Fly Fishing 101, Part 35
What is Hackle?
By Liz Conrad, co-owner Conranch Hackle
The following is a speech Liz Conrad gave at the Davenport Iowa
Hawkeye Fly Fishers 28th Annual event on February 15, 2002. There
is a great deal of great information about hackle for anyone tying
or buying flies!
Good evening Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you Mr. Kliess for the
warm welcome. It is nice to be back in Iowa. I am the co-owner
of Conranch located in Elk Washington. My partner is my best
friend and father Dennis Conrad. My Dad and I have producing
premium genetic dry fly hackle since 1997. Ours is an old flock
that has consistently produced top quality hackle. Many
well-recognized breeders have contributed to the bloodlines
of our flock. We keep records on each bird produced, having 16
separate genetic families and several sub families, therefore
we are able to produce better quality feathers each year. It
can be a lot of work, but something we both truly enjoy.
The origins of fly tying date to the 1st and 2nd century BC in
Macedonia, where brown trout anglers attached feathers to their
hooks to imitate the insect life it the streams. Through the
years fishing with an artificial fly has evolved from a practical
way to catch fish to a highly refined sport, but the method of
winding materials onto a hook remains the same.
The endless array of feathers, fur and man made materials can
be intimidating to the fly tier. You can find feathers on many
birds like the barnyard chicken, duck, quail, pheasant, show
birds and many more. My intent here this evening is to help
you understand the hackle feather.
So what is hackle? According to the Webster dictionary, hackle
is a noun, meaning:
The word hackle, as we have come to know it refers to the neck
feathers of a bird. Because the feather or hackles stands straight
out from the stem when wrapped, we can see the connection to the
hairs standing erect on a dog's back. Birds, especially the fighting
cock, hackle their feathers to display a readiness to fight.
1. One of the long slender, often glossy feathers on the back
of the neck of a bird, esp. male domestic fowl.
2. Hackles - the erectile hairs at the back of the neck, esp, of a dog.
3. A tuff of feathers on an artificial fly.
4. To get ones Hackles up - to be ready to fight.
5. The terms hackled, hackling and hackles, refers to the trimming
of a fly with a hackle.
Let's begin by understanding the typical parts of a feather.
The center is referred to as a quill, shaft, stem or ratis, all
these terms meaning one in the same. For simplicity, lets refer
to it as the stem. The stem serves different purposes to the bird.
In flight it's strength or weakness is necessitated by it's physical
placement on the bird, such as primaries on the wing, which are
attached to the bone. The bird can control certain muscles in its
wing to help in flight, such as gliding, turning and maintaining
A feature of the stem that is important to the fly tier is its shape.
The ideal shape for a stem would be oval. (Which is what we have
developed in our flock) This shape is least likely to twist when
wrapping on a hook or when tied as a parachute. Other stems may
be round, square or even flat. They will wrap and twist
differently when tying to a hook. The stems on a saddle are finer
than the stems of a cape. This allows the tier to utilize the
length of the saddle feathers to the max. You will be able to
wrap more wraps around a hook with less thickness from the stem.
Branching off the stems are the barbs. These come in several
different shapes and colors. Along the edge of the barb are
numerous barbicels, we refer to them as Velcro hooks. You have
seen birds knitting their split feathers together by working
its beak into the feather to repair it.
All feathers have these barbicels, except genetically grown hackle
birds. They lack the Velcro hooks, without the barbicels, which
also hold water; the feather will float hence the term dry fly
quality. Therefore, the lack of Velcro hooks allows a feather
when wrapped to a hook, to stand straight out from the stem.
The only feathers on a dry fly bird that do not have the Velcro
hooks are found mostly in the neck and saddle feathers. By knowing
this we can assume and rightly so that there are far more "wet"
quality feathers on a bird than dry fly quality feathers.
To review: the three basic parts of a feather, on most birds are
the stem, the barbs and barbicles. The exception is in the
genetically grown bird.
As I mentioned before, the dry fly quality feathers are found in
the neck and saddle areas of a bird. The capes and saddles are
graded in several ways. I have found that most people we talk to,
really do not understand what the difference in grades mean to
them. At Conranch Hackles we grade the old fashioned way.
To determine the grade, we consider the hackle count, or number
of feathers on a cape or saddle that have the dry fly quality.
One can turn the skin over and look at the little bumps where
the feathers are imbedded in the skin. They form groups or tracks.
The closer the bumps the higher the number of feathers in that
area of the skin. Keep in mind that different areas on a bird
will have tighter grouped feathers than other areas. The highest
number of dry fly quality hackle would be found on a Grade #1,
a few less on a grade #2 and a bit fewer on a Grade #3. Length
is also considered, especially on the saddles. A longer grouping
of hackle, usually 12 inches or longer, would be found on a #1
and going shorter on a #2 and #3 grades. Another important feature
is the hackles barb density, how many barbs per inch along the stem.
As a general rule, 40 per inch are very poor, 60 per inch are good,
80 per inch are excellent and 100 per inch are premium. The barbs
should be very stiff. You can test for stiffness by bending the
skin and blowing across the feathers to see how rapidly they vibrate
and return to a standstill. Another good way to test is to take a
single feather and bend it in half so the barbs stand out, then
touch them to your lip. Your lip is very sensitive and you can feel
how prickly the barbs feel. A stiffer barb is preferred so it will
hackle off the stem when wrapped and allow the fly to set on top of
the surface film of the water and appear to be floating.
To review, the difference in grade reflects how many dry fly hackles
there are, how long they are and how stiff the barbs are. The good
dry fly quality should be pretty much the same in all grades.
(Before good quality dries were being produced, one could find
a lot of web in grade #3. Good quality dries should not have
web any more than #1).
On a single hackle, the width of the barbs is pretty much the
same size along the length of the hackle. The width of each
feather differs from cape to saddle. The tip may appear to be
very tapered, but should be only slightly. The different widths
are what we are looking for when tying a particular size hook.
On our capes, we find that a grade #1 will provide hackles that
tie down to size 30 (not all but most) and almost all the others
will tie lots of 24's. Saddles normally come only in two or three
sizes per saddle, ex: 8, 10, 12 or 10, 12, 14. Sometimes you will find
14 and 16. Keep in mind this is what we breed for and other breeders
may do differently. These are the sizes the old pattern books call
for so we stick to them.
(Show and tell: Full Cree skin, #1 & #3 cape and saddles plus single
large dry hackle.)
Perhaps many of you are not aware that all the feathers on an
adult bird can be used for tying flies. Here is the cape or neck
area that we have been discussing. The large feathers going from
the humerous across the shoulder, under the cape are called spade
hackle. These feathers are most often used for tails. Then you have
the saddle hackle below the spade feathers. Under the saddle about
¾ to 1 inch wide, is an area of long wide webby feathers known as
schlappen, these feathers are great wet fly materials used on
streamers etc. (Mention most other saddles have had this group
of feathers trimmed off. We at Conranch do not trim them but
leave as a bonus for the tier.) Below the schlappen is of course
the tail and these feathers can be used in many applications of tying.
The wing feathers are commonly used for wings on wet or dry flies.
The soft downy feathers located on the belly area, known by many names
but known as 'marabou' by most tiers and make great wet flies.
The breast feathers are located under the collarbone and down
to the breastbone. Keep in mind that all of these feathers,
except the cape and saddle, do not have dry fly quality.
These feathers have the Velcro hooks, which hold water,
allowing the fly to sink into the water.
There are some feathers that just are not available on an adult
bird. Many of the old pattern books call for a small hen and
small rooster feathers. The smaller size feather and the rounded
tips of the hen feathers make them ideal for wings and tailings
on either wets or dries. These feathers have not been available
to the tier. To assist you the tier, Conranch Hackles is the first
in the industry to provide you with these feathers from our genetic
stock. We have developed a juvenile hen in all of the standard
colors of hens. We also now provide the JV Rooster, which in both
saddle and cape is dry fly quality. There are some sheathings and
a few pins, not perfect but of a very high quality and in the
same colors as out normal dry stock. These are left un-trimmed
so as to give the tier a greater selection of tying material
not normally obtainable.
An area I feel is important is how to care for your hackle and
keep bugs out. There are many different methods and some are
different from what we do. First you should never assume that
a newly acquired skin is free of bugs. Better to treat all new
skins before they may contaminate your other supplies. Being
critter free does not guarantee that they will stay that way.
We believe that a preventative program is the best solution.
We strongly recommend that all fly tying material are put in
a zip lock bags and placed in a zero degree freezer for at
least one week, then remove, allow out for one more week then
re-freeze for another week. Do this twice a year. After this
freezing treatment you can use the zip lock bags to store them
in and add a mothball to each bag. Be sure to not leave feathers
in extremely warm areas or in direct sunlight. The feathers can
dry out and become brittle, being of little or no use to you.
What do you do if you spill something on a skin? Is it ruined?
Do not despair, just wash the skin! When they are first processed
they are washed and dried. Here is how we do it. Fill both kitchen
sinks about half full of hot water, as hot as your hands can handle,
adding a bit of dish soap (I prefer Dawn because it aids in the
removal of greasy fat) to one and about ¾ cup of white vinegar
to the other. Immerse the skins into the soapy water, allowing
to soak all feathers completely. Then gently wash by hand or
use an old toothbrush, to remove any foreign materials. Once
cleaned, gently squeeze the excess water out and place into
the vinegar rinse. Allow the skin to soak for about 10 minutes
or so. Then dip it several times to rinse away the soap. Again
gently squeeze out excess water. The best way to dry the skin
is to pin it to a piece of cardboard. We have found the cardboard
to provide a good drying back, as it will absorb the water and
any excess oils from the skin. Position the skin, do not stretch
to it's normal size and shape, placing as few a number of pins
as needed to hold it in place. You may then brush and or comb
the feathers into their natural position. Hang the cardboard
up in a heated room: it takes 2 to 3 days to dry. If you are
doing a freshly skinned bird, one you have done yourself, you
will want to allow them to dry for about 7 days.
Do not be afraid to wash any skin. If you think that water might
hurt it, how can you expect it to work on a dry fly that is
going into the water?
This information, written by my father is published on an excellent
web site for fly fishermen, called Fly Anglers On Line or FAOL.
Conranch is just one of many such sponsors on this site. In 2001
The Global Fly-Fishing web site did a product review on our product.
It was done by Bob Petti. The write up is available on the FAOL
site under Products Review. FAOL provides a wide array of
information, not only of fly tying materials and products, an
archive of fly patterns second to none, all kinds of articles
that are added to weekly. This site provides a unique opportunity
to meet and chat with many other fly fishermen across the world.
My Dad is a host each Sunday night from 6 to 8 PST. We invite
you to visit the site any time you like. Stop by the chat hut,
meet and make new friends and enjoy an opportunity to increase
and share your knowledge of fly-fishing.
Before I take a few moments for questions, I would like to leave
you with this thought: Our ranch provides hackle for every tier
and a one on one customer sevice not offered anywhere else. We
do not wholesale our products; we deal strictly with you the fly
tier. You can get online or pick up the phone and talk directly
to us. Our goal is to answer your questions and help you find
the hackle that is best for you. Our products are 100% guaranteed.
I see time is up, thank you for allowing me to be here tonight to
discuss hackle feathers with you. I hope I have been able to provide
you with some new insight. If anyone has further questions, I
invite you to stop by our booth and pick up our business card.
Feel free to e-mail or phone us at any time.
Thank you. ~ Liz Conrad Conranch Hackles,
Email: conranch @ipeg.com
Have a question? Email me!