How to Tie a Quill Gordon Dry Fly
Flies simply don’t get more classic than a Quill Gordon Dry. It may appear simple to tie, but in reality, they require high quality materials, attention to detail and precise proportions, in order to look and function correctly.
This begins with a solid foundation, here, a Dai-Riki #300, 1X long dry fly hook in size 14. To me, the extra shank length really helps to pull everything else together. Start by getting the hook firmly secured in the jaws of your tying vise.
For thread, I’ve loaded a bobbin with a spool of UTC 70 Denier in tan. Get the thread started on the hook shank, leaving a full two-eye length space behind the back edge of the hook eye. After taking a few wraps rearward, lift up the excess tag and snip it off close. Continue taking wraps rearward until your thread hangs at about the midpoint of the hook shank.
Feathers from a medium dun hackle cape are used to form the tail and to hackle the fly. I prefer natural-colored capes, as they tend to have more character than those that are dyed. On many modern capes, proper tailing fibers can be difficult to find or even non-existent. The best place to look for them is along the edges, about halfway down the cape. These feathers tend to have longer, stiffer, straighter fibers. Once you find a good looking feather, pluck it free from the skin. The best fibers have very little web at their base, so strip the lower webby fibers away from both sides of the stem. Gently preen down a small section of the remaining fibers on one side of the stem. Pinch 8-10 fibers in the fingertips of your left hand. The fibers should be perpendicular to the stem. Squeeze hard with your left hand while you pull the stem away with your right. If the butts are aligned, the tips should be aligned as well.
Measure to form a tail just slightly more than a full hook in length. Transfer that measurement rearward to the start of the hook bend and re-grip the fibers with your left hand. Give your bobbin a counterclockwise spin, as if you’re looking down on it. This will cause the first thread wrap to jump rearward and catch the very butt ends of the hackle fibers. As you take thread wraps rearward, pull the fibers up and toward you. This will help to anchor them on top of the hook shank as opposed to being pushed to the far side of it. Take the last thread wrap right at the start of the hook bend. The tail should be absolutely parallel to the hook shank.
A stripped peacock quill is used to form the body of the fly, and here, quality really matters. If you’re going to strip your own, use the biggest eyes you can find. Smaller eyes just don’t offer the same quill length, width and coloration, as larger ones do. I like the first half dozen or so herls, at the lower edge of the eye, the best. After snipping one free from the stem, you can strip the flues off between your fingernails, pull the quills under a razor blade to remove the flues, use an eraser to rub them free, which is my preferred method, or take out a second mortgage and buy already stripped quills. It actually might be worth it. The other option is to chemically strip a full eye, which takes some practice and, even then, can be somewhat hit or miss. I happened to get it right for this particular eye so I’m going to use a quill from it. I’ll preemptively break the quill off where it begins to dramatically thin, as it’s likely to do so all on its own.
Measure to make sure you have a quill that’s about 3 hook lengths long. Snip off any excess from the thin end. Check to see which side of the quill has the darkest markings along one edge, then anchor that side against the hook shank, so the less well-marked side faces you. Begin taking touching wraps forward with your tying thread to bind the quill to the near side of the hook. Keep taking thread wraps all the way back to your initial tie-in point.
High-quality lemon wood duck feathers are absolutely essential for creating the wings on a Quill Gordon. If you’ve been saving really good feathers for a special occasion, this might be it. Here, I’ve stripped all the usable feathers from one side of a male wood duck skin, but this is what the other side looks like. Most of the large feathers have black and white markings at their ends, rendering them unusable as wing material. It’s only the lower, more forward, feathers that will work and there aren’t that many of them. Among these, there are only a few that are truly top quality.
Some are very light in color with less than dark markings. Others have uneven tips which makes them unsuitable. Some have nice even tips but not as many fibers. You can use two feathers like this to make the wings if you like. Others still, may have one good side and the other bad. Some are full but have very inconsistent tips and coloration. The best feathers are nicely marked and have numerous, well aligned tips on either side of the stem. Any short fibers will be stripped off. This one’s almost as good as you get. Lots of nicely marked fibers and most of the tips are in alignment. Here, too, is another feather that’s acceptable. Although not all the tips are in exact alignment, they’re certainly close enough. This single feather will be used to form both wings.
Strip free all the lower, shorter fibers then check to make sure the tips of what remains are pretty well aligned. Gently preen down the lower fibers on either side of the stem to isolate the tip of the feather. Snip the tip off then preen the fibers back to normal. Although not essential, I like to hold the feather’s stem in my right hand and give the fibers a real good twist with my left. This will pull the tips up as far as they can go and hold the fibers together in a single unit, which for me anyway, makes measuring much easier.
Measure to form a wing, that just like the tail, is a full hook plus a little, in length. Transfer that measurement forward to directly over top of your tying thread. Use a pinch wrap to secure the fibers right there, then take a few tight wraps rearward, followed by a few more to get back to where you started. Pull the wood duck rearward and take jam wraps right at its base to prop it up. Next, take wraps behind the fibers going a little ways down the hook shank. Lift the butt ends of the wood duck up, and snip them off at a shallow angle. Take thread wraps over top of the snipped-off butt ends then continue taking thread wraps to create an underbody, that smoothly tapers down to the base of the tail. Return your tying thread forward, leaving it just shy of the base of the wing.
Get hold of the peacock quill and start taking touching wraps with it. Notice how it folds over on the first wrap so the well-colored side now faces out. I prefer to use my fingers, as opposed to hackle pliers, to do the wrapping. I feel it offers me more control. Take touching wraps with the quill up the hook shank to form the body of the fly. When you reach your tying thread, use it to anchor the quill really well, then lift the butt end up and snip it off close. You can see here why I prefer using tan tying thread, as any accidental thread wraps that happen to peek through, become all but invisible. The fly should now look something like this.
Take thread wraps forward to the base of the wing then pull it back, and once again, add a few jam wraps in front, at its base, to stand the fibers up. Separate the wood duck into two equal clumps, one on either side of the fly. Take a couple of cross wraps to further separate the clumps. Complete a full wrap of tying thread around the hook shank to effectively save your work up to this point. Take two clockwise wraps going up the base of the far wing then two coming back down. Cut across the top of the fly and take a full counter wrap around the shank to, once again, save your work.
Now, take the same four wraps, first up then down, around the base of the near wing. Follow these with a full normal wrap around the shank. Push the wings up to vertical and do a figure 8 wrap between them followed closely by a full wrap around the shank. Do one more figure 8 between the wings, along with a couple wraps around the shank. The wings should now be set solidly in place. Ideally, you want them to stand 90 degrees to the hook shank and splay about 30 degrees apart.
To hackle the fly, go back to your medium dun cape and sift through the feathers along its center line that you believe will have fibers the correct length for this size 14 hook. I prefer feathers with fibers that are on the far end of the size 14 range and actually extend into the size 12 range just a bit. I know that these, when wrapped, will form a hackle collar with fibers that are very close to 2 hook gaps in length. When you’ve determined the fibers are of the correct size, pluck the feather free from the skin. Pull down and strip off the lower, webby fibers from the stem. Then, with the front side of the feather facing you, strip an 1/8” or so of fibers from just the top side of the stem.
Lay the bare stem against the near side of the hook, with that stripped edge up and away from you. Take thread wraps to anchor the stem to the near side of the hook. Reach in with your tying scissors and carefully snip the stem off, about halfway between the base of the wing and the back edge of the hook eye. This will allow you to continue binding the stem to the shank in front of the wing, yet still leave some bare shank behind the hook eye.
Pull the wings back and fill in the area at their base with wraps of tying thread to ease the transition down to the hook shank. Gently preen the wings forward, just a little. Get hold of the tip of the hackle feather with your favorite hackle pliers or just your fingers, if the feather’s long enough. Bend the feather forward, between the wings, out over the hook eye, to lightly crease its stem. It should then want to wrap correctly with the fibers nice and perpendicular to the hook shank. Take 3 or so wraps with the feather to fill in the space behind the wings then pull the wings back and take 2 or 3 wraps in front of them, until you reach your tying thread. While holding the feather’s tip in a vertical orientation, take thread wraps to anchor the stem to the hook shank.
Reach in with the very tips of your tying scissors and snip the excess hackle feather off close. Pick up your whip finish tool and use it to do a 4 or 5 turn whip finish, seat the knot well and snip or cut your tying thread free. Your Quill Gordon should now look something like this. Just a couple more easy steps are all that’s left.
Although I’m sure to get some blowback here, I like to finish the fly with good old fashioned water-based head cement. It’s super thin, penetrates well and dries absolutely clear. The cement reinforces the quill body so that even a sharp trout’s tooth or here, a razor blade, won’t cut it enough that it comes unraveled. Anyway, back to the fly we’ve been working on. Use a bodkin to pick up a small amount of the cement then apply it to the quill body of the fly. This stuff is very liquid so you may have to go back to the bottle a few times. Just make sure the entire quill body receives a light coat. Once it sinks in and dries, the cement will contract a lot. A small drop of the same cement works well for ensuring the wraps at the head of the fly won’t come unraveled.
And that’s a Quill Gordon Dry, ready to land gently on the water’s surface and float via surface tension just like the naturals. Once again, proportions are absolutely critical on this and other Catskill-style dry fly patterns. On a flat surface, the tips of the tail and the hackle points should support the fly so the lowest part of the hook bend hovers just above that flat surface. Getting a Quill Gordon Dry anywhere near perfect takes a lot of practice and can be a real test, even for advanced tyers.