This Week's View

by Joseph E. Daniel
July 31st, 2006

Birds of a Feather Beware:
The Risk of Avian Flu and Fly Fishing

During a recent online search for a hard-to-find hackle I came across a couple of references to avian flu and the dearth of certain fly tying materials. Having just watched the ABC docudrama "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America" a few nights before, I was, admittedly, still a little freaked out over the possibility of a deadly influenza epidemic sweeping the world and my curiosity - the same one that makes me watch "House" and "ER" - got the better of me. I refined my search to "bird flu" and "fly fishing" and soon found myself surfing multiple fly fishing chat rooms and bulletin boards with very active discussions on the potential dangers of tying flies with feathers from birds exposed to the avian flu virus.

Sick Bird

Whoa, hold on just a moment. What were these folks talking about? Could you actually contract avian influenza from, as one chat room was debating, licking your fingers to smooth down a hackle while tying? Is that possible? What could that mean to fly tying? Hell, what could that mean to fly fishing? I mean feathers are the very fabric of our sport. Are all the imported flies that anglers buy, literally by the millions, potential carriers of disease? Are we doomed?!

Trying to rein in my mounting hysteria I cast about for someone to call. Who deals with feathers every day on a commercial level? Fly suppliers of course, so go to the source. I placed a call to Umpqua, half expecting to hear the phone answered by a panicked secretary, background noises of evacuation drowning out her frantic pleas for help. Instead I got the calm, sleepy voice one might expect from a receptionist late in the day on a Friday afternoon. It took several interminable minutes before I was finally connected to Umpqua president Jeff Fryhover, seemingly the only one at the company willing to talk to the whacko on the other end of the line babbling uncontrollably about feathers being the harbingers of death and destruction.

Fryhover listened to my barely comprehensible query about avian flu, and thinly veiled challenge questioning just exactly what he was going to do about it, him being responsible for importing all those flies tied from disease-ridden capes of exotic fowl. And what was Umpqua going to do when the virus mutated and the pandemic hit? Would all their flies then be tied with synthetic materials? And just how were they able to import feathers from Asia and China anyway? My questions erupted from one brilliant (or so I thought) premise to another. When I finally ran out of breath, Fryhover seized the chance to answer by... sighing.

Sighing! No defensive rhetoric or spin, but rather an almost bored resignation. It was like he'd heard it all before so many times, and my questions - which I thought were leading up to my writing the scoop of a lifetime - were so "yesterday." He then went on to describe just how Umpqua actually did business, how the concept of dealing with an alleged "infected" material wasn't exactly new to them (Remember mad cow and chronic wasting disease? Well think calf's tail, and deer and elk hair.), and how maybe, beyond being major-league misinformed, I was perhaps overreacting just a little.


I Stand Corrected

Several days and many hours of research later (research I clearly should have done before talking with Fryhover at Umpqua) several truths emerged: 1) Fryhover was right on both counts. I really hadn't had a clue about avian flu or the feather import business, and this is clearly not a case where ignorance is bliss. 2) Just about everyone else out there is as uninformed as me. 3) Most everything we "know" about bird flu beyond its current affect on commercial chicken flocks is still highly speculative. 4) For whatever reason, both the government and the national media's perpetuation of the possibility of the avian flu virus mutating to the point where it is easily transmitted between humans, is at best probably an overstated warning, at worst a potentially destructive deception. 5) The real danger of avian flu and its potential impact on the fly fishing industry right now is over-reaction.

So what DO we know?

First off, this is not a new development. Avian flu is not uncommon. It's been identified in commercial fowl for decades, and there have been numerous strains of the disease. It is thought that the Spanish Flu of 1918 "jumped" from a form of bird flu and ended up killing tens of millions of people around the world, including more than 500,000 in the U.S. The specific avian flu that currently has everyone so concerned, and which was the subject of the ABC movie, is an influenza A virus subtype known more commonly as H5N1. Highly contagious and deadly in birds, there have been several outbreaks of the disease in the past 15 years. It re-surfaced in Asia in 2003 and has now been reported in over 50 countries there and in Africa, Europe, and the Near East, but not, I repeat NOT, anywhere in North or South America.

The H5N1 virus does not easily infect people although more than 200 possible human cases have been reported. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, "Most of these cases have occurred from direct or close contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces; however a few cases of human-to-human spread of H5N1 virus have occurred. So far, spread of H5N1 virus from person to person has been rare and has not continued beyond one person. Nonetheless, because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that H5N1 virus could one day be able to infect humans and spread easily from one person to another. Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population and infection may follow an unusually aggressive clinical course, with rapid deterioration and high fatality. Primary viral pneumonia and multi-organ failure have been common among people who have become ill. If the H5N1 virus were to gain the capacity to spread easily from person to person, an influenza pandemic (worldwide outbreak of disease) could occur."

The horror of a possible pandemic notwithstanding, as it currently relates to fly fishing, H5N1 has had anywhere from little to significant impact on the industry, depending on who you talk to.

There is currently a ban on the importation of birds and bird products from H5N1-affected countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. The regulation states that "no person may import or attempt to import any birds (Class Aves), whether dead or alive, or any products derived from birds (including hatching eggs), from the specified countries. This prohibition does not apply to any person who imports or attempts to import products derived from birds if, as determined by federal officials, such products have been properly processed to render them noninfectious so that they pose no risk of transmitting or carrying H5N1 and which comply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements." Additional information about the import ban is available at

The misconception amongst many anglers and fly tyers is that most of the feathers used to tie flies are imported into the United States from suppliers operating in suspected H5Nl-affected counties. In reality, with the exception of a few exotic capes from India and China, almost all of the feathers used in commercial fly tying and/or sold to home tyers are actually grown on U.S. bird farms and are exported to countries in Asia, Africa, and South and Central America where fly manufacturing occurs. The immediate problem facing domestic feather producers is getting clearance to ship their products to these countries, not from them.

"You have no idea what we go through, said Tom Whiting, owner of Colorado-based Whiting Farms, the world's largest fly-tying feather producer and exporter (with clients in 36 countries). "Exporting to some countries is becoming tortuous. A few years ago Sri Lanka banned any animal product coming from the U.S. due to mad cow disease. Today we sill have to provide an export certificate to certify that our feathers are free of foot-and-mouth, swine feaver, rinderpest and contagious bovine pleuropheumonia, diseases that have never ever been in poultry. How ridiculous is that?! I spend hours just trying to find out what a country wants and often it's a game of just appearing as official as possible."

As for American companies which do import capes and strung feathers from overseas sources, like Hareline Dubbin and Wapsi, "Issues related to avian flu have certainly caused some time delays in receiving product, but if you have the proper processing in place, like heat-curing, washing in detergent, etc. and you can convince the USDA that you've done everything necessary to insure that your product is not infected, then there really isn't any problem importing whatever you need," explains Marcos Vergara of Hare-line Dubbin. "It's just that there are no official rules or guidelines. You have to be prepared enough to satisfy the government. The onus is on you. So the small-time importer who's flown under the radar for so long, and there are a lot of those guys, is suddenly finding himself under new scrutiny by customs and is now unable to import anything."

Consequently prices on certain imported feathers have gone up as supplies "shrink," under the artificial auspices of avian flu restrictions.

According to Vergara, "Had that smaller importer been operating correctly all along so that he was familiar with how to have his product treated and properly documented he wouldn't have any trouble getting whatever feathers he needed. Right now there is nothing that we can't get. That might change in the future but the reality is that the bird flu doesn't really impact us very much."

Vergara and others do admit to stockpiling certain feathers should government restrictions become more onerous or evolve into an all out embargo.

And therein lays the real potential danger to the fly fishing industry short of an actual pandemic - over-reaction by the government.

The popular theory of wild birds being the likely vectors of bird flu in America is being discounted by some experts for lack of any data documenting actual transmission. Wild birds do get avian flu. An outbreak in 2005 in China reportedly killed 6,200 wild geese, cormorants, gulls and ducks, and spread through migratory waterfowl across Asia and Europe. Fears of just such an outbreak bringing the disease to America through northern flyways in Alaska and threatening the country's $43 billion a year poultry industry have prompted a $29 million federal program to test wild birds in all 50 states.

But examples of commercial flocks being contaminated by wild birds don't seem to exist. "It just hasn't happened," claims Whiting. "What is more convincing is that the spread of avian flu from one commercial chicken flock to another is actually more likely the result of a human vector." Many experts now believe that if H5N1 ever enters the U.S it will likely be through Vancouver, BC due to its large Asian community engaged in importing birds and bird products direct from the Far East.

However H5N1 gets to America - if it gets to America - the impact on the feather market is entirely dependant on how aggressive containment procedures become.

"The normal practice in shutting down an avian flu epidemic is to draw a circle well outside the contaminated area and work inward destroying all birds, the majority of which will probably be healthy," explains Whiting. "My biggest fear is that if an outbreak occurs at a commercial chicken facility anywhere near us, or even one wild bird in the area is found to be infected, then the USDA will come down hard on everything in the state. The media has perpetuated exaggerations of avian flu to the point where it has the general public scared to death. This has become a political issue, and with all the mismanagement of recent disasters like Hurricane Katrina, there's no way they're going to be anything but aggressive with bird flu."

Nonetheless, Whiting is aggressive in his precautionary tactics, not allowing any visitors to any of his facilities, utilizing state-of-the-art measures to keep his flock from being exposed to wild birds, and maintaining redundant breeding populations of his most valuable lines at all three of his production farms, which are themselves miles apart.

As for the hotly debated danger of fly tyers actually contracting bird flu from infected feathers? "Impossible," states Whiting. "H5N1 remains viable for only a few hours outside of a live host. With all of the quarantine and processing these feathers go through, there's not a chance of any live influenza even if they did come from an infected bird."

The biggest users of feathers in the United States are not fly tyers; we're way down on the list. Most of the premium and exotic feathers sold in America go to showgirls in Las Vegas (seriously!), followed by everything from bedding manufacturers to craft shops. If avian flu arrives in our country, or if even just the threat of it becomes too great for the public comfort, the stage shows at Caesars Palace may become quite a bit more revealing but certainly less spectacular, you won't be getting as good of a night's sleep and making an Indian headdress out of died turkey quills will be impossible. But the real loss will be the decades of careful genetic breeding that has produced the perfect feather for the perfect fly. If avian flu threatens the poultry industry in America this isn't the loss of a few KFC stores we're talking about. This is the raw material of fly fishing that is at stake. Honestly, if I never ate another piece of chicken in my life I'd survive, but a world without grizzly hackle, or peacock herl, or golden pheasant tippets, or goose biot, or cul de canard? Perish the thought! ~ Joseph E. Daniel

Credit: We thank Fly Fishing Trade magazine for permission to reprint this article here for our readers.

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