The breeding of chickens specifically for their feathers is a very, very small niche industry, barely even known about by the regular food poultry industry nor by the primary poultry breeders. The total world market for genetically bred fishing fly tying feathers may only be around $5 million per year, and thus supports but a few small businesses. This minor market is also at the mercy of a number of impinging factors, such as currency exchange rates, trout “whirling” disease, export impediments due to disease concerns (i.e., avian influenza, exotic newcastle), regional droughts which affect fishing, and even global climatic change. All in all, being in the “feather business” is a classic niche enterprise, with the incumbent high risk/reward aspects. It is also a long-term endeavor due to a rather severe initial learning curve developing the needed facilities and husbandry to produce quality, undamaged feathers to sell. So these are the overriding concepts I want to convey – that feathers are hardly a “get rich quick” business – and that you better love it if you want to get into it, because it is definitely a project for the long haul.
All these warnings having been said, the feather business can be a very rewarding pursuit. Fishing fly tiers take their feathers surprisingly seriously, even passionately, and are very willing to pay considerable money for the pelts. Most of our products at Whiting Farms sell from $15 to $100 per pelt at retail, with two pelts coming from each rooster. We even sell a few “collector” capes – called “Ultra Platinums,” which are probably never even tied with – for $200 to $250 apiece, which are always on backorder. So it can be lucrative if all aspects of the enterprise are clicking: genetics, husbandry, facilities, processing and marketing.
Since this audience is probably most interested in the genetic aspects of the feather business, I’ll dwell mostly on this subject. And “dry fly” hackle is the most complex and important.
Dry fly hackle are rooster feathers that, when wrapped around a fishing hook, splay out into a dense hackle “collar,” which when cast onto water causes the fishing fly to stand atop the water – thus a “dry fly.” Dry fly hackle are the feathers from the head and neck of a rooster, usually referred to as the “cape,” and sometimes the back feathers, called either the “saddle” or “saddle hackle.” Commercial type roosters, show breeds, or “barn yard” fowl have hackle feathers too, of course. But, as any fly tier will tell you, their feathers don’t begin to have the characteristics that can tie a decent fly nor float a hook on the water. It is only through painstaking, long-term selection for the host of characteristics that will accomplish these functions that roosters will grow good dry fly hackle. And this is referred to as “genetic” hackle.
The genetic lines that are used to produce dry fly hackle – which are the most demanding fly tying feathers to produce and command the highest prices – only have a few origins.
Whiting Farms was founded upon the exclusive purchase of the “Hoffman Hackle” line from Henry Hoffman in 1989. Henry’s parents had had a small meat chicken breeding enterprise in California and so Henry grew up learning the basics of poultry selection and husbandry. But Henry’s great passion was fly-fishing, which spawned a nearly equal interest in fly tying. In the 1960’s Henry was tying flies commercially and he was frustrated with the inability to even get usable “grizzly” feathers, grizzly being a black and white barred pattern that is an essential in fly tying. So Henry found a trio, initially, of Barred Plymouth Rock Bantams, which had fairly decent neck and saddle feathers. He started a rudimentary breeding program with these, adding a few more barred individuals and incorporating the two other essential hackle colors – white and brown, using “show” poultry stocks and breeds. Few if any records were kept of what was done, but in long conversations with him I have concluded the whole gene pool of the “Hoffman Hackle” line goes back to between 6 and 12 individuals! What made Henry’s feathers superior to all others was that he was himself using the feathers to tie flies commercially, and he always selected sires which provided hackle that “turned” on the hook ideally, and not with problems such as twisting, fracturing, etc. And this “tying performance” criterion made the Hoffman Hackle appreciated and coveted. The performance selection strategy has been considerably expanded and used in all lines at Whiting Farms.
The other major genetic line in the dry fly field had a far more diverse origin and development, and has been more widely dispersed. Many stocks and breeders have contributed to it over the 70 or 80 years of its existence, but the two most significant individuals were Harry Darbee from New York State and Andy Miner, Jr. of Minnesota. Both were serious fly tiers, Darbee commercially and Miner as a hobbyist, who endeavored to breed roosters that had decent dry fly hackle. Darbee was active in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, and provided Miner with his foundation stock in the 1960’s. But both individuals incorporated chickens from a myriad of other hobby breeders, show poultry breeds and even fighting cocks in pursuit of their beloved hackle. Andy Miner, by profession an attorney, became the “Johnny Appleseed” of the hackle world, giving chickens and eggs to whomever requested them, for the love of fly-fishing and fly tying. And he never sold a single pelt, instead gave them away, only asking for fishing flies in return. The extant hackle producers in business now (Metz, Keough, Collins) founded their production with “Miner” stock. I also acquired one branch of the Miner stock, which I named the “Hebert/Miner” product line, to delineate that its origin was from Andy Miner through Ted Hebert of Michigan, who arguably received the best of the Miner stock and/or did the best job with them. The sole surviving son of Andy Miner contacted me and expressed his appreciation that I had openly credited his father with his pioneering and generous work in the hackle field, and his unhappiness with the lack of credit some of the other hackle producers had given his father. A friendship with Bill and Kathy Miner has developed and I have been given the books, breeding records, photos, historic pelts and other memorabilia of Andy Miner, Jr., which I hope to develop into a book and museum some day.
What’s always been fascinating to me, from a genetics point of view, is that the breeding strategies and methods employed by the two principal hackle pioneers, Henry Hoffman and Ted Hebert, couldn’t have been more different! Actually even diametrically opposed in some respects. Both men were passing on their life’s work to me (after I’d paid their purchase prices) and so spent considerable effort explaining how they began and developed their stocks and methods. Both individuals had the same, exact goals – high quality dry fly hackle – which is long, supple, web-free cape feathers, which when wrapped unproblematically on a hook, created hackle barb collars that stood the fly on the surface tension of water, to entice a trout to take the fly. But Hoffman, starting and continuing with an extremely narrow genetic foundation, would only select, painstakingly, roosters for their phenotypic traits, and nearly never considered even looking at the female side. Yet he named his families or lines solely after the dam lineage, regardless of the male used on them. While Hebert, after tutorage by Andy Miner, selected predominantly on the female side by phenotypic feather characteristics, principally the most “roostery” feathers on a pullet, and used whatever rooster seemed obviously adequate to be a sire. Furthermore, the Hoffman method amounted to extremely close inbreeding, intentionally or unintentionally. But the Miner/Hebert method prescribed never mating like with like, intentionally or unintentionally fostering diversity and minimal inbreeding accumulation. Couple with the fact the Miner strain was a conglomeration of assorted breeds (i.e., Blue Andalusian, Brown Leghorn, fighting cocks), the two hackle strains were in radically different genetic states when I acquired them: the Hoffmans in 1989 and the Hebert/Miners in 1996.
Since the feather characteristics which constitute dry fly hackle “quality” have been of little interest to poultry investigators in the past, what these pioneers in hackle breeding had done was the best initial guide to how I should proceed with their stocks. Neither fellow did any real pedigree work, instead simply selecting on phenotypic “qualities,” as they perceived them, with basically a strategy of “find the best, breed with the best, and hope for the best.” But this evidently worked in that the Hoffman and Hebert pelts were definitely known as the best available, which was why I acquired their stocks.
A brief discussion of colors is in order at this juncture. Many fly tiers tend to think that feather colors are of primary importance and difficulty in breeding hackle birds. But they are not really, for two reasons. Firstly, the principal colors needed to fulfill demand – grizzly, white (for dying), and brown – are all quite easy to achieve. Sex-linked barring for grizzly, dominant white for white, and any number of the multi-allelic series of extended black for brown will give you the basis colors. These genotypes are quite stable, and with a little phenotypic selection can be tweaked to satisfy most fly tiers. The ginger shades tend to be less stable, with modifiers that shift intensity. But since ginger is usually sold as either light, medium or dark ginger, such segregation doesn’t create too much of a problem. The “duns,” which are a rather ill-defined group of grayish / brownish shades, but quite important in imitating Mayflies, are somewhat of a challenge in that most are incompletely dominant, requiring crosses. One though is a simple recessive, the “lavender” gene, lv, which does breed true. In all I have six different genetic “duns,” a few of which have not been described previously but work in my programs. If there are difficult colors, then pure black and “cree” are the toughest. Pure black is easy to breed, but the problem arises in that the density of pigment to create black is so intense that the barbs tend to be unacceptably soft and/or curved – not adequate for tying really. So we mostly dye for black. And “cree” is a rare, “collector” color pattern that is quite beautiful, involving repeating barring of white, brown and black. Its problem is it doesn’t breed true, requiring instead a three- way cross. And only a tiny fraction of the terminal cross actually yields cree amongst the many other phenotypic segregants, and what cree does result even varies between good cree and barely cree. So cree is only available on a long waiting list, and probably a good portion of cree pelts sold never even get used for tying flies, but are just kept and shown off.
The second reason colors are really not too important is fish see colors differently than we do coupled with the fact that color perception is greatly impacted by water. But this is outside the present subject of genetics, so I won’t delve further into it in this article.
So feather colors are a fairly easily managed aspect of hackle breeding, especially if one has the capacity to do quality dying.
The real challenges in hackle breeding are in the continuously variable, qualitative traits, as with most breeding endeavors. To cite some of the characteristics which contribute to feather quality and pelt value:
- feather length
- density of feathers on the pelt
- freedom from web (usable length)
- symmetry of barb length
- density of barbs per unit length
- distribution of hook size range on the cape
- saddle moderate taper of the rachis (quill)
- freedom from turning problems
- smoothness and sheen of the feathers
All these qualities determine how well the feathers perform for the fly tier, both in the tying vise and on the water catching fish. And because the unit of use is the individual feather, all aspects must work together for the fly tier to be pleased with the product and therefore willing to pay the price for the whole pelt.
Of course the biologic support system that extrudes these fly-tying feathers, the rooster, must be selected to accommodate such a function. Obviously vigor is always a criterion. But temperament and conformation play significant roles in whether the dry fly hackle rooster can carry the feathers in an undamaged state for approximately 45 weeks. Over-active or aggressive individuals tend to damage their feathers. And the long saddle (back) dry fly hackle that Henry Hoffman initially developed, which now never ceases growing, requires not only a calmer rooster, but a wide, flat back, to keep the 8 to 12 inch saddle feathers out of harm’s way.
As all of you can imagine the above listed feather and chicken traits are multi-genetic and continuously variable. Though I have never done any formal heritability estimates on any of these traits, after 17 years of selecting for them, I have a fairly good sense of which are highly, moderately or lowly heritable from the ease and rapidity of progress from selection. Fortunately a few are higher heritable, most are moderate, and a couple have maddeningly low heritability. I have also developed some selection criteria that can be mass selected on breeder candidate pullets, for traits that are essentially sex limited to rooster feathers.
Because the hackle business is such a small industry, only supporting about a half-dozen companies, it makes sense that each company be vertically integrated from the foundation stock through to final packaged pelts. Stock is not sold and is considered proprietary. I can’t speak to how the other hackle breeders conduct their programs, but I have a very hands-on system. I pull every hatch, recording the data, keeping notes and processing the chicks. I select every female, between 23 and 30 weeks of age, typically retaining the best 10 – 20% as breeders. I put together all matings. An increasing amount of artificial insemination work is being done. But the heart of the program is my going through every single rooster in the system. With the aid of a crew, I examine under a bright light, each and every rooster. The individuals that I think have potential as breeder candidates are returned to a cage and “flagged” for later, thorough examination. Due to the small scale of my operations, and the fact that I put together every mating and see every rooster, I am intimately familiar with all the lines and can fairly quickly ascertain whether any given rooster is a contender for being a sire. I also have the perspective of where the lines have come from, where they are now, and a mental image of where I want to take them. Plus what are their needs or deficiencies. This intimate, constant familiarity with all lines affords me the opportunity to know what their strengths and weaknesses are, to further their progression towards some quality ideal. The contenders get a painstaking, two-page dossier filled out on them. If a rooster passes this thorough scrutiny, then I pull 12 feather samples from specific locations on the principal two pelts. These are given to one of the pelt graders at Whiting Farms who has about 30 years of fly tying experience, and he literally wraps each feather around a hook and critiques the critical facets of how they perform on the hook and potentially on the water. The form he fills out on each set of samples is incorporated with the prior evaluation to determine whether this individual will be used to breed with, and if so, how – production or pedigree.
Such thorough rooster examination, with different traits weighted as to need and/or importance, has resulted in fairly rapid overall progress. Selection pressures are usually in the top one-half to one percent of the production roosters. Of course the need for balance amongst the traits, with an understanding and judgement towards appropriate emphasis, is what makes the breeding program a success or not. And as the lines and birds evolve, so must the selection system. This one generational selection system is simple and direct, and I think appropriate for the scale of the market and production systems. Whiting Farms has 60,000 individual rooster cages in 14 rooster sheds, with 9 brood / grow barns and one breeder shed and hatchery. These facilities are spread out on two separate ranches within about a 20-mile radius in Western Colorado. Redundant populations of pedigreed females of the principal product lines are kept on both of the ranches at all times as a safety measure.
Besides the aforementioned two dry fly hackle lines, Whiting Farms has a host of other lines developed for their fly tying feathers. These include a genetic wet fly hackle product line that was started from scratch in 1992 and is now a fairly significant component of sales. Wet fly hackle is used for saltwater, bass, etc: any type of sub-surface feathered fishing fly. A “Spey” hackle, which was initiated to imitate Heron feathers for tying Atlantic salmon flies, has been under development for nearly 10 years. A gray partridge substitute, from breeds having mottled gray hen feathers, is another avenue whereby a non-domesticated species, which has a fundamental fly tying feather, has been approximated on a hen to facilitate production and economy. The oldest known chicken breed bred specifically for fly tying feathers, the Coq de Leon from Northwest Spain, was imported in the early 1990’s. Traditionally the roosters were plucked of their shoulder and back feathers (always on the third phase of the moon!) and sold in bundles of a dozen. Written records of these practices go back in Spain 500 years. Whiting Farms has adapted their Coq de Leons to a pelt based product. Whiting Farms has a number of other minor or R & D lines. Ideas for new product lines come from fly tiers telling us what they want and/or can’t get, and also from our Whiting Pro Team and Ambassador Members who are
expert fly tiers, who do exhibition tying, are authors, or just highly regarded, who help guide Whiting Farms and act as our out-reach group.
The United States is still the largest single market for fly tying feathers, with Japan the largest foreign market. In all, Whiting Farms sells into 40 different countries around the globe, with slightly over half of recent years’ sales being outside of the USA. Typically distributors are used in foreign countries, but not always. Commercial fly tying factories, where fishing flies are all hand-tied is a growing sector for Whiting Farms. Thailand, Sri Lanka, China, the Philippines and Kenya are where a preponderance of these fly factories are located.
Whiting Farms currently has 25 full-time and a few part-time employees. Even though the market for tying feathers is somewhat seasonal – peak sales months are December through May – production is carried out year-round to fully utilize breeders, facilities and staff.
See also the article entitled “Cleveland Program”, written principally for fly tiers, but which covers many aspects of feathers in general that I have found even poultry professionals weren’t familiar with yet find interesting.
Program outline for talk given at the “Fly Tying Summit I: Feathers and Plumage,” held April 3 – 5, 1998, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.