Making the Most of ‘Em: Duck Feather Flies

By Paul Pryor

May 23, 2019 - I think every fly fisher turned duck hunter (or vice versa) has thought at least once: “Hmm, I wonder if I can make use of these feathers.” While most fly tying materials are either dyed mammal fur, synthetic fibers, or feathers that come from tricked out chickens, your harvested waterfowl can yield some pretty useful materials. This is about a very specific feather in a very specific location, that you can easily pluck, slap on a hook, and toss into a stream on your next trout adventure.

Disclaimer: I am far from a professional fly tyer, hence this super simple recipe.
There are several parts of the duck you can pluck to make very interesting flies with color, dimension, and shape. But for this, we are going to focus solely on a single feather. Actually, there are only 10-20 of these feathers on each duck you might harvest (depending upon species). They are known in the fly tying community as CDC (Cul De Canard) feathers, which is French for “bottom of duck.” Now before you go inspecting the bird’s belly, it actually refers to the lower back part of the duck, near the tail. 

Duck Feathers

Plucking the Feathers
As mentioned there are only a few CDC feathers on each bird. On a blue wing teal, there are about 10 and they are located right above where the tail begins, around the uropygial gland. Here’s a link for you rabbit-holers. These feathers have a different structure than the rest of the body feathers and act as a wick to the oil that secretes from the gland. Both cool and gross. CDC feathers are quite small and light. They’ll scoot off the table or out of your hand at the slightest breeze, so stuff them in a bag and carry on with your cleaning. 

CDC Duck Feathers

The Fly
You can tie various fly patterns with CDC, but because of it’s the size and subtle qualities, they’re mostly applied to trout flies. To keep it simple, the example I tied here is just a basic CDC Baetis. (or at least it's supposed to be). This fly is best tied with a size 18-24 size hook. Pictured here is a size 18 classic, although the curved or tactile style hook has a nice natural “hunched insect” look as well.

Tying Duck Feathers

What I really love about this fly is it seems to work when nothing else will. This fly-in gray or brown seems to be quite effective when you see those picky trout sipping “invisible” insects off the rivers boiling surface.

The Tying
Back to the fly. Start off by wrapping your fine to medium thickness thread around the middle of the shank to get a base layer started. Choose a color of thread that matches your CDC, or don’t; it’s up to you! Wrap it all the way back to just before the hooks bend. Pluck about 4 fibers from the side of one single CDC feather. Lay them down and secure with thread wraps adjusting them to be roughly 1/2 to equal length of the shank of the hook. This will create the tail. Secure with 2 or 3 more wraps bringing your thread forward. Now you’ll want to wrap several times around the “belly” or thorax of the fly to create a sort of bulging body. Next, bring your thread closer to the eye and gently pinch together two whole CDC feathers with the base or bottom exposed.

Duck Feathers

Wrap only the stems around the top of the fly leaving a little more than 1/4” of poof exposed. Trim the excess stem with scissors. Now with only a few wraps, wrap behind the feathers and in front on the hook shank to get them to stand up. Make a few wraps toward the eye and whip finish (or tie off and cut your thread). It’s very simple with only 2 ingredients, but one of those you harvested from the wild, so you’re a regular Jeremiah Johnson living off the land. Not quite, actually…you still have to stick the fish.

Chances are, when you sling this tiny bug out to those picky river critters, it will be hard to spot. This is what makes it so effective, it just blends in as one of those invisible bugs the trout are sipping. 

Sometimes you can tie on a slightly larger fly with some neon or white as a “double dry” setup. This larger fly that's tethered-in can help you find the tiny CDC bug. Just remember it’ll likely take more casts and good placement before a fish moves on it, so keep the casts coming until you’re certain these aren’t the fish for you. Again, this isn’t expert tying advice, but I hope this resonates with those wanting to get just a little more out their hunt and harvest. Happy shooting, picking, tying and fishing.

Catching Fish with Duck Feathers

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