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peregrines 11-05-2011 01:57 PM

Hen and Gamebird hackle
This FAQ is under construction

In a previous FAQ we discussed rooster hackle:

As discussed in the FAQ on rooster hackle, hen and gamebird hackle is unsuited for hackling dry flies, (although often used as wings on dries).

This FAQ will discuss various types of hen and gamebird feathers -- a detailed discussion follows, but for a quick overview scroll down for a table listing of different types of hen and game bird feathers

Here are some hen feathers. From left genetic hen cape, genetic hen saddle, Brahma hen cape, Brahma hen saddle, Indian hen back, "Chinese" hen cape

Like roosters, a hen cape will have a feathers with a greater range of sizes (barb length), and smaller sized feathers (shorter barbs) than a hen saddle from the same bird. Also like the rooster feathers used in fly tying, hen feathers from “genetic” birds bred specifically for their fly tying properties like Whiting will have thin flexible stems making them easy to wrap, have bigger pelts, more feathers, feathers that are longer in total length than the feathers from meat or egg hens. Unlike roosters, hen feathers from both genetic and meat/egg birds is sold on the skin-- there are no strung hen feathers.

And also like roosters, individual capes and saddles can and do vary in the size of their feathers, barb length, coloration and total feather count and condition, so it is always a good idea to check out individual capes and saddles before you buy when possible, or if you're buying from a distance, it is wise to purchase from a shop that specializes in fly fishing with knowlegable staff you can talk to over an 800 number or through email to have them select stuff for whatever you're tying.

Genetic Hen Cape- these feathers have short soft barbs used for hackling small wet flies including soft hackles. Can also be used for paired upright wings on dry flies. If you use them for wet fly hackle, save the tips that you trim off for your dry flies. A Bronze grade hen cape from Whiting typically has feathers with a wide range of barb lengths suitable for hackling hooks from size 4 down to size 18 or 20 and sells for around $18-21. These feathers are a pleasure to use with very thin flexible stems, short barbs for small flies, but most are solid colors (natural or dyed over white) or dyed over grizzly as opposed to the ”mottled” feathers fond on Indian hens or distinctly marked Brahma hens.

Genetic Hen Saddle- hen saddle feathers are generally longer in both overall length and barb length than hen cape feathers. Because of these they tend to be less useful, and are too short in overall length for tying stuff like woolly buggers. As a result they are less expensive than hen capes. Useful for wings on Matuka style streamers, hackle collars on wet flies size 12 and larger.
Whiting's Hebert Miner Hen saddles have feathers suitable for hackling size 6-12 hooks and go for $9

Here's an example of a wet fly called "flymph" tied on a size 10 hook using a genetic hen saddle feather:

Genetic Hen Sets- These are available from some mostly smaller growers and include both a genetic hen cape and hen saddle

Here's a pic of some hen sets

from left
Conranch hen typically hackling size 16 from the smallest feathers in cape to size 2 in the saddle hooks for $35
Conranch JV Hen - will typically hackle sizes 20-4 for $25
Collins hen cape and saddle 18-6 for $18

Brahma Hen Cape- Whiting Brahma hen capes are gray with heavy mottling. Whiting dyes them in many colors. For a mottled brown feather you’d want one dyed (from light to dark) in tan, brown, or “coachman” depending on what shade you’re looking for. Feathers from a Brahma cape typically tie flies in sizes 2-18. They run about 12.00 Their distinctive pattern makes an attractive collar on wet flies.

Brahma Hen Saddle- larger feathers both in overall length and barb length, their mottled feathers make excellent wings on caddis pupa patterns. A Whiting Brahma Hen Saddle with chickabou (a short marabou like feather) runs around $12 and hackles flies on size 2 down to size 8 or 10 hooks.

Insert pic of Brahma Hen Saddle with Chickabou and a Tabou Caddis a cadddis emerger pattern tied with just the chickabou and saddle feather here:

Indian Hen Cape- can be hard to find now compared to Indian Saddles, they typically go for $7 They typically come in a range of colors including mottled browns, gingers, duns, white and black.

Indian Hen Back (saddle) - these are from meat or egg birds and are less expensive than Indian hen necks. Their mottled feathers in earth tones come in handy for tails and throats on wet flies an nymphs. These Indian hen saddles are usually sold as "hen backs" for around $4-5. The feathers on a typical hen back will have barbs suitable for hackling flies size 2-12 when wrapped around the shank. The feathers with shorter barbs size 12 or so, are found at the top of the hen back. feathers with longer barbs are found on the bottom of the hen back. But even though these feathers have long barbs you can of course cut individual or groups of barbs from the feathers to use as tails or throats on wet flies and nymphs of any size hook because you an adjust for length before tying them in. Although these feathers have relatively long barbs, these feathers are too short in total length for palmering flies like woolly buggers, and range from 1/2- 1" long on a typical Indian hen back.

There are also a few tricks you can use to form wet fly hackle collars and legs for nymphs from these feathers on smaller hooks.

Insert defeo method of v- notching saddle feather:

Insert example of "spinning" loose barbs:

"Chinese" Hen Neck-- Because of concerns over bird flu, most of these necks are now actually from domestic birds. These are also from meat or egg birds. These capes come in a variety of brightly dyed colors (dyed over white) and are used primarily for tying salmon and steelhead flies. Available dyed colors include many that are substitutes for many traditional exotic feathers from birds now on endangered species lists. This red feather for instance can be used as a substitute for traditional Atlantic Salmon patterns calling for "Indian Crow". They can also be used for tying brightly colored classic trout wet fly patterns.
*****Insert examples of flies, typical barb size range of feathers and typical prices of materials ******

Different Hen and Game Feathers
Type of feather Typically hackles hook sizes in this range, but inspect where possible Approximate price as of 11/11/2011 Uses
Imported (not genetically bred for fly tying). These capes and saddles are significantly less expensive than "genetic" hens bred specifically for fly tying  
Chinese Cape  
Chinese Cape 16-6 $6.50 Salmon flies and brightly colored wets, available in a wide variety of brightly dyed colors
Chinese Saddle same as above 
Indian Hen Cape  
Indian Hen Saddle (from Hareline and others), also called a "Hen Back" 12-2 $4.50 Nymph legs, collars on large wets. A mottled brown hen saddle is a good inexpensive choice for a variety of tying needs.
Hareline American Speckled Hen Saddle 8-1/0 same as above
Wapsi Hen Neck (cape) $5.00
Wapsi Imported Soft Hackle Saddle 12-2 $8.50
Genetic Hens found in fly shops  
Whiting Hen Cape (with red Whiting label) Bronze Grade 18-12 Bronze $24.00 Nymphs and collars on wets., although these tend to have narrow pointed tips, they can also be used for wings on dries – see also Whiting “Winger” hen cape with more rounded feather tips
Whiting Hen Saddle (with red Whiting label) 18-12 $12.00 Nymphs and collars on wets
Whiting Hebert Miner Hen Cape ( with green Whiting label) 16-10 $20.00 Available in a wide variety of natural colors including various shades of dun, the smallest feathers on Hebert Miner hens tend to be a bit larger than the smallest feathers on Whiting hens. (The "Whiting" and "Whiting Hebert Miner" hens come from different genetic lines of chickens.)
Whiting Hebert Miner Hen Saddle 12-6 or 10-6 $9.00 For nymphs and collars on larger sized wets and collars on some streamers and wings on small Matuka style streamers
The following Whiting hen products are more of a specialty item  
Whiting Coq de Leon Hen Cape 14-2 $22.00 Wide soft webby feathers with mottled barbs. Legs on nymphs and collars on wet flies
Whiting Coq de Leon Hen Saddle $11.00  
Whiting Brahma Hen Cape 18-2 $12.00 Beautiful mottled feathers available in a wide variety of dyed colors, a great partridge substitute for soft hackles and other wet flies
Whiting Brahma Saddle with Chickaboo 10-2 $12.00 Available in a wide variety of dyed over mottled gray and includes wispy feathers called "Chickaboo" like marabou but much shorter
Whiting Coq de Leon Cape 14-2 $22.00
Whiting “winger” cape Specialty hen cape usually in short supply. Rounded tips on feathers make them perfect for wings on traditional hen wing dry flies
Metz Hen Cape $25.00  
Metz Hen Saddle $17.00
Products from small independent breeders that deal direct with consumer
Conranch JV Hen (includes cape and saddle) 20-4 $32.00 Excellent choice for a range of sizes of soft hackles and wets, stems wrap easily, good partridge substitute
Conranch Mature Hen (includes cape and saddle) 16-2 $35.00
Collins Hen Set includes cape and saddle 16 or 18-4 cape and 12-4 saddle $17.00
Game Birds    
Starling Skin Excellent for collars on small soft hackles and wets
Partridge (loose feather pack) 12-2 $2.50 Nymph legs and tails, largest soft hackle, wets and flymphs
Partridge Skin $30.00 Traditional choice for wets and soft hackles
Chukar ( aka French Partridge) skin
Grouse (loose feather pack) 12-2 $2.50
Grouse Skin $ 25.00
Quail Skin

Please feel free to add your experiences with these or other hen hackle products-- send me a PM with the info and I'll update the above table reflect your input.

mwelton83 12-14-2013 07:03 PM

Re: Hen and Gamebird hackle
I am just starting out tying flies for smallies here in the East. I am a little confused on hen saddles and capes. In the top of this article you say hen saddles have the longest barbs and are not recommended for Wolly Buggers. Every where else I look they say the opposite. Saddles are perfect for tying those. Please clarify if you can. Thanks

ctshooter 12-14-2013 07:27 PM

Re: Hen and Gamebird hackle
Is there a way to identify feathers from the different parts of the birds?

I farm, have chickens, and have been wondering about using the molt and drop feathers for flies. I don't want to kill the birds just for feathers as they are in their prime for laying, and as strange as it sounds, my egg money pays for my hobbies.

Ard Stetts 12-14-2013 07:33 PM

Re: Hen and Gamebird hackle
I have seen better charts but this is a start............

bigjim5589 12-14-2013 07:41 PM

Re: Hen and Gamebird hackle
mwelton83, welcome to the site! Not sure about Mark's status, but don't think he's been around for awhile so you may not get a reply from him.

To answer your question, it will depend on the size of the fly & the hackle. Some hen hackle, both cape & saddle is long enough for some hook sizes for buggers. Generally, those that work well are harder to find, but if you find hen hackle that has fiber length that fits your hook sizing & enough total length for tying buggers then sure, use it. Most use rooster hackle for palmering buggers since it's longer and the fiber lengths are shorter than hen. The shorter fibers fit proportions better on smaller size hooks, like smaller than a size 8 which is what is harder to find with hen hackle. Also, most folks prefer a hackle length that will wrap the whole body, which again is not usual with most hen hackle.

There are fly patterns that are similar to Woolly Buggers, and hen hackle works quite well. The Red Setter & Fuzzy Wuzzy, both New Zealand trout patterns work quite well using hen hackle, as the hackle is wrapped as collars spaced along the length of the body instead of palmered like on the Buggers.

Both are actually pretty good Smallmouth flies too!

Hope this answers your question! :D

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