Streamer Hackles – A Primer on What to Look For

A few weeks ago I was tying 16 Carrie Stevens streamer patterns, actually about ten different patterns, for a few orders. While doing that I thought, as I had previously, that I get lots of questions as to what is the best hackle, where can they be found, etc., the choice of hackles, and what is best, decent, mediocre, and useless (except perhaps for Buggers, poppers, salt water flies, and cat toys), came into my mind. I took some pics of the stuff I use, this is by far not all of it, but the pictures here and comments will hopefully help you to select and maybe even find some good to better to best feathers to use.

Some of these packages are available, you can find them in your area fly shops, or maybe have a friend look for you, or even mail order them, but in the latter case, you take your chances on getting what you want. There is no substitute for: 1) being there in person to make your selection, and 2) having a trusted friend buy what they use for themselves, and get some for you. Option three, having a certified New England, Classic, traditional, heritage, or whatever term you choose to use, streamer expert on hand at the shop you order from is not something you can easily find, nor take for granted. If you have one of those in the employ of your shop, tip him gratuitously! ;-)

That said, here are the pics:

Three saddle hackles, all from the same pack of strung hackle. Feather on the left, pretty much useless for streamers.

Three saddle hackles, all from the same pack of strung hackle. The brand in this case is Orvis; they come from China. Feather on the left, pretty much useless for streamers. The one in the middle, useable, but it is not of the best, preferred shape, due to the pointy end. That said, in the Carrie Stevens book, there are specimens of original flies dressed by her, where the outer wing hackle looks very much like this one, narrow at the end, but it is usually laid over a perfectly shaped feather for the inner hackle(s). Sometimes we get too hung up on “feather perfection.” She did not do that… The hackle on the right – pretty much represents streamer feather perfection. Note the rounded end, it’s not too wide, not too narrow, just right, like the medium-sized bowl of porridge in Goldilocks and The Three Bears. Also note the area, size, and shape of the webbing nearing the butt end of what will be the tie-in point on a streamer. This helps create a foundation for shoulders, or makes a good looking wing when there is no shoulder. This feather is a good representation of the “best” streamer hackles.

Neck hackles can also be used, but nowadays the genetic dry fly breeding preference in the fly tying industry has bred out a lot of what used to be good for both drys, and the bigger feathers of the preferred shape, on a cape or neck (same thing, interchangeable term), out of existence. I am very fortunate to have a good selection of old, 20-plus year old Metz, CQH, Orvis, etc. dry fly necks, whose bigger feathers make perfect streamer wings. Lacking that, here are more options:

I found both these packages at the Orvis Store in Manchester, Vermont, a couple years ago. Saw them recognized them as great streamer hackles, and grabbed 'em.

I found both these packages at the Orvis Store in Manchester, Vermont, a couple years ago. Saw them, recognized them as great streamer hackles, and grabbed ‘em.

When buying strung saddle, the first thing I do is take the bundle from the pack, and go through all the feathers. There will be some schlappen in there; sort that out and store it with your schlappen to be used for tailing and throats. I keep my schlappen, trimmed, fluff removed, in three Plano boxes. Having the colors sorted, with a small inventory of each color, and ready-to-use makes this much easier.

The next thing on sorting strung saddle, if you want to, remove the non useable, and any damaged feathers. You are pretty much good to go from there on. Lots of the feathers can make fishing flies though. Let’s not forget that. Especially, you can place the inferior feathers on the inside of the wing, or use six hackles when only four are called for.

Whiting Streamer Pack - thankfully some companies are breeding and  producing feathers for the streamer tiers.

Whiting Streamer Pack – thankfully some companies are breeding and producing feathers for the streamer tiers. There are generally the perfect shape, but their downside is that often the stems are a little stout. They can be made better for tying-in by cutting the tip of the butt section with a scissor-cut, right in the stem. Basically you are making a cut in the stem, and parallel to it. This lessens the bulk of fat stems, by partly shredding it. Finally, the use of a pair of flat-blade, non-serrated tweezers, flattening the stems of all wing components, just before tying in, makes them lie flatter on the head / tie-in area on your fly.

Whiting also has their American Rooster Capes, these are pretty good for streamers, but again from what I have seen, the stems are a bit stout. My fellow streamer tier, Eunan Hendron, posted a very good reply below, after this piece was published. I decided to do an edit by placing notice here, of his recommendation based on experience of Whiting American Rooster Saddles. Be sure to read his comment, as he discussed his experience with them and the price range of under $30.

And finally, Chinese necks or capes, these are not saddle feathers. Bill Keough’s salt water necks / capes are good feathers for streamers, but most of the colors are a little too hot for traditional streamer tying;chartreuse, purple, hot pink, fluorescent orange. Yet, at the upcoming Fly Fishing Shows, if you can get there, check them out. If he has white ones and you don’t mind dyeing, go for it.

Chinese Streamers Necks, both came from LL Bean they are Wapsi Products.

Chinese Streamers Necks, both came from the LL Bean Flagship Store in Freeport, Maine. They are Wapsi Products.

Plenty of fly shops are Wapsi Dealers, if they do not carry these capes in their regular stock, get them to order some for you. Tying streamers should be the hardest part of this; locating good materials ought not prevent anyone interested in twisting up some classic streamer patterns from doing so.

And, seven years ago, my Streamer DVD was published. They are still available.

Traditional Streamers and Bucktails, 2007, recorded and produced by Bennett- Watt Entertainment

Traditional Streamers and Bucktails, 2007, recorded and produced by Bennett- Watt Entertainment as part of their DVD series, The New Hooked on Fly Tying Collection.

The methods demonstrated in this DVD, while it does not cover Carrie Stevens cementing wing components techniques, still contains a lot of good info that will benefit your streamer tying.

And I close with a photo of a streamer pattern, as an example of pretty good feathers for the wing:

G. Donald Bartlett, a Carrie Stevens pattern created and named after G. Donald Bartlett of Willimantic Connecticut.

Don’s Special, one of three Carrie Stevens patterns created and named after G. Donald Bartlett of Willimantic, Connecticut. Dressed by Don Bastian on a Gaelic Supreme Rangeley Style Hook, size #1 – 8x long.

Tight threads everyone! Happy Thanksgiving too!

Guess Who Came to the Show?

This is pretty cool. On Saturday November 22nd, at the 24th Annual International Fly Tying Symposium in Somerset, New Jersey, a man came to my table. He was intently eyeing my flies, moving back and forth, from one end of the table to the other. Finally the customer I was speaking to departed, so I devoted my time to this fellow. He was a fine looking man, and well dressed, casual. I’ll move ahead in this story for a moment, but after he left my table, my girlfriend, Mary, said, “That guy looks so familiar. I think he’s a newscaster.” Well…

The thing that was fascinating and interesting, was our conversation, which was driven by the questions he asked. This man knew full well, about Carrie Stevens, about Rangeley streamers, about the 19th-century B-Pond wet fly, and even Lucius A. Derby, for whom Carrie Stevens created a memorial streamer pattern in 1942, based on the B-Pond wet fly.

Our conversation covered details about the Masonic Lodge in Lowell, Massachusetts, named after Lucius A. Derby. According to the book, “Carrie Stevens: Maker of Rangeley Style Trout and Salmon Flies,” by Graydon and Leslie Hilyard, she made seventy-five of these streamers, which were presented to the Lodge members at the memorial service for Lucius A. Derby in 1942. He knew all about this.

He then asked about the “four known brook trout fin wet flies,” to which I replied, “Actually there are six historic trout fin patterns.” I had a Riker Mount with all six, so I got it out and showed the man. Brook Fin, Trout Fin, Brookie Fin, Bergman Fontinalis, Fontinalis Fin, and Armstrong Fontinalis. Michigan angler, fly caster and fly tier, Phil Armstrong, created the last three.

I also had my six original trout fin wet fly patterns; based on classic style, they are: Olive Trout Fin, Hemlock Trout Fin (previously published), and the Gold Trout Fin, Silver Trout Fin, Rainbow Fin, and Brown Trout Fin. There is one more original but I can’t think of it now.

He was there a good twenty minutes. The conversation was active, engaging, and never slowed for a minute. This man was knowledgeable beyond most of the fly tying / fly fishing folks who stop by my table. We also talked of Carrie Stevens fly tying. I had a Kelley’s Killer original, an image of the fly, tied by her, on my digital camera, so I got the camera out and showed that image to him as well. We discussed its components, differing greatly from the pattern in Hilyard’s book. It was one of those kind of exhilarating meetings that you remember.

We never did figure out who he was until we were at the bar that evening. Mary kept saying, he looked so familiar, but she could not remember his name. All of a sudden, I stated, I’m seeing an “image of the guy wearing a bow tie.” Kind of a page in my mind that just turned. She googled, “news correspondents who wear bow ties” – and BINGO!

Tucker Carlson – of Fox News. Formerly of CNN and MSNBC. Kind of made my day, after the fact. It was impressive that he was so knowledgeable about historical aspects of fly fishing and fly tying. Cool stuff!

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Carrie Stevens – Silver Doctor

Not too long ago a friend sent me this picture of a streamer. At first we were not sure what it was, though we were both pretty sure it was a Carrie Stevens tied fly. My friend sent the image to Don Palmer, of the Rangeley Outdoor Heritage Museum in Oquossoc, Maine, and he identified it as a Silver Doctor, though sans a few parts.

It’s pretty well beat, missing both cheeks, and the shoulder is gone as well on one side. The significant part of this image is that you can see evidence of Carrie’s use of cement / varnish, in the interior section of the wing. In addition to pre-assembling and cementing her wing components in advance; hackles, shoulders, and cheeks, she applied cement to the inner portion of the wing to help hold the fly together, and also used it to help set the wings. Here you go:

Silver Doctor Streamer, tied by Carrie Stevens.

Silver Doctor Streamer, tied by Carrie Stevens. The jungle cock cheek is missing. The normally red head has oxidized and changed color from rusting of the hook.

And here is the revealing image that most of us never get to see:

The inside of a Carrie Stevens streamer fly - look closely, you can see residue of cement that held the shoulder in place. This also bears witness to how much cement she used, and how long of the stem portion of the feathers she applied it to.

The inside of a Carrie Stevens streamer fly – Silver Doctor, missing both the gray mallard shoulder and jungle cock cheek. Look closely, you can see residue of cement that held the shoulder in place. This also bears witness to how much cement she used, and how long of the stem portion of the feathers she applied it to. You can also see more of the throat fibers exposed, revealing a bit of her unique, self-taught, layering method of applying the throat to her flies. The copy of notes I have that were made by Austin S. Hogan, angling historian, and the first curator of the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, reinforce all that I have described here.

Don’t forget, you can click on the pic, enlarge it, and be better able to view the cement residue. Remember, Carrie Stevens was a milliner by trade, so when she started tying flies in 1920 when she was already in her forties, it was only natural for her to apply what she learned in her trade to her new profession of fly tying.

The other thing that is noteworthy; you can also see the slight up-angle of the wing, the stems are not in perfect parallel alignment with the shank of the hook, as I’ve seen some tiers do, but are at a slight angle above the horizontal line of the hook shank. I mean to me, if you’re gonna tie Carrie Stevens patterns then I think they ought to be done as she did…that is, if you know the facts and have the ability to tie the fly in “true Rangeley Style.”

Thanks to my friend, Lance Allaire of Maine, for sending these pics to me.

Speaking of Ghosts…

Due to an inquiry from a customer a couple years ago, with his desire to have me create a frame of all the streamer patterns named “Ghost” – specifically “Something Ghost” as opposed to “Ghost Something” – which was the dividing line I decided upon, I expected to maybe find about, three dozen. Nope. Sixty-four by my count, including four original Ghost patterns that I have created. Two of these have been published here; you can use the search tab at top right of my page, for “Carrie’s Ghost” and “Wheeler’s Ghost,” type that in, hit “enter” and it will take you right to those articles.

I am tying Bubgee’s Ghost and the Rangeley Ghost next week to fill an order for a collector. All four of these patterns are part of a large series of thirty-six original streamer patterns I created about two years ago, using the Rangeley Region of Maine as the source for these patterns. I also created each pattern in the authentic style of Carrie Stevens, using her fly design concepts, use of materials, placement and layering of throat hackles, and shoulder selection from her body of work.

I have not been “on the stick” to get these flies finished, but I need to get crackin’. There are several totally new streamer / Lake Fly conversions in this collection, and the four Ghosts; Carrie’s Bugbee’s Wheeler’s, and Rangeley, were inspired by Carrie’s Gray Ghost and Ghost patterns of other tiers. Other locales and places in the Rangeley region were also used in choosing names and making these streamers come to life.

I thought that would be one frame of “Ghosts” —  looks like it will need to be two… ;-)

I will have streamer materials with me at the 24th International Fly Tying Symposium this weekend, in Somerset, New Jersey. I can tie a streamer for you on custom order, do a demo, or you can place an order for me to fill later on.

Vintage Stuff

A friend of mine, and one of my blog followers, and occasional commenters, Alec Stansell, of Massachusetts, posted this picture on his facebook page. I liked it and decided to share it with my readers. It is some carded streamers and a bottle of head cement from the Percy Tackle Company, of Portland, Maine. Percy Tackle Co. was started by Gardner Percy, I believe, back in the 1920’s.

The flies are a Mickey Finn (left), unknown (center) – I have put in a message to Alec to identify it, and a Gray Ghost. The head cement is pretty cool too. Wonder how it would work?

Old collectible items from the Percy Tackle Company, of Portland, Maine.

Old collectible items from the Percy Tackle Company, of Portland, Maine. The flies are attached to the card with a staple over the hook bend. This was the most common method of attaching streamers and bucktails to cards.

Don’t forget, you can click on the picture, and it will enlarge for a bigger image. If you have a new touch-screen laptop like I do (still getting used to it), then you can also make the pic bigger just by moving your fingers…either way works.

Alec just messaged me, this pic was on eBay. He bought the items, but has not yet received them. He offered to take macro pics of the items when he gets them, and we’ll get the name for that unknown pattern. He thinks it’s called “Commando.” Which is interesting because I do not know of a fly with that name…course, sometimes I just don’t know… ;-)

Rangeley Lake Flies

Earlier this fall, I tied an order for a customer going to Upper Dam in the Rangeley Region of Maine to fish for brook trout and land-locked salmon. He told me to select the patterns, so I thought it only appropriate to choose the flies for his trip from among the famous, historic, heritage Lake Flies, some of which were listed in Mary Orvis Marbury’s 1892 book, Favorite Flies and Their Histories. These flies were in the Orvis inventory, and also for sale by other firms, such as Abbey & Imbrie, who went out of business in 1920.

I tied them on size #6 and #8 Mustad hooks, though I did use contemporary wet fly hooks, in this case, Tiemco #3769, 0x-long wet fly hook. The reason for that is that vintage wet fly hooks such as the #3906 and #3399 Mustad, and other hooks such as Partridge, Allcock, Nyack and others, while they make great-looking wet flies, the contemporary hooks are in my view, better for fishing flies. This is due to their manufacture with high-carbon steel, and having chemically sharpened points and mini-barbs. Besides the limited availability of antique and vintage hooks relegates their prudent usage to collector and framed flies.

Here are the pics of part of the order:

A collection of Lake Flies, all originated and / or used in Maine's Rangeley Lakes Region.

A collection of replicated 19th century Lake Flies, all originated and / or used in Maine’s Famous Rangeley Lakes Region. On the left, Montreals; top center, The Tim – named for Tim Pond near Eustis;  right, Richardson, named after Richardson Lake; and center, a dozen Parmacheene Belles in two sizes. The latter was named for Lake Parmacheene, part of the system that the Magalloway River flows out of.

The Tim in Marbury’s book has a black ostrich herl head, but I substituted black rabbit dubbing to replicate the vintage look. This trick also makes for less time and effort where you might otherwise apply numerous coats of head cement to finish the head smooth and shiny. The fly, done this way, with the faux-ostrich dubbed head, looks classic and can be finished – and fished – right out of the vise. On to the next fly…

Rangeley Lake Flies, a bit of a closer image - macro photo.

Rangeley Lake Flies, a bit of a closer image – macro photo.

And finally, The Tim:

The Tim Lake Fly - named for Tim Pond, created in the 1870's-80's...named for Trapper Tim, for whom Tim Pond was named.

The Tim Lake Fly – named for Tim Pond, created in the 1870’s-80’s…named for Trapper Tim, for whom Tim Pond was named. The mallard wing was applied in two sections, basically layering two sections of webby mallard, right over each other. The second, top layer, is folded or tented over the lower portion of the wing.

The Tim:

Tag: Flat silver tinsel

Tail: Scarlet quill section

Ribbing: Oval silver tinsel

Body: Yellow floss

Hackle: Yellow

Wing: yellow dyed gray mallard

Head: Black wool or dubbing, finished with black thread.

I used Danville white Flymaster 6/0 for the body, and switched to black for the head. These Lake Flies were historically tied in larger sizes, #4, #2, #1, even as large as #1/0 and even 2/0 in some cases.

Oh yes, my customer reported success with the flies on his trip. Classic flies, fun to tie, and they still catch fish! See also the recent posts on the Black Prince, where that classic wet fly has tempted brown trout on Pennsylvania’s famed limestone streams, Penn’s Creek and Spring Creek, for two of my customers.

I have another batch that I took photos of, they were part of a second shipment. I’ll get those posted here as well…after the coming week or so of doing things more important right now…

24th Annual International Fly Tying Symposium

By way of announcement, the International Fly Tying Symposium will take place next weekend, November 22 and 23 at Somerset, New Jersey. I will be present, tying and demonstrating. The event is at the Garden State Exhibit Center, the show hotel is the Doubletree.

I plan to tie classic wet flies, and maybe some streamers, but more likely than not, I will focus on the 20th century style wets from Ray Bergman’s “Trout,” Helen Shaw’s “Flies for Fish and Fisherman,” and other books. I will also have on hand my copy of Mary Orvis Marbury’s “Favorite Flies and Their Histories,” since my book in progress, “Favorite Fishing Flies – 1892″ is being put on a fast track to a finish line to be sent to the publisher. I will concentrate on those patterns, likely focusing on some of the classic Lake Flies.

I will have updated information on my book, so please stop by and see my ongoing laptop slide show of the actual flies from the 122-year old color plates of flies that the book plate paintings were made from.

I will also have some gray mallard on hand, so if you want a demo on tying patterns such as the Professor, using one feather to make a great looking wing, whether for fishing or presentation, check this out. No more stress trying to locate prime matched pairs of gray mallard flank. ;-)

I also have a new, for about three years, method to mount wet fly quill wings. Thanks to my buddy Dave Lomasney, of York, Maine. If you have not seen this, you need to.

Looking forward to being there again!