Talking Turkey to a Trout by Russ Forney

Articles, Fly Patterns — By on September 7, 2010 9:31 am

Bead head emergers against a background of turkey tails and tying tools. (Photo by Russ Forney)

“Talking turkey” is an old idiom referring to a candid discussion. In present use the phrase denotes a matter of business, a factual and straightforward approach to problem solving. This contemporary definition works just fine, unless you are a fly fisherman.

Talking turkey to a trout is all about deception and guile, a meticulous charade to undo a wary predator. Cleverly crafted imitations disguise an underlying barb, singularly focused on conning a wily audience into action. The last thing an angler wants is a true disclosure of facts; trickery is key to fishing success.

Dennis Peters, a friend from Cheyenne, recently gave me two beautiful turkey tails, souvenirs of a Black Hills hunt. He recognized the power of turkey feathers to spawn dozens of trout flies and his thoughtful gift christened the winter fly tying season. These tails prompted a more literal meaning of talking turkey to a trout: using turkey feathers to disguise a fish hook. The handsome feathers that grace the strutting end of an old Tom are excellent fly tying material, the genesis of deceit bound for Wyoming streams.

How can turkey feathers fool fish? The anatomy of a turkey tail feather offers a variety of barbules and fibers that are readily transformed into imitation insects. The stiff tips of the feathers become the tails and legs of nymphs, emergers, and duns. Longer feather segments found midway down the feather shaft can be bundled and twisted around the hook shank to become a segmented abdomen. Fuzzy plumes at the base of the feather shaft make fine nymph bodies with soft flowing fibers that dance in the slightest current. And the best known use of turkey feathers is as wing case material and wing sections are often coated with clear nail polish or epoxy to strengthen the fibers for this role.

But before you clamp a hook in your vise or thread a bobbin, be forewarned: the tying bench has the power to turn a cold winter evening into a virtual fishing expedition, reminiscent of time on the water with a fly rod in hand. Every fly that tumbles from the vise is bred of good memories and unlimited promise.

Grab your tying kit and let’s talk turkey.

Turkey tail nymph. (Photo by Russ Forney)

Turkey Tail Nymph

Hook: Heavy wire nymph/wet fly hook, sizes 12-18
Thread: Black
Weight: Black bead head or lead-free wire wrapped under the thorax
Tail: Turkey tail tips
Abdomen: Small bundle of feather fibers covering the back half of the body
Thorax: Course black dubbing with guard hairs
Wing case (optional): Mottled turkey tail section

Nymphs are the most dependable fly on trout waters and are particularly reliable in early spring. The high, off-color water fueled by snow melt scoots by at a fast clip and fish hold low in the water column, exploiting every sheltered niche along the stream bed to minimize the energetic demands of swimming in a stout current. Limited visibility and cold temperatures slow feeding activity and trout are reluctant to leave their protected lies to investigate a fleeting morsel of fake food. Weighted flies are needed to get down along the creek bottom where the fish are lurking.

While dredging the bottom of the creek may not be the most exciting form of fly fishing, it sure gets the job done under tough water conditions. Dark flies are a visual plus in silt-stained water and turkey feathers exhibit a remarkable variety of subdued colors, iridescent hues, and mottled contrasts; they are a readymade solution for crafting darkly-colored nymphs.

My favorite turkey tail nymph is modeled on the venerable pheasant tail. A small bundle of tail feather fibers are wrapped along the shank, ribbed with fine gold wire, and the thorax is finished in course black dubbing. Weighted with either lead-free wire or a black metal bead head, sizes 12-18 are popular with springtime trout in Wyoming’s mountain streams and creeks. Remember weighted turkey tail nymphs again in the fall when early snow cools the water and trout reacquaint themselves with the creek bed. Variations of the basic pattern can be tied on curved shank hooks, adorned with legs and wing cases, or tied with the soft, webby plumes found at the base of tail feathers for added movement in the water.

The Mixed Bird Emerger is a practical union of turkey tail, peacock herl, and roster hackle. (Photo by Russ Forney)

The MBE (Mixed Bird Emerger)

Hook: Curved shank scud/emerger hook, size 14-20
Thread: Black
Tail: Turkey tail fibers, either stiff tips or webby plumes
Abdomen: Wrapped bundle of dark tail feather fibers
Thorax: Peacock herl
Hackle: Grizzly neck hackle slightly oversized, tied paraloop style over the thorax

Emergers imitate flies struggling to hatch from the water, a transitional phase in the lifecycle of aquatic insects. Emergence is a dynamic event and emulative patterns must convey a sense of movement and animation to capture the attention of feeding fish. Emerger patterns are valuable early in a hatch to imitate nymphs rising from the stream bottom to exit through the surface film. Anglers venturing midstream without a few emergers pinned to their drying patch will regret their oversight before the day is over.

The MBE combines turkey tail fibers, peacock herl and rooster hackle. A tuft of stiff grizzly hackle suspends the curved body beneath the surface film to present the footprint of an emerging mayfly straddling the line between its aquatic nursery and the terrestrial world of adults. A body built from mottled turkey tail and the iridescent sheen of peacock herl turns this union of bird feathers into an irresistible imitation.

Drifting emergers in current seams and along the edge of pools is a productive way to work the front end of a hatch when trout first dimple the surface. Fishing the fly back wet, submerged just beneath the surface, at the end of a drift often produces a few extra strikes; vertical movement in the water column suggests a pre-emergent fly rising to the surface, a likely trigger for feeding fish.

Try the MBE in sizes 18-20 when early season olives first brave the elements on a raw spring day. A dab of silicon floatant working into the paraloop hackle helps hold the emerger in the surface film and makes the low-riding pattern easier to see on the water – a welcomed relief for aging eyes.

A weighted emerger pattern can be tied with webby barbules from the base of a turkey tail feather to imitate the animation of actively emerging insects. Allow the soft tips to extend beyond the hook bend as a trailing shuck and wrap the twisted bundle of fibers up the shank to form the abdomen. Ostrich herl is used for the thorax, topped by another bundle of webby turkey tail fibers to form a loose wing case. The wing case may be doubled back behind the bead head and trimmed to form a wispy wing bud. The combination of flowing turkey plumes and soft ostrich herl dances in the current and draws big fish out of their lairs for a closer look.

A Parachute Hare’s Ear flaunts the best fly tying qualities of hare dubbing and turkey tail tips. (Photo by Russ Forney)

Parachute Hare’s Ear

Hook: Dry fly hook, sizes 14-20
Thread: Black
Tail: Stiff tips of turkey tail feather
Body: Natural hare’s ear dubbed the full length of the body
Post: White turkey T-base section or bundle of tail tips
Hackle: Grizzly saddle hackle tied parachute style

The hare’s ear parachute is a generic a pattern, looking like nothing in particular, but suggesting plenty to interest hungry trout. The buggy luster of hare’s ear dubbing is universally appealing and the scraggly dubbing is right at home suspended beneath a parachute-style hackle. The hare’s ear parachute is a three season fly in the Big Horn Mountains watershed, bringing fish to the net as long as there is open water to drift. Parachutes in sizes 14-18 are well matched to brawny little streams hurling down rocky canyons. Good things happen when rabbit fur and turkey tails join forces.

Stiff barbules make fine tailing fibers for small parachutes and the light-to-medium tan tips complement the mixed tans and browns of natural hare’s ear dubbing. The center sections of turkey T-base or flats (feathers from the neck and breast) make solid posts, a job also handled by a small bundle of feather tips. Grizzly is my favorite parachute hackle on the hare’s ear. Two or three wraps are sufficient for size 16-20 flies with extra turns on larger flies or parachutes bound for the choppy water of a mountain stream.

I watch through the kitchen window as another storm piles snow up behind the house, driven by wind so cold the fence posts shiver. It is time to pour a cup of hot coffee and head to the tying vise, dozens of nymphs, emergers, and parachute duns are waiting to be released from the turkey feathers on my tying bench. Grand deception begins at the tip of a turkey tail.

A weighted fly is needed to join the action along the bottom of the creek bed, like this turkey tail emerger with a tungsten bead head. (Photo by Russ Forney)

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Talking Turkey to a Trout by Russ Forney, 9.7 out of 10 based on 6 ratings


  1. Murray (lykos33) says:

    Nice…really like that MBE. Kinda “freaky” lookin’ LOL!!!

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  2. Russ says:

    You’re right…it does look strange; the paraloop hackle dies a nice job of imitating a Mohawk haircut.

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  3. swellcat says:

    Nicely, intelligently written. Much appreciated.

    One little editing touch-up: “course” is used where “coarse” is intended.


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  4. Daniel says:

    Nice job ! thanks you

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  5. Russ Forney says:

    Good catch “swellcat” I appreciate the feedback.

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  6. Tom Gibbons says:

    Hello Mr. Forney
    Last yr. or earlier this year you posted a piece on dyeing various materials. So I decided to go at it,after watching a youtube vid featuring Davie McPhail tying a “McPhail”. It was a fly composed of chartruse pheasant tail dyed by himself. My project was dyeing white rabbit fur I purchased at Hobby Lobby. I used as the medium,90% yellow onion skins with 10% red onion. Four cups water in a two qt. pot,and the skins simmered for two hrs. Amount of skins,one gallon Ziplock freezer bag stuffed. The result is a very intense beautyful yellow. Satisfied? you bet. Yellow sallys,golden stones,just for starters. Also, I used a half cup of white vinnegar at the end after I strained the liquid when I added the fur.I let it soak about three hrs.then rinsed and squeezed it out. Used a hair drier on it this am,and the result with hardly any effort is a plethora of tying material you cannot buy. I took some pics of it,and will post them later. Thanks again for your wonderful flytying. Tom Gibbons.

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  7. Russ Forney says:


    The dyed rabbit fur sounds great, I look forward to seeing your stonefly nymphs. Dying your own materials adds an extra dimenson to the tying process, a neat way to extend the pleasure of the hobby, especially when using natural dyestuffs.

    Thanks for sharing, Russ

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  8. That is kool way to go.

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