Raising hackles: The prized chickens at the center of fly fishing

Photos by Daniel Murphy (l) and John Howard (r)

Colorful hackle feathers are key to the sport of fly fishing // Photos by Daniel Murphy (left) and John Howard (right)

Nine hens and a rooster scuttle through the straw in a large pen in Steph and Eric West’s backyard in Grant, Minnesota. These are three-month-old Whiting True Blues—a breed that’s been selected to lay gorgeous blue eggs. The birds give a cockeyed warble to the Buttercup chickens rooting through the grass on the other side of the wire.

The rooster stands out from the pack. For one, he’s being a jerk, pecking and bustling at the hens in his harem. But also, his plumage stands out. Even on a young bird still hiding some downy fluff, his long saddle feathers flash iridescent shades of emerald and turquoise. His indigo cape is scattered with streaks of tan and spots of maroon.

These feathers catch my eye, and I’m not alone. They have the same effect on fish.

Whiting True Blue Hens // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Whiting True Blue Hens // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Chickens much like these are a lynchpin in the sport of fly fishing. These colorful hackle feathers—the long, spindly ones from the cape and saddle—are how fly fishers are able to sell their deception. They wind the feathers snug around the shaft of a hook to splay the tiny barbs in a fuzzy circle. Together with, perhaps, a tuft of elk hair or muskrat fur, these hackle feathers are the centerpiece of a perfect dry fly.

“At the heart of fly fishing, you have dry flies,” says Michael Fischer of Mend Provisions, a fly fishing outfitter in South Minneapolis. “They float on the surface—it’s all about surface tension on the water, and hackle is a big part of what makes them float.”

A dry fly is meant to imitate an insect, often a mayfly, that a fish would pluck from the surface of the stream. The stiff barbs of a quality feather work like tiny floating tendrils, spreading out to cushion the fly atop the water. The hackle also serves an aesthetic purpose. The barbs surrounding the body appear to a fish as if the fly’s wings are in motion.

Photo by Daniel Murphy

Photo by Daniel Murphy

So successful are these flies that, since the early 1900s, chickens have been bred in America for their hackles. In the 40s and 50s, a Catskills fly-tier named Harry Darbee crossed Thompson Barred Rock roosters with Old English Games, Blue Andalusians, and several other breeds, in an effort to create the perfect dun-colored neck cape. He sent eggs to a Minneapolis lawyer named Andy Miner, who employed meticulous breeding methods to create a range of colors and feathers unparalleled in their time. A great deal of the hackle available today owes to the bloodlines of these two breeders.

An angler’s access to quality feathers was scattershot for many of the early years of hackle breeding. Even the feathers advertised in Field & Stream were often badly damaged, collected from rural barnyards and illegal cockfights. But hackle quality has soared in the last few decades, and if you know a dedicated fly fisher it’s easy to understand why. The sport breeds a mild strain of obsession, from striving to wind the feathers just so, to deciding what sort of intricate details to borrow from nature.

Genetic Hackle rooster from Howard Hackle // Photo by John Howard

Genetic Hackle rooster from Howard Hackle // Photo by John Howard

“Insects have lifespans and patterns based on the time of year, just like flowers bloom at a certain time, bugs hatch at a certain time,” says Fischer. “So if you look at the water and see an olive-colored bug with a gray wing, you’re going to tie that.” And because there are just as many kinds and colors of bugs as there are fish that might want to eat them, in turn, hackles have been bred in every size, shape, color, and pattern.

Today, the gold standard hackles are made by Whiting Farms in Colorado—voluminous, symmetrical capes, and saddles that arc and flow like a fountain. Dr. Tom Whiting (of Whiting True Blue namesake) might select only a handful of roosters each year from among 100,000 or more as potential breeding stock.

Access to high quality fly feathers has never been better, but the market is not immune to supply shocks. In 2011, Dianna Agron, who played Quinn Fabray on “Glee,” and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, then a judge on “American Idol,” were among the celebrities that touched off a nationwide hackle shortage when they popularized hairstyles with feather extensions. Suddenly, chicken farmers began fielding calls from beauty salons, in what had to be one hell of a worlds-colliding moment for those groups.

Photo by Daniel Murphy

Photo by Daniel Murphy

In the early days, hackle breeders were mostly generous with their eggs—spreading their best stock for the good of anglers everywhere. Now that the industry has matured, the sources of quality hackle are highly concentrated. Chris Wigg, who recently established Root River Hackle outside Lanesboro, Minnesota, estimates the major players number less than a dozen in the United States (the epicenter of the genetic hackle market).

“To even get in to this industry, you have to buy someone who’s selling,” Wigg says. “You can’t just access eggs. They’re very highly guarded.” There are backyard hackle breeders who are happy to sell eggs, but those birds are nowhere near the quality of industry leaders like Whiting.

Wigg grew up in Iowa, obsessed with his backyard chickens (“I’d sneak my incubator into my closet”). After moving to Minnesota, he convinced his wife to let him buy a few chickens. Before long, they were researching rare varieties to breed, and ended up buying the entire flock from Howard Hackle in Didsbury, Alberta.

A young Whiting True Blue // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

A young Whiting True Blue // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

“We brought back just over 550 birds,” Wigg recalls. “That included 70 roosters and all the breeding hens. Fifteen family groups. We brought them back on a 27-hour straight through drive from Canada and didn’t loose a single bird.” He says that John Howard raised “one hell of a flock of birds,” citing the cold conditions in Alberta as ideal for raising a chickens with a coat of dense feathers.

Half of Wigg’s facility is made up of breeding pens, where family groups are divided by color. He has four “grizzly” families (that’s black-and-white striped, an extremely popular fly pattern), three browns, two whites, and gingers, badgers, blacks, blues, and more. On the other side of the building, roosters live in individual cages—if they were free-range, they’d peck each other’s feathers out, which is pretty self-defeating in the hackle business.

So while hackle chickens are restricted to cages, they’re at least spacious and well-ventilated, off the ground, each with their own feeder and water source. A breeder must optimize every aspect of the chicken’s life so they grow the best feathers. For example, Wigg installed a lighting system with a thirty-minute gradual dimmer, to make sure the chickens don’t get anxious at the sudden change of light and have time to roost.

Grizzly Hackle Feathers // Photo by John Howard

Grizzly Hackle Feathers // Photo by John Howard

There’s no doubt that one could raise philosophical objections to breeding an animal solely for its plumage. While the underlying concern is more than legitimate, at least hackle chickens are a tiny minority of the total chickens raised in America each year. And their lives are about six times longer and a myriad degrees less stultifying than the standard pullet destined for the fryer.

It’s been about nine months since Wigg hatched his first generation. The birds are a little fatter than they were in Canada—owing to the corn in their diet as opposed to the canola-heavy feed they’d get in Alberta. But the hackles are filling in nicely. Soon enough, they’ll be wound into an Adams, Royal Coachman, or Parachute pattern, gliding down a stream somewhere, waiting for an unsuspecting fish to take notice.

 
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John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Senior Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in real life at various bar patios in South Minneapolis.