While every fly tier has their own preference as to what is the better material (natural fibers or synthetic fibers), it is prudent to look at the special qualities each of these groups has to offer.
|The Beadhead Prince Nymph|
I started tying flies nearly 20 years ago and at that time natural fibers were just what was available locally. As I began learning to tie flies I started with figuring out classic flies like Adams, Wulff and Quill dry fly patterns and Prince, Pheasant tail and Hares Ear Nymphs. These flies all were all originally designed with mostly natural fibers so it was easy for me to get comfortable tying with natural materials. In today's world fly tying like most other areas in fishing is constantly evolving. New materials like mylar, polar hair and epoxy have become a standard in fly tying and patterns are looking more and more realistic than ever.
Using natural fibers for flies definitely has a few advantages. First off the feel and texture of natural materials cannot be duplicated. Natural furs, hackles and herls (ostrich and peacock) are soft and supple and move in the water in ways that synthetics never could. These materials get fish to bite and hold on after they have taken flies because they do not feel foreign or fake. In addition to the texture natural materials have colors that better imitate what fish really intend on feeding on. I am willing to bet that none of us out there have ever actually seen a fire tiger colored minnow swimming in a river? One of the most important aspects to using natural materials for the beginning tier is that you get a lot of bang for your buck with these materials. Although they might not last as long as synthetics to wear and tear you usually get more per package and multiple materials per package. For example on a standard rabbit mask you will be able to pull off several colors of rabbit dubbing (for dubbing bodies) and guard hairs (tailing/ throat/ wing material). As you start tying you will be going through lots of materials while honing your skills and these value packs of naturals will really save you some money.
There are also several advantages to using synthetic fibers as well, especially if you are planning on tying larger flies. First off synthetic materials like polar fiber can create the impression of bulk with much less weight. These fibers can be layered and built up to create awesome bait fish imitations that are easy to cast and fish. Secondly most synthetic materials do not absorb water, so flies do not get waterlogged. This can be the difference between changing dry flies every few fish to using one pattern all day. Synthetics can be manufactured at any length or thickness with consistency. They are reproducible from package to package so you can order online or over the phone without actually handling the materials to know the quality. Another nice feature of synthetics is that they come in all natural colors, and even some fluorescent, and UV bright finishes. The last key feature is that most synthetics don't have to be cared for after you purchase them. Insects won't grow on these materials and they definitely won't dry out or turn smelly if you let them sit too long.
Both natural and synthetic materials have a place in your fly tying repertoire. Take the time to think about what the potential benefits could be of substituting a synthetic in place of a natural fiber and what you are trying to accomplish with the material you are using. Have fun with experimenting and more importantly get out and try some of these new flies on your favorite waters.