Over the several centuries I have been tying flies and fishing, (this is to establish my credibility as an expert and therefore worthy of the time it will take you to read this fly tying material comparison and although it may be a slight exaggeration, it also serves to accomplish a task that many persons apply to formulaic writing about fly fishing and fly tying and so, being true to the art form, I thought why not have fun with it?)
Been using bucktail for decades, honestly, and Hareline Extra Select Craft Fur for only a few years, maybe three. At first, I did not like the synthetic. Can’t really remember why, but I decided it was not for me. Over several seasons, however, I have put craft fur back on the fly bench and in my fly boxes and both materials are here to stay.
I tie steelhead and Chinook tube flies with craft fur. Comets are as likely to have a craft fur tail as a traditional bucktail tail. Wings on traditional steelhead wet flies and sea run cutthroat flies are about equally likely to be tied with craft fur, bucktail, white deer belly hair, and arctic fox tail fur, depending on my supplies and whim.
Anyway, I thought some of our blog readers might like to review some of the tying and fishing qualities of these two materials. Here ya go.
Consistency of material. This is a big issue. Craft fur is always craft fur, as long as you stick to a single manufacturer and product type. The qualities of the fur may change over time, if the manufacturer changes their product specifications, but overall, you can grab any of ten thousand bags of craft fur off the pegs at a hundred locally owned fly shops, and every one, without exception, will be exactly alike. Same length, amount of underfur versus guard hairs, and even the feel of the material.
Not so with bucktail. Nope. Being a natural product, you should expect every bucktail to be different, or at least have the potential of having different qualities at the fly bench. Some hair will be longer, more wavy, harder or softer, or will be thinner or thicker when one examines individual hair fibers. Softer hair may compress and flare more. Straight hair may be stacked to even up hair ends, but very crinkly hair will require hand-work to even up the tips, if such is desirable in the finished fly. Fundamentally, bucktail can be a tricky material to work with in a large part because of the individual quality of hair on each tail.
Color availability. No problems or challenges here. Both craft fur and bucktail (over two dozen colors in each material) are available in enough colors, I think, to satisfy the vast majority of fly tying tastes.
Action in the water. Craft fur is limp and wiggly, bucktail is not. The question this divergence presents to every fly tyer is whether limpness of stiffness matters in a particular fly type. Craft fur really does undulate and wiggle on the retrieve or on the cross current swing, and this quality has become quite attractive to me, even not knowing what the fish think or if they care.
Length of material. Generally, bucktail is a bit longer than craft fur. Hareline craft fur is my go-to material, and I usually find that its working length is in the 2.5 – 3” range. When using bucktail, it is fairly easy to find hair in the 4” category , although this is not true for every bucktail.
Durability. Not sure I can differentiate between the durability of these two materials. Both are subject to getting chewed on and broken while fishing. I guess I would say that bucktail is a bit more durable than craft fur, because when I look at “been-fished” flies of previous seasons, it seems that the bucktail tied flies still look like I would want to tie one on, whereas some of the already-been-fished-hard craft fur flies seem less appealing. But I think this is a close call. As far as breakage upon chompage, both are subject to damage.
Fish catching ability. Clearly nose-to-nose. I have absolute confidence fishing flies tied with craft fur and bucktail.
Applications to fly tying. Wings and tails, near as I can figure, are the key uses for both bucktail and craft fur.
Ease of use. Craft fur is easy to tie with. Bucktail, as a generality, is a little more difficult to master. Depending on the hair on an individual tail, it will require more or less tension with fly tying thread to secure the material and at the same time avoid flaring the hair. Hard hair must be tied in very tightly to prevent it from slipping out, say, when tying a wing on a steelhead fly. Both materials require one to pull out some of the underfur or shorter hair fibers. This is pretty easy with both materials.
Translucence. This was supposed to be a big deal, the reason Polar Bear hair was so desirable over calf tail or bucktail when tying steelhead fly wings. Translucence, we were told, made our flies more attractive to the salmon and steelhead we pursued. Even today, with Polar Bears on the brink of extinction and the material limited to the safety deposit boxes, the mythology of translucence is powerful among fly tyers. Personally, I have given up on the translucence mantra when tying most of the flies I craft these days. Craft fur and bucktail are both about equally non-translucent, and I fish both materials with confidence.
Tendency to foul around the hook. Both craft fur and bucktail are capable of fouling. I find bucktail my preferable material for tying a fly like a Clouser, but have friends who swear by craft fur Clousers. Bucktail as tailing on a Comet or Boss is less likely to foul around the hook than craft fur, but I find the even when fouled, a long craft fur tail looks good in the water and the fly fishes well, as long as there is just one turn around the hook. Taking a look at my fly at the end of my retrieve is my way of making sure that a craft fur tail is still fishing the way I want it to. Wings that are the length of the hook bend or shorter will not foul with either material. Wings longer than the bend of the hook, again, should be checked in the water now and then if using craft fur, as it is capable of more fouling than bucktail when tied long.
Hope this helps next time you ponder whether that fly should be composed of craft fur or bucktail – why not both?