Feather Facets

Feather Facets

An in-depth examination of those essential fly-tying ingredients, hackle feathers.

  • By: Darrel Martin
  • Photography by: Darrel Martin
Adams Fly

“There is an expression in wine tasting that a fine wine must ‘blossom in the mouth and spread out its peacock tail.’ The metaphor that connects feather with wine is not all hyperbole. The finest feather is the rich, full-bodied and mature feather. The feather connoisseur recognizes the sweet, rich mahogany of coachman brown and the cool, dry flavor of a light Cahill. A warm and subtle bouquet of light explodes as it passes through a fine hackle. After all, the birth of a fly begins with a delicious hackle.”

Although I wrote those fervent lines decades ago in my book Fly Tying Methods, even now a sparkling feather still “raises my hackles” in excitement. I call it my feather fetish.

The term hackle, in fact, pertains to various feathers, not just the dry “mantle” feathers of the cock. There are many different hackles on a bird. Moreover, the term hackle can refer to various feather types, such as neck hackles, saddle hackles or contour feathers. Many hackles create radiating shoulder hackles, as well as wings and tails on flies.

Rounded grizzly feathers of the type used for the wings of an Adams dry fly are among today’s most in-demand hackle, says Dr. Tom Whiting.

Other hackles include the Spey hackle (the long lateral sickle feathers at the chicken’s tail base), the spade hackle (the wide shoulder hackles), the saddle hackle (the dorsopelvic tract feathers) and the long flank hackle located between the spade hackles and tail feathers.

I particularly treasure small, high-contrast grizzly hen hackles with rounded tips and parallel edges. Though scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth, these hackles create superior Adams wings. Dr. Tom Whiting of Whiting Farms says that there are two hackles in great demand: quality Adams wings and size 10 dry-fly hackles. A quality Cree cape could be added to that list.

Contour feathers constitute the so-called traditional soft hackles. Contour hen hackles serve various purposes such as wings and soft hackles on a fly. As the name might imply, the contour feathers hug the bird’s body; they are body feathers. Unlike the celebrated dry-fly hackles, these are usually the soft and subtle feathers of fly-tying. The barbs are soft and pliant and readily absorb water. Although most tiers do not consider them dry-fly material, these contour feathers can and do float fly patterns.

In Modern Development of the Dry Fly (first edition 1910), Frederic Halford (often called the father of the dry fly) describes the dry use of the contour or, as he calls it, “close-plumed feather.” He writes: “Close-plumed feathers are used as hackles for some patterns, comprising the hen golden pheasant, grey hen, brown partridge, and grouse. To prepare a close-plumed feather for use as a hackle, the downy part at the root end must be stripped from the quill, and taking the extreme point between the left thumb and forefinger, the whole of the plume, except the part held by the left thumb and forefinger, should be stroked back by the right thumb and forefinger slightly moistened.” Although Halford laments the lack of quality dry-fly hackle, the close-plumed is not merely a poor substitute. He used combinations of contour and dry hackles to float his large drake mayflies.

The French Plumeaux, “feather duster,” uses a large contour feather as the floater. Various feathers, such as mallard breast or French partridge, are mounted, wrapped and water-proofed for day-long floats. chukar makes an excellent substitute for French partridge.

Contour feathers have a wider range of shape, color and marking than dry hackles. And some hen capes have finer, more delicate markings than are found in wild-bird capes. Mounting a contour feather requires care. Depending upon the barb density desired, stripping one side of a contour feather creates a delicate pattern. Mount the feather so that the barbs encircle or enclose the pattern. To strip the proper side, hold the feather convex or “outside” up and tip toward you. Remove the right-hand barbs. I usually mount the feather by the tip (assuming the barb length at the tip is appropriate) rather than the base. This allows me to use the finer stem length for mounting and wrapping. The uniform curvature of few barbs creates an attractive wrap that reveals body color.

It should be noted that hackles need not be feathers: the original Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear, an early dry fly, uses hare fur in a dubbing loop to create hair hackles. However, the first clear evidence of conventional hackling at the shoulder, as we do today, appears in the mid-18th Century. Richard Bowlker is unequivocal when he wants “hackle for legs.” He merely wraps the hackle “twice or thrice under the [butt] of the wings.” Although we usually increase the wraps, the hackle position and posture are modern. With the advent of the modern dry fly, perhaps around 1850, the dry hackle becomes significant.

Tiers employ a contour feather as the flotation mechanism on the traditional French Plumeaux pattern.

The celebrated Catskill fly tier Harry Darbee and Minnesota attorney Andy Miner were the first to select roosters for exceptional hackles in America. Their stocks, in fact, established the basis for the majority of American genetic lines.

Henry Hoffman of Oregon, concentrating on one breed, raised superior dry-fly grizzly hackles in the mid 1960s. During the 1970s and ’80s, hackle quality and quantity exploded. Hoffman, Hebert and Metz continued the renaissance. Dr. Tom Whiting of Colorado, after finishing his doctorate in poultry science, entered the hackle business late in 1989.

Starting with Hoffman hackles, Whiting added Darbee, Miner and other stocks to create more colors and a broad genetic foundation. By the 1990s, Whiting Farms, through genetic progress and husbandry, became a major producer of quality fly-tying hackles. Drawing upon the León tradition, Dr. Whiting also markets some excellent coq de León (gallo de León) tailing packs.

Feather Structure

Knowing proper hackle terminology is essential to understanding the complexity of the feathers we use in fly-tying. A feather barb is the lateral fiber branching (in parallel rows) on the shaft (rachis). The shaft is often called the stem by fly tiers. The barbs, sometimes mistakenly called barbules, are the common fiber strips of the feather. The rachis is the part of the feather shaft that bears the barbs. The calamus (quill) is the barbless, tubular base of the shaft (rachis). The vane (blade), the flat part of the feather composed of interlocking barbs, is supported by the rachis.

The barbules, several hundred on each barb, interlock with nearby hooklets (hamuli), to hold the vane together. The barbules act as natural zippers, locking the vane together. When preening, a bird zips the barbs together with its beak to reform the feather. What the tier calls webbing is nothing more than the mat of dense, interlocking barbules. To produce a dry hackle, you merely breed (though not a simple feat) to eliminate the hamuli, creating barbs that cannot zip together. If they cannot zip together, they cannot hold or contain much water.

Hackle Grading

Modern genetics has produced some capes that no longer correspond to earlier grading practices. Nearly all modern hackles have superior barbs, limited webbing and fine, flexible stems. Due to the overall excellence of modern genetic capes, some graders have shifted from quality to quantity. For example, Whiting Farms dry-fly grades are now primarily determined by hackle count and usable hackle length.

This method requires four steps:

  1. Determine the approximate number of usable dry-fly hackles on a cape.
  2. Measure the average hackle length.
  3. Determine the hook sizes for the cape. (Most capes have two dominant hook sizes with some hackles over and under. Note also that smaller hook-size hackles may tie more flies than larger hackles.)
  4. Calculate the total number of flies from the cape. Grades—bronze, silver, gold, and platinum—are then based on the number of flies possible from a cape. These capes vary from several hundred to well over one thousand hackles.

Furthermore, the genetic advancement in capes has created a concurrent loss in quality tailing barbs on the peripheral hackles. In brief, the improvement in the core hackles has diminished the quality of the tailing feathers. We now go elsewhere for our long, glossy, resilient tailing barbs. I also find a paucity of quality size 12 and size 10 hackles. It seems that the larger the hackle the greater the webbing. We have superb size 20 dry-fly hackles, but rather webby size 10s.

A Whiting Micro-hackle lays down hundreds of supporting barb tips in very few wraps.

And these are what you should look for when cape shopping to avoid retail road-kills:

  • Limited webbing: Webbing—the dense barbules occurring at the feather base and tapering toward the tip—absorbs water and increases weight. Trimming may eliminate most webbing. Minor webbing may not be a detriment to a floating fly.
  • Fine, flexible rachis (stem): A fine and flexible rachis wraps easily and reduces bulk.
  • Uniform barb length with modest taper: Barb length may vary too much for symmetrical hackling. Barb length and barb taper are independent factors. When barbs stand at a right-angle to the stem, their tips should form a relatively straight line, tapering only slightly toward the hackle tip.
  • Barb stiffness: Barb rigidity floats a pattern. Barb stiffness is usually indicated by the glossy sheen of the outer barb surface. When “twanged,” a barb should snap back into place. Flotant does not, as such, float a pattern: it merely waterproofs the barbs so that they support the pattern on the water surface.
  • Colors and Contrast: Some cape colors are just more useful than others. Most single colors should be rich and intense. Except for some blacks and whites, capes normally have a subtle color range. Nature is never single. Single colors can be rusty or brassy. Subtle colors, like some duns and creams, ought to be delicate and pure. Yet every hackle is usually darker at the base and center than the tip and edges. Invest in usefulness, but do not ignore oddly marked or colored capes—especially those with specks, streaks or spots. These can create attractive patterns.
    Multicolored capes should have bright, contrasting colors. Colors should not dissolve into each other. Each color should stand bold and strong. In angling history, the term list has come to mean both a dark band along the center shaft as well as a dark edge at the outer barb tips. The term is correctly applied only to the center or lateral strips running on each side of the feather stem. Common usage, however, has confused the term. Some feathers are famous for this list. For example, a furnace hackle has a black center list with red outer barbs, and a badger has a black center list with white outer barbs. Sometimes a furnace with black barb tips (another list) is called a coch-y-bonddu. These colors are often given different names and spellings.
    The bicolor Plymouth Rock grizzly is white with black or blue-gray bars. Sometimes the term grizzly is used for any color combination of barring such as ginger grizzly. Barring, without blurring, should be fairly straight, narrow and approximately equal widths. The tricolor Cree adds red or ginger to the grizzly. A Cree with strong contrast and balanced colors is precious. In fact, perfect cape colors are rare; this is one reason why we select for quality (or function) before color.
  • Hook range and size: There is a dramatic difference between a cape and a saddle. A quality cape can offer a wide hook-size range. A genetic cape can range from size 10 to 20 or smaller. The saddle is more restrictive: 80 percent or more of a saddle can be in the 16 to 20 size. Some micro-hackle saddles are now true 24 to 26 hook size. Quality capes for size 12 and 10 are still rare, as hackles this large usually have extensive webbing.
  • Usable hackle length: Dry hackles are seldom if ever used whole. Tiers trim away the coarse stem base and thick webbing. Sufficient usable feather length should hackle a pattern. Some long saddle hackles, in fact, can wrap six or more patterns.
  • Barb density: Hackles vary in barb count along the stem. Select for barb density. In six wraps, a premium Whiting platinum dry-fly cape supports a pattern with approximate 60 barbs. An exceptional Whiting Micro-hackle lays down nearly 200 supporting barb tips in six wraps. Although most tiers avoid barb counting, density does influence the final fly. At the cost of increased space, added hackle wraps boost barb density and buoyancy. Excessive wraps, however, can destroy a delicate profile.
  • Shaft cross-section: A flat-sided shaft or stem makes wrapping easier, creating a proper barb stance. Sometimes it may be appropriate to minimize bulk and rotation by flattening or crushing the shaft at the mounting point. This is easily done with small pliers or the back of the scissors.
  • Hackle density: Examine the back of a cape to determine hackle density. Feathers grow on various body tracts of a bird. These tracts are best observed by the pock marks on the backside of a cape or skin. Each pockmark indicates a hackle. The more pocks, the more hackle and patterns tied from the cape. Dense, thick capes command a higher price than flat or skinny capes.

Feather Orientation

When reading tying directions, it is essential to understand feather orientation. If tying directions demand barbs taken from the right side of the feather, the tier must determine which side is right.

There are, unfortunately, two orientation systems—the tier’s and the zoologist’s. In 1914, T. E. Price-Tannatt defined the tier’s orientation: Hold the feather base down and best side (the outside or face) toward you. The right side is right and the left is left. The zoologist, however, considers the feather an organism with its own right and left side. Thus, when an eyed peacock tail is held base down and the “face” or eye is toward you, the right side of the feather is on the left side when you view it. To avoid ambiguity, a general tying acceptance of the reputable zoological system might be preferred by tiers.

Hackle Wraps

The versatile hackle offers various tying possibilities. Hackles wrap wets and dries; and the barbs make tails and beards. A stripped stem creates segmented bodies while whole hackles or bundled barbs make wings. Long, soft hackles produce lively streamers. Moreover, there are as many ways to use hackles as there are hackles. Nevertheless, here are some wrapping methods and the thoughts behind them.

  • Wrapping doubles and triples: Two hackles may be mounted and wrapped at the same time. Some tiers believe that a stronger and more precise wrap occurs when both hackles are mounted and then each hackle individually wound. It is possible to wrap two hackles with equal tension, but nearly impossible to maintain tension on three hackles. In this case, mount all three hackles together. Wrap the two forward hackles first and whip-finish off. Then, firmly wrap the third hackle through the barbs of the first two hackles. Sometimes the first two hackles leave stem space for the final hackle wrap.
  • Double hackles: A tapered hackle (mainly a problem of the past) often incorporates a greater hackle length that has a great variance in barb lengths. Different barb lengths create an ungainly floater. This problem was solved by trimming and doubling the hackle. The singular advantage of trimmed hackles—hackles with the long and short barbs removed—is that the barbs become more uniform. Doubling the trimmed hackles (one on top of the other) creates the same barb density as a longer, single hackle. However, the modern genetic cape has notable barb-length equality.
  • Inlaid hackles: Combining different hackle colors creates attractive patterns. In the merge-and-mingle theory, a Callibaetis dun wing—gray with black spatter—may be suggested with two hackles: several wraps of a gray dun and two face wraps of a black hackle. Green Drake wings are mimicked with a golden olive hackle inlaid with a black one. This suggests the strong, dark venation on an olive wing.

Inlaying hackles takes advantage of both cape and saddle hackles. The longer cape barbs extend beyond the shorter saddle barbs. The shorter barbs increase buoyancy without obscuring the pattern’s profile. To some extent, the short barbs offer support to the long barbs. For an inlaid hackle, select cape barbs that are twice or thrice the length of the saddle barbs. A bent-hackle pattern uses a long shoulder hackle (similar to a Plumeaux).

Handling Dry Hackle

Making only a few hackle wraps on a wet pattern creates a light veil over the body.

When preparing and mounting hackle, first make certain that the usable barb length is appropriate, traditionally 3/4 the hook-shank length. Depending upon hackle quality, some barbs may be longer and some shorter. Even a quality dry-fly hackle will have some webbing. Next, determine where the webbing fades or ends. Clip the hackle near this point, leaving only negligible webbing on the usable section. This webbing is then stripped, leaving only a bare mounting stem. This method maximizes the web-free “sweet section” of the hackle.

There are, of course, many ways to mount and wrap a dry hackle. Tiers usually use a method that offers swift efficiency. Hackles may be mounted by the base or the tip. If mounted by the tip, then the longer, supportive barbs appear at the front to support the pattern. All my palmers are mounted in this manner with the longer barbs (if present) at the front. Genetic hackle often has uniform barb length so that there may be only minor differences between a base or tip mount. An advantage of a base mount is that the hackle wraps cover the coarse stem and the fine tip produces a small head.

The stage at which the hackle is mounted may also determine hackle orientation. If the hackle is mounted after the body, then the butt points toward the head. If the hackle mounts first, then the butt points aft to be covered by the body. This mount allows the butt to form the body taper.

Some hackles have a distinct curve due to their lay on the bird. The inside of the dry hackle (against the bird’s body) is dull and concave; the outside (away from the bird), glossy and convex. Traditionally, a dry hackle is mounted and wrapped so that the dull side faces the hook eye. Conversely, William Sturgis and Eric Taverner, in New Lines for Fly Fishers (1946), recommend wrapping dry hackle with the outside (the shiny or convex side) toward the hook eye. Wrapped in this manner, the barbs bend back, away from the subsequent turns.

For a secure hackle mount on a parachute fly, the author bends a short foot at the stem base for mounting the hackle along the hook shank and up the wing post.

They conclude that “Unless this is done it is hard to prevent a few fibres from being folded in.” Saddle and micro-hackles often lack this curvature and may be mounted in any direction. Furthermore, modern cape processing produces some remarkably flat hackles. While often a pointless exercise, I still wrap dull-side forward for dries and dull-side aft for wets. On dry flies, the advanced barb tips produce a broad stance for better water-surface support.

After selecting a hackle, pruning the excessive webbing and stripping a length of shaft barbless, I mount the hackle dull-side toward hook shank. I then secure the stripped shaft base with firm thread wraps both fore and aft of the wing mount. An adequate shaft length avoids pulling the hackle out while wrapping.

To eliminate barb flare in the first few wraps, I create some “freebore” or space between the thread mount and the hackle barbs. This space allows the stem to twist and align, preventing flared or erratic barbs. This eliminates the necessity of making a second hackle wrap behind the first to catch and gather any barbs pointing aft. That small space creates a great difference.

If I remove the shorter tip barbs, then I can secure the naked tip with a few, tight wraps. This prevents trapping skewed barbs at the head. I wrap the hackle as many times behind as in front of the wings. This makes my wings “grow” from the center of my hackle wraps.

For wrapping, I clip non-rotating hackle pliers to the hackle tip. Rotating pliers allow a hackle to exert its perversity. I would rather tame the hackle. Like Marvin Nolte, the nationally known master tier, has said, I too cherish my original Herb Howard hackle pliers. These heavy, stainless-steel pliers can twist the stem axially to control the barb stance, simply dominating hackles. I will then advance the hackle, while holding it taut, with tight, touching wraps. After sufficient wraps, I capture the naked tip with two or three thread wraps, trim excess and then secure.

With wet flies, the back-sloping barbs encapsulate the body with an “umbrella” that creates good water entry. A wet usually requires few wraps and a body that shows through beneath the barb umbrella. For this reason, I often strip the barbs off one side of the hackle, usually the left “zoological” side of a butt-mounted feather. The remaining barbs now voluntarily arch over the body when wrapped. This sparse wrap creates a neat and functional pattern.

Parachute Hackle

According to Paul Schullery’s American Fly Fishing (1987), parachute patterns date back at least to the late 1920s. Gerald Burrard, in Fly-Tying: Principles & Practice (1945), recalls Alexander Martin’s earlier parachutes tied on “a stout gut or wire.” By 1931, William Bush applied for a patent on a posted hook for tying parachute dry flies. Rather than on spiky barb tips, a parachute floats on the extended barb length. I mount my parachutes—base down and dull-side toward me—on the hook shank and posted wing stem. The hackle mount position determines how it will wrap around the wing base. For a secure mount, I bend a short foot at the stem base for mounting the hackle along the hook shank and up the wing post. Due to the pliable wings, parachute hackles can pull out if mounted only on the wing post; the stem foot thereby secures the hackle on the hook shank.

I wrap my parachutes with the concave side down, beginning at the top of the wing post. Although this may be awkward due to the barb’s concave cupping, the downward barbs offer greater spring and support. Parachute barbs offer more surface contact than the traditional shoulder hackle. For this reason, parachutes may be easily and neatly wrapped with one stripped side; a stripped-side hackle makes smooth wraps. If the tip barbs are removed, I merely pull the naked tip stem over the shank and secure it with thread. This avoids trapping any radiating or splayed barbs at the head.

The hackle may be the most important feather in tying. It certainly can be one of the most beautiful. Delicious hackles do create tasty patterns. Though always searching, seldom do I find that exceptional hackle where quality and splendor produce the perfect pattern. But I continue looking.

Darrel Martin is a studious and creative fly tier. Formerly, he wrote a column for this magazine titled Fly Tying. See many of these columns in the soon-to-be-released Fly Tying: The Best of Fly Rod & Reel; order at 1-800-685-7962. For a not-to-miss sidebar on building a fly that drifts properly, go to www.flyrodreel.com Skills section.