It’s time we give the ladies their due—the lady chickens, that is. Hen hackle is one of our favorite fly-tying materials. Learn the right way to use this common ingredient.
[by Dick Talleur]
THOSE OF US WHO HAVE BEEN TYING FLIES FOR A LONG TIME— I started in 1961—are still amazed and delighted at the incredible advancements in genetic cock dry fly hackle. Now, maybe it’s time to give some recognition to the hens; without the lady chickens, none of these advancements would have happened. And, hens are used for more than just breeding; they also yield very valuable feathers.
Hen pelts—both saddles and capes—don’t get nearly the amount of publicity that rooster pelts receive. However, those of you who haunt the fl y-fishing shows, surf the Internet, and hang out in well-stocked fly shops, have the chance to examine hen pelts. Whiting Farms, Keough Hackle, and Collins Hackle Farm offer many of the best feathers for tying high-quality flies.
Why Hen Hackle?
Several attributes make hen hackle ideal for certain applications. Hen feathers have fine, flexible quills that take up very little space and create little bulk when wrapped on the hook. The large number of fibers, especially on a saddle feather, creates a full collar with just a few wraps; in fact, with some feathers, a single turn suffices. The feathers fold easily, which make soft-hackle collars a snap to tie. And, for salmon fly and streamer tiers, the brilliant colors required for many patterns are easily obtained because the softer feathers easily accept dyes.
Let’s look at hen feathers in more detail. We’ll see where the feathers come from, and examine many of their uses. By the time we’re done, I think you’ll give the ladies more respect, and see the key contributions they make to tying quality fish-catching flies.
Where do hackles come from?
Here we have a pair of handsome coq de Leon chickens. The male cock is on the right; the female hen is on the left. Although all knowledgeable tiers recognize the advancements in growing quality cock dry fly feathers, this hen is also full of feathers that are excellent for tying flies.
Examine this hen (left) closely. The “cape” is the patch of feathers found around the neck. The smaller feathers, found near the head, are used for making small wet flies; the larger feathers near the bottom of the neck are excellent for tying larger wet flies, the throats on salmon flies and streamers, and the wings on dry flies. That’s a lot of value for your fly-tying dollar!
On the right, you can see the “saddle patch”, which is the part of the pelt straddling the back of the chicken; think of it like a saddle tossed over the back of a horse. Saddle feathers are used to make the wings on some streamers.
Hen Hackle for Wet Flies
Hen hackles are ideal for tying wet flies. Here we’ll tie a basic beaded soft hackle. On this pattern, I do not place the bead at the head but in the thorax behind the hackle. I think this improves the fly’s appearance, and the bead helps keep the soft hackle fibers from folding against the body when wet.
Soft-Hackle Bead Thorax
Hook: A scud/shrimp hook such as the Daiichi 1150, sizes 16 to 12.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Bead: A black bead, size to match the hook.
Body: Ice Dub, bloody black.
Hackle: A dark-barred Brahma hen saddle feather.
Tying the Soft-Hackle Bead Thorax
Coq de Leon for Great-Looking Flies
Coq de Leon is another breed that yields beautiful feathers. Here’s an example of a streamer-type fly that was born out of desperation. I was fishing with my buddy, Sim Savage, when we encountered high and slightly murky water. Sim showed me some baitfish-style flies tied entirely with grizzly feathers.
I happened to have a few coq de Leon hen pelts. I adapted them to the design of Sim’s pattern, and they worked great. Sim’s Seducer, as I’ve named it, is now a go-to fly, especially when conditions are less than ideal and there’s no obvious insect activity.
Hook: Short to regular-length streamer hook, your choice of sizes.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Head (optional): A cone or beadhead.
Tail: Two or four coq de Leon hen cape feathers.
Body: Coq de Leon hen feathers, folded and tied in by the tips.