Updated: Jun 4, 2021
Calf tail is hands down one of my favorite materials to use. From parachute posts to bonefish flies, I always find myself using calf tail over a substitute or mixed with it. It seems that there is more willingness from people to use, in my opinion, harder to manipulate materials like deer hair. Calf tail is extremely durable and there is just something about those long curly winding hairs that I just love. I like to use as many natural materials in my flies as possible because I believe those natural fibers have a bit of extra juju and power from the life they once had. We’re not going that deep into it right now, but hopefully after this brief discussion of how, when, and why I use this material it will make its way back into some of your flies.
This is one of my favorite applications for calf tail. Looking around on forums there is a lot of resistance in using calf tail over substitutes like antron because it is a little harder to use. I always like to use as many natural materials in my flies as I can and those spiraling little fibers coming out of the hackle is really aesthetically pleasing. With just a little bit of practice using calf tail or even body hair is, in my opinion, just as easy and looks way better. If you have just white tail you can color it with a sharpie any color and have a high vis post.
Here is one that most people don't fish or tie —and I never totally understand why. I really believe in cripple patterns and when they work, they really work. When we tie a cripple pattern we are imitating a fly that is injured or crippled on the water. It could be injured, stuck in its shuck unable to emerge farther, or variety of other reasons. When a fish sees the profile of a fly that is crippled or vulnerable, they know immediately its an easy target. Calf tail provides a stiff, easy, and durable profile to almost any pattern to easily turn it into a fishable cripple. I love tying and fishing cripple patterns and I think it might deserve an entire discussion itself.
When it comes to saltwater flies you can almost always tell if they aren't mine if they don't have any calf tail. I always use at least a small amount in wings on crazy charlies and gotchas, as well as most of my saltwater baitfish patterns. That added durability and realistic look in the water is a an added bonus over most synthetics. It doesn't breath and move like a lot of materials but combining it with those materials is a great balance between durability and movement. Merkin Crabs, Mantis Shrimp and Gotcha's are a great starting place to add a bit of calf tail. Also, any bit of extra juju out on the flats is always welcome. Using natural materials out there makes me feel more congruent; using life to replicate life.
Underneath my wings and on the tails of most of my streamers patterns I like to tie in a clump of calf tail. When placed under a delicate feather or piece of marabou, it provides a bit of stability and keeps things oriented how you intended them. After a long day, or a few caught fish, those delicate marabou or mallard flanks can wear down. Adding a bit of calf tail can keep some substance to a deteriorating fly and also keep it in the water longer. I encourage you to tie even a small amount on the back of a basic wooly bugger to see the difference for yourself.