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!

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12 comments on “Streamer Hackles – A Primer on What to Look For

  1. Eunan says:

    Great article Don. I pretty much exclusively use Whiting American Rooster Saddles. As you mentioned, the stems on the capes are stout, but on the saddles, the stems are much thinner. My only qualm is that, despite a great hackle in terms of barb density, softness and length, the shape seems to vary a bit between the natural white (rounded), and the natural dun (more pointy). However, if buying colored hackle, then they are almost certainly dyed over white, and dyeing them is a breeze too, as I’ve done a couple of saddles for custom orders – watermelon, anyone??

    That said, the hackle shapes on the saddles are pretty uniform, like the one on the right in your picture above (except on the dun as described above) and of course, it being a saddle, you get nice shaped hackles of varying length, with broad butts and narrower rounded tips, capable of tying from size 1 – 10xl right down to about size 6 8xl.

    Generally available for about $20-25, you get a nice range of hackles for many sizes of flies.

    Just another thing to consider for the streamer tier.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Thanks for your input here Eunan!
      I was not in the position to comment on this because I have only ever looked at those Whiting American Rooster Saddle capes, never bought and tied with one. Great to have the observation from a fellow tier who has experience with them…. thanks very much for your comment, and taking the time to add some valuable info to this piece.

  2. Doug Daufel says:

    Nice article Donnie!

  3. Kelly L says:

    I like the Whiting American Rooster Saddle hackles too, for my streamers. Great blog today Donnie. I am sure this will help a lot of people!

  4. Lance Allaire says:

    I use Whiting American Rooster Saddles, as well. My buddy, Tim Cole swears by Ewing Deceiver Packs. They are hard to find, though.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Lance;
      Another fan of the Whiting American Rooster Saddle Capes, nice! I also have found and used some Deceiver packs, they are pretty nice for streamers…forgot to mention that in the article….thanks for your input!

  5. Lance Allaire says:

    By the way, I just acquired a bunch of old saddles from Bud Wilcox’s fly shop. The old stuff is definitely more pointy, and the quality and colors are all over the dial.
    CS bought from Bud, so this might explain the thinner, pointy hackles in her work.

  6. Don Bastian says:

    That’s cool info to add, Lance. Thanks! Lucky for you to get some of those old saddles.

  7. Gin Clear says:

    Reblogged this on Gin Clear and commented:
    Great review of selecting feathers for streamers. Thanks, Don!!

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