Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association
No, I’m not talking about breasts, thighs, and drumsticks. What we will discuss here is what’s found on the outside of the bird—feathers! Many novice or intermediate fly tyers don’t really understand the basics, let alone the finer points, of the differences in the various feathers found on chickens and the factors that determine their appropriate uses in fly tying. Here’s some information that I hope will help.
First, it’s important to know that the feathers from a male chicken (a rooster or cock), and a female chicken (a hen) are quite different in nature. This is especially true of the feathers on the neck, back, and shoulder of the bird. The feathers from these areas are often called “hackles.” In order to appreciate the differences in the texture of these feathers, one must understand what “web” is and how its presence or absence affects the character and use of a given feather.
If you hold a typical rooster neck or back (saddle) hackle up to a light source, you will see that it consists of a central stem and barbs that extend out from the stem along its length. At the base of the feather you can see the small stalk that attached the feather to the bird’s skin. Just above this stalk is a short length of very fluffy material. Immediately above this fluff, note that the fibers along the stem appear rather dense and opaque. As you move farther toward the tip of the feather, this opaque zone gets progressively more narrow until it almost completely disappears. This dense material is the “web” of the feather. The fibers outside of the web are usually stiff and shiny. Generally, the less web that is present the better quality of the hackle and the better suited it is to tying traditional, floating flies.
If you take a hen back or neck feather and hold it up to a light source, you will readily see that it is typically all web, throughout the entire feather. Some hen neck feathers may have some non-web area near the tips of the fibers, but even then web forms the bulk of the feather. These feathers are soft and water-absorbent. This makes them an excellent choice for wet flies and nymphs. Besides their absorbency, their softness makes them very responsive to movement in the water and gives flies tied with them some internal motion that lends a very lifelike look.
Both hens and roosters have soft, webby body (contour) feathers under the wings and on the belly. These feathers can be used for a variety of purposes, so long as fiber length is not critical. Generally, the fiber length of these feathers would be badly out of proportion if wound about the shank of a typical trout-sized hook. They can be used as wound hackle for some large bass and saltwater flies, however. Fibers can also be torn from the stem of these feathers and tied to appropriate length for use as bearded hackles and also as legs, wings, or tails.
Both hens and roosters also have very fluffy feathers on the backs of the thighs and up under the tail. These feathers resemble “marabou.” The Whiting Company sells them as “Chickabou;” other dealers may call them something generic such as “chicken marabou.” These can indeed be used as a marabou substitute on smaller flies. They can also be wound around the hook shank in tying a variety of imaginative fly patterns. A good example is the “Tabou Caddis,” an excellent pattern which can be found on the Internet if you’re curious.
Hen back feathers can be used in the same way as the body feathers described above. Rooster back feathers, usually called “saddle hackles,” are much more complicated. The back feathers of a rooster gradually transition in character as you move toward the bird’s tail. The rear-most back feathers are very soft and webby, and are called “schlappen” or “Spey” hackle. They essentially have the same uses as the other saddle hackles, but will give a different look whether wound or tied as wings or tails. Finally, the rooster’s tail feathers themselves, sometimes called “cock tails,” can also be used on certain fly patterns.
Although you can still buy chicken necks and saddles imported from China and India, most of the chicken feathers we now use for fly tying are so-called “genetic hackle” that is grown on specialty hackle farms in the U. S. Just as specific strains of chickens have been bred to provide superior meat and egg production, hackle growers have developed strains of chickens to provide hackle feathers for various, very specific fly tying uses. We now have roosters that are bred to provide specialty dry fly saddle hackles that are incredibly long, yet have short barbs capable of tying flies as small as #24. The breeding of these birds has been fine-tuned to yield nearly web-free feathers with thin, flexible stems and a high fiber count per inch. The improvement in quality of these feathers over the past 20 years or so has been nothing less than mind-boggling.
Before this hackle revolution began, it was virtually impossible to find saddle hackles with fibers short enough to tie typical trout dry flies. Tyers relied on neck hackles for this purpose. Now dry fly saddle hackles have become so good that many tyers never bother buying neck hackle—a complete reversal of former practice.
Hackle breeders who were obsessed with the perfect dry fly bird soon realized that the feathers were quickly becoming unsuitable for any other use. Hackle feathers having fiber length appropriate for any fly larger than size 14 were being systematically bred out of existence in these genetic flocks. Likewise the wide, thin-stemmed saddle hackles needed to tie traditional feather-wing streamer flies had become nearly impossible to find. Dr. Tom Whiting, the preeminent hackle breeder of our time, soon responded with separate breeding lines to address these various needs.
Another problem that arose with the selective breeding of roosters for dry fly hackle was the loss of the feathers at the edge of dry fly capes that had traditionally been used for tails on dry flies. On the gamecocks that formed the original genetic hackle breeding stock, these very stiff, long-fibered feathers helped to protect the vulnerable areas of the bird’s throat from the spurs of its opponent during a cock fight. When you purchased a dry fly neck, you also got these tailing feathers as a bonus. Since genetic dry fly necks largely lack this material tyers now use “spade” hackles, which occur on the shoulders of roosters, as dry fly tailing. These are marketed by Whiting Inc. as “Tailing Packs,” or generically as “wing bow feathers.” You can also buy feathers of Coq de Leon, a unique and historic chicken breed from Spain which has many feathers on its body suitable for dry fly tailing. These birds often have feathers marked with beautiful speckled patterns.
The bottom line is that you need to be an educated consumer when purchasing chicken hackle. We have just scratched the surface here, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of the broad issues involved in selecting hackles. It’s easier than ever, if a bit more complicated, to find the right chicken hackle or other feather for any purpose. Retailers of fly tying materials are always happy to answer your questions and help you choose the right product for what you plan to tie. And, needless to say, there’s a wealth of information available on the Internet. Happy tying!