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Default What kind of hackle should I get?

(This FAQ is under construction, but here's the first bit)

it depends....

What kind of flies will you be tying?

This article will discuss hackle used in different types of flies and give some options for tying different types of flies in some detail and offer comparison of some common products in a table at the bottom of this post. Hopefully you'll have a better understanding of some of the differences among different types of hackle, and a better sense of what stuff is used to tie different patterns and why. But feel free to ask in the general fly tying forum if you have any questions.

In general, for .....

Dry flies - genetic dry fly rooster capes (to hackle a wide range of hook sizes) or genetic dry fly saddles (saddles will hackle a more limited range of hook sizes). For dry flies, you'll want to use cape or saddle feathers from birds that have been genetically bred for stiff barbs of uniform length and thin flexible stems that are easy to wrap.

Woolly Buggers - "woolly bugger hackle" packs, long feathers at base of a dry fly cape, and some strung saddle hackle feathers

Wet flies - soft feathers from hens and gamebirds. Depending on hook sizes you are tying there's a wide variety of choices. Partridge, grouse and starling are commonly used as well as Indian and genetic hen cape feathers (hackle the widest range of hook sizes)

Nymphs- an Indian hen back is an inexpensive choice for tails and legs on nymphs, and there are a many other good choices as well, including most of the stuff used for wet flies.

Freshwater Streamers Varies by type of pattern and hook size- strung saddle feathers, genetic streamer saddles, Hen saddles for Matuka style streamers are common choices.

Freshwater Bass and Panfish Stung saddle and cape feathers may be inexpensive options, as are more expensive capon and rooster capes and saddles.

Saltwater and large freshwater patterns Strung saddle hackle is an inexpensive popular option for many baitfish patterns, as are more expensive generic and genetic rooster cape and saddle feathers. Indian rooster cape feathers for many shrimp and crab patterns used for bonefish etc. Some specialized patterns might call for flatwing saddles, schlappen, spey feathers

Salmon and Steelhead flies wide variety of specialized feathers including brightly dyed Chinese rooster and hen capes, genetic hen saddles, Rooster spey capes and saddles, spey hackle schlappen and gamebirds, and exotic feathers

What is my budget?
This FAQ will discuss typical prices as of (Spring 2011) and offer some suggestions for folks just starting out. The good news is that there are many excellent options no matter what you're tying.

There's a table in post #4 of this thread with some condensed info on different types of rooster hackle which might be helpful and a discussion (and another table) of Hen and Gamebird hackle here:

Hopefully it will help new fly tyers get a sense of the different hackle out there, how to select the right stuff for the flies you're tying, and some options for less expensive materials. Some hackle can of course be used for more than one type of fly.

For the purposes of this FAQ we'll be talking about chickens-- though other feathers from gamebirds (partridge and grouse) and other birds not protected by migratory gamebird regulations (starling for example) can be used.

Keep in mind that hackle can come from "genetic" birds bred specifically for their feathers for fly tying and from the feathers of domestic or imported meat or egg birds (usually much less expensive).

The characteristics of the feathers among the many different choices of hackle will vary a great deal-- and so does their suitability for different types of patterns.

Here are some of the ways different types of hackle feathers will vary:

How stiff or soft are the barbs? Stiff for dry flies, soft for wet flies. The best way to tell is to bend the stem of the feather and take a look at the barbs.
Here's an example of a feather from the cape of a genetic dry fly rooster.
Click the image to open in full size.
Note how the individual barbs stick straight out from the stem

Here's an example of a strung rooster Schlappen feather, with long and extremely soft and webby barbs used in primarily for tying salmon, steellhead and saltwater flies
Click the image to open in full size.
Note how the barbs clump together (web) and the barbs curve around with the bend of the stem instead of sticking out straight.

Here's an example of a genetic hen saddle feather, used for the wings of matuka style streamers, and for hackling larger wet flies.
Click the image to open in full size.
Note the soft webby barbs.

Note: All dry fly hackle comes from roosters, but not all rooster hackle is suitable for dry flies. Some rooster hackle and all hackle from hens is soft.

How long are the barbs? Standard proportions for many patterns for a hackle wrapped around the hook shank are 1.5 x width of the hook gap. A size 18 dry fly will need to have shorter stiffer barbs than the soft hackle used on a size 6 woolly bugger

Are the barbs a consistent length the length of the feather or are they longer at the base and shorter at the tip? A dry fly hackle should have a consistent barb length, but a woolly bugger often has longer barbs at the front of the fly and shorter barbs at the rear.

How long are the feathers? You'd want a long enough feather to palmer (wrapping a hackle in an open spiral down the hook shank) a hackle on a woolly bugger. Otherwise you'd have to use several feathers. And if you have long dry fly cape or saddle feathers you can often get more than one fly per feather ( 2-3 on a good cape feather, and 7-10 on a long saddle feather). But for a collar on wet flies and soft hackles that use just a wrap or two, a feather can be short in overall length.

What's the useable length of the feather? You'll find some fluff and and very wispy barbs on the base of every feather that you'll want to strip away before using the feather. And on some feathers the base of the stem can be very thick and stiff. So another consideration is not just the entire length of the feather, but the actual useable length of the feather after you get done stripping away the waste.

All hackle feathers have some web, which is a soft portion of all or a part of the barb. The web extends from each side of the stem, and may make up a large portion of the total length of the barbs at the base of the hackle feather. As the you go up along the stem of the feather the amount of web in each barb decreases. On dry fly hackle, because a large amount of web makes the barbs soft, you would generally want to strip off the lower barbs with a lot of web (say 50% or more of total barb length), and use the barbs with just a small amount of web (10-20% of total barb length ?).

In the pic below on the right, bodkin points to webby section of strung saddle hackle (bright red section of feather). On the left are two brown dry fly cape feathers, with one stripped of fluff and webby barbs at base of feather. The webby portion of the dry fly feathers is the dark brown color along both sides of the stem

Click the image to open in full size.

Here's a pic showing side by side shots of from left dry fly hackle, strung rooster saddle strung rooster cape stripped of fluff and web to show useable portion of feather:

Click the image to open in full size.

What is the shape of the feather? Wide feathers with rounded tips are often preferred for bass and saltwater flies, as opposed to slim feathers with pointed tips used on dry flies and for long tapered feathers used on some streamer patterns like flatwings.

How flexible is the stem of the feather? Stems that are thin, flexible and easy to wrap are a pleasure to use when wrapping around a hook shank. feathers with stiffer stems provide a kick in the water on flies like keys style tarpon flies and bass flies when tied splayed like frog legs.

We'll discuss these qualities and why they're important for different types of fly patterns in a moment, but first....

Let's take a look at some rooster feathers:
Click the image to open in full size.
From left Dry fly saddle, dry fly cape, dry fly spade hackle, Coq de Leon saddle, Indian neck, Capon Rooster sold as Bass/Saltwater neck, Streamer/Deceiver Saddle, Flatwing Saddle, Strung Spey, Strung Schlappen, Strung Saddle

First it might be helpful to define a few terms:

When we're talking about hackle from chickens we're generally talking about feathers from the cape* or the saddle.

*A "cape" is the same as a "neck". The words are interchangeable. The feathers on a cape from a hen or rooster have a wider range of "sizes" (feathers with different barb lengths) than the range of feather sizes (barb lengths) on a saddle from the same bird.

***insert pic of bird showing cape and saddle

Genetic Dry Fly Cape- These are from birds bred specifically for the "dry fly" qualities of their feathers. The primary qualities of a good dry fly cape are flexible, easy to wrap stems, and stiff barbs of uniform length the length of the feather. Excellent dry fly capes are available from well know widely available major breeders like Whiting, Metz and Keough as well as smaller breeders that deal directly with the customer such as Charlie collins from Collins Hackle in New York state and Denny and Liz Conrad from Conranch Hackle Farm in Washington state.

Insert pic of dry fly capes

Here's an example of a dry fly, note the stiff barbs of the hackle used for the tail and wound collar.
Click the image to open in full size.

Dry Fly Capes are "graded", with different grading systems used by different breeders. Whiting uses a "Pro" Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum grading system. Other breeders use different designations often Pro/Commercial, grade 3, grade 2 grade 1.

Grades typically reflect several qualities of a cape, among them:

Feather count- the total number of feathers on a cape. More expensive, higher graded capes have more feathers.

Feather length- average length of feathers, with higher grade capes perhaps tying 3 flies or more from a single feather, and 1 or 2 flies from a lower grade cape. Along with feather count, feather length translates into more flies per cape in higher graded capes. These two factors also are used to grade saddle capes. But there is a third important factor in grading capes not used in grading saddles:

Range of smaller "size" feathers- (useable feathers with short barb lengths). A higher grade cape will tie a wider range of fly sizes, including smaller flies. For example while a Pro Grade cape from one breeder might tie dries from 10-18, the next higher grade cape might tie 10-20 or 22, the next highest grade 8-22 or 24 etc.

Prices for a dry fly cape range from around $30 for a Pro Grade Whiting Hebert Miner Cape or Grade 3 Collins or Conranch cape on up to $125 for a Gold grade Whiting cape (and a lot more for quality capes in certain rare colors like "Cree")

A note about Whiting-- Whiting now has 2 distinct product lines of genetic dry fly capes and saddles. the more widely known "Whiting" line, sold with a red "Whiting" label is most common in fly shops. But WHiting also acquired the "Hebert Miner" line of genetic dry fly birds fairly recently, and this is sold with a green "Whiting Hebert Miner" label. The Hebert Miner line is a great addition to Whiting's lineup, and is likely to benefit greatly from Tom Whiting's intensive breeding program in the future. In many cases Hebert Miner products are priced a bit lower than traditional Whiting capes in the same grade-- for example a Pro Grade HM cape typically runs $30 compared to a $45 Pro Grade Whiting cape.

** insert pic of whiting red and HM green labels

On a cape, the feathers with the shortest barbs are at the top, near the v-notch where it was cut off from the head. The feathers sizes tend to run in concentric rings across the cape from side to side, so that the barb lengths of feathers get larger as you move down the cape. At the bottom of the cape you'll find feathers with longer barbs that are generally not suited for dries but can be used for buggers or other purposes.

Because of the way the feathers are sized on a cape they can be split lengthwise down the middle with each half cape having half as many feathers but in a full range of sizes. Unlike saddles, dry fly capes can not be split into 1/4s, (cut both lengthwise and across their width), since the two 1/4's cut from the bottom of the cape wouldn't have many if any dry fly feathers.

For someone just starting out that wants to tie dry flies in a wide range of sizes from 10-18 or 20, there are a couple excellent options at around $30 a cape.

Whiting Introductory Pack four 1/2 capes for $60. Look for one that includes four 1/2 capes in grizzly, medium dun, brown and light ginger. By using these colors alone or mixing them together you can cover a wide range of hatches and patterns.

Whiting Hebert Miner Pro Grade $30 available from many shops that carry Whiting products, or a Grade 3 from a small breeder like Collins or Conranch for $30.

Genetic Dry Fly Saddle- used for dry flies. Saddles from the same bird generally have even more flexible stems than capes. Like the dry fly capes, dry fly saddles have very flexible stems that wrap easily, and stiff barbs of uniform length sized for trout size dry flies. The length of dry fly saddles enables you to get several flies from a single feather. Saddle feathers are typically longer than cape feathers-- in some cases much longer. The suitability of genetic dry fly saddles for dry flies varies a great deal among breeders, with Whiting saddles usually of excellent quality. The "dry fly" quality of other breeders' saddles can vary a great deal often with softer barbs or longer barbs and usually much shorter in overall length. This is due to a couple of factors including:

Saddles take more time to mature than cape feathers, and so greater cost in feed etc to raise the bird until saddle feathers mature. For example Charlie Collins of Collins Hackle raises his birds for their capes, and include a saddle free with the purchase of the cape.

Raising birds indoors in individual cages allows the development of long flowing saddle feathers, since birds won't be running around stepping on feathers, dragging them through the mud etc, but is expensive.

A quality genetic dry fly saddle offers the possibility of tying more flies, but in a narrower range of sizes than capes. Although individual saddles will vary, the different genetic lines of birds by different breeders tend to have different ranges. So whereas Whiting saddles might tend to run strongest in size 14-16 or 16-18, Whiting's Hebert Miner saddles tend to run a bit larger 8-10, 10-12, or 12-14, saddles from Conranch seem to typically run 10-12, and saddles from Collins Hackle seem to mostly average 12-14.

Here's a pic of some dry fly saddles. From left:
Whiting Bronze grade saddle
Collins saddle included free with purchase of cape (in grades 1, 2 or 3)
Conranch Grade 3 saddle

Click the image to open in full size.
Note the difference in the length of the feathers, and the width of the barbs between the Whiting saddle and the other two saddles.

Dry Fly Saddles are usually sold in different grades. The grades and grading criteria used by different breeders may vary a bit. For example Whiting uses a Pro, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum (their highest most expensive) system. Others use grade Pro or commercial and 3, 2, 1 (their highest and most expensive). Generally since the barb lengths of saddles from a breeder will generally run the about the same, the grades for saddles generally reflect differnces in feather count and feather length, with higher grade saddles having more feathers and longer feathers than lower grade saddles. This translates into more flies since you are able to get several flies from one long saddle feather. For example, in Whiting's grading system

Pro grade- will tie approximately 350 flies (about $42)
Bronze 500 flies (about $56)
Silver 800 flies ( about $75)
Gold 1,300 flies
Platinum 1,800 flies

Whiting saddles are also available in 1/2 saddles and 1/4 saddles and sell for a bit more than 1/2 or 1/4 the cost of a full saddle.

Whiting 100's are packages of Whiting saddle feathers that will tie approximately 100 flies of a single size and color, for example 100 flies in grizzly size 14. They run about $18 per pack.

Whiting Midge Saddles are specialty saddles designed to tie small dry flies. These saddles will tie flies ranging from 18 to 24, with some being stronger in size 18-20, some 20-22, and rarely, some 22-24 feathers. These saddles are sold at premium, and also are graded, with higher more expensive grades tying more flies. These are pleasure to use, and perhaps make more sense than a high grade cape if you tie a lot of small flies.

Pro $66
Bronze $88
Silver $116
These are also sold as 1/2 and 1/4 midge saddles at a slight additional premium over 1/2 or 1/4 the cost of a full saddle. Each of these feathers will tie a heck of a lot of flies, so a 1/2 or 1/4 saddle will last quite awhile.

Spade Hackle from a dry fly cape- Look for these feathers on the sides of dry fly capes and on the top of dry fly saddles. These feathers have long stiff barbs that make excellent tails for dry flies.

Here's a closer view of a spade hackle:
Click the image to open in full size.

Coq de leon saddle- useful for their long stiff barbs for dry fly tails.

Indian rooster cape- The quality of these capes varies a great deal. These capes are from "meat" or "egg" birds and are physically small. The feathers are short in overall length, but tend to have rather long barbs suitable for a size s 8-12 flies. Compared to the stems of genetic birds, they are stiff, often misshapen and difficult to wrap, and the short overall length of the feathers often requires 2 or more feathers for hackling a dry fly. Occasionally if you pick through a large enough bin of them, you might find one that has long stiff barbs for dry fly tails, or more rarely is suitable for tying a few larger size dry flies like large mayfly "Drakes" like the Hex, Brown Drake or Eastern Green Drake or for Variants that use over size hackle. They are very inexpensive, typically around $6 or so, and can be used for pincers on crayfish and crab patterns, wings on small streamers and bonefish patterns, and other miscellaneous uses. Because of the emphasis on hackling smaller sized flies in the breeding of genetic birds, it has become difficult to find stiff barbs long enough for tails on dries, and for hackling larger sized dry flies, or specific patterns like variants that require over sized hackle. A good Indian Rooster cape is an excellent and inexpensive option if you can find one, but you'll likely have to sort through a lot of crappy ones.

"Capon" rooster cape feather for bass and saltwater flies- often sold as a "Bass/ Saltwater Neck" - stiff stem, long wide feather with rounded tip. The whole feather is used for tails on bass flies, keys style tarpon flies and other use, the stiff stems do not lend themselves well to wrapping around the shank. The feathers can be tied "splayed with the dull concave sides of the feather facing out to give a pulsing action in the water when stripped like kicking frog legs, or tied more conventionally with dull sides together.

Here's pic of a few capon rooster necks:

Click the image to open in full size.

Here's an example of a "Keys style" Tarpon fly tied with a splayed tail using these feathers

Click the image to open in full size.

And here's an example of a simple bass bug frog pattern also tied with a splayed tail.
Click the image to open in full size.

Deceiver/Streamer saddle feather- long wide tapered feather. These feathers make excellent tails on saltwater flies like Deceivers, and the smaller feathers at the top of the saddle make great wings on freshwater featherwing streamers.

from left
Hareline Deceiver Saddle about $16
Whiting American Saddle about $20

Click the image to open in full size.

Woolly Bugger Saddle- These are long feathers with flexible stems and soft barbs suitable for tying buggers from size 6-12 Typically run $19-20 for a whole bugger saddle or $16 for a Whiting Bugger patch or $8 for a bugger patch from Ewing (a patch is just a portion of a saddle with feathers still on the skin). Strung 6-7" saddle hackles are also be sold by Hareline as "woolly bugger saddles" for $6-7. Although regular strung saddles (see below) can also be used for buggers they are often too short in over all length to palmer the length of a 3x or 4x long hook, and may have longer barbs that are more suitable for tying size 4 or 6 and larger sized flies. It is always a good idea to check to make sure the barbs are at least somewhere around the right size for the buggers you plan to tie, which is usually about 1 1/2 to 2x the hook gap.

From left (prices as of Nov, 2011):
Keough Woolly Bugger Pack, hackles size 10-6 buggers, about $9
Whiting Bugger Pack hackles size 12-4 buggers, about $20
Click the image to open in full size.

From a Whiting Bugger Pack, the feather below is about 6" long. Note the longer barbs at the base of the feather, tapering to smaller barbs near tip. When tied in by the base of the feather and wrapped backward, this will give a bugger with nicely tapered barbs with longer barbs near the front and smaller barbs at the rear of the fly:
Click the image to open in full size.

Flatwing Saddle- this long tapered feather with a flexible stem is used in tying large flatwing style streamers used primarily in the Northeast for striped bass.

Strung spey feather- used primarily in tying salmon and steelhead flies

Strung schlappen- also used primarily for salmon, steelhead and some saltwater flies

Strung cape (or "neck") feathers Generally these are not as useful for most patterns as strung saddles ( see below). These feathers tend to be shorter, averaging around 3 1/2" long with a useable length of just 2 1/2" after being stripped of fluff .hey also then d to have thisbcker stems than strung saddles. ong barbs on these feathers make them suitable for hackling relatively large size 4-2/0

Strung saddle hackle- a good inexpensive "utility feather" for tying different types of flies especially for freshwater bass and saltwater. A 1/4 oz pack of strung saddle feathers might go for around $3.50, and they come in a variety of colors (dyed over white or grizzly). They can be wrapped around the shank on large hooks, or used as tails on flies like deceivers, or both as in patterns like the Seducer. There's bound to be some crappy feathers included in a pack of strung saddle with twisted stems or missing tips. But there's usually a lot to work with. Because there can be a lot of fluff and webby fibers at the base of the feathers, look for 5-7" long strung saddles labelled "saltwater length" or "extra long" for a few cents more than the packs of 4-5" strung saddles feathers. The larger saddle feathers averaging around 6" with a useable length of 3 1/2". If you are just starting to tie a lot of saltwater baitfish imitations, like Lefty's Deceivers and Half and Halfs etc, this is a good inexpensive way to go especially if you want to experiment with a bunch of different colors. The long barbs on the strung saddles don't make them too useful for woolly buggers, since they tend to be more appropriate for size 2- 2/0 flies using standard proportions.

Here's a pic of a strung saddle:
Click the image to open in full size.

Here are a couple of Deceivers for comparison--
Top- a blue over white Deceiver on a 1/0 hook tied with saddle hackles from a Hareline Deceiver Saddle (similar to a Whiting American Saddle). Note the length of the feathers in the tail compared to the identical fly in the middle tied with less expensive strung saddle feathers. Although the strung saddles are a little shorter than ideal in terms of proportions on a hook this size-- at least in terms of looks, it will likely make little difference to the fish. On the bottom is a Deceiver tied in "schoolbus" colors on a size 1 (not 1/0) hook with a strung yellow dyed grizzle saddle tail, a collar of white bucktail belly, yellow sides and olive top, a throat of orange calftail and an over wing of black bucktail. Click the image to open in full size.

"Chinese" rooster cape- Because of concerns over bird flu these are no longer imported from china, but are domestically raised meat/egg birds. They are now often markets as "Chinese Sub" Rooster capes. Typically these are white or grizzly birds that have been dyed bright colors for tying salmon or wet flies and for streamer wings. In addition The feathers from these rooster capes are typically longer and have stiffer barbs than the more commonly found "Chinese" Hen Capes. These rooster capes typically go for $13-15

For link to another FAQ discussing different types of hen and game bird hackle :

Last edited by peregrines; 01-30-2012 at 04:55 PM.
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