The Feathered Wizardry of Dr. Tom

The Feathered Wizardry of Dr. Tom

How Tom Whiting went from egg peddler to hackle master without ever touching a fly rod or tying vice.

  • By: Darrel Martin
  • Photography by: Darrel Martin
Dr. Tom Whiting

Tom Whiting was born and spent much of his childhood in Denver, Colorado. The Whiting clan admits that Dr. Tom must be some strange agrarian throwback. From youth he was fascinated by fowls, and their variety. When Tom was about 10 years old, a lucky break: His family moved to the suburbs, where he raised a few chickens, peddled eggs in the neighborhood and worked on a game-bird farm. Although he spent hours dreaming up breeding programs, there were no plans to become a feather merchant; when it was time to go to college he delved into music, political science and literature at Colorado State University. One day his older brother asked him what he really wanted to do. Tom replied that he often thought about quail. Avian science was the answer. After getting a bachelor’s degree in avian science at Colorado State and completing genetics internships with two poultry producers, he knew he wanted more.

After finishing his Masters in poultry management and genetics at the University of Georgia, Tom signed on with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Avian Influenza Task Force; an avian influenza epidemic had erupted in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When his grandmother unexpectedly passed away, Tom returned to Colorado for the funeral and stayed on to help his grandfather, who had failing vision. During this time, Tom took two month-long trips to England, where he trekked the country and visited three poultry companies.

Now back in Colorado, one day Tom casually drove by Mor ning Fresh Farms; in his words, it was “an incredible commercial egg production complex.” A friend of his grandfather’s gave him an introduction to the owners. When he stopped by for a tour, the owners, brothers Joe and Bobbie Raith, talked to him throughout the morning and told him to come back the following day. When he returned, there was more talk but no tour. The next day, the brothers called and offered him a three-month job. While he lived with his grandfather, Tom worked on research projects and egg production at Morning Fresh Farms, which he calls, “arguably the finest egg operation in America.” After six months the brothers made him production manager. Tom stayed for two-and-a-half years and, as he says, “I could not have learned more anywhere else in the world.”

Nevertheless, Tom wanted a doctorate, and a business of his own. In 1986 he left Morning Fresh Farms to enter the doctorate program at the University of Arkansas; at that time the university boasted a prestigious poultry science department and nationally recognized avian geneticists. While there, Tom dredged up a possible occupation from his undergraduate days: poultry cloning, a system for producing the preferred sex for either egg or meat production. He got in touch with Dr. Carey Quarles, who owned Colorado Quality Hackles, a fledgling hackle company. Tom asked if he could lease or purchase Quarles’ incubators. Dr. Quarles wanted out of the business. He said no to selling the incubators, but instead offered Tom the entire hackle company. Tom never bought the birds but, after looking over the financials, felt that a hackle business might be promising.

Tom thought, in what was admittedly “graduate school hubris,” that he could enter the hackle business for a few years and make enough money to finance his cloning research. To that end, he attended fly-fishing trade shows in Denver in 1987 and 1988 (curiously, he never actually took up fly-tying or fly-fishing). In the summer of 1988 he went to Oregon to meet Henry Hoffman and his birds, earned his doctorate later the same year, then returned to Colorado to start Whiting Farms, incorporated in 1989. Henry Hoffman, who grew up in poultry husbandry, developed the first viable genetic dry-fly grizzly capes from Barred Plymouth Rock Bantams and other selected birds. As a notable tier, Henry produced sharply marked dry hackles that turned well on the hook. His hackles were coveted by discerning tiers. Three years after Whiting launched his operation, Hoffman was ready to sell and, as Tom noted, ready to take a chance on a young man from Colorado. The cloning project faded.

Tom has an intense and passionate work ethic. His recordkeeping, for example, is meticulous. Each breeder rooster candidate receives an elaborate two-page dossier on its cape and saddle. If the candidate passes this scrutiny, then 12 feather samples are taken from specific body locations and given to one of Whiting’s pelt graders; some have 30 years of tying experience. The grader wraps each feather on a hook and evaluates how it performs. Breeder roosters also score on saddle-hackle barb density. In single-sided, half-inch increments, the arched feather barbs—those fibers that support the dry fly—are counted and recorded. Tom’s maximum half-inch barb count is an astonishing 58. His Hoffman-based roosters have counts of 42 to 48. This additional analysis is incorporated into the dossier to determine how a breed rooster will be used. For Tom, as it was for Henry Hoffman, “the unit of use is the individual feather.” It is all about producing a quality feather that wraps well.

Maria Yesi Ponce removing from a cape any feathers not up to standard.

For a broader genetic foundation, Tom acquired other birds. Celebrated Catskill fly tier Harry Darbee, active in the ’40s, and Minnesota attorney Andy Miner (he raised birds in the ’50s and ’60s) were early hackle pioneers. Their brood stocks became the foundation for most hackle farms today. In May of 1954, Andy visited Harry and Elsie Darbee. While looking at Harry’s blue dun flock, Andy made a casual comment that he would love to raise some blue duns sometime. The next morning, before Andy left for home, the phone rang. Harry asked him to stop by before leaving. When he arrived, Harry came out and placed a box in Andy’s Ford station wagon. About 100 miles down the road, he looked into the box. It had “fertile” written on it, and contained about four dozen eggs.

Andy Miner created some of the highest-quality hackles in America. Tom Whiting regards him as “the Johnny Appleseed of the hackle world.” Before becoming an attorney, Andy had taught agriculture. For the sheer love of hackle and fishing, he offered his birds and eggs to any who asked for them. He never sold a cape, only occasionally suggesting that a recipient send him a few flies sometime. Most modern feather merchants—about a half dozen—breed from the Miner line. The Miner birds were a potpourri of various breeds, including Blue Andalusian, Brown Leghorn and fighting cocks, and Whiting purchased one branch of the Andy Miner stock in 1996. Tom’s label, Hebert-Miner, identifies these birds as “Andy Miner through Ted Hebert.” The latter was a Michigan hackle pioneer, who either acquired or developed the best stock. Today, flocks are commonly considered proprietary and are seldom sold.

Tom, with a commercial poultry and avian genetics background, approaches feather farming differently from other hacklers. He operates a “continuous conveyor belt of production,” as he calls it, hatching and harvesting each week throughout the year. Unlike other hackle producers, he utilizes a few breeders for a longer time to maximize the number of offspring. After all, genetics is a numbers game. He personally pulls every hatch, records all data, and processes each bird. He also selects about 10 to 20 percent of the best hens and uses about one half of one percent of the top roosters. This intense selection pressure in the production roosters results in rapid genetic progress and year-round quality pelts. It takes about a year to mature an adult and sometimes several more months to realize a quality dry cape.

From the beginning, Tom listened to fly tiers. The chicken is, as Tom states, “genetically plastic”: It can be modified through genetics to produce various feathers. When tiers asked for a better partridge feather, he produced a range of gray and brown mottled substitute feathers from chickens. When tiers asked for a heron replacement, Tom created, after 10 years of assiduous genetics, an extraordinary mock heron from the fluffy plumage of Chinese Silkie chickens. Once a tier encouraged Tom to produce the Spanish gallo de Leon feathers; their stiff, glassy barbs are unmatched for tails and wings. Tom imported the fertile Spanish eggs in the 1990s and now produces his own capes from these scrappy “barrio birds.” In the early 1990s, tiers wanted wetfly hackles that were long and broad with dense webbing and rounded tips. A thousand selected chickens and five generations later, Tom produced the American Hackle, the first genetic wetfly hackle. These birds, like all Whiting stock, undergo continuous refinement. The breeding challenge appears in the diverse cape traits: feather length, feather density, webbing, barb length, barb density, feather range, stem taper, wrapping ease and sheen. A few traits are highly heritable, most are moderately so and a couple are excruciatingly low. Producing mock heron and partridge plumage from chickens requires meticulous science as well as considerable alchemy.

Whiting birds demand respect. When Tom held a rooster for a photograph for me, the proud fowl showed its displeasure with flared hackles and throaty threats. Although recent research traces modern birds back to the dinosaurian Maniraptorans, this bird expressed pure velociraptor. Before battle broke out, Tom returned the bird to its shed.

When I first visited Whiting Farms, several years ago, it was a modest enterprise. Today, the three separate Whiting farms, with approximately two dozen employees, are spread out on 5,000 deeded acres, among weathered adobe hills that resemble truncated Sphinxes. Erosion has flattened the peaks to mesas and washed extended paws at the bases, leaving multi-colored levels of rosy-red, beige and gray. Pronghorn antelope and mule deer roam the weathered washes. The Whiting facilities—14 rooster barns, including nine brood barns, one hatchery and five service buildings—hold redundant populations of pedigreed birds separated among the farms.

If you follow Tom around the farms, you discover hot and hard work. He is always active: fielding phone calls, answering e-mails, checking the chicks, grading pelts or solving the myriad problems of a parliament of fowls. Through the years, Tom has also shared his feather wealth by sending gratis capes to deserving tiers around the world. Once I met a young Macedonian couple who survived on their fly-tying talent. Dr. Tom would send them some capes that helped them become internationally competitive tiers. There are other untold tales. Years ago, soon after the Soviet withdrawal, I presented a Whiting cape to a tier in impoverished Lithuania. Tears spoke his appreciation. He had never held such feathered wizardry. For Dr. Tom Whiting, the challenge is neither fly-tying nor fly-fishing, it is husbandry and diligent genetics. Although the United States is the largest single market, Whiting Farms exports its feathered art to 40 countries. For fly tiers around the world, he is the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

Darrel Martin’s Fly-Tying column appeared regularly in Fly Rod & Reel for nearly 20 years. Mention his name in a gathering of fly tiers, and a hush falls over the room.