We’ve got a new order of rhea in stock and we thought you might like to learn how to use it (you can purchase it here: http://www.flygal.ca/shop/rhea-feathers/)
Over the years the rhea feather has become increasingly popular with steelhead fly tiers. In fact, in some cases, it’s so popular that stores even have a difficult time keeping it in stock. Despite the demand, the rhea feather is still pretty much the “new kid on the block” (when comparing it to other feathers that have been used by tiers for the last few centuries).
The rhea bird is South America’s version of the ostrich, except the plumage on each individual barb of the rhea is much shorter, making each strand remarkably thinner. While there are many fly tiers who are adept at using these long, flowing fibres in their streamers, there are an equal amount of tiers who aren’t sure why or how to use them — and so they don’t.
Perhaps the most common hesitation about the feather is the price point. Ten years ago, the feather could only be found through a handful of distributors who essentially owned the market. If supplier costs were $4 a feather, they were sold to shops at $8 a feather, and from here the shops keystone’d at $16. Factor in shipping to some stores and the costs were sky-rocketing.
Even though there’s enough material in a single feather to tie multiple flies, for some, $16 is still a tough figure to stomach. More recently, feathers have been found at cheaper rates and, as a result, prices are lowering to a much more competitive rate.
So with the price tag out of the way, what’s the advantage to using the rhea feather — specifically when compared to regular ostrich plumes?
Rhea fibres are long, durable and relatively sparse. If they’re applied properly, they can give flies a full profile and extra length, all while ensuring that flies aren’t overdressed. The lack of fluff or surface area of rhea ensures that they can penetrate both the water’s surface and the air while being cast.
It’s stronger than ostrich, holds colour better than most feathers used for these purposes, and are able to be tied in as long or short as the tier prefers. Plus, because they are so much thinner, you can fit more strands into your fly without over dressing it.
For every one standard ostrich barb used in a fly, three barbs of rhea can be used to achieve the same coverage. So, for example, if a properly dressed fly can only accommodate 8 pieces of ostrich, that same fly has the ability to hold 24 pieces of rhea; rhea that isn’t as brittle as the ostrich, or as prone to fading. My ostrich flies don’t last long in a season of summer steelheading. What few pieces of ostrich I can fit into my fly are soon broken and irrelevant, or simply ruined by the sun and water. Rhea grants me durability and more action in the water, a result of being able to fit in “more for less”.
It didn’t take long for the commercial industry to see the appeal of the rhea feather and before long they were seeking it out. Such distributors are hard to find and a viable source was tricky to obtain. So an alternate feather was produced: bleach-burned ostrich.
Bleach-burning is a method used by many tiers who are looking to strip or reduce the “fluffiness” of the barbules from a barb. The feather is dipped into a mixture of one part bleach to several parts water. From here, it is left to sit for a few seconds before being removed and neutralized in vinegar. The ostrich plumage is now mildly burned and can bear a resemblance to the rhea.
This burnt ostrich is excellent for guide flies and flies soon to be lost in snags, but bleaching the already brittle ostrich only weakens the feather further and colour has a hard time keeping vibrant.
In a nutshell, there are two main ways to tie in rhea fibres — you can wrap them, or you can stack them. Personally, I stack them and I’ll explain why.
To wrap the feather you obviously can’t wrap the rachis. It’s far too thick and it would look ridiculous wrapped around a hook or tube.
To make it work, you have to strip the membrane that holds the fibres onto the stem.
One of the problems here is that it takes one or two trial feathers to become competent with this process as the membrane is prone to cracks and breakage.
A solution is to soak the whole feather in a mixture of water and hair conditioner to help soften the membrane, making it easier to peel and then wrap around the hook shank/tube. (You do not need to worry about the brand of conditioner, or if it will leave a fish-deterring smell).
But I found a number of things went wrong when I used this method. As the membrane has to be palmered tightly side by side with each wrap, the wide material takes up more space than I prefer; the delicate membrane left unprotected and prone to breakage from teeth marks, bad casts, general wear and tear, etc.
Counter wrapping wire can be tedious and super glue only stiffens the fibres. Plus I get stuck with little broken bits that are amidst the lengthy fibres, and adding another colour is next to impossible without overdressing or hassling with curly stems. Lastly, sometimes I’m forced to use extra long rhea in flies that I wish to give a shorter profile to. Truthfully, eventually I tired of clients reeling in flies with broken rhea membranes dangling uselessly in the current.
So I looked to an alternate method — the stacking option.
With this, I could now save time without having to peel stems, pick out any broken off pieces (without compromising the membrane strength), tie in my fibres as short or as long as I saw fit, play around with different colour combos, and reinforce my materials without having to worry about them uncoiling.
There was, however, one disadvantage (I’ll address that in the next few paragraphs).
Cutting close to the stem, I cut off between five to seven fibres (sometimes less), then tie them in small “clumps” on the left, right, top and bottom of the shank/tube. With only three wraps of thread per “clump”, the fly now has a distinct profile without using copious amounts of material that often collapse or overdress the fly.
Where the method loses its advantage is in the bulk of the tie-in point. Four “clumps” of rhea with three thread wraps each, inevitably results in a mounded thread build up. I’d always just tried to cover this with a collar, but my solution was presented to me during one of my workshops.
I was helping a student break his habit of over-wrapping when the answer hit me. Abiding by my own three thread wrap rule, after the stacks were wrapped in, I used my holding hand to firmly grip the already secured tied-in fibres. From here, I simply unwrapped his thread twelve times.
Being sure to keep hold on the rhea, I wound the excess thread up onto my bobbin, and then rewrapped three times!
From here, I always give my tag ends a quick dab of superglue, then use nail clippers and a safety pin to quickly and closely trim the ends.
Naturally, there is a time and place for each technique and material, but this has been the simplest and most efficient method for me.
Looking to learn more? Check out April’s podcast, Anchored with April Vokey for free downloadable conversations with some of the industry’s most influential people!
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