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.
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.
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.)
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.