What To Do With A Pheasant Skin

by Jack Gartside

Some of you might recognize this article. It first appeared in our catalog in the 1982/1983 catalog! It remains as useful today as it was 20 years ago.

There's probably not a bird that flies that has more uses for the fly tyer than the ringneck pheasant. From the top of its head to the tip of its tail, there's hardly a feather on a pheasant that can't be used to some good purpose. Whether it's hackle you need or tailing fibers, winging material or body material, shoulders or cheeks--whatever--it's all there.

While both the cock and the hen are extremely interesting and useful material sources for the practical and imaginative flytyer, I will consider in this article only the cock pheasant, since this is generally the more useful of the two. One cock pheasant of just average size will provide the resourceful flytyer with enough material to tie thousands of flies.

The Top of the Head

These mottled olive-brown feathers with a greenish cast (which interestingly enough often mirror the symmetry and coloration of the lower back feathers) can be used most effectively as hackle for soft hackle or for traditional wet flies whenever a mottled hackle is called for. They also work well as wing cases for nymphs or for the short wings on an emerging mayfly imitation.

The Iridescent Blue/Green and Back Neck Feathers

These feathers, when dipped in spar varnish and stroked to shape, make attractive and durable wings for patterns like the Letort Cricket or for beetles. The feathers can also be used to great advantage as hackle on such traditional wet fly patterns such as the Black Gnat or Butcher or on any fly where black hackle is called for. They can also be used as wing cases on nymphs and for mayfly emergers (e.g. paraleptophlebia). One of my favorite soft hackle wet flies that uses this feather is the very simple Ringneck Soft Hackle Wet Fly.

The White Band (or ring) Feather 

This lovely little feather can be used most obviously in tying small fanwings (e.g. the Fanwing Royal Coachman) or you can varnish, shape and color them with a yellow or green marking pen to fashion excellent leaf hopper or aphid wings.

Almond Hearts

These reddish/brown feathers are found just below the ring on both the back and breast and can be varnished and stroked to shape beautiful caddis wings for dark dry caddis patterns. One of my favorite dressings using almond hearts is the Gartside Pheasant Caddis.

Church Windows

Just below the almond hearts there are larger, rather square reddish brown feathers with a cream mottled center. These feathers cover an area roughly halfway down the back and extend right and left onto each shoulder of the pheasant. I use these feathers for shoulders and cheeks on streamer patterns, as well as for wings on some streamer patterns (usually tying them matuka-style over different colored yarns or other body materials and adding a hackle collar of a deer hair head and collar). These feathers have many other uses as well for the inventive tyer.

A good example of a fly using church window feathers (as a cheek) is the Darkside, a New England-style streamer, that I first tied in 1972.

Lower Back Feathers

These feathers have a greenish/olive to brown or red/brown cast to them, with much mottling in the center. Some pheasants (especially those raised for game farms) may have a bluish cast; these are definitely inferior to the more naturally-colored pheasants that feed in the wild.

Two of my favorite and most successful fly patterns are tied with this feather: the Gartside Pheasant Hopper and the Sparrow.

Rump feathers

These feathers are found, as you might suspect, in the rump area and are extremely useful when tying streamers, large Sparrows, as "spey" hackle, or (for those familiar with my pattern, the Stray Cat) for interesting "one-hackle" flies. These feathers are often mottled in various shades of brown with very attractive and durable barbs which can vary wildly in length from very short to very long; hence, their usefulness for many different types of flies and patterns. One of my favorite tarpon flies, the Tarpon Spey, is tied with this feather. In it I use this feather as a ribbing in much the same way salmon tyers use heron or other hackle to hackle their traditional salmon spey-style flies.

Rump and or Leg-area marabou-like downy feathers

These generally brownish-red or grayish (sometimes even blackish) feathers have dozens of uses. Use them to tie very soft soft-hackle wet flies, tails for Sparrows, wingcases on mayfly nymphs, or--when long--as tails on Wooly Buggers. If long enough and wide enough you can--as I did when I first came up with the idea of the Soft Hackle Streamer--use them to tie some darker-hued Soft Hackle Streamers. If you do, use a pheasant rump hackle for the collar; it makes a most attractive streamer.

The Aftershaft

Underneath just about every body feather we've considered, you'll find another feather, a downy, usually grayish and very soft feather. This is the aftershaft feather (hypor hachis) or insulating feather. This feather is sometimes misidentified as a "philo" or "filo" feather or plume. There is such a feather as the "filoplume," but believe me this is NOT it. True filoplumes are those hair-like (filo means hair in Greek) single-strands with a tuft (or plume) on them. Filoplumes are visible only when you've plucked the skin almost bare and are of little use to the practical flytyer.

The aftershaft feather has many uses: as very soft hackle for tying soft hackle flies or traditional wet flies, as wing cases on nymphs, as bodies (when wound on) for dragonfly nymphs, or for collars on my Sparrow nymph. One of my favorite aftershaft-bodied flies is the Wet Mouse, which can also be fished as a dragonfly nymph.

Wings (Primary and Secondary)

The wing feathers of the pheasant are useful for, among other things, tying quill wings on traditional wet flies, wingcases, tails, and legs on nymphs, and matuka-style streamers.

Tail Feathers

The tail feathers on a cock pheasant are long, thick-barbed, and barred with brown, olive and black tones. The barbs of these feathers are used largely as tailing material for nymphs and wet flies, sometimes for legs and also for bodies on small nymphs. Perhaps the most well-known fly using pheasant tail feathers is Frank Sawyer's Pheasant Tail Nymph, in which the whole nymph is constructed from wound-on pheasant tail barbs overlaid with a ribbing of gold wire.