By Robert Verkerk
One of my favorite patterns, with some of my favorite feathers. My earlier research, and one of my conversations with a good friend, Michael Johnson, revealed that the original Ghost Flies were tied on Bartleet Limerick hooks, size 8/0. John Saxton was kind enough to donate me the hooks I need. Very well cared for, and matching the hook plate to a tee. It was a bit exciting to put in my Regal vice, and I was relieved when the finish didn’t snap off under the pressure. Well done, John!
Step 1: Tying on the gut.
I had a piece of vintage gut saved up for this project. Fully gutted is the only option for me, as I want to tie flies that could actually be fished. Chewing up the ends to create a taper, allowing saliva to soften the strands… I usually start the gut a bit further away from the head than others do.
I tie the gut with thread wraps that aren’t too close together, so the gut can dry and harden. If you actually intend to fish your gutted fly, you should allow the gut to dry thoroughly, to prevent ‘drawing’ when fishing.
Step 2: Tying in the tinsel for the tag.
I flatten the bit that goes under the thread with flat beak pliers, and then I tie the tinsel in on the far side of the hook, so that you don’t see the tie in point from the near side.
The original Ghost Fly has 9 turns of tinsel in the tip… I tie off on the near side, exactly opposite to the starting point. Avoids bulk, and it looks cool. I flatten the waste end with my thumb nail.
The most important bit, is that the tip is tight, and neat.
Step 3: A tag with Quetzal herl.
This once, I have decided to tie the fly with original materials. Every time I take my delicate stash of Quetzal feathers out of the box, I marvel at their ridiculously expensive beauty. Will I dare to cut them this time? Fortunately, the tag of this fly doesn’t require a lot of material. One XL feather is enough, or two large ones.
I cut five fibers at the base of the stem, and use the brown parts to trap them under the well waxed thread. After that, I grab the green sides, all of them together, and rotate them around the thread with my thumb and index finger. As if it were dubbing.
You’ll get one or two turns out of these fibers. Then cut five more, and repeat, until the tag is just a tad longer than the tip. Part of the tag will be hidden by the fibers of the butt, so the extra length will give the illusion that the tip and tag are the same length. The tag could be longer, but never appear shorter than the tip. That just wouldn’t be sexy.
Step 4: The tail.
A breast feather from the Western Tragopan is a lively cinnamon scarlet when fresh. Exposed to UV radiation, this colour rapidly fades to a dry and pale yellow.
It didn’t feel right to use a bleached and faded breast feather while I am tying the rest of this fly with fresh materials. So I have chosen to used a red one, just like the tail on the original Ghost Fly used to be, all those decades ago…
Flattened with flat beak pliers from the tie in point down, and trimmed a bit with scissors, to get rid of one of the most annoying stems I have ever worked with. Waxed the thread, and got it on straight, at the first try. Watch the length, the original tail isn’t much longer than the gape.
Two thread wraps.
Step 5: Veiling the tail.
Charles Chute’s careful analysis says “tied as a clump”. So lets gather all the materials, and look at the photograph to estimate the amount of fibers of each material. Maybe a bit extra Wood Duck, as it is so beautiful.
Then use the bodkin to slide the fibers and slips together.
Before anything, I first lift the waste end of the tail, straight up.
Then I pick up the fibers for the far side and stack them against the upright waste end of the tail, hold tight between thumb and index finger and compress a bit with the index finger of my other hand. Then I give them one tight thread wrap.
I do the same thing with the fibers for the other side, and fasten with another thread wrap. So the entire tail is now secured with four thread wraps.
Straight enough… The waste end fibers will be used to fill the gap in the taper that was left by the gut ending short of the bend. Secure, and nice.
Step 6: The butt.
We all know how to tie in an Ostrich herl and tie a butt. Three wraps of herl on a flat foundation of waxed thread. The length of the barbules on the herl are the most important, as well as tying it straight, side by side. Again, I tie off with a single thread wrap.
Step 7: The tinsels and the waste ends.
Four large tinsels for this one. I flatten the parts that will go under the body, with flat beak pliers. I use a good length of them, so that I can be sure that no fish or cast force will rip them from under the coils of thread. Some people are afraid of bulk, so they compromise the quality of their fly.
I start with the first tinsel, high up on the far side, so that a decent portion of the blue fur will be visible between the butt and the first wrap of tinsels. A style feature that Dave Carne taught me.
I make the waste ends meet the gut, and then secure it with a few spacious thread wraps, so that I can use my bodkin to move stuff around and flatten it with my fingernails.
Carefully looking where the body work needs an extra layer to even things out, I slowly cover everything with tying thread, preparing for the dubbing.
Step 8: Dubbing the body.
I find it very important to start the dubbing really thin and tight, so that the fur doesn’t get higher than the thickness of the rachis of the Ostrich herl. To pull this off, you need a real tacky wax, so that the dubbing really sticks to the thread. After two or three turns, I’ll slowly allow the thread to get more ‘furry’.
Don’t forget to tie in the (palmered) hackle at the second turn of tinsel.
The body should be blue for the first half, and the second half golden yellow and fiery brown in equal sections. We know that the throat hackles will hide a chunk of the front section, so in order to give the visual appearance of the blue being half, and the remaining sections a quart each, I make the front section a bit longer.
Step 9: Ribbing and hackle.
Lots of tinsels. Tight dubbing has the advantage that the tinsels don’t cut too deep into the body. Tight dubbing also prevents air from getting trapped between the fibers, a phenomenon that would seriously mess with the balance of the fly, which dragging it trough a pool.
Each strand of tinsel is tied off with one waxed thread wrap, then flattened with my thumb nail, before the next tinsel is wounded. In the end, it is a big clump of metal, and it needs to be managed well. I make sure that each strand is sitting tightly next to its friends, and when the final tinsel is in place, I add another two waxed thread wraps.
To reduce bulk and keep an even platform for the head underneath the shank, I use pincers to drag the metal of the silk cores. I first untwist the lace twist and do the same thing with each and every wire.
Be very careful not to uncoil the metal underneath or even beyond the tie in point. This would seriously compromise the quality of the fly, to the point where the tinsel could come undone when you’re fishing it.
When all the silk is exposed, it is time to start trimming the waste ends. Cut close to the tie in point, all the time with the shape of the head in mind. Cut a straight line, and if possible, taper it forward.
When satisfied, wax your thread, and tie off the waste ends with about 5 wraps.
When all looks good, wrap the hackle while making sure the rachis points the correct way, so that it will be easy to force the fibers backward. At the head, make just one coil, because we will add two turns of Quetzal and three turns of red claret hackle.
Step 10: Troat and wing platform.
When I try the different Quetzal hackles I have, it becomes clear why the throat on the original Ghost Fly isn’t longer. I am lucky that I didn’t choose a longer Cock’s hackle, because even the largest Quetzal hackles comes up short, even if it is just a millimeter or two.
Two turns. You don’t get more than that out of these hackles regardless.
Next 3 turns of red claret Cock’s hackle. I secure everything with lots of wax, and add a good amount of wraps to the head, to build up bulk for the wing setting. I do a few half hitches, to keep the thread from slipping later on.
When the head is of the same size as the bulk that the throat comprises, I squeeze it between my thumb and index finger, to shape it, and to compress the wax. I find that it makes for a harder head when the wax dries.
Next, I fold everything toward the tail, flatten between my thumb and index finger, and press hard. I hold this firm grip for about 20 seconds before I let go. This technique folds the hackle fibers backward. I repeat this along the entire hackle, over the whole body.
Step 11: The under-wing.
First up: two tippets, back to back. I select two tippets of the appropriate size. I look for the right shape, as well as the exact length. It pays to take your time and select exactly the right feathers, especially with tippets. They have to be an exact match, and a perfect pair, to the point where even the thickness of the rachis is the same. If you got that right, you’ll tie them on in a matter of seconds.
I hold them over the fly, to measure where the tie in point will be.
I switch hands, holding the tippets between the thumb and index finger of my left hand, marking the tie in point with the nail of my thumb. Directly in front of my thumb nail, I grab the stems with a pair of pincers. I flatten the stems with the pincers, while my left hand puts a bit of force on the feathers to avoid the stems from twisting while I flatten them.
Then I let go with my left hand, so that the tippet pair remains in the pincers. Now, I can check if they are straight in the hold, ready to tie in. They have to stand at an angle of 90 degrees. If not, they won’t sit correctly on the shank.
If they don’t stand straight, I grab them with my left hand again, and change the angle of the pincers, compressing the stems to try and correct the tie in point. Some people say that you can just twist them, to force their position. Other people use heated pincers to correct them. Both methods work, but in my experience, the effect of fire is undone immediately when the fly hits the water, and manipulated stems don’t hold their upright position, resulting in a fly that you can throw away after the first run.
If a few more tries with the pincers fail to get a flat and straight tie in point, I put the tippets in my strips and strands stash, and select a new pair.
In this case I got it right on the first try, and I tie them on with three wraps of waxed thread. Checking the length. The description says “to the tag”. I am satisfied.
For this next step, a bit of caution is required. I use saliva to tame the shape. I never put my fingers in my mouth though, because feathers can give you some nasty bacterial infections. The chance is small, but the bacteria are really scary. Chlamydia among them. Another reason is that a lot of feathers come from old taxidermy mounts. Taxidermists use chemicals as a bug repellent, and older chemicals even included arsenic.
First, I add exactly ten thread wraps, to secure the tippets in place. Then I spit a drop of saliva on my desk and dip my finger in it. Not too much, just a bit, and I rub carefully over the edge of the wing. After four or five times, the saliva is starting to do its work.
When I am satisfied with the result, I unwrap exactly ten thread wraps and check from the top, to see if they are still angled correctly. If they have moved, the tips will point off center. If that is the case, I take my bodkin and push the waste ends, to set the tippet pair straight.
When straight, I hold the tippets at the head with my left hand, and trim the waste ends. I cut them in such a way, that it creates a taper. Mind you, that the shaping of the head, has started after we tied on the throat.
After the trimming, I wax the thread, and secure the tippets in a decent fashion, creating enough bulk to set the Quetzal feathers in the next step. The tie in point has to remain flat and even, otherwise feathers won’t behave the way you want.
The pictures of the original fly make me suspect that Quetzal tail coverts were used. That would make sense too, as the material is much more translucent than wing coverts. The latter tend to be a lot stiffer. This is fortunate, because Emu hackles have a similar quality to them. Dyed emerald green, they make for a near perfect substitute, which means that anybody can try this fly.
Again, I measure the feather against the wing, marking the tie in point with my thumb. I trim away the fluff with a pair of scissors. Trimming, so that I don’t alter the shape of the rachis.
Just like I did with the tippets, I hold the pair back to back, between my thumb and index finger, and flatten the rachis at the tie-in point with my pincers. It is very important that thread coils at the tie-in point are level, otherwise, tightening the thread will make the rachis point out in any and all directions.
I tie the Quetzal feathers on, one side at a time, each of them secured with just one waxed thread wrap. The near side is fairly easy, because the pressure of the thread rotates it in such a way that the top edge of the feather moves closer to the tippets. The far side can pose a problem, and if it would, I will reverse my tying thread, so that it gets the same rotation as the near side feather.
I am lucky this time. Both sides sit correctly on the first try. The feathers curve nicely along the side of the tippets, and their natural position places the tips exactly where I want them to be. If they would point too high, I would take them off and add a few layers of tying thread at the tie in point, so that they would aim lower.
Remember that it is the bulk of the throat hackles that potentially sky-rockets feathers, and that this same bulk determines the size of the head. If you have a thick body at the head, you will have to use lots of tying thread to build up a head; some call it a tying platform; that will aim your feathers correctly. Breaking the rachis of feathers to compensate for sloppy body work, is not an option that is available to a fisherman, or a serious fly-tier, for that matter. I you want a relatively small size head, you need to taper down the body toward the head, and select hackles with a thin rachis.
When the feathers are on, I dip my index finger in a bit of saliva, and gently rub the wing edge, so that the edge follows the edge of the tippets.
Checking the other side. Looking good… We’re almost done.
Step 12: The main wing.
Looking at the photograph of the original, I see the tips indicate that it was tied ‘tips down’. One on of the pictures, the fibers are bent in such a way, that I have no doubt about this at all. So I take a deep breath, and decide to go at it in the style of Kelson/Hale.
I start with the slip of Arabian Bustard, on the far side.
Then the slip for the near side. There is no magic to it, just practice.
After a few attempts to get the fibers to compress correctly, the slips are on, and the wing is straight.
I am having a hard time with this style still, so this one fiber that twisted, I separate it from the other fibers, cut the waste end short, and pull it out.
The next slips are Kori. I tie them both on at the same time. I let the thread compress the wing at the tie in point, and I twist and work the waste ends to get the slips to sit straight, and directly on top of the Arabian.
Kelson describes a “knife edge”. I see what he means when I look at the fly from the top. The only thing that makes it broad, are the materials in the underwing. Another slip on top would be flat as a pancake. Tough as this tying style is, I am relieved that I can relax with some sides…
Step 13: Sides.
The Jungle Cock has to reach all the way to the butt. At this hook size, this means XXXL feathers, because on the smaller ones you get too much fluff at the base.
With my finger, I show the part where I will cut them. You could say that the feather ends there, and the fluff begins.
As before, I measure out where the tie in point will be. This time, I use a pair of scissors to trim the fibers, leaving some waste stick out. I will trap these fibers under the tying thread, so that they will prevent the feathers from twisting.
I lay the feathers on the wing, a bit too far back, and loosely put one coil of tying thread around it.
I grab the waste end between my thumb and index finger…
…and carefully pull the feather in place. On the original, the JC is equally long as the Quetzal, but I love the Quetzal too much to hide it like that. So I pull the JC back a little more.
With the bodkin, I lift the nail, and watch the feather pop into position. I sit back and take a second to admire what just happened…
The same procedure for the other side. Especially on the other side, the small cut fibers are useful. The feather doesn’t roll away from the wing. I pull, and it sits straight, and with the waste end, I can manipulate the position of the JC alongside the wing.
Step 14: Three toppings over all.
Saving the best for last… I have been saving this head for a special fly. Almost no curve, so I will have to add some. A luxury, because removing curve is near impossible. All I really do, is hold them in front of the fly, to check where I need to shape them. I add curve by gently pressing my thumb nail into the inside of the rachis. I only do this where the colour of the rachis is white, or white-ish. I never touch the near transparent yellow parts, out of fear for disorienting the fibers.
I make sure that I have a broad tie-in platform, and I flatten the part of the rachis that will go under the tying thread. I use lots and lots of wax for this, to prevent slipping.
First one topping, then more thread, to make sure the next one can go directly on top of the first one. I repeat this again for the third one, and suddenly, three toppings are stacked and secured on top of each other. The top one doesn’t sit as nicely as the other two, so I push with my thumb nail, right above the tie-in point, to force it down.
Close up, for inspection…
Top view… I bought these toppings from Aaron Ostoy. I got many prime heads from him, to be honest. The extra select ones are always ace.
Step 15: A fiery brown herl head.
The advantage of using wax, is that it keeps feathers and thread in place. We’re going to do a herl head, so we need to think ahead. Whip-finish with four of five turns. Make sure you keep a flat platform, and finish the thread as close to the tie-in point as possible. To be clear, make sure the thread is as far to the left as possible.
Don’t cut your thread. The whip-finish protects the head when fishing, in case the herl head comes undone. But we still need to finish the fly.
I squeeze the head between my thumb and index finger, and use a sharp knife to trim the waste ends from the toppings. Immediately after, I apply a decent layer of clear varnish.
When that dries, I apply a coat of black varnish.
When the black varnish is dry enough, I heavily wax my thread and wrap tight and neatly side by side, forward to the edge of the head, before it starts rounding off. With the last turn of thread, I catch the herl in such a way that it points in the direction of where it is going to be wrapped around the head.
Because I start down on the near side, I can end down on the far side, the easiest spot to tie it off. If you don’t start and end in the same way, the herl head won’t look equally fluffy all around.
I carefully make the first turn, along the edge of the head, following the edge of waxed thread. The wax keeps it so well in place, that I can let it hang loose while I take a picture.
Three more coils and then it just hangs there, down on the far side. Counter clock wise, I wrap the herl around the tying thread three times. Then, while holding the herl, I make one turn of thread behind the head, making sure not to trap any fibers.
The herl is now secured, so I cut of the waste end, as close to the head as possible. Very carefully, not to cut any fibers of the throat, head, etc.
Now just tie off, or whip-finish, the thread between the wing and the herls, and cut the thread.
I like to use a tooth brush to preen the fibers. I should say barbules, because a herl is actually a fiber, and the fluff on the herl are evolved barbules. They trap dust, a natural insect repellent, and the reason why Ostrich plumes make for such excellent feather dusters.
Inspect the far side…
Inspect the top…
Inspect the front… The fly is done.
This was a sequence of 69 photographs, selected out of 132 that I made. I hope you have enjoyed this as much as I have.
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