Fancy feath­ers fuel the fisher’s fancy

The News (New Glasgow) - - PICTOU COUNTY - Don MacLean is an out­door writer and bi­ol­o­gist who lives in Pic­tou County.

I took a break from win­ter and Christ­mas ac­tiv­i­ties last week to spend 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 then 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 in 1835, 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 which im­i­tates many mayfly species.

The devel­op­ment of mod­ern fly­ty­ing hackle owes its devel­op­ment to the work of Amer­i­can poul­try breed­ers in the 1940s and 1950s. 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 and his wife had a close con­nec­tion to Nova Sco­tia as they fished the Mar­ga­ree River in Cape Bre­ton every fall for many years and were well known, and liked, in the Mar­ga­ree area. Harry 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 knowl­edge of ge­net­ics with mod­ern poul­try pro­duc­tion. Com­pa­nies such as Metz, Whit­ing and Hoff­man dom­i­nated the mar­ket but all their birds could 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.


Fly ty­ing can be one of the most re­ward­ing as­pects of fly fish­ing.

Don MacLean

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