By Chris Reeves
(Photographs by Colin Spice)

Dry fly hackles are without doubt one of the biggest areas where fly tiers experience problems. Many beginners and even some more experienced tiers are often not happy with the way the hackle stands when completed. It should stand out at right angles from the hook shank.  Proportion is always a problem for beginners and only practice can cure this error but the answer to the second problem is simple but often overlooked: feather choice! The selection of the correct type and shape of hackle is so important. Magazines and books almost always recommend genetic cock neck or saddle hackle for dry flies. This is great as far as it goes but different capes have different qualities and characteristics.

Collins and Keogh hackles fall somewhere between Metz and Whiting in stiffness but short of both in hackle fibre count in other words the same number of turns will give a less dense hackle.

dscn3379-whiting-hackle

The above example, tied on a bare hook, is a Whiting bronze cape size 16 hackle. The softer stem makes managing the hackle easier and there is less tendency for it to twist. The good density of hackle fibres makes for a full and supportive hackle.

Non-genetic capes are still useful and of course were all that was available when fly tying began. Coming from domestic fowl around the world they are very variable in size shape and colour. Most nowadays come from India or China.

Indian capes can be brilliant or totally unusable and everything in between. they are usually cheap. You must choose carefully and always take a cape out of its packet for inspection before buying. Bend it so that the feathers stick upwards and look to see how many feathers there are, check for damage and turn the cape over to see if the colour is the same on both sides. Often Indian birds are very pale on the underside of the cape . This will affect the colour when wound. Chinese capes tend to be larger and softer and are most useful for larger flies.

dscn3380-indian-capes

The fly above is tied with an Indian hackle.  You can see that the fibres are softer and less erect than those on the Whiting cape.

Saddle hackles have longer feathers and the softest stems but most saddles have a limited range of sizes so a saddle with mainly size 12 and 14 feathers will have few feathers small enough for a size 16 dry fly let alone an 18. It will also be short of size 10 feathers.

dscn3377-saddle-hackles

A cape on the other hand will provide a large range of feathers from sizes 10 down to 20 or even smaller on a top quality cape.  The fly above is tied with a size 12 saddle feather, around 25 turns have been made and the feather retains consistency of length and stiffness  all along its length.

So choice of hackle is the most important factor to begin with. It is impossible to tie top quality flies with inferior feathers. Damaged capes and saddles should be avoided.

Feather Structure

Another problem I have identified while doing fly tying clinics is that a lot of beginners do not understand the structure of the feathers. Each hackle feather will have a shiny or good side and a duller side. The colour difference between the two sides can be great, especially if the hackle is a naturally dark coloured one. The hackle will have a natural curvature depending on which side of the cape it came from. A few feathers from exactly in the middle of the cape do lie totally straight but there are not many of them. In cross section the feather is also slightly concave with the shiny or good side sloping downwards from the hackle stalk.

The overall length of the stem of the feather will determine the speed at which the fibre lengths change. A 3” short spade shaped hackle will show greater rate of change than a 12” long saddle hackle. Always ensure that when wound-on the profile of the hackle fits the fly you’re tying.  If you want your hackle to be even, then choose a long feather. If you’re looking for a steep angle, then choose a short feather.

Tying-In

Having chosen your correct feather you still need to tie it in. This is how I do it. Remember we all tie in our own way so you may well do this slightly differently. That said, provided the result is acceptable to you as the tier and the fish as the customer then you’re probably doing it right.

For a traditional dry fly. Take a good coloured hackle and strip off about 2cm of the fibres from the lower end of the stem. If using long genetic hackles this can be done at any part of the stem depending on the length of hackle fibre you require. Tie in the hackle with the good side uppermost and with the stem facing forwards over the eye. Secure the stem so that you have a flat surface on which to wrap the hackle. Clip off the excess having first ensured it is tight-in and then grip the feather firmly with either hackle pliers of your fingers. Make sure you have not covered the eye of the hook at this stage.

Wrap the hackle starting at the body and working forwards. Concentrate on not over wrapping, each turn should be touching the previous turn. If you over wrap the hackle, fibres will start to splay out and some will fall forwards and be trapped under the subsequent wraps. Continue to the eye and tie off. I always wrap in the same direction as my silk is wound, to ensure that when tying off the silk, the whip finish pulls the hackle tighter.

Remember to keep the good side facing forwards. If your feather starts to twist, take the time to untwist it. If it keeps on twisting then consider junking it and start again. It may be you need to take a feather from the opposite side of the cape or even change capes. One of the advantages of buying the Whiting 100’s saddle hackle packs is that they contain such soft feathers that I have never had one twist on me.

When tying in two hackles of contrasting colour, you can either tie one at a time or wind both together. If you tie each hackle separately remember not to make touching turns on the first hackle, leave a space for the next hackle to fit between the turns of the first.