A Guide to Choosing North Country Hackles
It goes without saying that to dress the finest of flies, you need the finest of materials. And now thankfully, with the growth of online retailing. An expanded choice of flydressing materials is for many of us but a mouse click away. However, this readily available marketplace means that the choice of materials, or moreover the choice of quality materials has in many ways become more problematic. With many flydressers becoming overwhelmed, simply due to the ever-increasing range of materials, and the exaggeration of retailers in terms of materials and their suitable qualities and usage.
It’s an undeniable fact that North Country anglers and flydressers of the past were more in tune with nature, with many being amateur naturalists as well as anglers. In turn this meant they had an intrinsic feel for the quality of the materials they used. And an understanding of how these materials suggested elements of the natural insect they were seeking to imitate. They also had the benefit of being able to obtain most hackles and dubbing materials direct from the field. With the added advantage of being able to readily select from both juvenile and matured birds at will.
Sadly many of today’s flydressers do not have the same easy access to readily available materials. And with the growth of online retailing and the slow decline in bricks and mortar tackle shops. The habit of handling and selecting suitable flydressing materials, has sadly largely disappeared for many. And so, a trust and over-reliance on the knowledge base of the online retailer has somewhat taken place.
Now it is not my place or inclination, to criticise online retailers of flytying materials. But it would be remiss of me to not to point out that it is very rare to find one with the required knowledge of hackles and feathers to cover all aspects of certain niche schools of flydressing. I myself can only name a scant few!
And so, this little blog post is intended to highlight some of the characteristics found in north country spider materials, and what to especially look out for when choosing and buying materials.
Whilst it is difficult to say who first came up with the label “soft-hackles” when describing the various feathers used in dressing north country wet fly patterns. It is however the most apt of descriptions. As most of the gamebird, raptor and songbird feathers, traditionally used in these patterns, are often the softest of hackles used in flydressing. Qualities which in turn make the finished flies dance and tremble as they drift with the river’s current.
Before going on to describe several factors that come into play when choosing and buying soft hackle feathers. It is as well to take a quick look at the two principle hackle types used in the majority of traditional soft-hackled north country flies. Namely, wing coverts and the contour feathers found on a bird’s back. Along with the individual characteristics found in these two distinct hackle types.
Wing Covert Hackles
These feathers cover the bird’s wings and can visually be broken up into several groups. Which include the lesser, marginal and lesser secondary coverts. These covert hackles grow in neat overlying rows on both the top (overcoverts), and underside (undercoverts) of each wing. With generally the smallest of these, the lesser coverts being used in the dressing of north country fly patterns.
There is a distinct difference in the nature of these covert feathers, which has in itself a direct impact of the dressing of any fly pattern. Overcovert hackle fibres are generally stiffer than those found on undercovert hackles. This is due to these hackles being needed to seal off the wing’s aerofoil, allowing transmissive air to flow over the wing in flight. Whilst, undercoverts are softer, allowing transmissive air to seep through them during flight. Creating a boundary layer of turbulent air which helps in keeping a laminar ﬂow of air over the wings. And since birds ﬂy at a relatively low speed, at which any detachment of this laminar ﬂow would be a serious problem, this boundary layer of turbulent flow aids the bird’s flight.
See WERNER MÜLLER & GIANNINO PATONE – Air Transmissivity of Feathers. The Journal of Experimental Biology 201, 2591–2599 (1998)
Species and environment also has a huge factor to play in the formation and number of covert feathers found on a bird’s wing. Evolution has adapted their wings to their environmental and survival needs. Giving us four general wing shapes that are common in birds: Passive soaring, active soaring, elliptical wings, and high-speed wings. In the tying of traditional north country spiders, most patterns call for hackles from birds with elliptical wings, such as Grouse, Partridge and Waterhen.
Back (dorsum) Hackles
The hackles found on the back or dorsum of a bird are Contour feathers, which as well as aiding camouflage, also form a sleek outer covering and provide an aerodynamic tear-drop shape, which assists the bird in flight. These contour feathers have a separate branch known as an aftershaft, or afterfeather, which give the appearance of a second, smaller feather, growing from the base of the first. These soft aftershaft feathers are particularly noticeable in the hackles taken from a partridge back when dressing a Partridge & Orange. These contour feathers are shed and replaced (molted) at least once a year, usually just after the breeding season.
Now with a basic grounding in the principle feathers or hackles used in dressing north country spiders, let us consider the three factors which greatly influence the quality of the hackles we use. And furthermore, what to look out for when choosing and buying game skins and hackles for dressing traditional north country spider patterns.
Sexual Dimorphism, Age & Condition
To many, it may seem strange to think about both the sex and age of a game skin when looking to dress north country spiders. However, sexual dimorphism (the difference between the male and female of a species), coupled with the age of the bird. Is often of paramount importance when seeking to dress traditional north country spiders to a consistently high standard. One only has to read a selection of old north country manuscripts and fly lists, to find examples of our flydressing forefathers paying particular attention to both the sex and age of the particular bird from which they take their hackles.
Thankfully, in some species of bird the differentiation between the sexes is quite obvious. But in others less obvious. An example of this can be seen in the difference between cock and hen Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) which is quite striking, and the grey partridge (Perdix perdix) where sexual dimorphism is much subtler. However, on close inspection it can be seen that male partridge have an orange-buff face, long stripe and throat with a clearly visible reddish bare skin above, behind and below the eye. Female partridge however, typically have an orange-brown face and a white stripe, and others have more of a whitish rather than brown face. The hackles from a hen partridge are also more heavily marked and having a much browner hue than the male partridge which has finer marked hackles. And it is these finely marked hackles taken from the male partridge, that were traditionally used for the Partridge & Orange spider.
The age of the individual bird used for flyting has an enormous effect on the quality of the hackles it produces. Traditionally the shooting of most gamebirds was less intensive than it is today, which allowed a greater number of birds to overwinter, with a lucky few reaching their third season. Today however, most gamebirds are shot in the first winter of their lives. And this leads to problems for us flydressers seeking good quality plumage from mature birds. An example of which can again be seen in the dressing of the Partridge & Orange spider, where great emphasis was traditionally placed on using speckled hackles from a partridge’s back. These particular hackles exhibit no barring and are more readily available from mature birds that have overwintered into their second and third years. Though even this trait is probably more down to the individuality of the bird in some cases.
However, it is safe to say that overwintered birds are larger offering a greater feather density. Having gone through several moults, the immature feathers have been replaced with bright, shiny hackles with fully hardened quills. And these mature hackles should be the most sought-after for flydressing purposes.
Having taken into consideration the sex and age of the individual bird we are looking to utilise for flydressing. There is still one overriding factor to take account of when choosing suitable hackles for dressing north country spiders. The actual physical condition of the bird at point of death.
The overall physical condition of the individual bird is the most important trait in guaranteeing the quality of the feathers needed in flydressing. Birds that have lived with injury or disease provide poor hackle specimens for flydressing. Likewise, birds that have undergone an upset or stress at moulting time, often producing inferior hackles with visible stress marks in them. Subtle imperfections that have consequences for us flydressers looking to utilise these hackles.
Traditional North Country Feathers
English Grey Partridge
For many flydressers the hackles from the English Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) are the embodiment of traditional north country spiders. The brown speckled hackles found on the back of the bird a prerequisite for dressing the Partridge & Orange, whilst the grey neck hackles are utilised in the dressing of the Partridge & Yellow. Whilst the freckled tail feathers are commonly exploited for the fashioning of wings and tails in such patterns as the Deul Cruik or March Brown.
Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) shoulder and neck hackles are in fact little used in the dressing of traditional north country spiders, other than for the dressing of probably one of the most famous of patterns, the Dark Watchet. These neck and shoulder hackle have a distinctive silver grey often with a faint bluish sheen to them. In his dressing of the Little Dark Watchet, Pritt stipulated the fly should be “Hackled with a feather from a Jackdaw’s neck, or outside a Coot’s wing.”
Grouse Poult Feathers
Grouse (Lagopus lagopus) hackles lead to a great deal of debate regarding the correct selection and shade of a undercovert taken from the underneath a juvenile grouse wing. And unfortunately, there is scant description of the exact shade of hackle used. However, it is generally holds true that the required hackles are taken from a very juvenile or fledgling grouse. With the individual bird less than a month old and having undercovert feathers similar in both size and shade to those found on an adult snipe. Indeed, numerous north country fly lists and manuscripts even describe snipe undercoverts also as “poult” hackles which can lead to some confusion.
However, it is safe to say when searching for grouse poult hackles, the flydresser should be searching for the undercoverts which have a light grey colouration and but without the white feather tips often found in snipe undercoverts.
Snipe Rump, Under & Overcoverts
Traditionally the hackles from the Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus) were more commonly utilised in dressing north country patterns, but not to the total exclusion Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). Indeed, in Pickard’s manuscript of 1820, one can clearly see the flydressers is carefully choosing a combination of hackles from the two different species of snipe to fashion his flies. There was also the preference to take hackles from the male bird, which tend to have shorter bills and longer outer tail feathers than females.
However, the reality is that it makes no difference to the fish from which species of bird you take your hackles. The overcoverts being used in the dressing of the Dark Snipe and Purple, a clear reference to the use of Jack Snipe which is a darker bird. And the undercoverts, often being used in patterns such as the Snipe Bloa and various needle patterns.
The freckled feathers taken from a Snipe’s rump were also used in a variety of north country patterns most notably the 8b dressing of the March Brown found in Edmonds & Lee’s publication Brook and River Trouting. And Sylvester Lister’s dressing of the Grey Midge.
Starling or Shepster
Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) or Shepster as it is colloquially known in the north, has long been utilised for dressing traditional north country spiders. With patterns such as the Little or Spring Black and Starling Bloa being amongst the most well-known. Generally, it is the hackles and primaries from a mature cock starling that are used though patterns such as the Yellow Legged Bloa call for wings to be made from a young starling’s quill feather.
W.C. Stewart in his famous 1857 publication The Practical Angler or The Art of Trout-Fishing More Particularly Applied to Clear Water. Says “small feather of the cock starling” is required for when dressing the famous Black Spider.
Starling undercovert hackles are also utilised in numerous north country fly patterns, where these hackles are used as substitutes for the hard to obtain poult hackles found in juvenile grouse.
In order to differentiate between the male and female starling a closer inspection is needed. Where it becomes clear that the plumage from the female starling looks less glossy and oily than its male counterpart. But the key difference in determining the two sexes apart, is by the colour found on the base to their lower mandible; blue for the males and pink for the females.
The undercovert feathers from a waterhen or Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), wing are so of the most famous hackles used in flydressing. Yet it is quite remarkable that the rest of the wing hackles are pretty much dismissed, apart from a few fly patterns calling for slip wings made from waterhen primaries.
Edmonds & Lee in their 1916 publication Brook and River Trouting, give the best description of the required waterhen hackle used in the dressing of the Waterhen Bloa.
“Hackled with a smoky grey feather from under coverts of a Waterhen’s wing. (The darker side of the feather towards the head of the fly).”
Woodcock Under & Overcoverts
The Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) is one of those quintessential North Country spider hackles, that has due to its scarcity become often overlooked by modern flydressers. However, these secretive and elusive birds offer some of the most distinctive soft-hackles suitable for tying spider patterns, and it is no coincidence that Woodcock hackles feature in many old North Country manuscripts and fly lists.
The marginal over-coverts have a distinct barred chestnut and black pattern which is often preferred for the imitation of March Browns. Whilst, the subtler pale buff-brown barred under-coverts and used for north country patterns such as the Winter Brown.
Buying North Country Hackles
For the vast majority of north country spider patterns, it is as well to buy whole bird skins and avoid the buying of hackles often sold in bags. In reality these bagged feathers are often too large and of an inconsistent quality making them somewhat of a waste of money. Although the buying of whole bird skins might seem expensive at first, it nevertheless allows the flydresser to accurately grade the hackles for size and suitability. Whilst at the same time giving one an overall feel and appreciation of the different hackles found on the bird, and their individual qualities. If buying online, add a note to your order detailing what qualities you are looking for. And importantly, be prepared to send unsuitable skins back until you get the required standard.
Make sure each individual skin you buy is clean and properly presented within the packaging. Don’t be afraid to remove the skin from their packaging to make sure the required hackles are undamaged and clean before purchase. Poorly cleaned birds often have a large amount of residual fat left on the skin, particularly around the rump of the bird. This needs to be thoroughly cleaned, as the remaining fat and grease will get everywhere, and make proper storage of the skin a nightmare. I personally clean every bird skin I purchase in a very weak mixture of warm water and Woolite Hand Wash Detergent, before drying thoroughly and storing.
Finally, it has to be said that I have no affiliations or contracts with any suppliers of flydressing materials. However, I would wholeheartedly recommend the following supplier of traditional north country skins.
Cookshill Fly Tying Materials
Author of The North Country Fly. Wharfedale flyfisherman and flytyer.