I have had a lot of requests from people at my classes, and elsewhere, to explain where and how I obtained some of my seemingly vast collection of materials, so here are some of the answers.
First of all, if you wish to collect “bits and pieces” from domestic pets or similar animals, ask the owners first, and be careful how you ask! Some people are very sensitive in this respect.
Being charged with cruelty to animals, because you have been caught chasing the neighbour’s cat while brandishing a razor, is not likely to further your fly dressing career, especially as at least forty character witnesses will then proceed to swear on a stack of bibles that you are a well known pervert anyway, and your obvious intention was to torture the poor creature! Even if the judge is a fly angler, and able to appreciate how difficult it is to obtain dubbing in this particularly delicately mottled shade of light ginger, you may still have problems.
Half a pound of mixed smelly dog hair which has been removed from the vacuum cleaner is also not a lot of use, I have discovered. It is extremely difficult to clean, store, and dye, and is difficult to use for anything but rough dubbing. If you collect hair, try and get it on the skin. (I am not suggesting you go around skinning dogs or the like however!).
Getting some other stuff on the skin is also likely to prove somewhat problematic, see the recent thread on “ Public hair ” under “Fly-tying” on the board.
When people get to know that you collect fur or feathers, they will often bring you the most amazing things. It is better not to discourage them if you can possibly avoid it. A nice trout or a bit of smoked Salmon can work wonders here, when delivered to the appropriate people (nice old ladies who live under high tension wires is a good idea, see below!), and has some intrinsic merit!
Admittedly it is very difficult indeed to look pleased and enthusiastic when the lady from down the road brings you the seventh completely tick infested and irreparably squashed Hedgehog in succession, (although Hedgehog belly is a very useful dubbing material).
You must skin a Hedgehog in the same way as hedgehogs propagate their species by the way, extremely carefully! But do not be dismayed, the same lady may one day come up trumps, and present you with a Heron found in the garden, which has fallen dead from the high tension wires, or, as also happened to me once some years ago, two perfect if somewhat dried out Jungle cock necks, apparently once part of the decoration on ladies hats! (I refuse to buy Jungle cock or any other protected species nowadays on principle, but see nothing wrong in accepting such serendipitous gifts which would otherwise land in the bin!).
I still live in hopes that somebody will one day bring me a genuine polar bear rug!
There are many possible sources of materials, the old hare fur coat shown in the photo below, was bought at a jumble sale for next to nothing, and I have tied several thousand flies from it already, as have quite a few of my friends!
Fox fur stoles and other furs were once much in vogue for fashionable ladies about town, and may be obtained quite regularly for next to nothing at flea-markets, jumble sales and the like. If you see something like this you think may be useful, and it is cheap, buy it! Especially any pure white fur you can get. The same stuff sold in small patches in expensive packaging probably costs a fortune at your fly dressing supplier or tackle shop. No matter that you do not yet know what to use it for, or what it is, have no fear, we will go into that later!
If you have a taxidermist in your area, he will probably be only too pleased to give you sacks of material at a modest price, or even free, especially if he gets a nice trout or sea-trout occasionally.
Furriers also have large amounts of off-cuts which are useless for their purposes, but excellent for fly-dressing.
Small zoos and aviaries will often have dead animals and birds that they are only too happy to give away, as soon as they have ascertained that you are serious, ask them to freeze them as soon as possible after their untimely demise, this makes things easier for you.
Large pet-shops sometimes have dead parrots and other birds and animals which have a lot of useful feathers, fur etc, it will not hurt to ask, but try and be diplomatic, if you walk into the shop when there are forty other customers in and ask in a loud voice whether or not the very ill looking blue macaw you saw last week has snuffed it yet, it is unlikely that you will receive anything other than black looks, even if the bird is indeed deceased, or perhaps even more so, because the creatures are apparently worth a fortune, and your enthusiasm for its feathers may be unfavourably connected with the unexplained mortality!
Such Monty Pythonesque scenes may be funny on television, but try explaining yourself to the officer who comes along to quell the resulting disturbance, this is not funny at all!
Dog trimming establishments can be an excellent source of materials, but talk to the owner and he or she may arrange for separate types of hair, colours etc, from individual dogs, to be placed in separate bags for you. Some hair will be useless, and you can simply throw this away.
You may get some really good stuff here though. The “Collie Dog” a famous and very simple and effective salmon pattern when tied correctly, originated from such a source. Some terrier breeds have wonderful fine mottled hair for dubbing purposes.
Farmers and smallholders who keep hens will often save you the heads and necks of their birds when they slaughter them, you won’t get anything like a Whiting cape doing this, but on occasion some very nice hackles.
For comparison purposes look here;
If you ask nicely and offer modest payment they will slaughter the animals in such a way that the capes are not soiled with blood etc. Blood soiled capes are just about useless. It is almost impossible to clean them.
Bantam cocks sometimes have excellent quality feathers in wonderful colours by the way. If you see an outstanding cock cape on a bird, ask them to reserve it for you, it is easy to remove the cape and saddle from such a bird, and the wings are also useful usually. After having served a useful life these birds usually end up in the soup pot, as they are too tough for anything else, and are consequently almost worthless to the owner.
A small payment or a nice trout now and again may result in a real prize here. One of my best capes, a very rare genuine Brassy Blue Dun of superb quality came from such a source! I have no idea what it is worth, as I have never actually seen one anywhere near as good for sale, but I suspect an awful lot of money!
Such capes are now available from breeders such as Whiting, but when I got mine, they were almost unheard of. Not many dressers had ever seen such a cape.
The same goes for butchers who deal in game birds, turkeys, geese etc. This material can usually be had for the asking, and is absolutely perfect for fly dressing purposes. A good country butchers at Christmastime is a wonderful place for a fly dresser! Ask the butcher to refrain from plucking the birds, and do it yourself.
Human hair is usually relatively useless for dressing purposes, and contrary to popular opinion, is not the reason for my baldness! There are rumours of certain types of hair from specific parts of the anatomy of raven haired Andalusian virgins being used for some absolutely killing patterns, but the collection of this material poses problems which I consider beyond my capabilities of solving, however interesting and enlightening the attempt might prove, my wife would probably not believe my perfectly honourable intentions either!
For similar, but not quite identical reasons, patterns calling for hair from the scrotum of a wild ram or similar, usually result in my seeking a somewhat less exotic substitute. Some people might consider this a little cowardly and less than dedicated on my part, and they would be perfectly right! Fishing is adventurous enough for me!