Monday, March 1, 2010

Hackle: What Kind Should I Use?

Neck hackle, saddle hackle, hen hackle, cock hackle, spade hackle...for the fly tying beginner, all these variations on what are essentially the same feather can be very confusing.  Add to that the variation in quality, and suitability for certain flies, not to mention grading, and you've got a real mess.  In this article, I'll explain some of the key differences in these feathers.


The most important factor when determining the correct hackle for your fly is the function that hackle will serve.  The most obvious and important role of hackle is the role they play in a hackled dry fly, where the hackle keeps the fly floating.  In these flies, the stiff, webless hackle barbs float the fly thanks to the surface tension of the water.  This application requires dry fly specific hackle.  Dry fly hackle comes in both necks and saddles (the difference will be discussed later), and it's made by several companies including (but not limited to) Whiting, Metz, and Keough.  With a few exotic exceptions, they also tend to be the most expensive hackles as well.  Just be sure that the hackle you're purchasing for dries is specifically labelled as dry fly hackle.  Expect to pay in excess of $25-30 for a quality dry fly neck or saddle.

Also of use in dry flies are the hackle fibers used as tailing material.  For this purpose, a tier can use spade hackle, which are the long fibered hackle feathers near the edges of some necks, or Coq de Leon, the hackle of a particular breed of rooster originally bred in Spain.  These feathers have exceptionally long, stiff fibers, which make excellent hackle.  For my dry fly tailing, I use a Whiting Tailing Pack, which is Coq de Leon.

Other than dry fly hackle, there are a wide variety of other hackles, all used for subsurface patterns.  This includes hen hackle, and the cheaper, strung cock hackle.  These hackles are used for everything from woolly buggers, to nymphs, to soft-hackle patterns.  In addition, several other birds have feathers suitable for nymph and streamer hackle as well.  Ducks like the mallard, teal, and wigeon, and upland game birds like partridge, grouse, woodcock, and quail, all have hackles that look great on nymphs, wet flies, and streamers.  These feathers, however are generally not referred to as hackle, the term being reserved for hen and rooster feathers.  Once you decide what type of fly you want to tie, you can then decide on a type of feather.


This seems to be a pretty common question among new tiers and really, it's not as big of an issue as one might think.  

First of all, understand that a neck is a cape and vice versa.  The two terms may be used interchangeably.  Necks are the feathers from the front of the bird, while the saddle is located across its back.  The two main differences are length and taper.  Neck feathers tend to be shorter and have a more pronounced taper while saddles tend to be a longer feather that maintains its barb size across the majority of its length.  Pictured below is a pink strung neck hackle from a rooster.  This is inexpensive hackle suitable for flies like streamers and woolly buggers:

The following picture shows a white saddle hackle from an inexpensive saddle.  These feathers are fairly webby and not suitable for dry flies.  The longer stem length makes this feather (and other saddle feathers) a great choice for flies where its necessary to palmer the hackle along the length of the body.  These feather provide enough length to palmer an entire body without having to deal with the thick, difficult-to-tie stem at the base of the feather.

On both of these feathers, you'll note the fluffy fibers at the base of the feather.  While these fibers may be used as nymph tailing or some similar use, they aren't the fibers you want to be using for most applications of hackle, and I discard them.

An important difference between necks and saddles becomes extremely relevant when it comes to dry fly necks and saddles: necks have feathers to tie a wide variety of dry flies, saddles, not so much.  What I mean, is that in dry flies, the length of the feather barbs or fibers is very important, as it affects how the fly sits in the water.  Thus the feather barbs determine what size of dry can be tied with that feather.

Necks, as I said, have a wide variety of feathers and can easily tie flies from a huge (for dries) size 8 or 10, all the way down to 22 if not smaller.  The disadvantage to this is that all that variety comes with the tradeoff of shorter, more tapered feathers, thus, less usable hackle on each feather.  You will almost assuredly only get one fly per feather, and may well have to use multiple neck feathers for especially heavy-hackled flies.  The stems of these feathers also tend to become thick, and difficult to work with when you get close to their base.

Saddles, on the other hand, feature almost no taper, and uniformly fine stems along the entire usable portion, making them very tier-friendly.  You will easily get 3-5 if not more flies from every saddle feather.  These conveniences come with a trade-off in versatility, however, as any given saddle will only tie 2-4 sizes of fly.  For example, I have a Whiting Dun saddle at home that will only tie #14-16, and I had to grab an extra half-saddle, just to get a decent number of #12 feathers.  Likewise, for my tiny fly needs, I had to get a seperate, specialized midge saddle, with feathers from 18-22...if I really hunt, there's a few 24s in there too, but that's about the extent of it.

For my tying, I much prefer saddles, but for every kindred spirit that ties with saddles, there's someone else that loves using only necks...and probably 3 or 4 people who use both.  Its all a matter of preference.


The last common question about hackle is whether someone should buy hen or rooster.  The answer, of course, is 'it depends'.  It depends on what type of fly is being tied as well as what the hackle is intended to do.  Some recipes will clearly specify hen hackle or rooster hackle, but many will just say "hackle".  For these situations, you need to determine if the hackle should be fairly rigid or wispy and flowing.  If the former, use rooster hackle, if the latter, try hen.  In nymph and wet fly tails, for example, a clump of hackle fibers is often necessary.  In this application, use a clump of fibers stripped from a rooster neck hackle (for their rigidity, and length.  The longer neck hackle fibers will be easier to manage in tying).  Likewise, many wet flies incorporate a hackle collar that will impart motion to the fly as it glides through the water.  For this purpose, try a hen hackle.

Any other tips, tricks or suggestions relating to hackle?  Leave them in the comments, and I'll add it to the article!


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