Processing Fly Tying Materials at Home

One of your friends drops off some of his fall harvest for your fly tying.  What to do with it??   Read on and your question should be answered.
Contents and quick links...
Health Hazards
Legal Ins and Outs
Birds Skinning or Plucking
Killing Bugs
Drying and Tanning
Dyeing and Bleaching
Birds and animals that are useful to the fly tier
Other Sources of Information

Health Hazards:

Health hazards should be considered while processing and gathering fly tying materials. Even if the risk of transmission is low, it is worth the extra effort to take the necessary precautions, as the consequences of not doing so could be dire.
To avoided things like rabies, tularemia, ticks, flees or other nastiest, always were rubber or latex gloves when handling your materials.  Especially when you’re picking up road kill, and you don’t know for sure how the animal died.  If you know how the animal died, then it will be less of concern.  I.E. hunters handle their game all the time without rubber gloves.
Though Tularemia is always a concern and it’s a pretty rare disease in Wisconsin. If you handle the rabbit during the skinning process with latex or rubber gloves, you should be safe. For more info on tularemia.
If you come a crossed an animal that looks like it has rabies or something else, just leave it alone!
From bleach, dyes, mothballs and tanning solutions you’ll want to protect your self from the chemical that you’ll come in contact with during the processing of your materials.  Latex gloves are cheep and easy to find, so wear them and wash up when you are done!  Can you tell I’m a parent?

Legal Ins and Outs:

You would think that if you stumbled across a dead animal or bird in the wild or alongside the road, you would not be subject to any sort of penalty for keeping the materials, especially if you were not the cause of death. This is not always the case.

If the bird or animal is a protected species (Like an Owl, Hawk or Badger), you better not have it in your position unless you have a permit to collect such things.  You could get in trouble for just have a single owl feather in your tying stash.  Some things are protected by the State Laws and some by the Federal Laws.

You just can’t go picking anything up off the road. A game animal collected out of season, without a permit is technically illegal to possess. The warden in your area may not care, especially if it is for tying and for your use, but you might check. Fines can be rather painful. Sometimes it is easier to mail order for the $3.50 or so that squirrels cost per skin.

When it comes to the collection and position of these materials, it’s not easy to navigate the laws.   And if you contact the DNR you will not always get a straight answer or the same answer twice.  In general, you’ll have little trouble if you stick to game birds and game animals.

Many of the laws are in place to protect the birds and animal and not there to bust you for getting a few items for your fly tying.  Most wardens have better things to do then watch for people picking up road kill.

A hunter or trapper may give you game bird or animal, but it’s not legal for you to pay for some items.   From the Wisconsin DNR …

“Transport and sale of game it is illegal to sell, purchase, or barter, or offer to sell, purchase or barter any

Small Game Mammal, Migratory Game Bird, or Game Bird or part thereof except:

  1. the tail and skin of any squirrel, when severed from the rest of the carcass.
  2. rabbit, raccoon, and other fur-bearing animal carcasses or parts can be sold

during the open season for those species. (The DNR may retain bobcat, fisher

and otter carcasses for research)”

Link to the above

Link on Federal laws for waterfowl

Other states may have different rules, but migratory birds are regulated by the USFWS.

To get complete and accurate information, contact your DNR or US Fish and Wildlife Service.  We take no legal responsibility for the information on this web site.

Birds Skinning or Plucking?

Once you have the game bird, look it over to see what usefully feathers are on the bird.  Then decide if you’re going to pluck the feathers that you want off the bird or skin it out.  For example most ducks I pluck off the flank, breast, and the CDC feathers and not bother skinning it out.  But with a Bobwhite Quail or Hungarian Partridge and other upland birds, I’ll skin out the whole bird because there are so many usefully feathers on the bird.  I may also depend on how shot up or dirty the bird is.  I do have some ducks that I have skinned out and some upland birds that I have plucked.

You may want to consider freezing the bird until you have time to process it.  This will also help kill any bugs on the bird, see the section below on killing bugs.


When skinning out birds, I will cut off there wings and set them aside for later processing.  This will make it easier to skin the bird out because the wings always seem to get in the way.  Heavy scissors or wire cutters will help you get the wings off quickly and make it easer to skin out the bird.  Just clip off the wings next to the body.  Then you’ll need to decide if you want to make the first cut along the top or the bottom if the bird.  Most ducks have better feathers for fly tying along there breast so the first cut will be along their back and the opposite is mostly true of upland birds.

The skin on birds is generally very thin and will rip and tear easily.   You will need to be careful as to how hard you pull on the skin when removing it. Also, be careful when using a knife on the skin.  One tip is to use your fingers to push between the skin and meat and only use a knife where the skin is hard to remove.

Once you have the bird skinned out, you need to cure it.  You can Dry or tan your bird’s skins, most of the time I’ll use the drying method. See the Drying and tanning section below.


There is no trick to plucking a bird, just grab a few feathers at a time and give a good tug.  Some feathers come out easier if you pull them in the opposite direction that they are growing.  You may want to keep the different feathers separated from each other I.E. keep the CDC in a different bag from breast feathers.  I like to use paper bags to hold the feathers; paper allows the feathers to dry out in the bag.

The more difficult task with plucked feathers is dealing with ones that are dirty or bloody.  If you can get some that are fairly clean, you can move right on to the treating them for bugs and skip the next clean section.   The other advantage to not cleaning the feathers is that they will retain any natural oils that will help keep your dry flies floating.


So if you do have some feathers you need to wash, here are some ideas on how to go about it.

First, find a container to wash the feathers in, sink, bucket, etc.  Then add some mild detergent like Dawn dish soap, Woolite, or similar detergent and warm water.   I like Woolite because it seems to add some luster to the feathers.  You can add some bleach or ammonia to help kill the bugs.  But I would still treat the feathers for bugs after they are washed with one of the below methods because I’m not sure that they would be exposed to the bleach or ammonia long enough to kill them. Then gently stir the feathers by hand and repeat if needed and rinse well.  DO NOT WRING OUT WATER!!, this will destroy the feathers and quills.  I have used a fine mesh kitchen strainer, (like the one you would use to get lumps out of the gravy, just don’t let the wife find out).  Do not use water any hotter then what comes out of your tap, to avoid damage to the feathers barbs.

As for drying the feathers you have a few choices.  You can place the feathers into a paper bag or old pillow case.  Then wrap it around the neck of a hair drier.  You may need to add a few hole to allow the air can escape.  Do not use the ‘hot’ setting; feather tips can be singed easily.

Or you can to put wet feathers between some newspapers. Place a flat weight on top and let air dry. The feathers will dry and not curl as much as they will when using hot air.
Or you can put the feathers into an old pillow case, tie the end of the pillow case and throw the whole thing into the drier, put it on a low heat setting.  You will be surprised at how nice then come out of the dryer.  This is one of the easier and quicker methods I have used to dry feathers.

When it come to the wings on birds, it is tricky to save the whole wing without it spoiling.  This is because it is hard to get all of the meat off the wings and get it cure all the way.
But don’t throw them out; there may good feathers on wings.  The top leading edge of the wings of most up-land birds has many good small wet fly feathers; they are easily plucked off the wings.  And the first large flight feather on duck and geese make for nice biots and quills.  Rather then pull the feathers out of wings use a heavy scissors or wire cutter to get the feathers off the wings.


When it comes to animals of the furry kind you have little choice but to skin it out.  The good news is any mistake you make while skinning it out will have little impact on it being use for fly tying.   You don’t need to be a seasoned trapper to get a good piece of tying fur.
When skinning out an animal it can be handy for a beginner to have two knifes handy one with a sharp edge and one with a duller edge.   The sharp knife should be used for starting the first cuts, removing limbs, wings and cutting difficult areas.  The duller knife should be used for removing the skin from the carcass.  By using a duller knife you are less likely to put unwanted holes in the hide.  Extra holes will make it more difficult to cure the hide later but not impossible.
Most fur bearing animals I will start at the tails and work my way up to the head.  I will make a cut along the belly to get a flat hide.  Most of the good fur can be fond on the backs of the animals.  Things like legs, ears, eyeballs and noses are of little value. Tails should be skinned out from tip to tip and opened and defleshed and any fat removeet.
Once you have the hide remove you will need to remove any extra fat, flesh that is on the hide.  You can do this by laying the hide on a flat surface and scraping the off the extra with a dull knife or a spoon. Hold the knife perpendicular to hide and scrape.  Then you are ready to move on to drying or tanning section.
If the hide is peculiarly oily or greasy you will want to wash it.   Just wash it out in warm water with some dish soap like dawn and then rinse it out with warm water.  Be carefuly not to wring out the hide because you can damage the hair. You will need to take extra care when dry out the hide.  See the Drying section below.

The exception to skinning is when all you want to get is dubbing from the animal.  Then an electric shaver or hair clippers is a way that you can remove the fur.  Then you can pop it into a dubbing blender and mix it up.  A food processor also works well for blending dubbing, just don’t let the wife find out.  Squirrels and rabbits have some nice dubbing on them.

Killing Bugs:

It’s a good practice to assume that any “raw” material you receive is infected with bugs such as lice, flees or ticks.  Anything you pick up on the road, in the woods, or are given from trapper or hunters should be assumed to be infested.  The only time you should assume you are safe is when you purchase the materials through reputable suppliers. You don’t want to keep any thing that you get from the woods or roadside with any thing you buy! You don’t want bugs in a $60 neck! Make sure that your treat the materials as described and keep them separate from your other materials.
The two main “de-infestation” methods use either a freezer or your microwave oven to kill both the adult bugs and the eggs.  Treating your material with mothballs or flee power or other chemical is not enough.  I have friends use only chemical methods on materials with bad results.
The first thing I do with any hide or skin is freeze it for a month! This will kill all the bugs in the hair/feathers of the hide. You can freeze just the materials after you have skinned or plucked it.  Or you can freeze the whole thing until your ready to skin it out.
Other method to kill bugs is using the Microwave. The trick is to microwave it long enough to kill any bugs, without over heating the hide/skin. Thirty or so seconds in the microwave per skin will destroy any living cells, including eggs. This should be done after you have dried out tanned the hide.  If you put a raw hide in the microwave it will cook and smell up the whole house and it will shrink up and you won’t have much to work with after words.

Drying and Tanning:

If you’re a fly tier you are mostly likely interested in is preserving the material so that it does not rot as you store it long term.  These create “hard” hides and skins, not the soft tanned hides you sometimes see in fly shops.  You don’t need a nice soft tanned hide for tying.
Drying:take the hide or skin and tack or nail it to a peace of plywood or cardboard (I prefer to use plywood and a bunch of finishing nails).  Then check and see that you have all the fat and meat removed. You must get 95-100% of it off or it will not dry out. You can leave the thin layers of skin they will dry.  Then cover the hide with borax (you can find borax in most grocery store by the laundry detergent), cover it so there is 1/8 to 1/4 inch of borax covering the hide.

Borax is better then salt because it does a better job of wicking away the oil and water.   Borax also acts as a bug deterrent for both fur and feathers. Salt can be use if Borax is not available, but salt can dry the hide out to much.  If you plan on tanning the hide you will not want to use Borax but non ionized salt.  See Tanning section.
Then take and place a fan, so it is blowing on the borax covered hide. I use a window fan set on low; you just need to keep the air moving over the borax to help the drying process.  Wait 24 hours and take borax off the hide or skin and put in a different container. Take the hide and brush off any Borax that is sticking to the hide.
Then cut off any fat or meet that looks like its not going to dry. You’ll know after doing a few. Then take a put the borax that you already used and take out any lumps and then put it back on the hide.  Then put the fan back on it for 24 hours.  If you have washed the hide, you will need to dry both sides.  After that, you can take off the Borax, and your hide will be done!   Some oily hides may take longer, and you may have to repeat the above steps a few times to get the job done.

The window fan seems to speed up the process by a few days. I also turn up the dehumidifier to help dry out the air. You don’t have to use a window fan it will just take longer to dry out.  You don’t have to use a dry agent either, if you place your hide or skin in a cool dry place it will dry out.  But I do get nicer hides when I use a drying agent.

I do this in my basement; my wife is very tolerant of all my stuff.  I normal to this in the winter time after hunting season and after the materials have been in the freezer for a while.
Keep in mind that you hide is dried out and can go bad if it gets wet.  The borax act as a drying agent and it dose little to preserve the materials.

Other drying agents like salt and sawdust can be used to dry out your hides and skins.  But my experience is that borax is the best.

If you want to try soft-tanning a hide, you will do a few more steps.  Tanning also preserves the hide better then the borax method.  Tanning can make it easier it your going to die or bleach your material later.
Before application of most tanning formulas and solutions, however, the following guidelines should be considered when preparing skins and furs for your fly tying bench.  Tanning chemicals and preservatives can be found in most taxidermy catalogs.  And be sure to read and instructions that some with the tanning chemicals.
For best results start with fresh green skins, carefully scrape or cut off all the meat and fat until the skin is very clean. If the skin has started to dry, then soak it first in cold water, but only long enough for it to become soft.
For preserving the skin (deer for example) for fly tying hair you should next salt the flesh well with non-iodized table salt, working plenty of the salt into the entire hide..
Next, soak the skin in a solution of 1 pound of salt per gallon of water until very flexible. Remove the skin and drain, but do not twist.
Now using a sharp knife, thin the skin as much as possible, removing any remaining membrane. Or you can use a wire wheel attached to the power drill for this step when the skin has started to dry.
After the skin is thinned, wash it again in warm water with dishwashing detergent to remove the salt and grease.  If you are working with a raccoon, beaver, or bear which are very greasy, the hide should be washed twice or more to remove as much of the grease as possible. Now hang the skin to dry.
When the skin is semi-dry but still moist and flexible, shake the Tanning Formula well and at room temperature apply an even layer to the flesh side. Apply it with a paint brush or wipe it on wearing a pair of latex gloves. Continue to massage the tanning formula into all areas of the skin.
Next lay the skin flesh side up to dry on cardboard or plywood. As it dries, you need to pull periodically and stretch the skin until it is completely dry and soft. If the skin is stiff in a few spots, dampen these areas with warm water, reapply tanning solution and repeat.
If you still want the skin softer, you can then continue thrashing it with the wire wheel, or you can use coarse sandpaper on it as well until you find the degree of subtleness you desire.

Dying and Bleaching:

Proper tanning is the foundation from which proper dyeing can be successfully achieved.  Make sure that any material you plan on dying has all the blood, fat, and excess flesh removed and thoroughly degreased and cleaned.  Then make sure that it is properly tanned.

If you change any conditions in the dyeing process such as temperature, proportions of chemicals, humidity, shelf life, timing, formulas, adding or mixing different “swatches” of fur and feathers to your bath, you will achieve differing results. Often these results are not the color tones or shades you seek in spite of reading all the directions and following the same exactly as instructed. We suggest that you keep meticulous notes on what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately this process comes with time and expense of materials. For the apprentice dyer, the search for the right conditions and materials is very frustrating, but can be achieved with practice, a properly prepared hide or skin, and the correct dyes and chemicals.
The good news is, it can be done. Once you have mastered and achieved the desired tones and shades for materials you most frequently use, then your purchasing expenses come down over the long run. No longer do you need to acquire colored deer hairs or hackles. A grizzly and a cream or white cape and saddle should suffice for most hackling needs. Light deer hair can be procured through your normal sources, but is a better deal when you get it from a hunting friend or taxidermist’s scraps. I find that materials swaps over the Internet have brought me some fine materials in exchange for excess materials I have collected over the years.
I recommend this board for further information on dying.

Dyeing and Bleaching Natural Fly-Tying Materials, A. K. Best
The Lyons Press, April 1, 1993
ISBN: 1558212140

Once you all done processing your materials and if they come out flat and crumpled try steaming them. Get some steam going with a tea kettle and place it in the steam for a short time.  Use cane and don’t get the materials to hot as not to damage them.  Feathers can be amazingly fluffed back to life with a blast of steam.  Deer hair can be made softer swollen before you spin it.  It’s also easier to trim up deer hair after it’s been steamed.  Be careful not to put away materials that are damp.  Old time fly fishermen will ask you “Have you steamed you flies this spring?”

Check your materials regularly for any signs of insects- IMMEDIATELY act upon any signs of infestation by isolating those materials from all others.
Keep the materials you processed separately from any thing you purchase until your sure there are not any bugs.  You don’t want bugs in your $60 cape.
Be sure that the materials are completely dry to avoid mold and mildew.

Birds and animals that are useful to the fly tier.

Ruffed and Sharp-tail grouse: Body feathers are good for soft hackle flies. The feathers are on the lager size. The top leading edge of the wings has smaller feathers. The tail feather fibers and be used as a pheasant tail. They also have a nice light colored marabou around their legs.

Hungarian Partridge: Body feathers are good for soft hackle flies. The feathers are smaller then a Ruffed Grouse and are mostly of medium size. Again the top leading edge of the wings has smaller feathers.

Bobwhite Quail: One of the best birds for soft hackle. And don’t forget the top leading edge of the wing.

Woodcock: Good soft hackle for wet flies, and the top leading edge of the wings.

Pheasant: Pheasant tails have many uses, and flies are even named after this bird. Pheasant also has some marabou like feathers called philoplumes that are good for fly tying.

Mourning Dove: Some fair soft hackle

Turkeys: The tail feathers have many uses, make a good substitute for pheasant tails. The large wing feathers next to their bodies are of a mottled color and have some iridescent colors. Don’t forget about the marabou on the belly.

Ducks: Mallards and wood duck drakes (males) have great breast feathers that have many uses for fly tying. Many other ducks like teal and pintails have nice breast feathers; main the drake has the better-colored breast feathers.

Geese: Biots from the wing feathers. The first few feathers from the tips of the wings are the best biots on a goose. And their CDC feathers are white and usefully on many fly patterns.

Starling: They have some breast feathers that can be a substitute for Jungle Cock feathers.

Sandhill Crane, Blue Heron:
While it’s not legal to hunt sandhills in Wisconsin, many western states do have a season on them. They have some nice spay hackle on their breast. Don’t pass up an opportunity to pick up one of these birds, especially if you’re into steelhead fishing.

Spruce Grouse, Sage Hens, Blue Grouse: There are many other western birds that are great for tying. If you hear of a hunter going out west let them know you would like some feathers.

Deer: Hide from the back of a deer is used for many deer hair patterns. Some deer hair is better for spinning than others.

Elk: Hide from the back of an elk is great for Elk Hair Caddis.

Squirrels, Fox, Gray, Pine: Beside the tail, squirrel body hair off the back and sides makes great dubbing. Shave them close to get the under fur which is gray to mix with the multi-hued guard hair. Gray squirrels also come in a black and white phase.

Rabbits, Cottontail, Snowshoe and Jack.:
Hairs mask and rabbits foots are called out many fly patterns.
Muskrat, Mink, Beaver: Where would the Adams be with out Muskrat dubbing.

Moose: Mosse Main.

Woodchuck: They are a protected species along with the Badger; however, many fly tiers will bend the rules if they find a dead one along the road. The woodchuck caddis fly is a loved by many a brook trout.

There are some uses for the following…
Bobcat, Otter, Fisher, Opossum, Skunk, Fox, Coyote

Other Sources of Information

Here are a few sources of additional information on processing fly tying materials. Flytying : Tools and Materials, Jacqueline Wakeford The Lyons Press, August 1, 1992 ISBN: 1558211837 Fly-Tying Materials : Their Procurement, Use, and Protection, Eric Leiser Crown Pub: February 1973 ISBN: 0517503506 Tying the Classic Salmon Fly : A Modern Approach to Traditional Techniques Michael D. Radencich (Editor) Stackpole Books: August 1, 1997 ISBN: 0811703312 Check your public library under Home Taxidermy… you’ll be amazed at what you find! Dick Talleur’s “Modern Flytying Materials” (1995, Lyons & Burford), a very pretty book, well laid out and illustrated, comments as follows regarding roadkill (p. 88): All content on this website is copyrighted © 2006 by unless otherwise specified.