Hackle traditionally arouses the greatest passion amongst fly tyers. Cock (rooster) capes of particularly good or rare colour and those with sufficiently short barb length to enable small dry flies to be tied have always been prized.
In the 60s and 70s it was a common complaint that good dry fly capes where scarce – to the extent that many of the “traditional” natural colours were virtually unobtainable. Dyeing and other methods such as blending two hackles were used to replicate difficult colours specified in old patterns.
Things have improved dramatically since then, due to the efforts of specialist breeders and modern techniques of fowl husbandry. Many traditional colours have re-apaered in qualities that far exceed anything that was obtainable in the past. These developments come at a price however and the tyer will have to pay for top quality cock cape or saddle from the best known American ‘genetic’ hackle farms.
The dry fly cape is a tyers most prized possession, I have seen friends trip right out over obtaining that special cape or saddle in that very unique colour. There is a whole load of mystique that surrounds the hackle, without doubt the most used material in fly tying, no matter how you look at it, it has so many applications, tails, dry fly and streamer wings, quill bodies, feelers, palmered, parachute, paraloop and traditional hackles just to name a few. But what do you look for when choosing dry fly hackle?
You should always remember that all hackle is a natural product and no two capes or saddles are the same.
When choosing any cape particularly one with a hefty price tag it is well worth selecting very carefully. Capes come from individual birds each with distinctive characteristics. One cannot expect the sort of uniformity one would find in bags of sugar from a supermarket. Although the only option for some tyers, internet purchases of hackle should be avoided at all cost.
If it is possible, however, it is a far better proposition to visit a specialist dealer with an extensive stock of quality hackle through which you can rummage. So if you have a local store or one you visit often, ask to be updated as to when they expect their next big order coming in. Do not simply take the first of the rack in the shop, but look through the whole pile and pick the best of the bunch. Most high quality hackle comes in re-sealable bags and one can only really gauge a capes quality by taking it out of the packet and man handling it, preferably in natural light. Only through close visual and tactile scrutiny can one fully appreciate the qualities in a cape and hackle. Indeed this is true of all natural fly dressing materials.
An appreciation of quality hackle comes only with practice and viewing and handling many kinds and grades of hackle over time. Some of the most important points to look for are:
This is usually the first consideration. The best capes have even and uniform colour that conforms to one of the colour designations referred to later. It is worth noting however that where a cape lacks uniformity of colour or is of a ‘nondescript’ colour it may still be of excellent quality in all other respects. Such capes are often less expensive and can be used as they are or used for dyeing.
The healthiest and strongest birds produce the best conditioned feathers. Dr Tom Whiting owner of Whiting farms has said that when choosing birds for breeding he considers not only colour and quality but also the character of the birds. No matter how good a colour a bird may appear to have a poor spirited bird will not get a good deal in the pecking order thus its health and condition – and therefor feather quality are unlikely to be the best. Such a bird rarely produces top quality hackle or makes a contribution to the bloodline.
The overt appearance of a cape is often a good first indicator of general condition if not ultimately of quality. Birds in good health and condition seem to ‘glow’ and the individual feathers are clean and springy. Poor condition often manifests itself as a tatty pecked appearance with thin spots possibly indicating poor diet infestation or disease.
It is clearly desirable for a cape to have as many feathers of a useful size as possible. Some indication of feather density can be gained just from feeling between finger and thumb the thickness (depth) of a cape where the back of the cape starts to widen (shoulder) proper. Bending the cape at this point will make the feathers fan and stand proud from the skin and separate. By doing this individual hackle can be examined and some assessment made of the numbers and size distribution.
The best quality capes have high numbers of hackles with barbs short enough to tie the tiniest dry flies. These capes demand the highest prices. So if you are tying larger patterns its clearly pointless buying expensive hackle in mostly size 22-28’s. Indeed if ones tying mainly involves size 10-16 then a lower grade cape will not only be cheaper but may have better and more hackle in the size needed.
Usable hackle length:
You should look closely at the characteristics of individual hackles. The best cock hackles furnish the highest barb count and density along the shaft (stem) and which provide the longest portion of ‘usable hackle’.
This portion is called the ‘sweet spot’ and is where ideally all the barbs on each side of the shaft are of a uniform length. The hackle shaft, the backbone of the hackle should also be fairly thin and flexible to allow easy bending for wrapping around the hook shank. Hackle shafts that are too thin will break easier and those that are to thick are inflexible and bulky when tied in. Hackle stems that are brittle – possibly through age or poor drying technique – are almost useless.
This Whiting Platinum Dry fly saddle has some individual hackles over 65cm in length!
The best hackles have a long sweet spot and high barb density along the shaft, allowing more hackle to be wound onto the hook with the minimum turns of hackle. The longest sweet spots to be found are on some of the super grades of saddle hackle. These are so long that many densely hackled flies can be tied from a single hackle.