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!

Marlborough Fly Fishing Show postponed — new dates April 22-23-24!

Here’s the official announcement/FAQ: “It wasn’t an easy decision but, after reaching out to our exhibitors, celebrities and staff, we made the conscious decision to postpone the 2022 Marlborough show for a myriad of obvious reasons. The new dates are April 22-24, 2022 We hope you can make it!

Q. What if I already bought an Advanced Show Ticket? A. Your ticket will be good whether you purchased it before or after our date change. Be sure to bring along either a physical or digital copy.

Q. What if I already signed up for a Featured Class? A. If you know you can’t make the show in April, please contact us and we will issue a refund. If you plan to attend you do not need to do anything. You will automatically be transferred unless we have to move a time or instructor. In that case we will reach out once we confirm the class schedule.

Q. How do I purchase advanced tickets for the April show? A. You can purchase advanced tickets by clicking here https://www.eventbrite.com/…/fly-fishing-show….”

I think this was a good decision, and my hope is that those of you who were on the fence about attending will be more comfortable with the new date. I don’t have my revised schedule yet, but I assume that I will still be doing a seminar, class, and tying demo. Note that the Edison Show for Jan 28-29-30 is still on! I’ll be appearing on Friday and Saturday, and I’m hoping for another great showing from my readers.

The best soft hackles and wet flies for fishing the Hendrickson hatch

“What are the best soft hackles (or wet flies) for fishing the Hendrickson hatch?” is one of those questions I get a lot this time of year. As always, the best flies are the ones in which you have the most confidence. I should also make this clarification: technically, with Hendricksons you’re fishing wet flies under the hatch. On the Farmington River, prime time for swinging Hendrickson wets is generally in the 11 am-to-3 pm window. Every day is different. Once you see duns on the water, and trout snapping at them, the wet fly game is all but over. But if you want to catch more trout, you should be swinging wets in this pre-hatch time frame. (Of course, you’re fishing a team of three wets. Here’s how to build a wet fly leader.) And so, in no particular order, these are some of my favorite Hendrickson wet fly and soft-hackled patterns.

Bead Head Soft-Hackled Dark Hendrickson
Dark Hendrickson winged wet
Hendrickson Spiders. Size 12, wet or dry fly hook, gray or rusty brown thread, tail material of your choice, a dusting of muskrat fur or dubbing, then brown partridge or dark dun hen hackle.
Bead Head Soft-Hackled Pheasant Tail
Old Blue Dun
Squirrel and Ginger. Yeah, I know. Not a Hendrickson pattern. But on the Farmington, we often get a strong caddis hatch around Hendrickson time. If you place this as your top dropper, you’ll be covered if the trout are selectively feeding on the caddis.

Currentseams Tuesday Night Zoom 3/23/21, 8pm: “Tying Wet Flies”

It’s getting to be that time of year when we can think about not dredging the bottom and start fishing in the upper reaches of the water column. We’re talking wet flies for this Currentseams Tuesday Night Zoom, and I’ll be telling you about the materials and hooks I use to tie these simple, traditional, and devastatingly effective flies. Bonus: I’ll throw in a tying demo. If you haven’t been getting the Zoom links — I send them out Tuesday late afternoon — please check your spam box. If you’re sending a request to get on the list, please don’t wait until 7:45 p.m. Tuesday night…I won’t be checking my email that late. Thanks!

Best of 2020 #3: Hendrickson Wet Fly Mania

When I give a wet fly lesson, I always tell my clients this: “If you hit a hatch just right, you can have one of those days you’ll never forget.” And it so it was for me on a cool afternoon in April. Hendrickson season can be tough on the Farmington, especially if you’re looking for an unoccupied mark. But sometimes luck smiles upon you, and on this day it was so. The run I wanted to fish was on lockdown, but just as I arrived, an angler left, leaving a prime lie open. Armed with a three fly team of wets, I proceeded to wreak havoc upon the residents. This was one of those days where I quickly lost count of fish, but it was easily in the multiple dozens range. (Fresh fish + epic Hendrickson hatch + wet flies = stupid good.) I had doubles galore. I finally quit because it was so ridiculous for so long. Really. You can read about it here.

I had several evenings of spectacular wet fly action during the sulphur hatches of 2020, but nothing that equaled the craziness of this day of Hendrickson mania! If the water is 450cfs+, or if you want to sink your team a little more, try this tungsten bead head Dark Hendrickson soft hackle on point.

Tying wets (what else!) on a wet Friday

Much to do today, and in between projects and responsibilities I’m trying to make a dent in my 800 Followers contest winner swag. Here’s a Hackled March Brown in progress.

As you can see, my tying bench trends toward messy. There’s something mad scientist/struggling artist that I like about materials and tools scattered everywhere…

Of JalapeƱo Cheeseburgers, IPAs, and Wet Flies, or: Thank You, HFFA

Many thanks to the HFFA for hosting me last night. The pre-game meal was both delicious and appreciated (see Culton’s Rule of Presentation, AKA “A fed presenter is a happy presenter.”) I hadn’t given the “Wet Flies 101” program in some time, so it was nice to return to an old friend. Speaking of old friends, there were many familiar faces in the audience, which is always gratifying. Thanks to everyone who took the time to come out, share their experiences, and ask so many good questions.

Winged wets like these have been fooling trout for hundreds of years, and the fish aren’t getting any smarter.

BatchoHendricksons

I have two more appearances in December — more on those soon.

Thanks to everyone who attended my wet fly class at River & Riptide.

I love tying flies, but teaching others how to tie runs a close second. I am fortunate enough to be able to do it at a number of area fly shops. Today’s was at River & Riptide in Coventry, RI. Great group of guys, all eager students. It’s amazing watching the transformation that happens in someone’s tying in just a few hours. Our focus today was on wet flies. We covered basic soft-hackles, wingless wets, winged wets, and fuzzy nymphs. Thanks to R&R for letting me teach, and thanks to everyone who made the afternoon so enjoyable.

Drowned Ant Soft-Hackle

Image

I’ll be doing the same class tomorrow at UpCountry Sportfishing in New Hartford, CT.