Feaths come in many sizes, shapes, colors, shades and patterns. Although there are many different kinds of feathers - chicken, pheasant, starling, quail, goose, duck, etc. - that are used in fly tying, this information will deal with those feathers taken from a chicken. The feathers from both the hen and the rooster are used in fly tying and each has its purpose. The fly tier uses both genetic engineered and generic feathers from the chicken. In fact, genetic engineered feathers have become big business and some of the roosters bred have blood lines longer than some of us.
Amazingly all feathers are basically alike with subtle changes in size, shape and numbers of its component parts. A typical feather consists of
Genetic rooster necks and saddles come from male chickens bred and raised specifically to grow long, slender feathers with stiff barbs and stems. Both necks and saddles are graded using a system dependent upon the grower. Necks or saddles are graded as Gold, Silver, or Bronze or 1,2,3, again depending upon the breeder. The two major companies are Whiting Farms located in Colorado and Metz Hatching in Pennsylvania.
Genetic saddles differ from neck hackles in that they are usually the longest feathers on the rooster. They are the longest feathers available for dry fly tying. Saddles usually provide a large quantity of feathers in a narrow range of sizes. Saddles hackles are graded using the same scale and system as necks.
Hackles are graded based upon:
The narrow end of a cape or top has the smallest feathers and the size gets bigger as you go to the bottom of the neck. The most usable feathers run from the top to about the midpoint of the neck (sizes 28 to 10). From about the middle of the neck to the bottom, the feathers become spade feathers and are useful as tails on dry flies. The bottom of the neck contains feathers that are not all that useful, but can make good woolly buggers.
These are necks and saddles from birds that are not genetic engineered or are bred to produce wider, softer feathers. These feathers are suitable for nymphs, streamers and wet flies. These feathers lack the stiffness, length and have thicker stems making them hard to wrap. They do make good beards and tails and are great for feather wing streamers.
Saddle feathers are much wider and have more web than their genetic counterpart. They are useful for palmering woolly buggers and for streamers. Genetic saddles tend to taper from the butt to the tips, which creates a nice flowing taper on flies like the woolly bugger.
Hen capes offer the widest choice in sizes and colors . The feathers are long and narrow yet soft. One of the benefits of a hen cape is that the smaller sizes on the top of the neck have a stem long enough to give you a few wraps - even on the smallest of fly. Hen necks are shorter, softer and webbier than rooster necks and are used for wings on dry flies (like the Adams) or for hackle for nymphs (Prince Nymph). For dry fly wings look for broad and rounded tips for a good silhouette.
Hen Saddles on the other hand are a larger feather with rounded tips and a bit softer. Generally, you will only find a few sizes on a saddle. The fiber lengh is longer and a bit heavier than neck feathers. Hen saddles are used for collars, legs, and tails on nymphs or as wings on streamers. Hen saddle hackles are usually too wide for dry fly wings.
Stem Diameter: This is absolutely the key ingredient in selecting superior hackle. The distinguished dry fly master, Del Mazza, once gave me a lengthy dissertation on this topic, which I still consider to be invaluable. Hackle that maintains a relatively thin diameter stem, that is consistent throughout it’s entire length, will insure that the feather will neither twist, flip, nor recoil, during the hackling process. A good test; while holding an individual specimen by the base, and gently flicking it with your opposite hand, in essence, what you are looking for is a "slow action fly rod." This is the primary reason that saddles continue to grow in popularity among many veteran tiers.
Barbule Stiffness: Upon inspecting of a good cross section of individual feathers, notice that the barbules are firm and stout, not webby, particularly around the base where they engage the stem. This will insure that the hackle will support the finished product and be reluctant to absorb excessive moisture. Any webby barbules that are located at the base of a feather should be culled away using thumb and forefinger before engaging the material to your hook shank.
Feather Length: This is seldom a problem when saddles are employed due to their inherit nature. Obviously you must take into consideration the number of turns necessary to complete your required task and feather length will be the crucial requisite. Make sure to select feathers that will enable you enough working area to make that extra turn or two should that become necessary to properly proportion a fly. Short, stubby feathers, even though their quality may be fine, could limit your working space which is a chronic problem when tying fragile dry flies.
Barbule Density: How many spirals of hackle is required to achieve proper proportion in a standard size 16 parachute? We cannot accurately solve this dilemma without first being aware of how densely barbuled the hackle is. Some cases (parachutes, midges, etc.) may require as few as two turns where lesser quality hackle could take as many as five or six. Inspect to be sure that the hackle is intensely barbuled thus eliminating the need for excessive wrapping.
Color and Sheen: It wouldn’t disturbed me quite as much to be off a shade or two in color rather than compromise any of the previous parameters, but I do feel it is important. For example, when one considers the color of dun (gray) there are probably more than 32 variations. I would be more concerned with form, profile, proportion and size of the fly than precise color. Make sure the color and sheen are consistent throughout the entire neck or saddle, particularly in the case of dyed materials.
Barbule Length: In general, saddle hackle is far more consistent in barbule length than neck hackle which generally takes the form of a spade (longer barbules at thebase of the stem, shorter barblues at the top). Again, this has greatly contributed to then popularity of saddles when seeking superior hackling material. In any event, seek out necks or saddles with consistent barbule length throughout the duration of the feather which will eliminate inconsistencies in your finished product.
The feather should be prepared before attaching it to the hook. A properly prepared feather will improve the looks of your fly. To properly prepare a feather: