How to strip peacock quills

Fishtec- how to strip peacock feathersOut on the bank with a fly rod in our hand we see some weird and wonderful creations tied to other anglers leader but, Trout & Grayling aren’t as silly as we sometimes think. Impress your fellow anglers, and the fish, by using an age old material and incorporating it into some of your most prolific flies in a different way. I assure you, you wont be disappointed.

One of my favourite fly tying materials has to be peacock, be it in its natural form or in a glister! The colours produced by the herls give off great bronze, black and greens which change shades under different lights. Everyone who has just started tying would no doubtingly have used peacock, I did, and lots of it! I think when I started I had boxes and boxes of black and peacocks, different sizes, some with chain eyes because I thought they looked cool, practically anything I could get peacock into would have it!

Once a feather has been stripped of herls it opens up a whole new horizon for fly tiers – it produces a flat, tapering banding effect which offers detailed segments and a lifelike imitation. Perfect for Buzzers, Nymphs and Dry flies.

The eye itself produces the best feather to strip as the herls are finer and the banding/colours are more pronounced which gives a better segmented effect, light on the one edge and dark on the other.

From the eye, remove a few strands from the same area of the eye – this ensures if your tying a few of the same pattern, the banding is more or less the same. It usually differs from each feather though.

Stripping the feather

If there is one question I hear all the time at shows or in clubs whilst tying it has to be ‘What’s the best way to strip peacock herls?’ Now, there are many ways to strip the herls and each tier has their favourite. Quills from the main stem itself seem to surrender their herls much easier then the eye however, they don’t produce such a strong colouration.  Stripping stems from the eye is probably the most problematic and more like a chore but its the most rewarding. Below are easiest and least time consuming ways I’ve come across.

As a rule of thumb when looking for feathers to strip, the larger the feather the longer, stronger and wider the herls.

The Rubber

The old favourite. The rubber is probably the most common way of extracting herls off the stalk. A pencil type eraser offers a very abrasive rubber surface, the type found on double ended erasers, which is perfect. Simply lay the herl flat on your desk and rub along the surface, not too hard or the brittle feather will snap. The best way I found to do this is ‘rub against the grain’. By rubbing against the natural fall/growth direction of the herls you get a better result, just think of it as pulling fibres off the stalk of a cock or hen cape.

Thumb & Finger

Another common method is the thumb and finger technique. This is simply putting the feather between your thumb and forefinger, with the herl facing your thumb and pulling along the feather from the tip. This will have to be repeated a few times until all the herls are removed from the stalk. This method works very well but judging the tension of the feathers is quite tricky, I snap many feathers trying to strip them using my fingers. But It may be the best for you.


Using the back edge of a scissors, obviously not the sharp bit, ‘score’  the along the herld edge  of the peacock feather until the edge is ‘bald’ so to speak. Effectively this does the exact same as using your nails but for me it seams a lot more convenient as you don’t get so much herl residue on your fingers, which is a nightmare when varnishing! The Scissors method may seem pretty extreme, but it works fine for me. One tip to remember is to use a soft foreground to rest the herl upon, this helps with the moments of anger when that small patch of herl won’t relieve itself of the stalk and you push harder and harder until the stalk snaps. It happens to us all!

I usually like to spend some time stripping my quills, im the kind of person where preparation is everything, but it is, in fly tying isn’t it? If you know where everything is or have everything prepared tying becomes quicker and easier. Batching out a few of these stripped quills will take no time at all once you get the hang of it, just remember its all trial and error regarding the pressure you exerts on the feather. Below are a few of my favourite quill patterns.


As you can see its a very versatile material, very light in weight and surprisingly robust. Wound close, the segmented effect perfectly resembles the abdomen of insects from the mayfly family. Wound wider bodies of midge pupae and larger such buzzers are easily replicated. Varnishing the quill also gives it a glossy sort of look which enhances/magnifies the banding effect. Have a play around.

For more information, watch my How to strip peacock herl video here.

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