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!