The most important item in the make up of a dry fly apart from a hook is the hackle feather. A good quality hackle is easy to use and makes your fly float. A poor one is a miserable thing to tie in and it makes your fly behave like drowned rat. There are basically 2 types of hackle feathers we use for dry flies, neck and saddle heckles. These are sold on the skin. the neck hackles were thick and brittle, also sparsely barbed feathers. Some lucky people could breed their own bantams but the rest of us had to search high and low.
Life was a never ending quest for the perfect cape.
We can thank our lucky stars a large proportion of Americans love their fly fishing. Demand creates solutions and 20 years or so ago a breeding programme gave the world its first genetically bred feathers designed especially for the fly fishing market. I believe a fellow called Miner was the pioneer in this. However both Hoffman and Metz were the first of the breeders on a commercial scale. Tom Whiting Ph D bought out Hoffman 7/8 years ago and now markets them under Whiting/Hoffman hackles. Another brand was Herbert, who bought Miners' original flock and Whiting now sells them under the brand name "Hebert Miner". All this is by way of saying that our humble chooks now live in gilded cages of wondering around scratching in the dust.
The biggest success in the breeding programme was the possibility of longer, more lustrous saddle hackles for dry flies. These capes have a larger number of 25 to 33 feathers. The stalk is very thin, strong and even stretches. The barbs are an even length right along the main part of the feather, tapering only near the tip. At the base the barbs are only slightly longer with a small web area. Lets have a look at the economy of these capes. Firstly they are graded for the number of hackles per cape and the suitability of feather to hook size.
A Number 1 cape will have the most hackles and are suitable for size 18 and 16 hooks, you'll also find some hackles to tie #22 and #14 flies.
A Number 2 cape suit size 16 and 14 with few for 20 and 12 sizes.
A Number 3 cape suits size 14 and 12 with some # number 10 sizes.
As most feathers are say, 25cm long you can comfortably tie 4 flies from one feather, a grade 1 cape you can tie 750 flies , a grade 2 cape 450 flies and a grade 3, 250 flies. So you can see that the initial outlay of these capes may be high but the cost is offset by the number of flies you can tie from each cape. The number # 2 cape is probably the best value as it gives you feathers for the most popular fly sizes. Have a look at them and examine the cape that suits you. If you want the ultimate cape from the most pampered roosters in the Rocky Mountains ask for the "Signature" series, you'll be more than impressed.
I've raved about saddle hackles but these neck are the best 'all round' hackles. They are also genetically bred from the same roosters. Hen necks and saddles are available from their lady friends who lay the eggs. The cock necks come in the same natural colors as the saddles but with the addition of far more natural colors and variations. Each neck cape of course has feathers in tiny sizes for #26 to #10 hook sizes. The larger the feathers you may never use but you'll need the fibres for the dry fly tails and the base of the feather gives you softer fibres for nymphs and wet flies.
I love saddle hackles but somehow my fly tying heart beats faster when I see a beautiful neck hackle. The hackles quivers when you pick up a good neck and the color range is more exciting. I once had an almost black silver badger neck that gave me wonderful hackles for black spinner parachute flies. When spun around its own stem the black barbs with tiny subtle spots fanned out beautifully and looked very life like. I personally love the darker duns and the good quality guts furnace hackles. The latter is good for most Red tags and the Coachman patterns. The lighter duns or browns for the large Kosciuszko Duns and spinners etc etc. The larger feather make nice slim Matukas and hackles for the Fuzzy Wuzzy, Woolly Bugger, Woolly worms and dyed feathers as tails on poppers. I haven't mentioned the use of the tips of these feathers as hackle-tip wings for all sorts of duns and of course the ever popular Adams with the grizzle hackle tip wings.
So there you have it. Us fly tyers have never had it so good. Don't forget the hen necks and saddles, have a look at them for wet flies and streamers such as Robins, Matukas and dyed feathers for the yellow and red perils etc.
It's well worth mentioning that the saddle feathers are available pre-graded "100" packs. ie, you can tie 100 flies from the selected hackle feathers. They come in colors, grizzle, brown and black. For sizes 14 to 16, its good value. Also available are packs of matched half saddle, half neck hackles. Have a talk with the boys and see what they can do for you.
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