by Fly Fisherman

This part of the fly is the other major controversial feature among tiers and among users. Many expert fly fishermen incline in the direction of heavily hackled flies and an equal number insist upon sparsely hackled flies. The fact remains that the “bug” has six legs, seldom more than eight. With the hook and the weighty or absorbent materials used, a hackle spread consisting of six or eight barbs on the bottom of the fly and it would disappear under the surface of the water without hesitation. The old English tiers were strong for lots of hackle, and well greased. When one examines some of these flies, with the fragile soft hackle used, it’s no wonder.

The modern trend is towards sparse hackle but ENOUGH to float the fly. Here another condition arises. On what type of water will the fly be used and how skillful is the fisherman in dropping the lure lightly to the surface of the water? On heavy fast water the fly necessarily would require more hackle to stay afloat than on slow moving “chalk type” streams or smooth lake surfaces. Again there is the quality of the hackle. The better the hackle the sparser the fly can be tied to accomplish the same end. All things being equal, the sparser the hackle on the fly the better it represents the “natural” and it has been proven time after time to be far superior in effectiveness on the water. I am definitely of the “sparse” school and unless otherwise requested the flies I tie for others, and for myself, will be of that type.

The natural or normal size of the hackle spread or length of the legs which simulate those on the fly you are tying is, on the dry fly, one and one-half times the distance from the shank of the hook to the barb or point. If this distance is one-quarter inch, the length of the hackle barbs should be approximately three-eighth inches. (See Fig.)



Another strong trend which is becoming increasingly evident is that for “variants” and “semi-variants.” Flies tied in this fashion are excellent floaters and excellent fish attractors. Most dry flies of the mayfly clan and many others can be tied
as a true variant if to be used on heavy fast water or as a semi-variant on water a bit quieter in temper, such as most of the eastern and mid-western streams. The variant is constructed, generally speaking, with longer, heavier than usual tails and one of its two hackles up to two sizes larger or even longer. The second hackle is generally the normally correct size for the fly. Hackles, too, are usually of two different shades or kinds. It is strongly suggested that the fly tier include a few of the known patterns in his tying, such as Donnelly’s Light and Dark Variants but we urge that also the same procedures be injected in fashioning variants of dry favorites such as Adams, Gordon Quill, Ginger Quill, Blue and Red Uprights, Mosquito, Black Gnats, etc.

On regular dry flies size 14 and smaller, and the hackle is top grade, one hackle should suffice. We will presume the hackle you have is average, so in preparing for this part of the fly two hackle quills of the same approximate size, and of a dimension to suit the fly being tied, are selected. Grasp the hackles at the extreme tips and fan out the barbs along the quill by running thumb and forefinger down the full length lightly. The point where the barbs do not spring back but stay lazily where your caress left them is the point from which you strip or scissor off the soft, webby section next to the stalk. Holding both tips together fasten the butt of the quills, close about three turns then bring the hackle in front of the wings one or two turns. Cross the hackle tips with your tying thread and jam against hook. Follow with two or three additional wraps and hitch. Cut the hackle tips protruding closely with scissors or razor blade. If difficulty is evident in getting the hackle to spread vertically try fastening the hackle to the hook, allowing a complete turn of the bare quill before the barbs start to spread. Adjustment is more easily accomplished using this method.

The hackle on American type Spider ties is extremely long but is tied sparsely, that is not more than three or four turns of hackle at the most. The best hackle for Spiders is the spade or throat hackle which is found on the sides of the necks or capes—those short hackle quills with extremely long but fine quality barbs. The other alternative is the tips of the largest hackle quills on the neck. It may take two of these tips to get the few barbs you will need on this fly. The body of the Spider is generally of tinsel or quill segment such as condor or macaw. The tail is extremely long and consists of ten or twelve hackle barbs of the same quality as mentioned above.

Wet hackle is wound, usually, preceding the tying in of the wings however this is not absolutely essential. The single hackle quill is secured to the hook with the outside or front of the hackle quill uppermost or to the front. When winding it in you will find its tendency, more or less, is to point backward toward the tail which is as it should be. Most wet fly hackle wound as above is left as is, with the wing tied in over the hackle. Some tiers, however, clip the hackle off the top and sides leaving a semblance of beard hackle. In justification of this clipping procedure the fact is that the natural fly does not usually possess legs on his back.

A neater method of leg installation on the wet fly is the beard hackle, the whisker or the “spike.” The beard can be tied in either before or after the wing is placed and I find that tying it in after makes a cleaner job. Remove from the hackle quill a clump of barbs, cut to the correct length so that when tied in the tips of the barbs will reach just to the hook point. Hold in the right hand between thumb and forefinger, first, with butts of barbs to the right. (The hook should project from the vise in the “point exposed” manner as far to the right as practicable.) The left hand thumb and index finger or the second finger is looped over the vise and the hook, meeting below the point where the beard is to be fastened. Place the clump of barbs into the left fingers with the butts projecting beyond the point of tying far enough to get a grip with the tying thread. Raise to the hook and wrap thread around and tie in. If the barbs follow the line of the hook too closely a couple of wraps of thread behind and under the beard, close up, will help to project it outward so that the barbs aim approximately at the hook point. If you have extreme difficulty in following the above maneuver, take the hook out from the vise and turn it over, upside down, and tie in the whisker as you might a wing.


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