I took a break from winter last weekend to spend some time tying a few flies and dreaming about the upcoming fishing season. I am a great scrounger when it comes to fly-tying materials and I find some of my best materials for bodies, wings and so on in the sewing or craft section of local stores. However there is one material which is next to impossible to substitute and that is good quality hackle feathers.
Feathers serve several functions on a fly, they imitate the legs of insects which fish are feeding on and, for dry flies, the hackle helps floats your fly. The best dry fly hackle comes from the neck of fully grown roosters and is called a cape. Hens have feathers as well and, since there are more hens than roosters in a flock hen hackle tends to be cheaper, but it is also softer and more suited to tying wet flies or for throats on salmon flies than for tying dry flies.
Early fly tiers often kept flocks of chickens as a source of fly-tying material. The best hackle came from old English game cocks and early attempts to develop fly-tying feathers were tied to cock fighting. Although cock fighting was banned in England in1835 by then there was considerable interest in breeding birds for fly tying.
Also, at that time growing fancy poultry as a hobby was very popular and poultry exhibitions were held throughout England. Breeders experimented with different crosses of hens and roosters in an attempt to develop favourite colours. This meant crossing old English game birds with breeds such as blue Andalusians from Spain and barred rocks, an American breed. For many fly tiers the aim was to develop good stiff long feathers in blue dun, a colour that imitates many mayfly species.
The development of modern fly tying hackle owes its development to the work of American poultry breeders in the 1940s and ’50s. One of the leading figures in this development was the late Harry Darbee. Mr. Darbee, and his wife Elsie, were commercial fly tiers in the Catskill Mountains of New York State and, as commercial tiers they were always searching for good quality feathers. Harry Darbee and his wife had a close connection to Nova Scotia as they fished the Margaree every fall for many years and were well known, and liked, in the Margaree area. Harry Darbee kept a flock of birds and was constantly experimenting with various crosses.
Beginning in the 1970s growing interest in fly fishing fuelled the demand for good quality fly tying material. This market led breeders to combine a knowledge of genetics with modern poultry production. Companies such as Metz, Whiting and Hoffman now dominate the market but all their birds can be traced back to the work of backyard breeders. The quality of hackle which is available today is amazing. While the price of a full number-one or premium-grade cape can run over $100, the quality, and feather length, is such that you can tie several flies with one feather and there is very little waste.
Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.