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Exploring Fly Tying Materials - Marabou

I feel like marabou is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated fly tying materials. Sure, it is great for woolly bugger tails but it is a hell of a lot more than that...or at least it should be. There is little else that moves in the water like marabou. The most obvious applications are streamers - whether used for tails or palmered as a body / "wing" material - the size and "flow" of marabou makes it a preferred material for streamers. But it also makes great bodies for streamers and nymphs with a certain "fuzziness" that is tough to create with dubbing. And it is a great "wing" on streamers. I remember an article many years ago in Fly Fisherman magazine about using marabou for dry flies. Can you do it? Sure. Is it an application where marabou excels? Not really. But there are an awful lot of applications - beyond just "bugger tails" where marabou excels.

Marabou in buoyant streamers
Marabou in a palmered tail and a flowing wing in some buoyant "Fettuccine foam" streamers.

While today marabou comes mostly from those large, white, incredibly stupid domestic turkeys; the name comes from the Marabou Stork, a bird native to much of Africa. The Marabou Stork is a CITES listed bird so we no longer get marabou from storks. However the domestic turkey has some great advantages aside from them being common and inexpensive. The white feathers take dye well, there is a fairly large size range of feathers, and they have replaced a relatively uncommon species once overharvested for its feathers. Marabou has become the name we have given to feathers that have a very long section of downy barbs and little if any feathers without many barbs - which is what gives the feathers their characteristic "fluffiness". More technically, marabou feather have a large plumulaceous region and little - if any - pennaceous region. If you really want to learn a lot about feather anatomy, check out Cornell's Ornithology Lab's, Everything You Need to Know About Bird Feathers page.

Marabou Feather Types (Turkey)

Today, marabou is synonymous with domesticated white turkeys. Generally, what you will find available to the fly tyer is bugger marabou, blood quills, and prime quills which are in order of increasing feather and often fiber length, although fiber length can be pretty variable. You may also find marabou labeled for Spey flies which are premium, hand-selected feathers that have long barbs and a very thin and pliable stem. These feathers are rare and will be a little more expensive but in the feather world, they are pretty affordable.

Nature's Spriit marabou
Nature's Spirit is just one of several brands of marabou you will find in your local fly shop or online.

Most classically, marabou is for woolly bugger tails and we probably all have our own favorite way of tying in bugger tails. What you will find labeled as woolly bugger marabou is meant to incorporate the tip of the feather into the tail. On larger flies, I tend to use 2 feathers but for most buggers, a single (good) feather will suffice.

Nature's Spirt / Fish Hunter marabou
Nature's Spirit / Fish Hunter marabou in different sizes and for different applications, close-ups below.

A selection of black marabou from Nature's Spirit and their Fish Hunter line of products. Premium Bugger Bou are 24 hand-picked marabou feathers selected for their "fluffiness" and are, of course, selected to tie bugger tails. The Fish Hunter Marabou (middle) is 4-5 inch long blood quills (strung) and are great for a variety of applications but are particularly well suited for longer tails, wings, and for tails or "wings" where the feather is wrapped like a hackle. Lastly, the prime marabou long are hand selected 6-7 inch quills which are great for Spey hackles and streamer wings. The fibers along the thicker stem can be used for wings and tails. You may also see marabou sold as Spey marabou which typically has stems that are thin for several inches. the prime long marabou typically has a shorter sweet spot than does do the feather selected for Spey packaging. Obviously, the hand selected packages will increase the cost per feather but you'll spend less time sorting through feathers to get what you want.

Fish hunter marabou
Fish Hunter Marabou from L to R, Woolly Bugger, standard, and prime long marabou.

The four images below are of the marabou types above tied in a tails - or palmered wings for the prime long marabou - that would be the start of the "rear end" of an articulated streamer pattern. I typically use marabou as the underbody of the tail sections - which for many articulated streamers are really just modified woolly buggers. These are all tied on Tiemco B10s #2 hooks.

Bugger Bou Tail
Two plumes of Nature's Spriit Premium Bugger Bou with some barred Flashabou between them.

With the "bugger bou", the length of the tails are often limited. This is tied in to include the tip of the feather and the plumes that reached the tip. The rest of the fibers are stripped off the quill. I generally try to tie in the first feather a little longer than the top feather. For bugger tails, feather length is not very important but you are looking for a feather that is fluffy well into the tip of the feather. If you try to tie tales that are too long with bugger marabou, you may lose action if you include too much of the stem in the tail which will hinder movement.

Fish Hunter Marabou tip tied and wrapped like a soft hackle for the tail - with a few reinforcing wraps.

Tip tying and wrapping a marabou feather like a hackle for the tail is great way to get a long flowing tail with a ton of movement. This thing will look awesome in the water. To finish this articulated rear end, the possibilities are limitless but I would almost certainly have something near the head that comes back to about half way into this tail. This section alone is about 3 inches and will be the back half of a 6-9 inch fly. With a tail this long that extends behind the hook as much as this one does, you will want that to be part of a longer fly to prevent short strikes.

Fish Hunter marabou fibers
Marabou fibers from the base of a Fish Hunters marabou plume tied in two bunches with Flashabou in between.

Being "frugal" (read cheap), I like to use all of the feather. Using the fibers that were left after creating the tail above, I made a tail pretty similar to tail made of bugger marabou. These fibers are tied in much like the "bugger bou" fibers, they sandwich some clear/black barred flashabou as well. I find this tail to be a bit more "free flowing" than when you include the tip of the marabou feather. It does take a lot more fibers and creates more bulk on the hook to create a tail with a similar bulk to the bugger bou tail. These fibers can also be used for "wings" on streamers (they really need better names for parts of streamer fly patterns). This is how I first learned to tie bugger tails, in part because marabou 30 years ago was not as good nor as well selected for particular purposes as it is today.

A finished "tail" - bugger bou tails, some sparkly chenille, and a Fish Hunter's Prime Marabou Long.

This finished rear section uses a tail of bugger marabou - just like the first image in this series - and I wrapped a prime long marabou quill at the head, much like the tail section in the second image of this series. I added a few rubber legs, some flashabou, and some Nightmare Musky Flies Fur and Flash Chenille. This will be the rear section for an articulated streamer for use in muddy waters or late in the evening when black makes a great silhouette. Another great option here would be to make the tail from the fibers along the thicker part of the prime long marabou stem.

Tail section above, under water
The rear section above after running it under some water - marabou bulk reduces in water.

The thing about marabou is that it looks so much different in the water. The bulk you see in these images tends to be much reduced so don't be afraid to use a bit of a heavy hand, it will look much different in the water than it does when dry. That seemingly huge and bulky tail section above looks a lot different when wet.

Montana Fly Company brown barred yellow marabou.
Montana Fly Company brown mini-barred yellow marabou - excellent for palmering.

The MFC mini-barred marabou above is another premium marabou. If you're just looking to make bugger tails, this is a bit expensive - but it would make a pretty cool looking tail. I bought this to make streamers to imitate Brown Trout by wrapping these near the head of the fly to produce a fly with a lot of inherent movement.

Jay Fair's Premium Marabou
Jay Fair's premium marabou - enough for palmering and the fibers along the thicker shaft are excellent for tailing.

Jay Fair's is another premium marabou that has 6-8 inch plumes. You'll notice that the stem is rather thick but there is still a good amount of pliable stem due to the feathers' length. I might cut the fibers from the thicker part of the shaft for the tail and use the tip as a hackle near the head. Again, you'll pay a premium for hand-selected feathers. If you don't mind doing a little culling, strung marabou - where the feathers are sewn together at their bases - will provide the best bang for the buck. Hell, dollar store or craft store finds work fine but you will do a lot of culling. Marabou is relatively cheap - good and versatile Fish Hunter Premium Strung Marabou is about $4 for a quarter ounce and the 1 oz master pack should cost you about $13 to $14. Prices for other brands will be similar. An ounce is an awful lot of marabou.

With strung marabou, often the dye jobs are not as great as on the hand selected and packaged marabou but with some sorting, you will find great tails and hackles. Most of the undyed areas are near the base of the feather. Sometimes running a small comb or piece of "Velcro" through the feather will give it a bit more life.

Typical packages are 1/4 of an ounce and the 1 oz. packs can be a very good bargain for the person that ties a lot of flies. I typically buy my more commonly used colors - black, white, brown, and olive - in the larger packs and other colors in the smaller packs. Most of the marabou I buy is strung marabou unless I need - or want to play around - with longer feathers and fibers.

Below are a few applications for marabou other than just bugger tails...

Marabou Thunder Creek Minnow
A Thunder Creek style streamer tied with tan over white marabou fibers - still a bit damp.
Clouser Deep Minnow with a marabou top wing
A Clouser Deep Minnow with olive marabou fibers over white bucktail.
Wild turkey marabou leech
A modified Whiskey Fly. Wild turkey marabou is the tail, body, and dubbing for the collar over the olive soft hackle.

Chicken Marabou (Chickabou)

Much like turkeys, chickens have marabou feathers but of course they tend to be smaller. Often the "chickabou" or other similar products are generally not as "fluffy" as turkey marabou but there are times that might be advantageous.

Whiting mini bird fur
Whiting mini bird fur - suitable tailing and wing materials for smaller patterns

Whiting's Mini Bird Fur and Chickabou nearly reasonably decent for shorter tails on smaller flies and for single feather (or two) leach patterns. If it doesn't sound like a love it, well, there's a reason for that. I don't. If you tie a lot of smaller buggers or use marabou for tails and abdomens on nymphs, you may want to give this a try. Maybe you will find more and better uses for it than I did. Maybe the "non-mini" version would work better.

Whiting bird fur tails
Whiting Mini Bird Fur tails and underbodies on #8 Mustad 3906B hooks. I don't love it...but it will work.

The tails on the left are tied in like a "normal" marabou tail, the tail on the right is wrapped like hackle. The feathers are - as advertised - fur like and lack the barbules of marabou feathers which reduced their bulk and "fluffiness". I'll reserve a portion of my judgement until I see what they look like in the water.

Chickabou and marabou comparison
Two Coq de Leon hen chickabou feathers (L) and 1 plume of Nature's Spirit Bugger Bou (R)

The Coq de Leon (CDL) hen feathers are much less "fluff" (have fewer barbules) compared to the bugger bou feathers but more than the bird fur. Note too that I used 2 CDL feathers and only a single bugger marabou feather and the turkey marabou still produced a bulkier tail. Remember that in the water, these will both have much less bulk to them.

A pair of Milwaukee Leaches
Simi-Seal Leaches (Milwaukee Leeches) tied with CDL tails on #8 Mustad 3906B hooks.

The simi-seal leeches or Milwaukee Leeches are tied on #8 Mustad 3906B hooks with a Firehole Speckled Stone in Midnight Red. These are some great flies for early season fished deep and slow. Yeah, not the most fun way to fish but sometimes you need to catch fish in January through March. My favorite way to tie these are to create a relatively thin body that is brushed so that the simi-seal flows and comes to about the half-way point of the tail.

Hen saddle with chickabou
A hen saddle with chickabou from the Marty Kwitek collection (thanks, SWTU and Matt!)

This is a really nice older hen saddle with some really nice chickabou. The tail below (left) uses three feathers for the tails with a bit of Krystal Flash sandwiched between the feathers. Similarly, the CDL tailed fly (right) also uses three feathers for the tail.

Hen chickabou and CDL chickabou tails
Hen chickabou (left) and CDL (right) tails each used 3 feathers.

In Summary

Marabou is an inexpensive and versatile material that is not just for bugger tails - though it most certainly excels there. Marabou is a great material for when you want a lot of movement in your flies, whether tied as a standard tail, wrapped as hackle, or fibers tied in for streamer wings. Using the fibers for the tail and then wrapped as the body - like the modified Whiskey Fly above - is great for a number of larger nymphs, particularly to imitate a number of burrowing mayflies (Hex, Brown Drakes, and others) and dragonflies and damselflies.

Good marabou is easy to find. I own a pretty good pile of marabou in different colors, sizes, and types. In black and white, I have woolly bugger, blood quills, prime quills, and spey quill marabou. You could certainly get away with fewer packages but they are inexpensive and having specific types of marabou saves you from doing a lot of sorting. Inexpensive, versatile, and readily available. What more could you want?

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