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Budget Game Changers

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Hi, all.

I’m a pretty new tyer, but I thought I would share these budget feather Game Changer flies that I’ve been tying and explain the technique that I’ve been using to create them in case anyone else would like to experiment with this fly style for pennies on the dollar.

Here’s a mini feather Game Changer in a bluegill scheme that’s caught a few fish.



And here with it are mini feather Jerk Changers in shad and sunfish that I just tied recently and haven’t gotten a chance to fish yet. I really love the action on the Jerk Changer pattern. When you give it a quick, hard strip, it will corkscrew in the water.



Finally, here is a pretty nice smallie I caught on a prior iteration of a feather Jerk Changer--before I learned how to properly trim them. That thing was too big and bulky, which caused it to retain a little too much water, but it swam great, and that guy came up from the very bottom to take it.



If you know anything about Game Changer flies, you know that they are primarily tied either with varied feather sizes from a Whiting hen saddle or with a special synthetic chenille. My very first attempt used feathers from a cheaper Indian hen, but that fly was way too sparse. My subsequent attempts used craft fur, but they casted like a wet sock. So, out of necessity, I developed a technique that’s sort of a hybrid between the feather and chenille Game Changers, in which I make dubbing loops with the barbules of very large feathers that would otherwise be mostly unused in fly tying. (I know I didn’t invent the technique of feather dubbing loops, but I haven’t seen anyone else using it on anything other than CDC.) The material is feather barbules, but the process is like tying on chenille or a dubbing brush.

This evolved after I’d well over-spent my fly tying budget as a new tyer who wanted to tie one of everything. I happened to have saved the primary and secondary wing feathers from a turkey I killed this spring for arrow fletchings (this was before I got into fly tying), but secondary feathers don’t make great fletchings, and so I kept staring at them, trying to figure out how I could incorporate them into a fly pattern. After I used up all of my Indian hen and decided against tying any more craft fur changers, I decided to try and tie a Game Changer using the turkey secondary feathers.

After some trial and error, I developed a process that works well and creates what I feel is a pretty good fly out of only two large feathers, like tail or secondary flight feathers. I know they are not exactly like a properly tied Game Changer, but they fish great for a fraction of the cost. I’ve tried this process with primary turkey feathers, and it works, but the resultant fly is very coarse. I would only use primary feathers for the head of the fly when you want a coarse head. I’ve also tried this with goose tail feathers I found, and they work very well, but they are softer and don’t create as much body, so they are better suited for slimmer minnow-style changers. Finally, I’ve recently discovered that you can buy the white turkey feathers from Hobby Lobby (I believe they are trimmed tail feathers; $2.99 for a pack of 10 feathers = 5 flies) and then use Sharpies to color them in whatever designs you want. That's how I made the ones pictured above. I haven’t yet fished a single fly long enough to know how long the Sharpie coloring will last, but I got minimal, if any, fading over the course of a full day of fishing the bluegill version pictured above. Hobby Lobby also sells the same feathers in dyed colors. I bought a pack to try out the yellow and chartreuse, but I haven’t tested them yet to see if they are color fast.

So here’s my process.

First off, I make my own shanks using 18 or 20 gauge stainless steel wire. You can find YouTube videos on that process, or you can just buy the proper shanks.

When using the Hobby Lobby feathers, they have wispy, marabou-like feathers at the base of the quill, so I strip those off of two feathers and tie them to the back of the tail shank with a little bit of Krystal Flash.

Next, I make a loop of thread and put a little bit of wax on it. Then I take a fancy CDC clip (OK, it's actually a dollar store chip clip) and pinch some barbules into the clip parallel with the quill and about a half inch from it. (How many barbules will depend on the length of your shank. I use between two and three inches of barbules for my smallest ¼” shanks.) Then I take a sharp knife or scissors and cut the barbs off along the stem while pinching the clip tight to hold them in it. 

Now, the following is important for a good finished dubbing brush: take your popsicle stick Velcro thingy and stroke out the ends of the barbules so they are all straight and aligned. Then take a second clip and clip the barbule bases into the second clip and release them from the first clip. Now, pinching the clip tightly, stroke out the full length of the barbules with your Velcro so they are perfectly straight.

When that’s done, I then transfer them back to the first clip, pinching them near the middle of the length of barbules. (I center them in the dubbing loop to create a thicker brush for more body and less length, since I trim the fly pretty substantially anyway, but if you wanted more length, you could pinch just the base of the barbules into the dubbing loop.) Now hang your dubbing spinner in the thread loop, and then open the loop with your left hand, inserting the clip and barbules with your right hand, before letting the loop close tight on the barbules.

Now here’s where things can get kind of hairy. My dubbing spinner isn’t heavy enough to close the loop tightly enough to hold the barbules, so after letting the loop close, I keep my left hand where it was and grab the clip with it, pinching the bottom of the thread loop against the clip with my forefinger. Then I take my right hand and spin the dubbing spinner. I let it tighten up enough that I can grab it with the pinky of my left hand, and then I grab the clip again in my right hand and, at the exact same time, I open the clip with my right hand and pull down on the dubbing spinner with my left hand, instantly twisting all the barbules up into a dubbing brush. I give it another spin or two to tighten it up, and then I brush it out with the Velcro again.

At this point, it’s just like wrapping any dubbing brush. I stroke all of the barbules back in one direction and wrap around the shank, tying off at the eye. Then repeat for as many shanks as you want and trim to size. The longer barbules tend to get wrapped around the shank sometimes, so it’s good to have your bodkin handy to slide under the trapped barbs and pull them out as you’re wrapping. I’ve read that Jerk Changers need a denser head for their action, so when I get to the last dubbing loop, I stack two feathers on top of each other and follow the same instructions, effectively doubling the barb density of that dubbing loop. (I’m not sure if this actually affects anything. I haven’t tested that yet.) When I get done, I brush the fly out one more good time with Velcro to free up any trapped barbules and trim it to its final shape. Then I color it with Sharpie, if desired, and glue on some eyes.

I know the back-and-forth with the clips sounds frustrating and burdensome, but I easily got the hang of it by the end of the second fly, and after a half-dozen or so, I could almost do it blindfolded. It’s no more burdensome or time consuming than feather prep when tying a correct feather Game Changer (matching feathers and stair-stepping their sizes, etc.).

The finished fly is much coarser than a correctly tied feather Game Changer, but it’s just as light weight, or very near so. It does retain a little water on pickup, but, unlike craft fur changers, the water shakes right out in a single false cast.

I know this won’t interest everyone, and I’m sure some of you are wondering why I wouldn’t just buy the hen saddle. I definitely will! But now that I’ve made a bunch of these, I feel like I can spend a little money on a nice saddle without worrying about ruining it. And I’m sharing my process here because I thought this might be a good option for other beginner tyers, like myself, who are curious about the platform but don’t want to spend a bunch of money on materials that will be—at least for the first few flies—completely wasted.

This might also be a way for turkey, goose, and duck hunters to use more of the feathers from the birds they harvest. I’m going to try to kill another turkey this fall and see if I can adapt this technique to work with some of those iridescent chest feathers. Natural turkey tail feathers might make a nice mottled or brindled fly, too.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for all of the info that’s on this forum!

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Here’s a smallmouth on the shad. 


And here’s a decent red eye on the fire tiger. 


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