THE PER­FECT WEATHER

Field and Stream - - GIANT - BY MICHAEL R. SHEA Pho­to­graphs by Ian Allen

If you’ve ever caught a fish on a fly, there’s a good chance the hackle wrapped around the hook came from a Colorado chicken barn where a hum­ble, but bril­liant, ge­neti­cist cre­ates the most sought-af­ter feath­ers for fly-tiers around the world

TOM WHIT­ING no­ticed a pat­tern. It was the early 1990s, and fly-tiers from around the world were ask­ing Whit­ing, a poul­try ge­neti­cist, for a very spe­cific feather. It had to be long, wide, fat-barbed, and with­out web­bing or a frayed end— some­thing more akin to a squir­rel tail than a typ­i­cal bird feather. The ear­li­est Bri­tish books on fish­ing men­tion such a feather, re­port­edly plucked from the neck of the Spey cock, an al­most myth­i­cal rooster bred on the banks of Scot­land’s River Spey and deeply con­nected to fly­fish­ing’s 19th-cen­tury start. This chicken sup­pos­edly grew feath­ers that pro­duced seam­less, nat­u­ral move­ments un­der­wa­ter and made for a fly no salmon could re­sist.

For years, Whit­ing was fix­ated on find­ing this feather—writ­ing let­ters to breed­ers and por­ing through books—yet he kept com­ing up blank. “Noth­ing con­vinced me that a dis­tinct breed ever ex­isted,” he says. “I found one ide­al­ized breed paint­ing, and it looked like a Coq de Leon to me,” re­fer­ring to a breed of Span­ish chicken. But he just couldn’t leave it alone—so he took the mat­ter into his own hands. “Even if this rooster doesn’t ex­ist,” he de­cided, “I can build it.”

Chick­ens, Whit­ing likes to say, are “ge­net­i­cally plas­tic.” Through se­lec­tive breed­ing, a 4-pound barn­yard hen, for ex­am­ple, can pro­duce 8-pound great-great­grand-hens with wildly long feath­ers in an ar­ray of colors and tex­tures. The nor­mal ta­per of a feather—that el­e­gant arc of, say, Shake­speare’s quill—can be al­tered to a pen­cil-like thin­ness or to as wide as an ax blade.

As for the Spey feather, Whit­ing knew that heron feath­ers had long been con­sid­ered a substitute for Spey cock, and they re­minded him of an an­cient Chi­nese breed of chicken—the silkie. “Nor­mally, feath­ers marry to­gether at the barbs like a zip­per,” Whit­ing says. “Silkies have a mu­ta­tion where that’s lack­ing.” In other words, their feath­ers look and feel like fur. With a foun­da­tion stock of 50 silkies, Whit­ing bred in a laun­dry list of other chicken breeds—the ex­act for­mula he wouldn’t share with his own mother—and five years into the process, he had a pelt his ty­ing ex­perts were ex­cited about.

Sales for what he called Spey Hackle were slow; they never caught on for steel­head, as he’d hoped. Then, in 2004, al­most overnight, the sales spiked. Hun­dreds of pelts at a time were be­ing or­dered from Scan­di­navia. Later that year, at a trade show in Den­ver, a tall Dan­ish guy named Claus Erik­sen walked over to Whit­ing and slammed a fish­ing magazine down on his ta­ble. “You owe me,” Erik­sen said.

In the magazine was a recipe for the Pat­te­grisen, or “Piglet”—a shrimp pat­tern that had taken the Baltic re­gion by storm. Erik­sen had de­signed the sea trout fly, which called for Whit­ing’s Spey Hackle, and in do­ing so, he rev­o­lu­tion­ized sea trout fish­ing. “Big cock hack­les were too stiff, marabou was too floppy and full,” Erik­sen told me. “If you look at a Spey Pat­te­grisen from be­low, the an­gle of the sea trout, you can see the sim­i­lar­ity to a nat­u­ral shrimp. The Spey fibers pul­sate while it drifts in the wa­ter. Sea trout will strike this fly even on a hot sum­mer day. It changed the way we fish.”

To this day, Whit­ing doesn’t take much credit for the Spey Piglet; to be fair, he didn’t cre­ate the ac­tual fly. But he did make it a re­al­ity. Be­cause with­out his feather—a feather he built through 10 years of ge­netic ma­nip­u­la­tion, work­ing from noth­ing more than le­gends of a bird that most likely never ex­isted— the pat­tern would not have been pos­si­ble. BIRD MAN

Tom Whit­ing knows a thing or two about feath­ers. He raised back­yard chick­ens as a kid grow­ing up out­side of Den­ver and worked part-time at a game­bird farm dur­ing high school, which he grad­u­ated a year early. He at­tended Ever­green State Col­lege in Olympia, Wash., where he was mis­er­able. One day, his older brother asked him what made him happy. “I can’t stop think­ing about quail,” Whit­ing told him. So, he trans­ferred to Colorado State Univer­sity to study avian sci­ence and stayed in school through a doc­tor­ate in poul­try sci­ence with an em­pha­sis in ge­net­ics at the Univer­sity of Arkansas. Af­ter wrap­ping up his dis­ser­ta­tion, Whit­ing de­cided to get into the chicken busi­ness. A for­mer pro­fes­sor of his from CSU owned Colorado Qual­ity Hack­les, and Whit­ing, though not a fish­er­man him­self, liked the idea of rais­ing birds for their feath­ers to be used for fly-ty­ing. Whit­ing launched his own feather com­pany in 1989, then stocked some sec­ond­hand in­cu­ba­tors with eggs from Ore­gon.

Since hu­mans started catch­ing fish on hooks, feath­ers have been part of the for­mula, but the prac­tice of rais­ing chick­ens specif­i­cally for hackle didn’t take off in the U.S. un­til the 1920s. Breed­ers like Andy Miner, Harry Dar­bee, and Henry Hoff­man pi­o­neered ge­netic feather lines—that is, hack­les from birds specif­i­cally bred to pro­duce the best feath­ers for ty­ing flies. Af­ter start­ing his busi­ness, Whit­ing pur­chased Hoff­man’s en­tire ge­netic stock, and later ac­quired lines from Dar­bee and Miner.

To­day, Whit­ing is the No. 1 provider of feath­ers for fly pat­terns world­wide. Nearly ev­ery tackle shop in the U.S. stocks Whit­ing pelts; they’re shipped to 40 coun­tries; and three out of four com­mer­cial fly-ty­ing op­er­a­tions uses Whit­ing feath­ers. By one es­ti­mate, Whit­ing con­trols 80 per­cent of the feath­ers in the world ty­ing mar­ket. Odds are, if you’ve cast a fly to a fish in the last 20 years, the feath­ers in that fly were hatched out of Whit­ing Farms in Delta, Colo.

Last sum­mer, I trav­eled to Delta for a peek in­side Whit­ing’s feather lab. When I hopped into his beat-up 4Run­ner he apol­o­gized for the lack of air­con­di­tion­ing. He over­sees ev­ery facet of his mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar op­er­a­tion—from in­cu­bat­ing eggs to pack­ag­ing boxes—and doesn’t have time to ser­vice his ve­hi­cle. He’s wear­ing a T-shirt, khaki shorts, and black socks scrunched down into worn Asics. He is lean and hunched in the shoul­ders, walks fast, and is prone to ram­bling tan­gents on sci­ence and busi­ness. (A ques­tion about chicken feed leads to an an­swer on macronu­tri­ents and the eco-

nomics of com­mod­ity corn.) Thirty years of claw rakes and beak tears have scarred his arms.

“Peo­ple al­ways ask how many birds we have here,” he tells me. “We hatch birds ev­ery Fri­day and process birds twice a week. We have space for 60,000 roost­ers. On the hoof, we’re prob­a­bly some­where around 100,000 birds at any one time.” The in­dus­trial in­cu­ba­tors take up a room the size of a ten­nis court and can hold 112,000 eggs. His two ranches are sep­a­rated by 7 miles of arid Colorado desert coun­try, with du­pli­cate bird lines kept at both lo­ca­tions should a bio­haz­ard strike. Ev­ery pre­cau­tion is taken for the health and safety of the chicks— chicks that, in 40 weeks, could fetch any­where from $35 to $100 apiece from fly-tiers.

IN­SIDE THE ROOSTER LAB

We ar­rive at what Whit­ing calls Head­quar­ters Ranch—home to the main of­fice, pro­cess­ing plant, ship­ping depart­ment, four brooder barns, six rooster barns, and a hen barn. We’re not 2 feet into the of­fice when he waves two chicken pelts in my face. They’re griz­zlies—a black-and-white striped pat­tern that’s his top seller. One of the pelts is from the orig­i­nal Hoff­man line, the other from Whit­ing’s ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered up­date. The long­est stretch of feath­ers on the Hoff­man is maybe 6 inches. On Whit­ing’s pelt, the long­est ex­tends nearly 18 inches. This re­mark­able growth dif­fer­ence, cou­pled with a uni­for­mity of feather size, is Whit­ing’s big­gest in­no­va­tion.

Tom Rosen­bauer, mar­ket­ing man­ager for Orvis and an ex­pe­ri­enced fly-tier, says that in the 1970s, most feath­ers came off food chick­ens from In­dia. “If we had seen a Whit­ing cape in those days,” he says, “we’d have thought we were see­ing some­thing from outer space. Back then, you’d need a min­i­mum of two hack­les to tie any dry fly, and a Royal Wulff would take three or four. Now we can get six to 10 Wulffs from one hackle from Whit­ing.”

Nat­u­ral feath­ers are nar­row at

the tip, wider through the body, and ta­per again at the base. For them to grow end­lessly or de­velop a uni­form size, an ea­ger breeder needs to step in. To achieve the freak­ishly nar­row sad­dle feath­ers that grow along the back of Whit­ing’s birds, the ge­net­ics had to be short-cir­cuited through in­ten­sive breed­ing. The fol­li­cles, so to speak, are pro­grammed to grow only nar­row feath­ers. At a glance, they re­sem­ble a snake­skin more than any­thing you’ll find on a farm­yard chicken. And to sup­port these long feath­ers, Whit­ing’s birds are bred with longer legs so they won’t tram­ple that prized plumage.

Feather traits that cre­ate bet­ter fly pat­terns range from the ob­vi­ous to the sub­tle. For ex­am­ple: The longer the feather, the more dry flies it will tie. Also, the higher the barb den­sity along the quill, the stiffer the barb, the tighter the col­lar, and the bet­ter that fly will stand on the wa­ter’s sur­face. The barbs should be of uni­form length on a quill that’s flex­i­ble and has a nat­u­ral ta­per to mimic an in­sect, but that’s also strong enough to stand up to re­peated fish strikes. Smooth­ness of the barbs is im­por­tant, too, as it makes for fluid mo­tion across the wa­ter’s sur­face. Cre­at­ing all those qual­i­ties in a sin­gle feather, Whit­ing tells me, is the re­sult of decades of se­lec­tive chicken breed­ing.

“The unit of use is the in­di­vid­ual feather,” he says. “The whole breed­ing pro­gram is fo­cused on the feather. From all the man­power, the in­fra­struc­ture, our lo­ca­tion, the feed, the cages, the light­ing, the tem­per­a­ture—it’s all geared to the in­di­vid­ual feather. If any part of the op­er­a­tion slips, the bird will in­ter­nal­ize it and won’t reach its full ge­netic po­ten­tial.”

Back in his of­fice, that te­dious, metic­u­lous pre­ci­sion isn’t so ap­par­ent. Notepads, fold­ers, news­pa­per clip­pings, and scrib­bled mes­sages lay scat­tered. Piles on the desk and fil­ing cab­i­nets have spilled to the floor, and pack­ets of hackle are ev­ery­where. The of­fice looks as though it has been tossed in a po­lice raid. When I point this out, Whit­ing shrugs it off. “Hey,” he says, “my breed­ing records are im­mac­u­late.”

We walk out­side, and Whit­ing leads me to an­other build­ing where he re­moves a pad­lock and swings open a steel door. In­side this barn, his life’s work—8,800 roost­ers—is on fine dis­play.

A rooster’s crow mea­sures about the same deci­bels as a dog’s bark, and with thou­sands crow­ing at the same time, the at­mos­phere is ut­ter chaos. We pass row af­ter row of roost­ers in cages. The con­di­tions are dense, but the birds have room to move and stretch out. They are not friendly, flar­ing up their neck hack­les and strik­ing through the wire cages.

The idea of birds in cages both­ers many peo­ple, but Whit­ing swears that if he were to die and come back a chicken, he hopes it’s here at Whit­ing Farms. The birds are treated well and live com­fort­ably, he says. That’s partly be­cause he’s a good guy, who loves an­i­mals, but it’s also a mat­ter of sci­ence. As Whit­ing puts it: “All the pre­ced­ing meta­bolic needs of the bird must be more than met in or­der for am­ple sur­plus nu­tri­ents to be avail­able for feather growth.” In other words: Feath­ers are the last thing a bird’s body spends en­ergy on. Lousy air qual­ity, loud dis­tur­bances, poor vac­ci­na­tions, non­uni­form light­ing, tem­per­a­ture swings, ro­dents, rough han­dle, un­san­i­tary cages—any of those fac­tors can take away from the feath­ers. “Ba­si­cally, any­thing that isn’t op­ti­mum for roost­ers, or in any way stresses them, chips away at the feather qual­ity,” he says.

As for that feather qual­ity, the birds on dis­play are al­most oth­er­worldly: Pol­ish chick­ens with white top hats that will some­day be sea trout flies fished in the Baltic Sea; gi­ant Brah­man chick­ens with feath­ers on their feet and downy sad­dles de­signed for nymph col­lars; blue An­dalu­sians whose an­ces­tors were first se­lected 30 gen­er­a­tions ago near Roscoe, N.Y., for their telling shade of gray, the per­fect match for a North­east mayfly wing; Coqs de Leon im­ported from Spain, for which Whit­ing points out minute speck­ling in each in­di­vid­ual feather, a trait prized by tiers since the 1600s. The cages run on and on like this, full of chick­ens boast­ing bril­liant feath-

ers that might, one day, en­tice a strike and spark a fish story.

NO END IN SIGHT

On my last morn­ing, Whit­ing comes to work with a stack of empty Pu­rina cat-food boxes. “It’s my job to stoke the fire in the hot room on Sun­days,” he says. Af­ter a check on a barn cleanup, he and I head over to a breeder barn. His very best birds aren’t caped and sold, but matched and mated to make more chicks for more feath­ers for more flies.

Whit­ing still hand-in­spects ev­ery grown bird for the breeder pens or pro­cess­ing. In his ca­reer, he fig­ures, he’s per­son­ally in­spected 2.8 mil­lion chick­ens. “You de­velop in your mind’s eye what a good pelt looks like,” he says. “Peo­ple who want to get into this, I tell them it takes five years to re­ally learn hackle.” To­day, he can speed-spot the truly out­stand­ing birds. The top 2 or 3 per­cent of his flock is flagged, and Whit­ing re­turns to fur­ther scru­ti­nize them. Most of the birds don’t pass a closer in­spec­tion, but if they do, Whit­ing takes out the calipers, starts not­ing mea­sure­ments, and fills out a two-page re­port on body mea­sure­ments like shank length, as well as the bird’s dis­po­si­tion. The whole process takes about 45 min­utes per bird, and the few that pass have 12 feath­ers plucked and hook-tested by his in-house ty­ing ex­pert, Phil Trimm. Those that pass that test—a frac­tion of the top 1 per­cent—are moved to the breeder shed, where they’re caged with a harem of 10 to 14 hens.

When mak­ing the first cut of breeder can­di­dates, Whit­ing will han­dle 800 roost­ers in a day. “I play games with my­self to keep my con­cen­tra­tion go­ing,” he says. “I try to iden­tify the line of bird by feel, just to keep my head keyed up. I go through miles of cages, up and down those rows with a guy hand­ing me birds un­der a bright light. Some­times I get it right—not al­ways, but some­times. I can tell a Hoff­man griz­zly blind­folded, be­cause I know the feel of those feath­ers— the den­sity of the pig­ment in the black makes a softer sec­tion. The white is a harder hackle.”

In­side the breeder barn, ev­ery pen has a card­board sign and code in­di­cat­ing the ge­netic line— AX3, F19, CR17. Whit­ing knows them all by heart. Most ge­neti­cists work with spread­sheets and soft­ware to track lines and traits, but Whit­ing holds most of it in his head, fill­ing out the edges with scrib­bles on the le­gal pads that over­flow his of­fice.

The sound of all these chick­ens makes it hard to talk, so we step out­side. Whit­ing brings a ban­tam griz­zly rooster with him and holds the bird up to the sky. The bird shifts in his grip, then set­tles into the hold. Whit­ing has been ap­proached sev­eral times about sell­ing ev­ery­thing—his com­pany, build­ings, and birds—but he won’t en­ter­tain the dis­cus­sion. He talks at great length about the “vast ge­netic repos­i­tory” that hap­pens to be “en­trusted” to him, and that ul­ti­mately ben­e­fits out­doors­men—whether they’re aware of him or not. It’s amaz­ing to con­sider, re­ally. A guy who took a child­hood in­ter­est in birds, then cre­ated the most sought-af­ter feath­ers used for fly­fish­ing, and who still works all day, and most

QUAL­ITY CON­TROL A sin­gle Whit­ing pelt can be used to tie sev­eral hun­dred flies.

nights and week­ends, ob­sess­ing over ev­ery de­tail. All from a guy who doesn’t even fish.

“I was a ner­vous kid, had trou­ble sit­ting still,” he tells me. “I’m sure I would have been di­ag­nosed with one of the mal­adies they throw around to­day. I needed an out­let, and I have one—with these birds. It’s long term. It’s dif­fi­cult. It suits me, tem­per­a­men­tally. I’ve found peace walk­ing the barns, look­ing at roost­ers six hours a day.”

He’s look­ing at a bird right now. The ban­tam griz­zly has re­laxed and is soak­ing in the hot desert sun. The way he stares at the bird is strik­ing. In his eyes you can see love for the an­i­mal— but there’s some­thing else, too. A sense of fas­ci­na­tion, per­haps, or a sense of awe in ac­com­plish­ment, of sat­is­fac­tion from see­ing all of your hard work come to­gether.

“What’s the per­fect feather?” I ask him.

“I hope I never find it,” Whit­ing says. “I hope it’s al­ways out of reach.”

HACKLE TO HOOK From wild pat­terns and colors to their freak­ish shapes and lengths, Whit­ing’s feath­ers are un­like any­thing you’d see on a farm chicken. But they do tie stun­ning fly pat­terns.

ODD BIRD Whit­ing is now 30 gen­er­a­tions into his birds. “They’re a to­tally dif­fer­ent an­i­mal,” he says.

GOOD EGGS Whit­ing Farms hatches 1,400 to 1,600 chicks ev­ery week, and the in­cu­ba­tors hold about 112,000 eggs. All told, there are about 100,000 chick­ens on the prop­erty on any given week.

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