A Wet Fly Hen Hackle Primer

I get lots of questions about tying wet flies, and Jim B. recently sent me this one: Do you use hen saddle or hen cape feathers for your wet fly ties? My answer: hen cape feathers, primarily Whiting or Hebert Miner.

Then it occurred to me that some of you may be wondering, what’s the difference? For starters, capes and saddles come from different areas of the bird. The saddle is located on the lower back just in front of the tail. You’ll find the cape on the back of the neck. Both produce useful soft hackles with varied degrees of webbing. For me, the difference maker in favor of capes is their shape, and most importantly, the range of sizes of the feathers. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to limit this discussion to the Whiting and Hebert Miner (not “Herbert”, as I often see them mistakenly called) genetic lines of wet fly hackle.

Whiting (left) and Hebert Miner genetic hen capes. The Hebert Miner cape is specifically marketed as “wet fly hackle,” and as you can see it’s a little longer than the standard Whiting cape. Like the Miner, the Whiting genetic packaging says “hen cape” at the bottom; that graphic is obscured by the feathers. Both capes come stapled to the thin cardboard sheet; if you remove the staple, do it carefully. Otherwise you’ll rip the skin patch if you try to pull the cape off the sheet. The Whiting cape is white dyed dark dun; this is the color I use for the Dark Hendrickson winged wet. The HM cape is a natural medium brown dun.

Capes give you the widest choice in feather size and colors. The feathers tend to be longer and narrower than saddles. But where capes really shine is that they give you feathers to tie bigger soft hackles (8 and larger) as well as the smaller ones you’d need for patterns like tiny BWOs and midges. (For one of my favorite tiny soft hackles, Smut Number 1, I use a Whiting cape for hackle; likewise with Pat Torrey’s Tiny BWO Soft Hackle.) That’s a huge range of sizes, and those tyers who value both extremes will be in hackle heaven. Even if you’re never going to tie size 6 steelhead or bass soft hackles, you can use the larger feathers for tailing material.

A tale of two feathers. Both of these hackles came from the same cape. Both have their uses. You can see that I’ve already begun taking some of the fibers from the larger feather for tailing material. Once removed from the patch, I keep these feathers in a ziplock baggie and store it in the back of the original packaging for easy access. Note that the larger feather has a generous amount of webbing; typically, the webbing becomes less prevalent as you work your way down the patch toward the smaller feathers. This is why I always recommend buying capes in person; you’ll want to rummage through the bags and find the capes with the webbiest feathers throughout. The smaller feather would make a fine hackle for a midge or a tiny BWO soft hackle.

I’m not going to get into the multitude of other hen soft hackle options that are available to you, like India Hen, Bantam Hen, Coq de Leon, and American Hen. I own several of these types of feather patches, both saddle and cape, and while they all have their uses, the vast majority of my wet fly tying with hen involves Whiting or Hebert Miner capes. It should also be mentioned that I primarily use genetic hen hackle for winged and wingless wets. (Most of the North Country Spiders I like to tie use game bird or starling hackle.)

It would be nice if money were no object, but the current going rate for these hen capes is about $30. Still, that represents a tremendous value since you’re getting hundreds of usable feathers. (I have some capes that are almost 20 years old and still have many flies left in them.) If I had to start with only three colors, I would choose, from left to right, light dun, brown, and light ginger. You can expand your collection as you get more into the wonderful world of soft-hackled flies.

If you’ve read James Leisenring’s book The Art of Tying The Wet Fly, you know that he was quite particular about hackle. (Cockerel, anyone? In case you didn’t know, cockerel is a young-of-year rooster.) He even suggests making friends with poultry farmers so you can pluck their birds, preferably in February or March. A fine pro tip, but certainly not as convenient as buying a patch of good genetic hackle. Fortunately for us, modern wet fly hackle is pretty darn good in terms of color options, feather size range, and availability.

One of Leisenring’s favorite wingless wets, the Brown or Red Hackle, tied with a furnace hen hackle. Interestingly, “furnace” isn’t what the package is labelled — it’s simply called “brown” — but this particular cape was a variant with many feathers that were close the classic furnace pattern, which Leisenring describes as a dark list near the stem and on the tips of the fibers, with a lighter color in between. Grab one if you see it, or I will!

6 comments on “A Wet Fly Hen Hackle Primer

  1. darrelln09 says:

    Do you have any Whiting 4B hen capes? I have three and I think they are pretty nice for hackled wet flies. They have a really wide size range and … aren’t quite so expensive. IIRC the 4B stands for Bigger Better Barnyard Bird.

  2. James J Berry says:

    I’m confused, I use a soft hackle hen saddle patch for some of my wets, the small ones I use feathers from a partridge skin. I have a 4B whiting in Brown and I find the feathers are spikey
    and don’t contour to the body of the fly, they don’t flow if you get my drift (ha). There are feathers on the saddle patch that can be used down to a #14 quite nicely. Your opinion? Like the wet tied above.

    • Steve Culton says:

      Hi Jim, I’m not sure of what you’re asking me. You can use whatever feathers you like for your flies; the point I’m trying to make here is that when it comes to hen for soft hackles, I prefer the Whiting genetic and Hebert Miner genetic capes. I find partridge very limiting when it comes to smaller soft hackles; a grizzly hen cape is the best solution once you get into 18 territory. I hope that helps.

  3. John F. Carson says:

    Thanks for a most informative discussion of hen hackle and the representative fly patterns!

    I am a former CT resident, long ago transplanted to OH for my career. Thank the Powers That Be for several spring creeks in my state and the proximity to PA.

    • Steve Culton says:

      Hi John. It’s great to hear from you. My middle son in currently in OH. I’m hoping to do some steel heading there soon! Enjoy those soft hackles and catch ’em up!

      • John F. Carson says:

        Thanks for your note, Steve:

        Have your son try the Grand, Chagrin, Conneaut in northeast OH and also the Vermillion a bit farther west.

        Both Mad River Outfitters in Columbus and Backpackers in Sheffield Lake are excellent sources for info, gear, and tying supplies. MRO in Columbus does guiding, as do many individual guides in the northeast OH area.

        I always have done well on the Vermillion and in the Grand and Conneaut.

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