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French Swiss flytyer Marc Petitjean talks to Paul Proocter about his love affair with cul-de-canard feathers
Anyone who cares to fish dry flies will probably be familiar with Marc Petitjean, especially if CdC patterns feature in their fly boxes. Even if you don’t there’s a good chance you’ve heard the name. Why? Well Marc pretty much popularised the use of CdC feathers in many dry flies. That’s a brave statement when you consider that some of the greats like Marjan Fratnik, Leon Links and Louis Veya have been incorporating CdC into their flies since being in nappies! And while there are many authorities on this subject (mainly throughout Europe), with the help of Dr Malcom Greenhalgh, it was Marc who brought it to our shores with a message we understood. He’s more than qualified to talk on the subject as Marc hails from the Swiss/French border, the very region where nearly 100 years ago tyers started using CdC in many of their dry flies.
And through his many demonstrations at shows and clubs, the word slowly spread. Spending a day with him on the Hampshire Test, I got a privileged insight into his approach to CdC and fishing.
While many initially embraced the CdC philosophy, there was a little scepticism, from me included. After all, was a flimsy feather plume possibly “man” enough to float some of our hooks? Once we’d got our heads round this, and the fact that floatant wasn’t required, another hurdle loomed on the horizon. It appeared that each individual fly was only good for catching one trout at a time. Sodden and bedraggled the fly was quickly retired to the fly patch for drying, to be replaced with a pert, fluffy dry pattern. It worked well enough, but became tiresome, particularly when surrounded by trout greedily slurping down naturals. A little TLC with all kinds of revamping cloths did provide a temporary fix, but I still wasn’t convinced.
So how does CdC work? Firstly the abbreviated term “CdC” stands for cul-de-canard, which roughly translated means “duck’s backside”! The feathers are actually found just above the tail, on the rump of many waterfowl. Secreting an oily residue, birds use this preen gland to replenish their feathers. Highly prized CdC feathers can be found on ducks and geese both wild and farmed. It’s thought that the natural oils contribute to the feather’s buoyancy. And while this might be partially true, it’s the feather’s actual structure that plays a more important role.
After returning a fish, Marc reckons the best way to restore a “slimed” fly is to simply cast it into the water, flick it out into a backcast and – following a false cast or two – it’s as good as new.
THE preen gland oils and waterproofs feathers. It’s surrounded by two dozen or so feathers, called CdCs. They’re fluffy and their natural impregnation ensures they absorb very little water.
The feathers have a natural “live effect”, which can imitate the wings of many natural insects such as Mayflies. The very small kinks and twisted barbules trap air, so aid floatability. There is some debate about who exactly created the first CdC fly patterns, but it’s widely accepted that the earliest belonged to Swiss tyers Maximilien Joset in Courtfaivre and Charles Bickel from Valorbe, who tied simple versions to tempt the wary trout and grayling from the chalkstreams in the Jura region.
After more than 50 years of local use, Marjan Fratnik from Slovenia found a new way of using CdC feathers in 1983 – using the top parts of the feathers to copy the shape of caddis wings. Shortly afterwards Germany’s Gerhard Laible used just the barbs of the feathers in a long dubbing loop. He elongated the short CdC feather enabling tyers to use the material in the same way as when using long first-grade hackles of a cock neck to create various types of wings. In 1986 development returned to Switzerland where Marc Petitjean used complete feathers for the body, offering may advantages. Firstly, floatability was improved so hackles were no longer absolutely necessary to provide buoyancy. Secondly, the feather’s natural shape helped to create a natural-looking conical body, that would fool wary trout and grayling.
The tightly-wound body provided all the buoyancy the pattern required, freeing the wings to be tied much more like the natural. It’s simple when you look back, but this idea took a full six months to discover.
“I was set a challenge, to tie a fly that anglers could see and that floated well. For six months I went round in circles getting very frustrated. Then, I thought, why not use the tip first, twisting and wrapping the feather over the hook shank so that the feather’s natural taper forms a conical shape along the hook sank? I wound it round a hook and found that it floated by itself”, said Marc. The technique is important. The feather must be twisted and wrapped in evenly-spaced turns. “Twist the feather about 20 times, but don’t overstress the feather or it’ll break,” adds Marc. This technique creates a very dense, strong conical body, ideal for Mayfly and dun patterns.
If the body floats, the hook floats leaving the tyer free to tie the tail and wing to imitate the natural. Petitjean’s flies are therefore simple and efficient, while closely imitating the insect.
It was while fishing with a couple of friends that Marc felt compelled to start a business with the idea.
“We were fishing a mountain stream when I developed a headache and decided to sleep beneath a tree,” says Marc. “I gave my friends the new CdCs and told them to trust the flies. You’ve guessed the outcome; the patterns so successful that they both swore by them.”
Having tried the flies out over time for himself, Petitjean knew that it wasn’t he who was fishing better – it was the flies! He was then left slightly puzzled as to why no-one else had thought of using CdC as a body in this way – after all, it is such a simple idea, surely someone had thought of it before? He sent information about the technique to publications in Germany, France and Italy, meeting with a favourable response. Everyone seemed confident about the flies. So, Marc set un in business, which is now in it’s 19th year.
Other CdC patterns were created. Marc used a split wing to reduce air resistance, with just two CdC wing fibres each side of the fly! When casting, the wings bent back close to the body, making the fly aerodynamic. As speed reduced at the end of the cast, the wings returned to their correct position and the fly landed like a parachute softly on the water – perfect presentation.
So Marc created a series of Caddis, Mayflies and Stoneflies, which he had trouble naming: “I don’t give specific names to each fly as there’s not much difference between them. They’re not precise in entomology terms so I number them by colour,” he adds. For example, MP 63456.
Nymphs and CdC?
TO many the idea sounds crazy. Why use a floating material for a subsurface nymph? Marc claims the doubters are forgetting one vital point.
“Early anglers in the Jura fishing CdC dries found that the patterns became covered in fish slime after a capture, “ says Marc. “They simply re-cast, fished them wet…and still caught.” Remembering this, Marc created a range of CdC Nymphs based also on the feather’s movement – CdC isn’t stiff like a chicken hackle, but softer.
Petitjean emphasises movement as the single most important aspect of flytying. “It’s what makes the difference between what the trout sees as food or a non-food item. CdC moves in water and air, which is very important,” says Marc.
More importantly for the Stillwater scene, CdC offers good movement even in a slow retrieve. Says Marc : “Even when used as a dubbing material, CdC provides movement. When a CdC fibre is twisted or dubbed around a thread, most fibres tighten to make a kind of dubbed rope. On close inspection, CdC fibres vary in length so not all become trapped or are evenly tensioned when winding/twisting. This creates a neatly dubbed body with enough stray fibres radiating out to provide the movement.
Size, proportion and colour
ABOUT eight years ago, Marc embarked on another journey, that of combining colour with CdC. “In nature”, says Marc, “you don’t have just one colour. There’s usually a mix of up to five different shades. Using my CdC Magic Tool (a clever collection of Perspex clamps and clips used to create fantastic hackles), I’ve been able to combine many colours with tremendous results – as well as blending chicken hackles with CdC feathers. Great fun!”
Petitjean has evidence backing up the importance of size, proportion and colour. While fishing a river, he noticed lots of fish feeding simultaneously. To test the influence of these qualities, he changed flies regularly and made accurate casts so that his fly landed between two naturals on the surface.
Ten times in a row the fish snaffled his imitation and not the naturals. “The fish went for the imperfect imitation every time,” says Marc. “Does its shortcomings resemble a weaker fly, so easier prey?” In many hatch situations – and falls of terrestrials – there ca be up to 40 per cent casualties. This is quit common with hatches of upwinged flies on rivers and buzzers on stillwaters. And given a “blanket hatch” trout and grayling will pretty much grab at anything that looks edible. However, they soon become wise and realise that certain insects aren’t going to take flight any moment, so providing an easy meal. Perhaps the fish are always looking for spent adults, or insects trapped in the film – something not moving and therefore easy pickings? Marc Petitjean is clearly a man for detail, but even he finds comfort in that the fish aren’t always necessarily looking for that perfect fly…with movement!