Selecting Streamer Hackle

I’d like to make a brief post addressing the subject on where to locate and how to select good quality streamer hackles for tying all types of fresh water streamers. In particular I’m focusing this article on the patterns of Carrie Stevens and other imitative and attractor streamers of Maine and New England origin. The preferred feathers and standard streamer fly silhouette are pretty much the same on these flies, unless a pattern originator makes specific recommendations to the contrary.

Like Goldilocks sampling the porridge bowls of the three bears, she checked out two bowls before she found one that was perfect for her. By comparison, in tying streamers, the feathers we use for properly dressed New England and Rangeley style streamer flies need to be just right. When seeking feathers for tying streamers, we need to be on the lookout in each fly shop we visit for “the right stuff.”

What is just right? Not long and narrow, not skinny or pointy at the ends; not too long and too wide; not too webby, but not totally lacking some webbing toward the butt ends of the stems. The stems can not be too soft. Likewise stems that are too stiff and coarse can increase head size and create difficulty when tied in. The preferred shape has some roundness at the end of the feather without being too wide near the butt at the shoulder of the fly.

We of course like high-grade feathers with the ends of all the barbs to be intact, but feathers with minimal damage can be used for fishing flies, especially if placed on the inside of a wing containing four to six feathers in the wing. We also need to consider that the perfect streamer feathers for size #4 and smaller patterns can come from a Chinese neck or a Whiting Streamer pack, while there may be few to none suitable feathers on the same cape and packages for #2 – 8x long and larger hooks.

Metz, Whiting, and  other brands of dry fly neck hackles produced prior to roughly 2000 also offered some good quality hackles in the larger sizes that were perfect for streamer wings for dressing large flies, especially some of the 8x and 10x long trolling sizes in #2 and #1. Dry fly genetics has pretty much eliminated this source for tying streamers. Imported capes sometimes still provide good quality streamer hackles.

What do I use? I use neck and saddle feathers that are suitable in shape, and not too wide, too narrow, or too soft. Within these criteria I use whatever I have, or whatever I can locate. I am fortunate to have bought a lot of saddles and capes fifteen to twenty years ago, but on the other hand I still find myself looking for certain colors. When I see nice strung saddles, I buy them. For example, last summer one day I visited two shops not far from where I live. Both had a good supply of packaged 1/4 oz. strung saddle hackle. Some was Orvis and some of the rest was from a defunct-fly tying material supplier in New York, and some was from Ray Rumpf & Son, a dealer in southwestern Pennsylvania. These shops are not located in the heart of traditional streamer tying country, and I could tell by the prices, $2.50 for 1/4 oz. and dust on the packages that they had been on the shelf a while. Another bonus was the nice colors available. I cashed in bought about 30 packages of these feathers.

Last March when in Maine I found some strung saddle at L. L. Bean. Most of Bean’s fly tying materials come from Wapsi, a large fly tying wholesaler. Some of these packs were very nice, and I needed some feathers for upcoming streamer classes I was teaching, so I bought some. I decided to sort these packs. Going through the strung bundles I removed all the schlappen feathers. These are the long-barbed, very webby feathers. I sorted these into my schlappen box, cutting off the lower end and discarding the fluffy butt ends of each stem. Schlappen fibers make perfect throats on wet flies and streamers. To be honest, these were good packages. I had bought several, choosing them based on the longest length feathers in the packs, and going by visual inspection to attempt to buy what I wanted for the right shape. There were some “too narrow” feathers, and a few damaged feathers, but I cemented these white saddles together and made Black Ghost wings for fishing flies.

I was pleased at the quantity that remained which was perfectly suited for my needs. We must be vigilant at our shops, maybe have your local shop employee give you a heads up when new inventory of strung saddle and Chinese capes are brought in. Get there before they get picked over.

The next best thing would be to make up a custom order, place it at your local shop, and have them add it to their next stock order. But you’ll need to order 1-1/2 to 2 times the amount you expect to need. Some feathers will not be what you really want. These feathers can be used to tie buggers, Deceivers, bass poppers, or fishing streamers. If you don’t tie these patterns, give them to a kid’s fly tying program. You can get away with a too narrow pair on the inside of a four to six feather wing. No one will really notice, least of all the trout and landlocked salmon that might see these “second place” flies.

In examining a few Carrie Stevens original streamers in-hand, and having studied more than 75 photos of originals tied by her and presented in the books Forgotten Flies, 1999, Complete Sportsman; and Graydon and Leslie Hilyard’s Carrie Stevens: Maker of Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies, 2000, Stackpole Books, it can be ascertained that Carrie Stevens did not rigidly adhere to narrow specifications for the shape of her streamer wing feathers. On occasion the long and narrow feathers can be seen on some of her work. As a commercial tier she was no doubt limited by material sources, especially since there was no abundance of fly shops in the Rangeley Lake region where she crafted her streamers for thirty years up until 1954. Most of her materials were mail-ordered, and the variations of the perfect feathers and dye lots created some differences in her individual flies. This is what we would expect; she adapted her work and used the materials that were available to her, while not compromising on the quality of her work.

Here are a few photos that might be helpful:

Two packages of Orvis strung saddle hackle. You’ll note the disparity in length between these two packs. The orange averages an inch longer than the pink. I would have looked for pink that was longer, but this was the only package on the shelf. The quality of the pink feathers was acceptable even though a little shorter than I prefer. Generally less than $5 per pack, worth it if you can find good quality strung saddle hackles.

Whiting Genetic Streamer Pack. Most packs consist of two feather patches. These feathers are almost the perfect shape for streamers, however they don’t normally contain feathers large enough for tying larger than size #2 – 8x long. The stem diameters are also a little larger, making the feathers, A) desirable for eliminating sagging wings, and, B) Undesirable with large stem butt diameters for keeping head size under control. A pair of flat tweezers or small pliers helps to flatten the stems before tying in. At about $13 per pack, they’re a little pricey.

Wapsi Brand Chinese rooster capes from L. L. Bean. These will make nice streamer wings, except the largest feathers are suitable for use mostly on large size trolling streamers and tandem hook streamers. About $6 per cape, they are economical and also provide the “filing cabinet” of sized and matched, left and right feathers at your fingertips.

Examples of strung saddle hackle from the Orvis pack in the first photo. Whether neck or saddle, loose or on a cape, these three feathers give you something to go on when seeking the perfect streamer feathers. The one on the left is too short and too wide. The one in the middle, just right in length but too narrow and pointy near the end. The one on the right: Ahhh, just right!

Don’t forget that steaming feathers completely straightens and removes all twists, curves, and bends from the stems, and wrinkles and even zip-loc creases from the barbs. To read more on steaming, go to my search tab, type in “steaming feathers,” hit ‘enter,’ and you’ll be conveniently taken right to the posts here on my blog about steaming feathers. Imagine that! Thanks everyone. I hope this is useful!

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24 comments on “Selecting Streamer Hackle

  1. Woolybugah says:

    Don, Thanks for educating a”hack” fly tyer.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Dick!
      Thanks for your comment here, and I’m glad a “hack” fly tier :-) could benefit and gain some useful info from this post. Ha, ha! Thanks for sharing your time at Wantastiquet Lake with me!
      It was a lot of fun! Take care!

  2. An excellent article Don, of the few streamers I’ve tied, finding the ‘right’ hackle was tedious but now I know what to look for. :) Thank you. :)
    Darrell

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hello Darrell:
      I am happy that you found this useful…it could have been a more extensive article I suppose, but aside from naming brand names of some companies that produce or sell hackles, some now out of business, it’s a nutshell piece intended to present the basic information on streamer hackles. Thanks for your comment!
      Cheers!

  3. Great post Don, I hope you don’t mind if I share it on Streamers 365. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find good hackle for streamers, and have mostly stayed away from the strung as I find many are strung all left or all right. Perhaps steaming could help here. I think Don Ordes has used his Wing Things system to get around the curve issues with some steam added in as well. Another source for the hackle I’ve used is Howard’s Hackle in Canada, the grade 3 capes have a good amount of feathers, just on the slim side for streamers. Mostly I’ve been using the Whiting American and the Whiting CDL capes. The shapes of the feathers are perfect, the only real downside is the thicker stems, but you can crush the stems to tie them in and reduce the bulk somewhat.

    Thanks for the great post Don.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Darren;
      Thanks for your comment, and for asking to share this post on Streamers365. Sure thing, go right ahead! Thanks for asking!
      The curved stems in strung packages can definitely be corrected with steaming. I didn’t get into that on this article, but when I steam feathers for streamers, immediately afterward, I place them flat on a counter top, make them straight by holding my thumb on one end and my other hand on the tip, and the place a weight on them. For me it’s usually a salt or pepper shaker, fork, juice glass, knife handle; whatever is handy on the counter near my stove. A few minutes in that position, and presto! I have also Scotch taped them to the counter top too, in addition to placing a light weight on the mid-section of the stem to help it cool and dry straight.
      Another thing that helps, and I didn’t go into that either is the cementing assembly for streamer wings. I know that this is not generally done on most streamers, and that Carrie Stevens pioneered the method, but it definitely helps to get feathers to behave, besides making them pretty much an easy snap to tie in as a whole wing assembly. That’s why I like it! I hope to do that one day; get wing assemblies made, and do a video segment of my tying-in method for the assembled wings. If I had bodies and wings made up ahead, I bet I could set a dozen wings and whip finish them in ten minutes or less. Not totally complete the head windings…just “set it and forget it!” Ha, ha! I just thought of that! :mrgreen: Another little project…now I’m about to go fishing with my neighbor this evening again… :-) Thanks for your comment and support Darren!

  4. Norman Plourde says:

    Very useful. Thanks!

    • Norman Plourde says:

      Do you find yourself cementing more wings together before tying them in? Thanks again for all the info you post. Your blog is informative, interesting and a joy to read.

      • Hi Norm;
        I am glad you liked this post.
        To answer your question, I have been cementing my streamer wings beforehand, ever since a year ago when I did it for the first time. I find that it makes the setting of the “wings” so much easier and faster than doing it as I did formerly; setting the wing hackles with thread wraps, then one shoulder at a time, if any, and cheeks, one at a time. Once cemented with feather stems aligned beforehand, the entire wing assembly, both tried in at once, goes into place very easily for me.
        I can set a finished wing assembly with just 3 – 4 thread wraps. I want to make some bodies and wings, and then do a video segment of repeated wing mounting to demonstrate my tight-wraps-from-the-start-method. Any loose, or less-than-tight thread wraps to set, position, and secure materials in place, for the most part, are not going to contribute to durability of the end product in this case, the fly.
        Glad you enjoy the blog, I appreciate your support!

  5. Kelly L says:

    Don, this was a great article. Thank you for sharing this, and the great photos too. I have to depend on the internet sadly to make purchases. But now and then I have found strung saddle that was good. I don’t want to ask the two shops locally to order, because I may not like the look of them, and would feel like I had to buy them. Most of the time they don’t have any strung hackle. I have mainly depended on Whiting saddles and necks. (American Rooster) I also have lucked out at times buying a cape from Rumph a time or two, sight unseen. But if I do get to another shop, and I can look over their products, this will surely be helpful. Thank you.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Kelly;
      Thanks for your comment and detailed explanation of my article and why you liked it. I appreciate it! I know plenty of folks have difficulty locating good quality streamer hackles, and if one does not live within decent driving distance of a fly shop, then you have to use mail-order. Back in the 1990′s there were two fly shops in Williamsport, PA, now there are none. The closest one is McConnell’s Country Store & Fly Shop, 22 miles away at the confluence of Big and Little Pine Creeks. In my travels, I usually check out the shops and their supply.
      Thanks again, Kelly.

  6. Kelly L says:

    Don, yes in your travels you can stop at the fly shops along the way. I rarely go outside of an hour to fish. There is a shop an hour away. It is new, but it continues to grow. The owner is great, and he just keeps adding more new stuff. The local shop here where I live though, doesn’t have hardly anything. But he will order for me. I can order for myself and get it faster usually. As far as why I liked the article, the photos show the different kinds of hackle, and who the distributor was. You have examples, close up, and in brilliant color of the types of hackles. You also show what a perfectly shaped feather should look like for the person just starting into the featherwing streamer. That is very helpful. You go above and beyond on this blog. I’m a steady fan.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Kelly;
      Once again, thank you for your support and comments here. Hopefully this info and the other comments that have been posted thus far will help anyone looking for streamer feathers. Thanks again!

  7. eunanhendron says:

    Great post Don. Lately I’ve been avoiding strung hackles. I’ve found more often than not, that there are more useless feathers than useful, and have felt cheated by the suppliers. Thus, I’ve been saving my pennies for Whiting American capes and saddles. While 5-6 times more expensive than a bag of strung hackles, the quality and quantity is far superior and in my mind justifiable for the cost. I just got a nice yellow Whiting American cape, for, you guessed it, Lady Killers! Maybe I’ll check out Chinese necks for a slightly less ‘wallet-lightning’ alternative.
    I’ll also add this; there are good deals to be had on Whiting American capes / saddles at many online stores, and I’ve found them for $10-16 per cape / saddle, so all in all, a perfect deal if you can find them at that price!

    Informative as always.

    Eunan

    • Don Bastian says:

      Thanks Eunan, for your comment, and for contributing good information that my readers may find helpful in their feather searches. I have been fortunate to hand-pick through packs of strung saddle, and have been fairly pleased with the results of late. I was experimenting with a couple packs of white, sorted out the schlappen, put them in my Plano 3450 schlappen storage container, left the good streamer saddles on the string, and really had had enough “reject” feathers to make cemented wings for 7 Black Ghost streamers. I’ll try to do photos of them to give my readers another option.
      Thanks for your support, input, and comment!

  8. Marc Fauvet says:

    another gem. thanks Don ! :D

  9. [...] on Don Bastian’s blog, don has posted a couple of great articles on selecting hackles for feather-wing / Rangeley style [...]

  10. [...] Bastian helps decipher which hackle is just right for tying streamers; because sometimes, you have to sample many, he says, “Like Goldilocks sampling the porridge [...]

  11. [...] best materials for streamer wings and shoulders. Here is a well written article by Don Bastian on Selecting Streamer Hackle. If you want to see a collection of awesome tied feather wing streamers, see [...]

  12. Bob Fowler says:

    I found your article excellent training – I also would be very interested in a follow up article about how you get the cemented wings to align correctly on the fly – I’m curious as my ‘teacher’ always suggested a loose wrap to start and now after 20 years of inactivity, I find that doesn’t work for me consistently

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Bob;
      Seems you were reading the archives…thanks! I am with you on the loose wrap bit, some fly tying instructors promote that with wet fly wings, but I have never found that to work. A tight grasp, securely holding the wings in place, and then making your first thread wraps tight, keeping the wing from moving is what works. Same for streamer featherwings. And not just for me. It produces consistent results.
      On streamers, I have taken to a variation of Mike Martinek’s method of mounting bunches of schlappen as a base underneath the wing. While Mike layers and builds his bunches of schlappen both above and below the hook shank, and part of this is in Carrie Stevens’s method of layering hackle fibers for the throat; what I do is simply add one or sometimes two bunches of schlappen, stacked one on top the other, at the head, on top; even cutting them off short, maybe 1/4″ behind the head. What this does is provide a build up or volume of material so that when you tie in the cemented wings, which I now do one at a time, they don’t collapse or fold inward into a cupped or dish-shape, but rather remain with convex sides facing out. The bunch of schlappen provides bulk to prevent the wing collapse.
      There is also this option, which I know Mike does, and I have also used this procedure; when the wings don’t set properly, I place a bead of rubber cement along the inside of the wing in the shoulder area of the first mounted wing, then move the second wing into place, and before making any thread wraps, pinch and hold it in place for a half minute; once the cement starts to grip, then the thread is wound over the butt ends of the stems. This literally cements the wing into proper alignment. While some may not believe in this, the method actually is right in line with the cemented front section of the fly, i.e. baitfish imitation of streamers as initially conceived by Mrs. Stevens. Hope these tips are helpful.
      Thank you very much for your comment!

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