Spey Hackle

Spey Hackle and Spey Fly
The term, Spey hackle can bring to mind several different sizes, types and textured feathers. The history of Spey Flies began in the UK. When Tyers tied the early Speys, they were able to get feathers that are now illegal or just don't exist at any price these days. When we use Spey flies, we are usually attempting to imitate any of several Crustaceans, aquatic insects or, just putting something "buggy" in front of Salmon and/or Steelhead. In "the salt" these fish feed on many things including shrimp and, small fish. It isn't any coincidence that many Spey Flies have a distinctive shrimp like appearance to them. These flies often require long, soft barbed hackle to imitate the legs, pincers and antennae of shrimp.

Among the original feathers used for Spey Flies were Heron, Eagle and, the wide side feathers on the tail of the Rooster. Of course, Eagle and Heron are not permitted any longer so, alternatives had to be found. Later Tyers use shlapen (the feathers in and around the tail of Roosters), Blue Eared Pheasant (also the White and the Brown Eared Pheasants), "burned" Goose feathers, marabou and, about any other soft feathers that have some length to the barbs.

Spey Hackle and Dyed Bronze Mallard The conventional ways to use these feathers were to either strip one side of the feather or, to "fold" the hackle and wrap the feather in the conventional manner. Tying the fly in this manner will result with a bump at the head caused by the bulk of the shaft (rachis). This bulk is even more pronounced with some of the feathers whose shafts have a "fast taper" to them, that is, the shaft goes from fine at the tip to very thick a short distance down the shaft. The bulky part of the shaft ends up right at the head and some patterns require several wraps of the hackle at that point. That bulk makes it difficult at best to tie in a wing that sits low and, doesn't allow for a very small head in many cases. Some feathers have finer shafts like schlapen than others do. Good schlapen will have a very fine shaft for most of its length. Blue Eared Pheasant has a relatively short usable area of the feather and a thicker shaft than schlapen. The Eared Pheasants have a distinctive texture though and it's desirable for many patterns. To minimize bulk and get the effects of multiple turns of hackle, the Tyer can tie the fly with a "false" beard. That is, to tie a bunch of hackle barbs on at the head without the shaft. This method works well enough for many flies.

For the last few years, I have been using feathers I have removed the shafts from the hackle. This provides a hackle that can be wrapped through the body and, several turns at the head with virtually no bulk. The other big plus for striping the shaft this way is that you end up with two usable hackles rather than one, a factor to consider when using expensive feathers. The technique for stripping is simple and will work on almost any feather. The exceptions are some feathers that have been burned, bleached and/or dyed. These feathers tend to be brittle and do not strip well.

Modern Spey Fly

With this method, you can even strip the shaft from a Pheasant tail and use it for hackle on your Speys although, these hackles will be somewhat stiff. A few feathers can be stripped dry but, many will end up breaking or, some of the interior of the shaft may stick and need to be removed later. As I said, the technique is simple but, the steps are critical to ensure that you don't damage any hackles.

First, soak the feathers in soapy water overnight. Don't be tempted to reduce this time, you will find that some feathers will strip in less time but, again, some can be damaged. This soaking will do two things. It will wash the feathers and, also soften the interior of the shaft. A word of note, some dyed feathers will loose color so, on them, shorter soaking is necessary so they will retain their color. Or, you can strip the hackles before dying as I do. When the feather is ready to strip, hold the "good side" toward you. Pinch the tip with the left hand, pinch the barbs just below the tip on the right side of the feather with your right hand and pull almost straight down slowly. Now, do the same on the other side. A word of caution, concentrate on what you're doing as you pull the barbs from the shaft. I have stripped thousands of feathers and still, if I let my mind wander (as it's prone to do), I will break the feather or render it mostly unusable. When this has been done properly, you will end up with two strips of hackle and the interior of the shaft. The right side of the feather will wrap the conventional clockwise direction on the fly and the left will wrap the opposite direction.

These stripped hackles are fairly fragile. I recommend counter ribbing, that is, the opposite direction than the hackle, to protect the hackle. Once tied this way, the resultant wing will sit low and the head will be tiny.

The feathers I prefer are, Peafowl and several of the Pheasant breeds in addition to the ones already mentioned that include Swinhoe Pheasant. The Swinhoe has feathers that are almost black but, have a deep blue color to them and, they are very soft. The Peafowl feathers that I use are from 5" to 14" long with barbs that are anywhere from " to 2"+. These are not the iridescent eyed feathers that they have during breeding although many have some iridescence in them. They are the feathers from the Peahen and young Peacocks. Another type of feather found on Peafowl is the breast and/or flank feathers. The male has more iridescent feathers than the hen but, both are useful although often times many are somewhat short. Another feather that is useful are the dark greenish feathers located under the tippets of the Golden and Amherst Pheasants.

Tied Spey

The bottom line with preparing hackles this way is:
    A. more of the color and/or texture of the body of the fly is left exposed to attract the attention of the fish,
    B. a thinner body is possible,
    C. the wing sits lower and,
    D. a variety of feathers can be utilized that would not normally be considered due to their structural limitations. I can't say that you'll catch more or larger fish with flies tied with this method but, you will have much more freedom in selecting hackles than before.

Happy Trails! ~ Ronn Lucas, Sr.

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