In this article the different breeds and species of fox are described. The characteristics of the fur varieties, and their importance to the fly tier is discussed. In spite of a wide variety of fox breeds all of them are in fact mutations of only two species. The Polar Fox or Arctic Fox (Latin name Alopex lagapus) (the latter name is most often used in English) lives in the tundra of North America, Europe and Asia,
and the red fox which is also called the common fox (Latin name Vulpes vulpes) lives commonly on the Northern Hemisphere (with the exception of the tundra) but it is also found in Australia.
However, only animals offered by fox breeders are generally available on the market. Contrary to what may seem, they have better pelage than wild animals. This is natural because foxes on farms have regular and optimal food provided by breeders whereas in the wild large periods of starvation are quite common, having a negative impact on the quality of hair.
There is a fundamental difference in the structure of pelage of these two species. The Arctic Fox has very flattened hair all over its body where the top layer (guard hair) is only slightly longer than the dense bottom layer (down hair). The pelts of wild Arctic Foxes have a blue coloration (a blue fox) which is characterized by dark ends of the guard hair. At present there is a number of colour mutations of foxes found in fox farming such as a Frost Fox (almost black), a Platinum Fox, a Sapphire Fox and the most desired ones that is a Shadow Fox and a White Fox because of easy and saturated colorations of their fur in the dyeing process.
The fur of the Red Fox is much looser, not so dense as the Arctic Fox has. The guard hair is much longer than the undercoat. In this species more colour mutations are quite common compared to the Arctic Fox. Let us mention just a few of them such as a Silver, Amber, Platinum, Red, or Grey fox and the one we are most interested in that is a Marble Fox with a stripe of black fur on the back from its face to the end of its tail.
Before I begin to discuss particular subspecies, I would like to tell you a story of using the fox fur to make salmon flies in Europe. The American roots will be described later. As Håkan Norling reports he saw the first black-coloured fox fur in the summer 1984 when he and Mikael Frödin worked as tour guides on the River Gaula. At that time Mikael had a black-coloured fox brush. They made a few effective flies which inspired Håkan to continue his searches. In the autumn 1985 the first ones such as Temple Dog flies were made. Initially they were tied from dog’s hair (hence the name of the fly) but in the winter 1986 Håkan found white fox tails and coloured them and thus the first flies with a multicoloured wing were created. They were hair versions of the Black Doctor, Green Highlander, Silver Grey, Red Sandy. The two men were exactly the first ones who popularized the designs and material used in the flies in Europe.
In spite of the Internet era it is difficult to establish the chronological order of the origins of using fox fur to make flies. It is highly probable that the first reference to this subject was made by the Danish fly tier Steen Ulnits in his book Fluebinding 2 – Hår og hårfluer (1982). He found the material in the angler’s shop in Oregon. The Americans used Arctic Fox in flies for steelhead fishing. When he took the fly to Denmark, it turned out the fly made from fox fur was suitable for use in calmer, local waters. In some reports I also came across the name of the Swedish fly tier Roger Ahlfors, who had used fox hair even before Frödin. It is highly probable that a few individuals had the same idea largely irrespective of one another.
There were two other anglers who contributed to the development of this subject, namely Torill Kolbu, the Norwegian fly tier, and Poul Jorgensen who was the first one to write about the use of fox fur to construct flies. Both of them bought materials at the shop owned by Michael Jensen called Mics Fluebiks, which does not exist any more. Michael Jensen dyed fox furs using a lot of hues and at the same time he promoted this kind of material in his books and other publications. At the end of the 80s and at the beginning of the 90s there was a dynamic increase in the interest in fox hair as a material. In Scandinavia it has become and remains today the number one material. Amazingly, this kind of material is rarely used in Canada, especially when taking into account that in the northern parts of Canada the Arctic Fox population is abundant.
One of the first fly tiers, perhaps even the first one who began to use pieces of skin to make zonker wings was the Swedish fly tier Mikael Lindström. At present Kiwi style zonkers are very commonly used all over Scandinavia and they are slowly becoming popular among anglers who go fishing in Russia, Scotland and many other countries on both hemispheres.
We say ‘fox” but it is important whether we use the hair obtained from the torso or fox tails. The latter ones are the main subject of interest among fly tiers after all. To begin with I would like to characterize types of hair in varieties of foxes. I will deal with zonkers later on. The pelage from the torso has rather limited applications because of shortness of the fur. The material obtained form fox tails is preferable (discussed in the other part of this article).
In 1911 Roy Angus Thomson from Canada created the series of flies which had wings made from the guard hair obtained from a Grey Fox. For one hundred years this series of flies gave tens of thousands of salmons to anglers and the most famous one of the whole series is certainly the Rusty Rat. The guard hair of a grey fox is 3–4 cm long. The ones we are interested in are black, have an intense white stripe in its end part. This creates a contrast effect in the water, like jungle cock fly tying feathers. In Europe people have tied flies, and still continue to make them, using badger hair where black and white colours contrast with each other.
Piece of Grey Fox hair.
In this case we also use the guard hair but compared to the Grey Fox fur the hair is much longer (to 10–12 cm) and soft enough. The hair is white with black ends. Among other things it is used for making tails of the Shadow Shrimp ties created by the Irishman Paddy Palmer. In his designs he used both uncoloured black-and-white hair and fur dyed in such colours as fiery brown, yellow or orange.
Silver Shadow Shrimp
The guard hair is only slightly longer than the ground hair. The material obtained from fox masks is very good.
Arctic Fox mask.
They have very shiny hair of various length. This is an extremely delicate material. Some people use it for wings in tube flies. However, this is not its proper use because the hair, being very soft, does not keep the shape of the wing. It becomes more rigid instead when supported by a stiffer material, e.g. tail hair. It is a perfect material in flies where the last layer of the wing is shorter than the previous layer like in the Beiss or Monkey Flies. This makes it possible to obtain the shape of an elongated drop, and in the case of the Monkey Fly even a lot more desirable shape of a tadpole.
Varieties that prevail in the Artic Fox farming have a light tint of the fur like the one found in a Blue, Shadow or White fox and as the result of dyeing intensive and bright colours of the fur can be obtained. At first, mainly Black zonkers were used for making wings of large night flies for trout and salmon flies.
At present a lot of fly tiers use them to create new designs of flies. A very interesting solution was used by Mikael Lindström who a few years ago in the Swedish angling magazine Allt the ohm Flugfiske showed an interesting way of tying dichromatic wings from two pieces of a zonker. There are a lot of techniques to make zonkers – basically the most important stage is to cut a suitable shape, that is an elongated triangle. An extremely interesting technique was shown by Brian Størup. It is based on cutting a wider edge of a zonker stripe along a few millimetres and wrapping a tube on which we tie a fly with the ends. I will use an example to illustrate it. Let us imagine a rider who surrounds the back of a small and thin horse. The ends of the zonker like the rider’s legs under the horse’s belly meet below the tube, spreading hair in the shape of a lion′s mane, creating a hackle. This gives the fly the desirable shape of an elongated drop with a distinct enlarged gap in the front. This method can be modified by making an opening that has the diameter of the tube in the enlarged gap in the zonker and inserting the tube into the piece of the skin prepared this way. When the skin is attached to the tube, we obtain the effect similar to the one described above, however, we have to round the ends at the base of the triangle. What is more, this is also an excellent instruction on how to make trout flies.
We know this species perfectly. At present a huge population of this animal has become an economic nuisance. It is, however, worth breeding because its fur is a perfect material for making large flies. The down hair of the red fox is grey. The pelage on the back is much darker than on the belly like in any other animal. When it is dyed, very interesting effects are obtained.
Like any other coloured varieties of both species of foxes, the silver fox fur is also used for making zonker flies, nevertheless it is of smaller importance.
Flies by R. Kaminski and M. Jensen.
To make flies we usually use undercoat which is much softer than guard hair. When we cut off a bunch of hair from the leather we can easily separate two layers of hair from each other.
Fox tail hair is the most frequently used material to make a wide variety of flies. Let us begin from explaining the differences between particular varieties of foxes and further in this article I will describe their applications in specific fly designs.
As I have already mentioned, there are two fox species. They differ significantly from each other in terms of the pelage structure. These differences are even more distinct when we look at the fox tail. Furthermore, the things get even more complicated by a large number of varieties which differ not only in colours but also in the quality and length of hair.
The arctic fox has the guard hair, both on the body and the tail, which is only slightly longer than the ground hair. It can be clearly seen in the picture (Picture 11).
Picture 11. Hair of the arctic fox. The separated undercoat at the bottom of the picture.
The hair is rarely longer than 7 cm and this length occurs only in adult animals. The usual length ranges from 5 to 6 cm. The tail of the arctic fox is almost circular in its section (Picture 12).
Picture 12. Arctic fox tail pieces
The pretty identical length of the pelage occurs nearly along the tail and, accordingly, the pelage seems to be roller-shaped to a wide extent (Picture 13).
Picture 13. Natural tails of the arctic fox
Picture 13.1. Dyed arctic fox tails
This feature is pretty desirable because when we buy particular tail pieces, we can expect more or less similar materials. However, similar does not mean identical. The initial short section of the tail has clearly shorter and stiffer hair. At the end of the tail the hair is longer although it is seldom used because of its structure and stiffness and it is available in the sale only as a defective, rejected material.
To make flies we usually use undercoat which is much softer than guard hair. When we cut off a bunch of hair from the leather we can easily separate two types of hair from each other. We can do it by holding gently some hair at the root and pulling the guard hair. We do it again until we get rid of all the guard hair. It is a mistake to leave the guard hair because it is much stiffer and it spoils the structure of a wing. Likewise, we can reduce slightly the amount of the short ground hair but to do it we should hold the hair somewhere in the middle and we pull gently at the base of the bunch. It takes less time to do it than to read about it.
It is mostly desirable for the hair to have a distinct corrugated structure. This makes it possible to use much less material to obtain a desired size of a wing. The wing of this kind becomes somehow more transparent – translucency is always advantageous for the efficacy of a fly. By way of digression, let me note that we continue to describe a natural material which is characterised by great variability. Therefore, the practices I refer to are not always true about every kind of material and a fly pattern. This is perfectly illustrated by the picture (Picture 14) where we can see a tail piece almost without the undercoat.
Picture 14. A tail piece made from the arctic fox fur almost without undercoat.
The individual foxes without the undercoat are considered defective by breeders but for us they are a perfect, hardly available material. For years I have been using it to make black wings for flies tied on hooks. This material is much pleasant for tying than squirrel hair, for instance, and it spreads on the water much better than other materials.
Generally, the red fox has much longer hair which is usually 8-10 cm long on good quality tails. Foxes with 15 cm or even 17 cm long hair are very rare. These are yet outstanding specimens, sedulously sought for by professional tiers (Picture 15).
Picture 15. Hair bunches made from the red fox fur. Arranged from top to bottom: golden island, marble fox and silver fox
Picture 15.1. The red fox hair. In the picture the undercoat separated from the guard hair.
The guard hair is evidently longer and soft enough. There is not much contrast between the two layers of hair like in the arctic fox. That is why we can use both the guard hair and the undercoat for fly tying, usually without separating the two layers from each other.
Another difference is a wide diversification in the structure of hair, taking into account both the differences in particular sections of a tail but also hair on the same tail piece. The hair at the base of the tail is clearly shorter and it gets gradually longer until about one fourth of the length of the tail. It becomes shorter again further to get elongated at the very end. This makes the tail have an elongated deltoid shape. We can see a few colour varieties of the red fox in the picture (Picture 16).
Picture 16. Colour varieties of the red fox tails
Picture 16.1. Dyed tails of the marble fox
Looking from the left: the wild red fox, the breeding line of this coat colour, the silver fox and the marble fox. The latter one is the most interesting for us because of its prevailing white colour (Picture 17).
Picture 17. Dyed marble fox tail pieces
Pure colours are not obtained from the silver fox hair, though often frequently dyed (especially using dark dyes). This is a defect unless we want this kind of effect – a colourful wing with clearly black hair ends. If we look at the section of the tail at the base and then along the end, we can see that the quality of the pelage is greatly variable within only one tail. The hair at the root of the tail is fairly shorter and stiffer than in other sections. The longest and best quality material is usually at one third of the length of the tail. The hair gets further gradually shorter and its quality worsens. The hair at the end of the tail is mostly the longest but usually very stiff and nearly useless. There are even larger differences within one tail piece.
We can see that the tail in its section is plainly asymmetrical, on the outer side it has darker, stiff and usually completely useless hair whereas on the inner side, which interests us most, the hair is much longer and white. The same dependencies in the quality of the pelage also occur in the arctic fox hair though they are not so extreme. If we want to have a serious approach to the question of the choice of the optimal material, we should have fox tails in their entire length in at least several basic colours and, in the last resort, to buy tail pieces from reliable sellers who can select them properly.
The frost fox is a crossbreed created from two species: the blue fox (Alopex lagopus) and the silver fox (Vulpes vulpes). It has been produced quite recently. It has features of both species. Its guard hair is black and definitely longer than the down hair which is light, predominantly white, compared to the silver fox undercoat. The guard hair is stiff enough and it is 7-9 cm long whereas the down hair is delicate and 5-7 cm long, which is an advantage compared to the arctic fox. This is a very interesting material to make small and medium-sized flies.
A quite special material is obtained from hair which looks like “whiskers”. The things that I call “whiskers” are in fact leather strips left by furriers while cutting out the material they require. On these leather strips the hair is usually short enough and in its structure it is a combination of hair from the main body and tail. This is an excellent and quite unique material for small fly tying. It can be even rarely seen because it is usually thoughtlessly cut off.
Now, let us discuss a few examples of usage of particular fox species in various designs of salmon flies. It is impossible to run out of things to say about the subject where a whole book could be dedicated to. Nevertheless, I would like to look closer at t this topic.
When using natural hair, especially fox hair, we should always follow the principle that we must cut off as less material as possible! This is an absolutely key factor when we tie any fly. It is a very frequent mistake to buy the longest material whilst we quite seldom use flies longer than 8-9 cm. Well, maybe at the beginning of the season in Scandinavia. It still puzzles me whether the use of such large flies is compelled by preferences among fish or anglers. If we make a bunch of hair shorter by half, we throw away the most valuable material, most frequently leaving the worse quality ends. The required length should be a prerequisite for the use of a specific material.
To make small and medium-sized flies that is the flies where a wing is up to 6 cm long, the arctic fox hair may be the only material. Contrary to a commonplace opinion, the greatest problem is not to find a good quality and long material but just a short material of appropriate quality. The smallest summer tube flies are a special challenge where the wing’s length is less than 2.5 cm. This is actually a real challenge to make this fly work as it should. It is necessary to choose a tail with the most delicate hair. Of course, we remove all the guard hair. Particular bunches of the wing will have not more than a dozen or so hairs. There is no fear that salmon or sea trout will be unable to notice this fly in the mostly gin clear summer water. If the fish can see and attack the fly tied on hooks no. 18, they will certainly see ours as well. The Green Highlander is perhaps the most frequently modified fly. In the picture (Picture 22) a summer version of this very popular fly is tied on the 7-mm metal tube.
Picture 22. Green Highlander
I have already mentioned this very special material such as the arctic fox hair almost without down hair. I use it for making wings in a wide variety of patterns – from the classical Stoat’s Tail, through hook versions such as the Dee Sheep, to the Cascades (Picture 23).
Picture 23. Vegetarian Cascade
The use of the arctic fox hair is not obviously limited to small and medium-sized flies because this is an irreplaceable material for making initial layers of larger flies. The flies tied on a plastic tube have become permanent accessories found in the fishing tackle boxes and used by many anglers in front of a short metal tube. This tying style was popularised by Jurij Shumakov. He also invented two tube flies such as the Long Range and Skittle. The latter one has an ideal shape perfectly balancing the fly. Moreover, despite a relatively low weight, the flies tied on the Skittles can dive very efficiently. The photograph (Picture 25) shows the fly tied by Shumakov himself which is the pride of my collection.
Picture 25. Shonguy by Youri Shumakov
If we want our fly to be big or very large, it is indispensable to use longer hair from silver fox or marble fox tails. When choosing an appropriate material, we should take into account not only the length of hair but, first of all, its structure and softness. It is not simple to choose the right material especially when we have only some pieces of the material. Generally, we should find the material as soft as possible – the one where the guard hair is uncurled and it gets wavy when we shake it. This material makes fly tying easy and flies can perfectly lie on the water. With a lot of practice it is sufficient to touch a tail to know whether it deserves more attention. All varieties of the Temple Dog are probably the most popular flies where this kind of hair is used. This kind of flies was invented by Håkan Norling in the mid eighties of the last century (Picture 26).
Picture 26. Variants of flies in the Temple Dog type
At first, a few designs were tied in this style but now I presume that there are hundreds or even thousands of such flies. Another very widespread design includes flies tied in front of a short metal tube. They have been successfully used by anglers in Sweden, Denmark or Russia (Picture 27).
Picture 27. Mini tube flies
I must say that this is my favourite design. The flies constructed this way can work very well in the water. Another type of flies includes designs with a hackle tied from ostrich feathers. They were invented and popularised by Mikael Frödin. Turbo cone heads are most often used for tying this type of flies (Picture 28).
Picture 28. Octopus flies
Picture 28.1. Octopus flies
At present, this design like the Temple Dog, has been modified in hundreds of ways.
Another use of fox hair is the application of the guard hair of both fox species to tie all kinds of shrimp flies, especially tiny and very tiny ones. This kind of hair is more delicate than even the most delicate bucktail and that is why they can work much better in weak currents (Picture 29).
Picture 29. Mini Cascades
Finally, one more fly, though used not for salmon but for northern pike fishing. Natalia shows how fox hair can be excellently used in other flies. I must say that I liked this fly very much (Picture 30).
Picture 30. A northern pike fish fly
Zonker strip design