As I indicated last week, Ewing has the best
saddles for tying flies. That is, if you want
quality, brand name saddles for tying wooly
buggers. Their woolly bugger and super bugger
saddle patches are perfect for buggers. However,
they aren't so great for tying small dry flies.
If dry flies are your bag, you have a lot of possibilities.
This is also the area where Dumb and Dumber start
arguing about who has the best hackle. One guy will
say Whiting has the best hackle for sure; then the
other guy will say the first guy is wrong because
Keough has the best hackle. Before long, somebody
else will mention Collins or Conranch or Metz/Umpqua.
Then the name calling usually begins. The fact is
they are all wrong and they are all right; but how
can that be?
Which do you want; long saddles that will tie the
smallest flies, or a cape that will do the same? For
the most part, a neck (cape) would serve most tiers
better than a saddle because a neck offers a far greater
variety of hackle sizes than a saddle, which usually
offers only two or three sizes. However, commercial
tiers might find a saddle more suitable to their needs
due the volume of flies they tie in one or two sizes.
To really discuss hackle, we need to break the categories
into capes and saddles, and that is where Dumb and Dumber
usually make their first mistakes. Both capes and saddles
offer hackle feathers, but they are definitely not the same;
so how can you argue about something that hasn't been defined
into categories that are comparable?
When you look at saddles, Whiting has long thin feathers
capable of tying some of the smallest flies a saddle
feather can tie. That is probably their strongest point.
Their feathers twist sometimes, but not as much as some
others do. However, they lack depth of color and variety
of color compared to several other breeders. That is one
reason they added Hebert to their line. Hebert has better
colors and more color depth than the original Whiting line,
but lacks in saddle feathers that will tie the smallest
of flies. If you're dedicated to saddle feathers and hook
sizes 18 or smaller are your game; Whiting may be the
only supplier who can consistently fill your order.
As a retailer, I can tell you from experience that more
trout flies are sold in sizes 14 to 18 than the smaller
sizes. Those numbers vary somewhat with the market,
but the average numbers fall into those sizes. Whiting
has those sizes, but they are not alone in that market.
As I write this, I have a #3 Conranch saddle next to
me that has a few dozen 12 to 14 inch feathers that
will tie flies in sizes 14, 16 and 18. Right next
to it I have a #2 Keough saddle with feathers in the
8 to 12 inch range that will tie flies in the size 10
to 14 range. Next to it I have a Collins saddle (was
included with a #2 neck) that has 6 to 8 inch feathers
that are predominantly size 8, 10 and 12. To the right
of the Collins I have a Whiting #3 saddle (purchased the
year before they went to color grades) with two 12-inch
feathers that will tie size 18 flies, and other feathers
ranging from 8 to 10 inches in length that will tie sizes
12 through 16. The Metz #2 saddle to the far right doesn't
have a feather on it that will tie anything smaller than
a size 12, and not one feather is longer than 9 inches.
However, the Metz saddle has longer and better quality
dry fly hackle than the Spencer saddle just to its left.
Comparing barbule density and stiffness, the Conranch
saddle has the edge with Whiting close behind. The
others don't compare on these saddles I'm looking at.
However, if the Keough didn't have so much web and had
stiffer barbules, it would be comparable to a better
degree than it is.
As far as depth of color and sheen go, the top three
in my possession are Conranch, Keough and Collins
saddles. Feathers with obviously twisted shafts will
surprise a few people. The Whiting saddle has the most
feathers (eleven) with the dull side turned outward
about half the way down the feather, followed by the
Keough. The Spencer has no feathers twisted around
like that, but it also has the shortest feathers of
the bunch. The Conranch saddle has one feather like
Does that comparison prove anything? It proves I have
a lot of hackle from a variety of suppliers, but not
a lot more. It might point out some tendencies between
the different brands, but one or two saddles or capes
don't qualify as a good test. However, if we let Dumb
and Dumber go at it again, Dumb would claim Spencer
has the best saddle because it doesn't have any
twisted feathers. Then Dumber would argue that
Whiting is the best because that is all he ever
uses and all he will ever use, and besides, it will
tie the smallest flies. I'm sure someone else would
claim another brand was the best because it costs less.
What is the real test? How well they tie what you
want to tie is the best test I know. If you're tying
a size 14 elk hair caddis, it makes sense to choose
a saddle with a lot of long, web-free feathers in the
size 14 range, with good color and minimal twist.
After you add all that up, factor in price too.
Before anyone starts claiming I proved one brand
is superior to another, keep in mind I just compared
a few single saddles to other single saddles. I'm
also convinced each saddle has its virtues and could
be the best saddle for the tier at that time. However,
I do believe certain saddles will be more cost efficient
and easier to use than others, so they have a greater
value to me than others.
I could make the exact same comparisons with capes,
and I have capes from all those companies; but I won't.
However, after comparing about 20 capes, I find Conranch
consistently has the largest "sweet spot" of long size
14 through 20 feathers while Whiting seems to lean to
slightly smaller feathers. The others lean to larger
feathers in the area of the cape where the most feathers
are found. In the super-small range, Conranch has longer
and more feathers in the size 26 or smaller range than
the other capes with Whiting very close behind. Most
of the capes don't have any usable feathers smaller
than 28 and a few don't have anything usable smaller
than size 22. Again, Conranch, Collins and Keough
have the nicest colors with the deepest hues.
Here is where one brand stands out from the rest. The
idea is called personalization. Of all these companies,
there are only two brands that allow me (the average
consumer) to call and request a color and shade of cape
or saddle in exactly the size I want and need. I know
the owner of one of those companies ties flies so he
can understand what I'm asking for, and help me select
the perfect cape or saddle for my particular needs.
I won't say his hackles are the absolute best because
they may not be the best for your needs. However,
for dry fly tying, I haven't been disappointed yet,
and I can get some rare color phases that I haven't
found in other capes from other companies.
Collins and Conranch deal directly with the consumer.
Denny Conrad at Conranch is a fly tier with a lot of
experience. Both companies will try to work with you
to find the right hackle for your needs, but having
bought and tied with hackle from both, I believe I
have a better chance to fill my exact needs by
shopping at Conranch. If I want an odd shade or an
uncommon color, I can call Denny and request it;
and if he doesn't have it then, he will look for
it and call me when he gets it. Sometimes it's
that kind of personal service that makes the real
Does that mean I think Conranch or Collins have the
best hackle? No! Let's face it, it's really dumb
to think that one hackle producer could possible
have the best hackle for all occasions. It's even
dumber to believe everyone else should buy the
hackle I use because I think it is the best. The
best hackle for my needs is the one that provides
the best value to me. That value might be based
on price, selection, service and/or the type and
size of flies I want to tie. That value could
easily be a combination of hackle quality, more
hackle in the right size for my needs, or having
the exact shade I need. Personal service could
be the factor that swings me one direction or
another. They are all factors that play in our
choices, unless we are either Dumb, or Dumber.
Who has the best hackle? They all do; as long as
their hackle is what we need and best serves those
needs. For the record, I think Denny Conrad has gone
the extra mile more than once to find exactly what I
want, and that kind of service is worthy of my business.
However, he can't provide everything for everyone, and
that is precisely my point. If I needed a lot of
saddle hackles for size 4 wooly buggers, I'd be on
the phone to Ewing Feather Bird Company in a moment,
and I wouldn't feel I had forsaken any friends in
the process. The only guys who don't know the value
of variety and versatility are Dumb and Dumber.
I used this one idea to point out how we let our
personal bias get in the way of good communication,
and to point out one specific problem I have seen
repeated many times on the bulletin board. Who
has the best hackle? The guy who can supply the
right color and size you want, in the quantity you
want, when you want it, and at the price you are
willing to pay. That might be Whiting, it might
be Conranch or it might be Keough. The best hackle
is the hackle that suits your needs, period.
No single company can successfully supply all the
hackle we might ever need; but don't try to tell
Dumb or Dumber that. Those guys will argue their
favorite hackle, cars, pontoons and anything else
you mention until they turn blue. What they lack
in experience, they make up for in personal bias.
Unfortunately, the real loser is the poor guy who
asked the open question and was subjected to a
mountain of dumb answers before anybody was willing
to refine the question enough to reveal the correct
need, and give the correct answer.
Hackle is just one area where Dumb and Dumber are
very vocal. Do I really need to visit the other areas?