A Different Perspective On Hackle

August 13, 2017 - 9 minutes read

By Dr. Tom Whiting

I must be getting old. I look back onto this little hackle project, and pretty clearly remember  my thoughts and intents when I set out on it. But it now strikes me that what I thought then is way different than how I look at the endeavor today.

when I was first exploring the idea of getting into the hackle business, around 1987 while I was at the University of Arkansas pursuing my Ph.D., I can recall thinking “now this sounds interesting. I would do this as a hobby let alone a business”. So I set about researching it, starting phone relationships with Henry Hoffman and Ted Hebert, and methodically trying to get my head around how it had been done and how might I do it.
From the outside, though no one ever described it to me as such, it sure looked like a can’t fail/get rich quick endeavor. I quickly learned in 1998 when I started Whiting Farms it was anything but that, and my graduate school hubris was quickly replaced with a humbling string of anything that could go wrong did. And to this day I don’t harbor romantic memories of the early years. Rather, I remember gut churning anxieties of
scrambles to just survive and not go under and I am truly grateful I had no viable
exit opportunity, otherwise I might not be writing this today. I just had to make it work, somehow, some way. But enough about the bad old days. Now, 28 years later, my perspective has gradually shifted from mostly ambition towards a sense of responsibility and legacy. I am certainly grateful for the interesting challenge of the endeavor, which was vastly more faceted than I ever anticipated. The rewards have been much more than just financial. This arch has made me realize that these cherished dry fly hackle lines will go on beyond me, as they were passed onto me by the hacklemen that proceeded me, and I should do the same for the hacklemen that will succeed me. It is a continuum, or it should be, and I shall make it my goal to see they make it soundly into their next chapter. Hopefully the new lines that have totally originated at Whiting Farms; the American Hackle, Spey Hackle, High & Dry, Brahma hen products, and a few more still in development, will carry on in concert with the foundation fly tying genetic lines.

The state of these hackle lines is something that is a bit difficult to articulate, or be readily understood by anyone who doesn’t breed plants or animals, but I will try. Even though the genetic “lines” are made of some number of highly related individuals (a basic definition of a genetic “line”), these lines (in the breeder’s mind) are comprehended as almost distinct individuals. Not only can the breeder picture them in the trajectory of their development (where they started, what they are like today, and where they are hopefully
headed), they also know them intimately, and have a sense of what they need to get them to the next stage of their intended development. Because they are live animals
they can’t be just viewed as discrete parts, i.e., a life support system for a dry fly cape and saddle. Rather they have to be selected as a whole organism, including considerations of any defects, general vigor, suitable behaviors, and something that is hard to put a finger on, but I think of as balance. Sometimes I am not sure exactly why I keep or reject a particular individual, other than it just doesn’t feel right, something in my sense of the lines says yes or no about the individual. Over the years, maybe from the huge number of roosters and hens I have handled, I have just developed a sense of what is right or wrong about an individual, or whether they are right or wrong for the betterment
of that particular line. Conversely, when you know the lines so well and an astonishingly
good individual turns up you can recognize when something is exceptional, or when you see a new trait that merits consideration.

Sometimes the lines have gone in unintentional directions. In the early 2000s, after so many years of intense selection for what is dry fly hackle, I started to see capes that were like the saddle in that the feathers never finished growing! This, initially, seemed exciting. But when enough of these continually growing capes came through the production system, their downside was more evident; the feathers would be so long they flowed
down in front of the rooster’s chests and got stepped on! Plus it made processing
the pelts far more difficult. With saddles the entire feather tract was in this continuous
growth, and we knew how to deal with it. But the capes didn’t lend themselves to this partial growth state. So I have pretty well bred this trait out of the dry fly lines. Something interesting that has spontaneously transpired in the last 5 or 6 years is roosters that are now growing dry fly type feathers out of feather tracts that are NOT dry fly feather tracts. Some roosters have them coming out of their thighs and/or the tops of their wings. From a distance they even look different, almost shaggy like a woolly mammoth! I am just currently watching where this goes. My theory is that the steady accumulation of the genes that contribute to what we call dry fly hackle are getting so concentrated that their cumulative effect is to “invade” other feather tracts. This is where it is prudent to set up a
“sub line” that actually pursues these traits. This sub line would serve as an advance
guard, if you will, to show how a greater degree of this global dry fly feather pattern will manifest itself. The logical conclusion might be total dry fly roosters, a somewhat  disturbing prospect possibly. But still worth exploring for at least academic reasons. Sometimes you learn most from the outliers.

Hopefully you readers have found these insights into hackle breeding interesting. It is its own truly niche endeavor. A few recent videos have come about that give some more visuals to what I have described above. One is a short feature done by CNN http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/the -feather-king/?xrs=CNNAPP Raising Roosters with The Feather King, and the other a truly off-the-cuff (meaning not rehearsed) Facebook Live recording https:// www.facebook.com/287322504765354/
videos/631848480312753/ Fly Tying Hackle, Poultry Genetics, Then and Now, recording whereby I riffed on some of the issues addressed above. Plus there is a quite good feature story in the most recent edition of the flyfish Journal (issue 8.2). https://www.theflyfishjournal.com/ issue_feature/inside-whiting-farms-hackleempire/
Inside Whiting Farms’ Hackle Empire.

As always, we appreciate your interest and patronage.