D.I.Y. Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Kebari & Fly Tying

From Field to Flies

How to Utilize Wild Turkey Feathers

Article by Michael Richardson

I like to consider myself a full circle outdoorsman. Pretty much every season, and every month of the year brings on a different type of hunting or fishing activity. To lay this out for you I wanted to share my yearly outdoor schedule. I’ll Start with June, and end with May, since that month is primarily what this article is about.

From June to August I have a mix of native brook trout fishing and prepping for the upcoming fall hunting seasons. September brings in dove season, and the initial kickoff to my hunting season. In October and November, I am typically 20-30 feet off the ground archery hunting for deer, however this year I plan to hunt from the ground with my recurve bow. I also mix in a few small game hunts for squirrel, rabbit, and grouse to add to my fly tying material.  My trout fishing season starts from mid-December (the day after rifle season for whitetail deer) to mid-April. I love winter trout fishing the most because of the peace and serenity. Sounds crazy right? 

You may be thinking, “this guy’s season ends, when mine begins. He is missing the best part of trout fishing! Between mid-April to June are when most hatches come off, why on Earth is he not on the water?” 

Let me give you the answer to your questions. From mid-April to the end of May, my mind is solely focused on spring turkey hunting. To say I am obsessed with gobblers may even be an understatement. I literally wake up around 4:00 or 4:30 every morning from opening day until I fill my tags. Most of these mornings I am only getting an hour to an hour and a half to hunt before I must run home, get my kids ready, and jet off to work.

To me there is no bigger adrenaline rush in the outdoors than calling in a mature gobbler. Hearing him become completely hypnotized by my calls and gobbling his head off is what drives me to these obscene actions.  

But enough about turkey hunting, this is a fishing website, right? I wanted to put together this article to show how I utilize my turkey harvests to create flies. Turkey has got to be one of my favorite materials for trout flies. The dark brown and black banded colors are a perfect match to many of the insects and other aquatic organisms that trout feed on. This spring was my best spring gobbler season ever as I filled both of my tags by May 16th, and was able to call in another bird for my cousin. This meant lots of feathers for flies. I wanted to compose a breakdown of what feathers I use, what patterns I tie with those feathers, and where you find each of the feathers on the turkey.

The main feathers I use from my turkeys are the primary and secondary tail fan feathers. I use these for nymph bodies, wing cases, and especially on my peeping caddis patterns. The brown and black barring perfectly mimic the cases of a caddis larva. The primary feathers get a little wide as they get closer to the base but nymphs can be up to size 10 and still work. This can be a fine substitute if you want to do a large pheasant tail pattern for and anchor fly as well.

The secondary tail fan feathers are much thinner and I feel provide one of the best wing case material out there. The color is spot on with many of the insects in the water. These feathers also work well for smaller bodied nymphs. The feathers are much thinner and do not add a lot of bulk. If you are in the area of the country that has Merriams turkey, or if you can get your hands on a Merriams tail fan, you just found fly tying gold! The secondary feathers have white tips on them and provide a beautiful two-tone appearance to your nymphs. Additionally, Merriams turkey have a more maroon than brown colored fan. In my opinion, this color is just spot on to match 90% of the nymphs in the water.

The feathers on the underside of the tail fan and near the turkey’s rear are great marabou feathers. As you move to between the turkey’s legs these feathers get to be ideal for wooly bugger tails. The feathers get smaller as they approach the legs and you can get perfect size 12 and smaller buggers. The feathers closer to the tail fan are more of the “Xtra Select Marabou.” The longer fibers create larger tails and more movement. This is also great material for sculpins and larger woolly buggers.

The turkey’s leg feathers are great for soft hackles, and tenkara kebari style flies. The feathers are rather small as you get to the “knee” area and get bigger as you get closer to the thigh. They are beautiful feathers with a nice light black coloration, barred with grey. In addition to the soft hackles and kebari, they are also ideal for caddis pupa.

The wing feathers can provide some wonderful tying materials. The secondary wing feathers are good for nymph bodies. They are a cream and brown mixed coloring and can provide a nice two tone look for the bodies. The primary wing feathers are great for longer biots used for antennae and legs on nymphs. These are barred coloration as well, so if you do a biot bodied nymph you can have color variation.

When I package my feathers, I use different baggies for each feather type. I also use different baggies for the leg soft jack per size, and also the marabou per size. I recommend keeping your wild feathers separate from your purchased feathers or treating them to eliminate mites and other pests that may be on your harvested feathers.

While I keep most of the feathers, I do donate some of the primary wing feathers to traditional archery guys for use on their arrows. I also donate the bird’s wing bones to my call-making buddies to make strikers and wing bone calls. I’m going to try to make some wing bone calls out of the second bird I harvested this year.

It goes without saying that I also like to eat turkey as I make turkey jerky from the meat, as well as cook it in traditional ways. I deliberately try my best to use everything I can from the bird so nothing goes to waste. I owe that respect to this amazing animal.

I hope this helps anyone who hunts (and especially those of you that don’t). One can reference this article if a buddy asks what feathers he should save for you the next time he harvests a turkey. You should now be able to tell him exactly what feathers you want and where to find them on the bird. I know this article is a little late for the 2018’s spring turkey season, but this can be a valuable tool to save for this fall or next spring.

Here is my favorite fly that utilizes wild turkey feathers. I can’t begin to tell you how many trout I have caught with this nymph. I find it fished best as an attractor pattern, fished tandem with another nymph.

Fly Recipe: “Peeping Caddis”

  • Hook: Size 12-16 1XL Nymph Hook
  • Bead: 2.8mm Black Tungsten Bead
  • Thread: 70-140 Denier Dark Brown
  • Tail: Chartreuse Ultra Chenille-size Standard
  • Soft Hackle: Wild Turkey Leg Feathers or Hungarian Partridge
  • Ribbing: Copper Wire
  • Body: Wild Turkey Primary Tail Feathers

Michael Richardson is a sales engineer and aspiring writer who resides in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. Mike is newer to tenkara angling, but has been tying flies and conventional fly fishing since age 16. He has a fly tying business, Richardson Fly Company, and enjoys getting new fly anglers involved in the sport.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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  1. Great article, Michael! I just started to dip my toes in to turkey hunting, and I was so focused on the bringing home food aspect that I completely overlooked the use of feathers for tying flies…and even giving feathers to guys/gals who make arrows. I will definitely be referencing this article once I get lucky in the field with these amazingly odd looking birds.

  2. Michael, really enjoyed your article. I get a turkey from time to time and other game birds (pheasant, quail, dove, ducks) and harvest some of the feathers for my fly making efforts. I haven’t tied in a while, and you’ve inspired me with your article. I just retired a few months ago and now I have more time for the important pursuits in life. Thanks.

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