Hackles – Photo Tutorial on What’s What

A quick hackle / photo visual tutorial:

A rooster and diagram illustrating where specific feathers that fly tiers use come from on thee bird's body.

A line-drawn rooster and diagram illustrating where specific feathers that fly tiers use come from on the bird’s body.

I saw this old, or what seemed to me to be old, image on facebook this morning, and right away, thought to myself, ” I get these questions a lot.” Good numbers of people in my classes or folks I speak with at shows and fly tying demos don’t know where on a bird certain feathers come from. Or they don’t know the difference between neck hackles, saddle hackle, or hen back feathers.

The saddle hackles on a hen might be called ‘saddle hackles’ but are more often called ‘hen back’ feathers. The spade hackles on a rooster are merely wide ‘hen back’ feathers on a hen that have very long webby fibers. And the spey hackle on the rooster is also called ‘schlappen.’ Note in particular, the well-illustrated differences in the comparative shapes of the neck, saddle, spade, and spey feathers. A similar ‘shape difference’ applies to hen feathers as well, neck vs. saddle, with all the hen feathers being shorter and more webby that those same feathers from a rooster.

Saddle hackles generally have thinner stems than neck hackles, making them very nice for drys because the thinner stem winds easier and results in less bulk, and while they (saddles) will contain dry fly hackles, the sizes are usually larger, suited for use on big drys. In fact, I’m working on some orders now for Fan Wing Royal Coachman drys; sizes #8, #10, and #12, and some nice, natural brown, vintage saddle hackle I have is working out very well. I’m headed to Maine and Lakewood Camps and the Rapid River next week for a few days, as a diversion from my invited participation as one of the featured fly tiers at the Carrie Stevens Weekend at the Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Oquossoc on June 26 – 28. I plan to tie some of those Fan Wing Royals in a #6 size to perhaps tempt a large landlocked salmon or even better, a big brook trout to the surface. I’m sure it has been a long, long time since any anglers have drifted a big Fan Wing Royal Coachman on those fabled waters, and that my friends, is in my favor. 😉 And for that I will be using a long 3x tippet. 😀

Neck hackles are better suited for winging streamers, at least on older rooster capes, and thankfully, on the newer genetic ‘streamer necks.’ Just remember, whether it’s a rooster or hen: Neck = cape; saddle = back, spey = schlappen. That’s pretty much it. Thanks for reading. 🙂

18 comments on “Hackles – Photo Tutorial on What’s What

  1. Kirk Dietrich says:

    Very cool find Don! Thanks a bunch. Hey, do you have anything illustrating the cross section of a saddle or neck feather? I believe the stem is oval in shape with the barbs protruding from each of the flatter sides of the oval but am not sure and have never seen a diagram of that. I’m thinking about drawing that up if it is in fact the case.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Kirk;
      I do not have anything showing what you ask. Not sure if the shape of stems is actually consistent, but rather it may vary from bird to bird.. Though if you ask my opinion, from my experience of over five decades of winding hackles, I’d say the stems we use from chickens are round; otherwise, if they were elliptical or flat on one or opposite sides, we would have an absolute blistering devil of a time winding them without constant twisting. 😉 Thanks for your comment!

    • Frank Hampton says:


      Thanks for sharing all that you do. I’m a beginner at the wet fly, streamer, and buck tail game. At this point I’m more interested in the tying perspective. To get to the point, I was reading Mr. Bashline’s great book on Night Fishing and he recommended a series of wet flies by season (Early, Mid and Late). I was able to locate recipes and many color plate drawings of nearly all them in my book collection (via Bergman’s Trout, J. Edson Leonard’s Flies, and Helen Shaw’s Flies for Fish and Fishermen”). I say nearly all except one – the Red Rogue. Have you ever tied this fly? Do you have a picture, a recipe, or could you recommend a good book where I could find it? In advance, thanks for your blog and your posts. Take care.


  2. dazzyd says:

    A great reference for novice (and not-so-novice) tyers, I’ve known some “experienced” tyers who don’t know where a Cape originates from… and as for “webby-cock” don’t go there!!!!! LOL!

  3. Bill says:

    Nice review of chicken feather basics, DB.

  4. Don Bastian says:

    Hi Darrell;
    I meant ONLY chicken hackle feathers in my reference to feather stem shape. To go elsewhere is way too big of a cat to tangle with. 😉
    I know for certain that barred wood duck flank, GP pheasant, to name just two, are NOT round. But why, when you keep the hackle straight when you wind it, does it almost ALWAYS, lay perfectly flat without twisting? The tier prevents the twist as he or she goes…and it holds true when winding over bare thread or a bit of dubbing as the late, great George Harvey promoted. A soft base helps…

    I THINK chicken hackle feathers are mostly round, I’ve worked with them for 50-plus years…so for me, there is no real need to personally confirm the shape of the stem. I get the fly tied, without difficulty for the most part 😉 – that’s really all that matters. Thanks for your interest and input. 🙂 Cheers! 😀

    • dazzyd says:

      [still hiding in a hole…] I find that genetic hackles have a life of their own and sometimes you almost have to beat them to death to stop ’em from twisting – somewhere I have a x20 magnifier and will have a look-see:)

  5. Don Bastian says:

    Oh and the stems nearer the base, which you mention, attaching a hackle when folding, yeah…they are more rectangular-shaped there…I know that too.. 😉

  6. Murray Buck says:

    As usual….the master educates the masses….lol….Thanks Don, much appreciated

  7. Rosemarie says:

    Hi My name is Rosemarie my email is la441984@gmail.com I have some vintage fishing fly and need to speak to someone that knows about them would like to know more about them.

  8. Bob Mahoney says:

    Don I took some photos of your trip to the Heritage Museum in Oquossoc ME, that I thought you may like to see, just let me know. I’m the one who picked up a Pink Beauty and a Will Ketch. Also, thanks for the great tips on finishing the heads. Bob M.

  9. Wayne Luallen says:

    Don – I skimmed the comments above but did not see anyone remark on the source of the drawings. The late John F. McKim was the artist. His graphic drawings are, in my opinion, perhaps the finest available among those who do or have done such for fly tying. This graphic, and many more, can be found in his book, “Fly Tying: Adventures in Fur, Feathers and Fun”, Mountain Press Publishing, 1982. Though paperback, I believe it can still be found among used book dealers. His section on feathers and their anatomy, pages 20-29, and their associated graphics is well worth the search for this book, but there is so much more that can be discovered is its 143 pages. The detail he is able to demonstrate with his graphics of various steps in tying goes to places that cannot be demonstrated by photographs alone. – Wayne

    • Don Bastian says:

      Thank you Wayne, very much for sharing that info on the artist of this drawing! Valuable addition to this article. I appreciate you taking the time to source it out! 😉 Cheers!

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