Joined: Fri Apr 08, 2011 9:05 pm

Availability of Spider Materials Today

Post by Greenwell » Wed Apr 03, 2019 8:15 pm

I’ve been reading many of the posts here on the Forum and on other social media regarding Pearsalls silks, it’s now-near unavailability and the search for suitable substitutes. What was a common and overlooked material has now become almost the Holy Grail for many fly dressers, with rumors of single spools of some colors fetching astronomical amounts of money, at least for a spool of thread.

This got me thinking about how quickly things have moved in the world of Spiders, Flymphs, and, I shudder to use the term now, soft hackles, in just the past few years. What was quite recently an esoteric and almost anachronistic side channel of the fly dressing world has exploded into the latest craze with almost everyone who bends feathers to hooks suddenly jumping on the boat. Nothing wrong with the rise in popularity but the always tenuous supply chain of traditional materials has been strained to the limit, to the point where even the most prosaic of feathers and other materials have become nearly impossible for the average fly dresser to find.
Twenty years ago I could count all the Spider tiers/anglers I knew on one hand, today everyone I meet is using them. Let’s consider this a testament to their sound design, ease of dressing, and most of all their effectiveness on the water. I also believe that aside from the fact that they have been catching trout for literally centuries, their graceful good looks and relative ease of construction make them as attractive to anglers as to the trout, hence their popularity. Sadly though, many of the traditional materials used to tie Spiders have almost disappeared.

When I first read Syl Nemes’ “The Soft Hackled Fly” in 1975 I was a 19 year old obsessed with trout fishing (and a couple other interests you’ll have to guess at!). At that time most of the traditional materials were easily available through catalog sellers such as Herter’s, E. Hille, etc. For many years I bought water hen wings from Hille for 97 cents a pair. English grouse wings were 33 cents a pair from Herter’s, and two mole skins would set you back 37 cents. Coot, partridge, woodcock, etc. was offered at similar prices. Of course you could still buy a new car for under 2 grand in ’75 but I think you get my point. In the early 1980’s a company called “English Angling Trappings” came along and from them you could purchase plover, snipe, French partridge and many other traditional Spider materials. Pearsalls had been around forever and every decent fly tying shop sold it, usually at $1.25 a spool. Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone was at that time perhaps the finest fly and materials shop in the US and I remember coming home from my first trip to Montana loaded down with plover, snipe, starling, partridge, and such. Aside from a few locals, I was one of the rare tiers who had any interest in such things and for years Craig Mathews and John Juracek would chuckle as I piled skins, wings, and pelts on their counter. Even thirty years ago I was a hoarder and now I’m glad I was.

Today, everything has changed. Natural materials of many kinds are disappearing rapidly and not being replenished due to a number of factors. Far fewer people hunt now, especially for the peripheral quarries like shorebirds and such. Some species are no longer hunted at all, which in many cases is a good thing as their numbers wane. Traditional North Country feathers from raptors and song and garden birds have been unavailable for nearly a century and this is also good. We don’t need Kestrel, Wood Owl, or Thrush to tie effective flies.
What is disturbing though is that even many of the most common birds are becoming harder to find all the time.

I was talking with my friend Pat Nooner, National Sales Manager for Wapsi, last week at their facility in Mountain Home, AR. I asked Pat about availability of peacock as I had heard it was becoming harder to get in commercial quantities. He told me that India, the traditional source, is cutting back on exporting peacock and might even stop the exportation altogether. There is no shortage of peacocks but there is pressure from some groups to ban raising and killing them. Hungarian Partridge, one of our most important Spider materials is almost impossible to find in commercial quantities right now. The same is true for many common gamebirds. The more exotic, at least to Americans, birds like Plover, Snipe, Water Hen and so forth are nearly unobtainable. Other than Steve Cooper at Cookshill in the UK, there seems to be no one else who offers them. There may be others that I’m unaware of but then I’m not really looking. Mike Hogue at Badger Creek sometimes has small quantities of specialty materials but he’s on a constant search to fill his customers’ requests. I know Mike very well and see him often so I have a handle on his stock and unless he’s offering something I don’t have I pass on many good materials in order to let someone else have a chance at it. Mike is perhaps the most knowledgeable seller I know when it comes to suggesting viable substitutes for hard to find materials. In fact Mike is the one who brought California Quail to my attention as a substitute for Water Hen. I’m asked all the time where to find materials; as few as five years ago I could have helped a tier find almost any of the more common Spider materials, including Pearsalls silks. Today I just shake my head.

As for substitutes, we are left with domestic hen, a few game birds other than the traditional species, starling and not much else. Synthetics don’t really factor in other than as additions to common patterns which actually makes the flies something else entirely. And while I may ruffle a few feathers here, I don’t like synthetics at all and very seldom use them. But that’s another topic.

So where does all this take us? Honestly, I don’t really know. As more and more tiers join the Spider and Flymph community and want to replicate the old patterns the demand for the materials increases. A newcomer reading Pritt or Edmonds & Lee is going to be pretty let down when they try to find so many of the feathers needed to tie the flies described in those, and many other, books. I can see a time when some materials, like Plover for instance, are sold by the dozen the way exotic salmon fly materials have been for years. I can’t offer much advice other than to keep your eyes open, respect the materials that you do have and use them carefully, and please don’t shoot any owls!
Posts: 769
Joined: Fri Feb 27, 2009 6:30 pm
Location: Fort Wayne Indiana

Re: Availability of Spider Materials Today

Post by wsbailey » Wed Apr 03, 2019 10:28 pm

I first got interested in wet flies about 20 some years ago. At the time eBay was a gold mine for old materials especially from the UK. Silk was the common tying thread at that time so Pearsall’s was easy to get. Lots of antique stuffed birds were available and were relatively cheap as was the postage. Datum Proper suggested that several American game birds would be excellent sources for suitable hackles. The problem is that so many tyers are stuck on the idea they absolutely need the original materials mentioned in the books. We need to create a new tradition using more readily available materials.
Posts: 446
Joined: Mon Dec 26, 2016 12:49 pm
Location: Redding California

Re: Availability of Spider Materials Today

Post by Bazzer69 » Wed Apr 03, 2019 10:54 pm

Greenwell, I couldn’t agree with you more. A few years ago, well quite a few years, I made a visit to Veniards in the U.K. to buy something trivial and I was amazed at the huge selection of materials they had. Now it’s tough as you correctly write to obtain what was common materials. Now what we have available are mainly the synthetic equivalents. I personally hadn’t tied any traditional soft hackles for a long time until a couple of years ago when all of my materials were destroyed in my first house fire. It’s taken me a great deal of effort to find what I have today. I must say a lot of it has come from leads given to me by members of this forum. Not only that, but the generosity of some of the members of the flymph forum has been outstanding. I have been sent Plover, woodcock and some Tups completely free of charge. Other things I have had to go far afield for from my home in California. I’ve purchased from the U.K., Sweden, India, China,Malta and of course the USA to name a few. I have limited means but at least I have enough to keep me going for a while and make my two old Hardy outfits sing. Oh, least I forget, finding silk lines is not only very expensive but equally difficult to source.
I don’t see the situation changing given the regulations today. Even picking up a molted feather is often illegal.
But I think we can all help each other by posting information on potential supplies in the materials section of the forum. I’m in my latter years and it bugs me as to what is going to happen to my precious supplies when I kick the bucket, maybe I can take them with me in my Viking funeral ! I’m going to need a bigger boat!
Love both fly fishing and fly tying, been doing it for a while
But not much good at either
User avatar
Posts: 5072
Joined: Sun Feb 22, 2009 9:11 am
Location: Harford County, MD

Re: Availability of Spider Materials Today

Post by tie2fish » Thu Apr 04, 2019 5:00 am

Really interesting, John. All this time I thought the shortages were being caused by some guy putting together the ultimate materials book :shock: ... :lol: :lol: .
Some of the same morons who throw their trash around in National parks also vote. That alone would explain the state of American politics. ~ John Gierach, "Still Life with Brook Trout"
Posts: 2197
Joined: Sun Feb 22, 2009 5:11 am

Re: Availability of Spider Materials Today

Post by daringduffer » Thu Apr 04, 2019 5:24 am

tie2fish wrote:
Thu Apr 04, 2019 5:00 am
Really interesting, John. All this time I thought the shortages were being caused by some guy putting together the ultimate materials book :shock: ... :lol: :lol: .
:o :x :lol: :lol:

User avatar
Posts: 461
Joined: Sat Oct 15, 2011 4:37 pm
Location: Cowtown, Texas, US

Re: Availability of Spider Materials Today

Post by swellcat » Thu Apr 04, 2019 6:27 am

We don’t need Kestrel, Wood Owl, or Thrush to tie effective flies.
We need to create a new tradition using more readily available materials.
The takeaway wisdom of the discussion resides in those quotes, I think.

What is the essence of the fly?

What essential elements do we think makes it effective?

What tying techniques do we need to implement the essence and the elements?

Empower us with these things—the scales from which we can make our own music—and your art will be vital and live on.
Posts: 366
Joined: Mon Aug 06, 2018 3:50 pm
Location: Northern Maine

Re: Availability of Spider Materials Today

Post by Mike62 » Thu Apr 04, 2019 7:05 am

I haven't read "The Feather Thief" yet. Now I will. I'm coming to the party late in life. I've been tying my entire fishing life but it is only recently that my knowledge of certain practices, authors, materials, and the lack of availability of all three has been heightened. I love the feeling that this new knowledge brings but I'm also saddened that I wasn't in time to get in on the actual feather accumulation; because I would have. At this point in the festivities I'm not going to go out of my way to try and obtain the unobtainable. For the most part I tie with only the Grouse and Woodcock, a stray Pheasant now and then, that live abundantly here in far northern Maine; I shoot everything I tie with. I like Starling so I buy whole skins from Cookshill a couple times a year.

I'm lucky in that the only purveyor of fly tying materials within half a days drive from me lives but two hours down the road. He raises a large number of birds and has been doing so for years. His capes are smaller than those of the behemoth hackle houses but the quality is no less wonderful. But unfortunately there isn't a Plover in sight. I guess what I'm saying is, it's enough for me, now, to read all about the wonderful qualities of these old feathers and the flies that were tied with them. I like the 'knowing', I like our history. There are a lot of feathers on a Grouse, I'll make it work.

The Pearsalls thing is interesting. I've used it, I like it, but it wasn't until it went away that I started to consciously measure my usage of what I have left. Both of my grandmothers had huge stashes of ancient wooden bobbined sewing silks, many the same diameter as Pearsalls from what I can tell. So I raided the old boxes and took them all. Great colors and I don't feel half so bad about using multiple strands of Richardson's to practice my spinning block technique. Not entirely logical but there it is.

I'm currently experimenting with the humble garden variety Pigeon. Maine law allows me to shoot them as they constitute a nuisance. Any Pigeon that wanders into my barn is a dead Pigeon. The law wasn't specific about what I can do with the dead birds, so I don't bring it up. I have a road killed Bittern that has a tying lifetime of beautiful feathers on it. Legally it is illegal to posses here. On the other hand, as my game warden friend acknowledges, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law are not always on the same page. As a trout fishing warden he'd much rather see the bird put to good use than consigned to a watery ditch by the side of the road. ...just don't mention it.

I love these topics and I read through them and try to be a sponge, soaking up every little nugget of knowledge that is offered. I can see how this whole feather thing could become addicting; I find myself eyeing the local Jays, Gorbies, and Spruce Grouse with evil intent.
Posts: 319
Joined: Fri Apr 08, 2011 9:05 pm

Re: Availability of Spider Materials Today

Post by Greenwell » Thu Apr 04, 2019 8:26 am

tie2fish wrote:
Thu Apr 04, 2019 5:00 am
Really interesting, John. All this time I thought the shortages were being caused by some guy putting together the ultimate materials book :shock: ... :lol: :lol: .
You make a good point Bill! Actually, the Materials Reference came about partially so that substitutes could be compared to the real feathers and furs. And rather than being a black hole that swallows up flocks of birds, in many cases the sample feathers are nearly unique examples of some of the rarest materials.
There's a lot of effort to match domestic hen to game bird feathers and that can work in some cases but the problem with hen is that nearly every cape is unique in some way. If one finds a cape that looks to be a decent sub for, say, snipe it's doubtful that you'll ever find another exactly the same. While there may be slight variations from bird to bird, most wild birds show much less variation than their domestic cousins; it's a survival/evolutionary thing.
Posts: 1196
Joined: Thu Feb 26, 2009 11:44 pm

Re: Availability of Spider Materials Today

Post by narcodog » Thu Apr 04, 2019 8:39 am

I was at the Sow Bug Roundup last week and stood over Shaners shoulder while he and Davy Wooton looked at John's book of materials. To say it was awe inspiring is an understatement. As many of you I have scoured the net for materials and been lucky in some finds but I also have found as John has eluded to the market seems to be drying up. These days I search but find less and less.

Peacock a mainstay of the tying is hard to find in quality. Most that hang on shelves is junk especially the strung stuff. Buying that is just a waste of money and most eyes are not worth buying either. I have bought, like Mike Valla, 50 at a time and found, maybe three of four good eyes.

As far as partridge I like Red Grouse better than Hun and it seems to be in quantity from Cookshill and reasonably priced.

Back to Sowbug, as I walked around and watched the different tyers very few had any natural materials. I sat next to a young fellow that had a boat load of stringy synthetic material and except for some zonker strips that was all of the natural material he had. On the other side was an older tyer and he had nothing but foam. I thought I was going to have to be administered oxygen by the end of the day.

I'm not saying by any means that I don't have synthetic material or use it on occasion but I'll take natural over it on any given day. I really don't use fine and dry dubbing any longer in favor of natural.

I did over hear Davy say to John that good tinsel was getting had to find and the junk that came from up north was junk. I had to smile about that one because Davy is anything but opinionated. :).
"I like beer, do you like beer, I like beer a lot."
User avatar
Old Hat
Posts: 3976
Joined: Sat Nov 14, 2009 12:24 am
Location: Where Deet is a Cologne

Re: Availability of Spider Materials Today

Post by Old Hat » Thu Apr 04, 2019 9:17 am

Great ponderings John and I think you have stated very clearly what many of us have thought about recently as we feel the crunch of the deminishing retail resources of our chosen tying niche.

I have been thinking on this topic for a while now and have yet to fully organize my thoughts. There are a lot of variables involved. Tradition vs. New. Natural vs. Synthetic. Supply and demand. Growth in our sport vs. pressure on our natural resources...etc. Many angles to consider.

I have never been a hoarder of materials, but over the years I have accumulated a good sample of most of the traditional materials and those naturally available to us in the U.S. I don't have any "backup" skins or thread. When they are gone, they are gone. I am OK with this. I don't worry about it and will continue to use them when I have the desire. I refuse, and always have, to pay exorbitant amounts for tying material. I also never have ordered material, except for a very small number of hooks and a book or two from overseas. One of the many driving forces in my love of soft hackled flies was the cost of dry fly hackle. I have not bought a dry fly cape for probably 15 years or more and I still have the couple used half capes I bought to tie my first Adams and EHC while in college. Most of my harder to get traditional spider hackle came through trades at tying shows. I received a bunch of beautiful young wood duck skins from the hunting adventures of my brother with all the same but smaller feathers. I processed them whole and I found these to be very popular trading pieces.

Popularity brings growth and growth ushers in greater demand and greater demand puts a strain on available resources. We have plenty of resources available to us as tiers of soft hackled flies domestically. They are not steeped in the traditions of this niche and at this point not readily retailed. But they are there if one is willing. I doubt the Pritt and Skues of tradition just walked into a fly shop and purchased whatever they wanted at the time or ordered over the internet from countries afar. I love the history and traditions associated with spiders. But, there are downsides to shackling one's self to old traditions in the new world. Limited availability and the inevitable increase in cost of the resources.

A person can get so deep into tradition that they cage themselves thus limiting their talents, creativity and become subject to the hand that feeds them. I see this condition as being very prevalent in the tradition of North Country Spiders. I have been around long enough that I have seen many people get better and better at tying the same patterns over and over and over again. People arguing over how many turns of hackle is correct, whether the feather is the correct feather from the correct section of the wing, whether the feather came from the right subspecies of bird from the right region or valley of whatever, wether the shade of yellow of their non-Pearsall's silk is one or two coordinates off on the color grid. There are a few businesses and individuals that want nothing more than these debates to continue. Understanding and enjoying the history and traditions of the sport is an important and noble endeavor and there is an important role for those select few individuals who dive deeply into the tradition and share their extensive knowledge. In the environment of growth in this niche that we promote to be so heavily constrained by tradition we shouldn't be surprised nor upset that resources are limited and there are those who are going to take advantage of it. The serge in popularity of spiders, flymphs and other soft hackled flies in this country, from my perspective, is beginning to bring forth some great innovators to this style. It has been growing long enough that I am starting to see a few younger people who have embraced it and are setting themselves apart from the pack. They have been honing their skills during this increased demand/shortage of supply for traditional materials over the last few years. There are a select few embracing the traditions with a sincere desire to know and let those traditions influence their work, but they are not shutting the door on the cage. The pendulum is swinging as it always does, it will hit a point of strain and will then make its way back to towards center. I am not worried and am excited to see what the future brings while I sit and tie a Hare's Lug and Plover or maybe one of Mr. Tucker's POP patterns.
I hate it when I think I'm buying organic vegetables, and when I get home I discover they are just regular donuts.
Post Reply