Understanding Feathers


For many fly tyers, feathers are a very confusing topic. With the growth of fly tying and the creation of genetically raised chickens, the quality of one of our most basic materials has greatly improved. For years tyers searched in vain to find necks of the correct size color or shape. With the growth of choices, the selection of which feather to use is no longer a question of availability, but a matter of which application is best for the type of feather involved. For the beginner, the issue is even more confusing because the beginner will often assume that there are little if any differences between feathers. More often than not people will believe that cost is the only factor to consider when selecting a piece.


To begin, all feathers are of use for some type of fly. Some feathers are of more value because of the type of function they perform. While this seems simple enough, few people can understand why chickens are so expensive. Often I've had people that raise birds ask me if they could give me a bunch of feathers. While I appreciate free stuff, I often don't have use for any feathers which belong on a feather duster not a dry fly.


Let's begin by looking at the differences.  Below is the best illustration I have ever found showing the differences in feathers.


Top Row From Left to Right:..............Genetic Hen/ Hoffman Hen/ Indian Hen/Matuka/Indian Neck















Feathers From Left to Right: Above (S=Saddle, N=Neck)

*Hoff S&N* Hebert S&N*Select S *Keogh S*Econ S*Streamer S*Strung S*Capon N*Chinese N*Capon N*Saltwater N&S*Schlappen S




Note: sorry about not being able to label the photo correctly. Techno/Space limitations on my part make it impossible to correctly label the photo on the actual picture. (In otherwords, the type would be impossible to read on this format.) If the labels appear goofy, extend your browser to full screen...sorry this is the best I can do.


Terminology of Feather Pieces


Alot of folks don't understand the different terms we use in fly tying so let's take a look at some terms:


Necks are pieces which begin at the top of a comb on a bird and extend down to the middle of the back. By convention, the neck is trimmed into a round vase or hour glass shape.


Saddles are the tail sections of a bird. The saddle by convention is generally cut square with the remaining body and tail pieces left for waste.


Capons are males which are "fixed" at birth. ( if you don't get this go to one of the alt.sex.something.....) These birds gain more weight and body fat......hence the feathers become more like a hen's structure..webby and round.


Cocks or Roosters are the males while Hens are females.


Indian Necks/Saddles are imported from India and are chickens raised primarily for meat.


Chinese Necks/Saddles are pieces which are imported from China, where the necks are cleaned, dyed and sorted. Strangely enough, many of the birds are originated in the US, and are shipped overseas because it is cheaper to clean and dye them over there. At one time tyers bought Indians and Chinese necks by the pound, sorted them and pitched the bad ones. Many old time tyers complain today that the quality of these necks have gone down hill because some groups cream the good ones and leave the trash.


Genetic Chickens are birds raised specifically for fly tying. The bird's color, size shape, sex are closely watched and the flock is cross breed many times to achieve consistent color and quality.


Matuka or Body Pieces are the body skins of males minus the neck, saddle and wing. These feathers have a round tip and are all webby, wide feathers. A full piece will often contain chicken marabou which is shorter than the traditional turkey marabou. Hoffman calls this piece chick-a-bou.


Strung Hackle feathers are sorted, washed and dyed which are then strung together and sold by the ounce. Mostly these are long saddle feathers.


Schlappen is the center section of the saddle piece or the tail feathers. Schalppen is the webbest feather and is commonly used on salmon and steelhead flies or streamers as a collar or beard.





Note:To see a complete color chart refer to the Hoffman Hackle Page.

 Natural Black feathers typically have a green cast to them. Few if any natural blacks are 100% pure black. Many more black necks and saddles are over-dyed white.


 Coachman Brown feathers have a maroon cast to them. The original color came from the Rhode Island Red Rooster. Today most browns lack the deep rich red-brown color. More common is an orange cast brown.


 Cream or white necks are a soft vanilla color with a yellow cast to them. Few if any necks are pure white. Only bleached necks are a snowy white color.


 Ginger is a pale gold/orange color. The brightest gingers have a natural gold color to them.


 Light Dun/ Pale Watery Dun/ Silver Dun necks have a silver color to them. At one time these were extremely rare colors to find. ( To many the term "dun" is very confusing since it is both a stage of a mayfly and a color. In mayflies, the dun is the adult mayfly whereas, dun necks are gray.)


 Sandy Dun/Medium Dun is a tan color, which is brown and gray mixed together.


 Iron Dun/Dark Dun is a very dark gray. Originally, considered very rare and highly prized, today the dark dun is very common.



Cree is a mix of grizzly and ginger. Today this is a favorite color because an Adams color can be achieved by using one feather rather using the traditional grizzly/brown two feather combination. Crees range from dark, orange to an almost grizzly/faint cree color.


Grizzly is a barred feather which has a brown or black against a white or cream variation with the colors alternating horizontally. If you examine a grizzly closely, it is really a shade of brown vs. black. Grizzlies can vary from a very dark to a light grizzly.


Badger is a feather with a black stem. The black may extend outwards in a triangle shape on large feathers. A gold badger has a very pale yellow along the edges and black as the main body of the feather. The white badger has white instead of the gold color.This feather is commonly used for the Wulff series of dry flies and for Blue Spruce Streamer wings.


Furnace is badger which has brown instead of white or cream for the main body of the feather. Most brown necks contain some furnace feathers. A true furnace neck is very rare today.


Cocky-Bondu is a coloration which is almost impossible to find today. I have only ever seen one of the real necks...tyer John Betts has one.This feather is listed....the listing refers to an edge of black, middle color and a badger type center. The true Cocky-Bondus are Black/Brown/Black. This color was a favorite color used to make Hewitt's skating spiders years ago. Today in the UK they prize this color for making Greenwell's Glory. Most tiers sub Furnace for this color.


How to Select Dry Fly Hackle

To select dry fly hackle, start by looking at what type of flies and sizes you'd like to tie. For the beginner, using Indian necks is very likely a poor choice. Indian necks typically have short feathers and stiff stems. Usually , you can only tie down to size 16 with an Indian neck. The feathers also lack the density of genetic necks and you need to use 2 feathers in order to hackle a fly properly. Indian necks are away to increase the number of color choices available. Some of the feathers make nice tailing material and if you find a neck with round tips, they make excellent wings for spinners and catskill style dries.



Genetic Necks

Necks which are raised specifically for fly tying have thin stems, long feathers and a high density of stiff barbs. These necks will tie down to 22 or 24 depending on the grade. Growers such as Hebert, Hoffman, Metz, Spenser, Keogh and others have raised birds which offer all of the features mentioned. Most necks are strong in only a few sizes and the most of the feathers will range from 12-18. If a neck is strong in larger sizes usually it won't have as many smaller feathers. (The opposite is also true). One of the most overlooked feathers on these necks are spade hackles. These are smaller sized feathers located on the outside edge of the neck near the middle. Spade hackles generally have rounded tips. This material is the stiffest tailing material you can find....try some next time you tie a dry.


Understanding Grades

Each year necks and saddles are graded by color, amount of broken tips, fullness and the overall quality. What may be a 1 this year may be next year's number 2. Between growers there are differences in ratings and I stopped buying from some folks after I found they weren't consistent. By large I have found Metz and Hoffman to be the most reliable with the best product. Rarely, if ever have I gotten truly bad product from them. I have received several pieces which were simply better than others. Hoffman saddles are rated mostly by length and fullness. I have found that the grade 4's are the best buy and will tie alot of flies for the money. Reguardless of the grade you buy from Metz or Hoffman, all of the feathers are usable. It is often very difficult to see the differences between 2 & 1's. Grade 3 's sometimes don't have as many feathers, the tips are broken or they aren't as fully colored.


Using Saddles


Hoffman Saddles as rule are strong in two sizes. Most the saddles are 14-16. A few saddles are 16-18 and very few of them run 18-20 regardless of the grade. If you tie alot of flies in one or two sizes, these pieces are great! With one feather you may be able to tie 8-10 flies! From one piece you may be able to do something like 1,000-2,000 flies depending on the grade. Hoffman 's natural colors are cree, grizzly, white, brown and ginger. The duns and black are dyed.


Metz Microbarbs are a fairly new product. The saddles will tie 3-6 flies and range from

10-12-14. These saddles are ideal for the beginner or folks which like to tie larger dries or western style dries. They fill a nice void that Hoffman can't and there economical for the money. Expect to see more colors, larger quantities and increased availability this year. The colors available from last season are grizzly, ginger, cree, light dun, cream.


Metz Saddles are great for tying wooly buggers. One of the best feathers is located in the middle of the patch. This feather is a triangular shaped feather wide at the bottom and has stiff tips. By tying the feather in by the tip, you get a graduated hackle fly. Most grade 1-2 Metz saddles have size 8-10 and a few 12's on them. The long straight feathers located on the outside of the piece are useful for dry hackle in larger sizes. The centers of the saddle contain some schlappen and are useful for very webby collars.


Selecting Soft Hackles/Wet Fly Necks

Chinese Necks and Capons

Chinese necks and Capons are useful for bass bugs, wet flies, streamers and saltwater flies where you are looking for wide webby feathers. Capons are a better choice than Chinese necks because the feathers have a flat stem. Many Chinese necks have a triangular stem which can make tying the fly difficult. These feathers are the opposites of dry fly hackle in that you are looking for soft feathers which are webby.


Hen Necks and Saddles

Genetic hen necks are largely over looked by tiers. These necks will tie very nice soft hackle flies in smaller sizes and have nice feathers for wings and spinners. Most hen necks are drab and aren't as colorful as the rooster necks are. The larger feathers make nice collars for smaller bass bugs. Hen necks are also useful for making nymph patterns, collaring streamers or for steelhead flies.


Matuka Pieces

Matuka pieces are the body pieces minus the neck, wing and saddle. These pieces are great for streamers and contain lots grizzly marabou. I use them for crawdad patterns and for matukas as well. You can find alot of few useful feathers on these pieces.


Schlappen & Strung Hackle

Schlappen and strung hackles are useful for tying the biggest flies. On big bass bugs strung hackle can be used for skirts. Schlappen is useful if you would like all webby feathers that are very large. These are also the cheapest kind of hackle you can buy and are sold by the ounce or 1/4 ounce.The stems of these feathers aren't stiff and often they will twist.That's about it for understanding hackle. I hope I answered your questions.

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