By Nick Simonson
The reports from around North Dakota following this past weekend’s pheasant opener were of a missing crop of young birds, and wily, old carryover roosters from last season that gave dogs the run-around. Certainly, the challenge of bagging one of these remaining birds made the start to the season memorable for many. However, one upside to the primarily mature birds making up this year’s take are the beautiful, well-developed feathers on their skins for fly tying. For those lucky enough to harvest one, preserving that pelt is key to a great season at the tying bench.
Those long-spurred veterans in the harvest typically have the most complete and robust set of feathers providing lure crafters with hundreds of plumes which can tie up thousands of flies. Oftentimes on these mature birds, the rust and orange shoulder feathers, perfect for overwings on caddisflies, are tinged with purple. The blue, green and tangerine rump feathers are vibrant and thick-fibered, making them ideal for big, flashy streamers. Even the tail feathers are longer, fuller and trimmed with a hint of lavender, providing a little something extra for those standard pheasant tail nymphs. What follows is a quick and easy skinning tutorial to get the most out of your rooster with the least amount of work.
With a sharp fillet knife and a reliable set of shears at hand, select a well-colored, mature rooster from your bag; young birds will have incomplete and underdeveloped sets of feathers, and their capes are less desirable at this time of year (1). Start by removing the wings at the shoulder joint by slicing through the skin right where the “armpit” would be and cutting the bone with a pair of shears. Remove the legs just above the knee joint with the shears, and then the head where the skull joins the neck, by slicing the meat around it with a knife and cutting the bone with the shears (2).
Next, split the skin up the belly and breast of the bird and gently peel it back. With a little effort, you can pull the legs up and out of the skin without ripping it, leaving those dark gray and black marabou feathers in perfect shape (3). Repeat the process on the back of the bird by pulling the neck down and through the skin, then gently pulling the skin over the remaining wing bones all the way down to the butt of the bird where the tail attaches (4). Here there are a few little muscles and some cartilage between the tail and the body which can be sliced through with your knife. Go through the meaty portion slowly, making sure not to cut the skin to which the tail is attached, in order to keep it part of the cape (5).
Peel off the remaining skin around the rump, and your cape should be free from the body of the bird (6). Clean off any excess blood, sinew or fat and treat the skin and that area of tail muscle with a rubbing of salt or borax. Then place it in a plastic gallon-sized Ziploc bag and stick it in the freezer until Christmas to kill off any parasites and to cure the skin so it does not rot at your fly tying desk.
Now you have at your fingertips a vast array of plumes that make some of the best patterns in all of fly tying (7). Take a few extra minutes on the tailgate this fall to make the most of that hard-earned rooster and prepare for a well-stocked winter at the vise.
(Featured Photo: The cape of a mature rooster pheasant taken on Pheasant Opener will provide hundreds of great feathers for a multitude of fly patterns this winter. Simonson Photo)