Fly tying equipment and materials
reference guide. Learn how to tie
flies for fishing and display.


Fly Tying Hackle Feathers can be a complex and complete subject in themselves. Hackle feathers are used on a fly to create movement or when a bug like hair appearance is desired. They can be used to imitate legs, wings, ect... The life like motion of hackle feathers when in the water is hard to duplicate with synthetic fibers. Most hackle feathers sold at the local fly tying shop are from chickens. Some of the major brands of fly tying hackle include Whiting Farms, Hoffman, Metz, Keough, Hebert and Spencer's each with their own generics and unique characteristics. Most of the confusion concerning hackle feathers can be attributed to the wide array of generic characteristics.

Selection of Rooster Hackle Feathers
1. Premium Grade Rooster Saddle Feather
2. Strung Rooster Saddle Feather
3. Strung Chinese Cape Feather
4. Schlappen Hackle Feather

Selection of Hen Hackle Feathers
4. Hen Saddle Feather
5. Hen Cape Feather
6. Strung Hackle Feather

Hackle feathers can be divided into two categories referred to as dry fly hackle or wet fly hackle. Dry fly hackle are almost always from a rooster. Wet fly hackle are usually from the hen, but can also found on the rooster. The barbs of wet fly hackle tend to be more soft and webby than the barbs of dry fly hackle feathers. The long, thin
hackles are from roosters and the shorter feathers with more rounded tips are from hens.

The difference between capes and saddles is the area it was harvested from the bird. Cape hackle is also referred to as neck hackle and are the same, just different terms used in the fly tying world. Fly tying capes are from the neck of the bird and saddle hackles are from the back and rump area. Think of the saddle on a horse and bird saddles are in the same area.

Feathers are just feathers and by some definitions hackle is the actual process of wrapping a feather around the shank of a hook so the barbs splay out. A hackle that is tied in towards the rear of the hook and wrapped forward with evenly spaced turns is called a palmered hackle. Dry fly hackle would most often be tied on the front section of the fly using closely spaced wraps. Wet fly hackle is generally defined as hackle that has been tied near the eye of the hook and swept back. There are several methods and applications to hackle a fly and with terms that can be interchanged will prove confusing, especially to the beginner fly tyer, but getting started is not all that difficult and the salesman at your local fly shop will be happy to point you in the right direction depending on what style and type of fly you are constructing. On this page we are not as concerned with the actual definition of what hackle is, but trying to sort through the different kinds of hackle feathers with descriptions, characteristics and most common uses.

The difference between hackle feathers and other feathers on a bird, would be the circumference of the stem and the ability to easily manipulate it around the shank of a hook when tying a fly. Most birds should have a decent selection of feathers that can be used for hackle, but chickens raised for fly tying purposes have been specifically breed for the length and characteristics of the feathers.

Hackle feathers are graded on a system based on the quality as determined by a loose set of terms set by individual producers. Factors should include length, range of sizes, quantity and condition of the feathers. The color and pattern definitions would also be calculated in the equation when grading a fly tying cape or saddle. Most commercially available fly tying hackles are good quality due to selective breeding, but a basic inspection of the skin and feathers should be preformed and depending on the intended application will determine your selection.

Most commercial hackle feathers are from chickens. You want to buy good quality hackle capes and not the cheap imported versions.
From the backyard chicken coop to commercial breeders who have selectively breed their chickens over scores of generations for the finest quality fly tying hackle, there can be wide variations of characteristics between the generic lineage of chickens, which can be very confusing and almost impossible when trying to apply an exact description or definition to represent the broad spectrum and quality of chicken feathers available. 

Chickens have a wide range of natural colors and patterns between the generic lineages. The feathers can be dyed a wide range of colors to provide an even greater selection of possibilities when designing fly patterns or matching insect hatches.

Rooster Neck Cape Feathers
A small selection of feathers from a rooster cape
to demonstrate the wide range of hook sizes that
could be used with a complete cape

Complete Rooster Neck Cape

The premium grade hackles are from the rooster, which have been breed for their generics and color patterns in the feathers. Hackle feathers can be dyed a variety of colors. Rooster hackles are sold as complete capes or in smaller packages with sections cut from the cape or individual feathers that have been sorted and sewn together near the base of the quill. Rooster hackle is stiffer than hen feathers. Premium rooster cape feathers are more water repellent than hen feathers and most often used for tying dry flies.

The stems of rooster cape hackle are supple and easy to manipulate, which is critical when tying on small size hooks. Rooster capes can be sized according to the barb length and some packages will list the recommended hook sizes for the feathers. When deciding to buy your first rooster cape or saddle, it is recommended to purchase a cape, because you can use the feathers with a wider range of hook sizes than saddle hackle which are more uniform in barb length.

The hackle feathers on the rooster cape and saddle have pointed tips as compared to hen feathers which are more rounded.

Grizzle Hackle
Pro Grade Dry Fly Hackle Rooster Grizzly
Saddle Hackle. Grizzly hackles are named
for the black bar pattern. The longest feathers
on this saddle are 12 inches in length and can
be used to construct several small dry flies.
Top grade hackle will have a higher barb
count per inch and you can achieve the
desired effect using less wraps.

When thinking about hackle feathers, the first thing coming to mind might be those long feathers from a premium grade rooster saddle, but there can be wide spectrum of generic characteristics.

The barbs on premium rooster saddle hackle are more uniform in length than the neck feathers and can be limited to a very narrow range of hook sizes. Premium saddles will usually list recommended hook sizes on the label.

1. Premium Grade Saddle Hackle
2. Strung Saddle Hackle Feather

As you can see in the above image, there can be wide variations between saddle feathers and trying to define saddle feathers with an exact definition would not apply between the different generic lineages. The lower grade saddle feather could be confused with feathers from a cape and again it all comes down to the generics. Both rooster saddle feathers in the above image would have a use when fly tying. The premium saddle feather would most often be used when tying small dry flies, while the lower grade saddle feather could be used for streamer wings or other wet fly applications. Depending on the length of the barbs, can be used for a beard or throat on a steelhead fly as another example.

Top quality rooster saddles can cost a small fortune, but if you tie a lot of flies they can prove to be more cost effective with longer stems and uniform barb size throughout the feather, allowing the construction more flies. The barb count will be higher than feathers on lower grade capes and saddles, thus achieving the same results while using less wraps of the feather. Premium hackles are generally easier to manipulate when tying them on the hook and just by default your flies will look better.

Not all chickens are breed for the purpose of fly tying, but the rooster will always have longer hackle feathers than the hen.

Hen Neck Cape Hackle Feather

The cape feathers on a hen are longer and more narrow than saddle feathers. The stems should be flexible and easy to manipulate around the hook.

Hen Saddle Hackle

Hen feathers are softer and thicker than a rooster. They tend to absorb water and are mainly used for wet flies. Hen saddles are reasonable priced and available in a wide variety of natural and dyed colors. Most fly tying shops will have a couple hen capes in stock. Capes from different suppliers will have their own unique generics. Hen saddle hackle feathers are most often used with
hooks size #12 and larger.

Hen Saddle Feather
Dyed Yellow Hen Saddle Hackle Feather
with rounded tips and longer barbs than
cape feathers

When using a hen saddle hackle feather you would strip away all the downy barbs located towards the bottom half of the feather. Usually the mid-section of the feather is best suited for hackle purposes and less likely to clump together than the barbs toward the tip.

Black Laced Hen Saddle Hackle
Black Laced Hen Saddle Hackle
Available in a variety of vivid colors
including white, green, red, yellow,
orange, ect... Laced saddle hackles
most often used with steelhead flies,
saltwater flies or popper patterns.

We tried to make an order for some black laced hen saddle hackle the other day and were informed that they are being phased out, but this is not verified information.

Schlappen Feather
Schlappen Hackle Feather

(Rooster Saddle Hackle Feathers)
Available at most fly tying shops and sold in a wide range of colors.
Schlappen are a dense and webby feather. The barbs are thin but marry together for a more clumpy appearance. Schlappen feathers are located on the rump of a rooster along both sides of the tail and are sometimes included when purchasing complete rooster saddles, but are most often sold in packages with individual feathers that have been sorted by size and strung together for reasonable prices.

Packages of strung hackle are sold at most fly tying shops and available in a wide range of colors. Historically strung hackle were the spade feathers between the cape and saddle, but modern strung hackle feathers are usually from rooster saddles. Beginning fly tyers will sometimes confuse strung hackle with schlappen feathers, but when compared side by side the differences are obvious. Strung hackle feathers are generally more glossy and the barbs are less clumpy than on schlappen feathers.

henry Hoffman
Henry Hoffman at the 2013 NW Fly Tyers and
Fishing Expo. Henry Hoffman was one of the
pioneers in the development of modern day
hackle and is a true legend.

Modern day hackle feathers are almost exclusively from domestically raised birds that have been selectively bred for their color and characteristics. The fly tyers from fifty years ago would be amazed at the hackle available today. In another fifty years with science and DNA manipulation there could be some interesting feathers or 3D printers that make perfect flies with the push of a button. 

Blue Eared Pheasant Spey Fly Hackle

When talking about the subject of hackle an often overlooked and forgotten category are spey fly hackles. Spey fly hackles are technically in a separate category, but would still be considered wet fly hackle. Spey fly hackle have long, soft and flowing barbs that most often imitate legs or antennae and tend to be the major feature on the fly.

The most common spey fly hackle might be Blue Eared Pheasant, but there are many other feathers that have the desired properties. Rump feathers from a ring neck pheasant or golden pheasant can be used and are easily obtain at reasonable prices. Schlappen or even marabou can sometimes be used with good success. An important consideration when deciding what feathers to use will be the taper of the stem and length of the barbs. You want feathers with slender stems or they can create a large bumps when tied onto the fly.

Nech Cape Cut
You can tell this is obviously a neck cape.
By looking at the shape of the cut, it clearly
resembles a neck.

Saddle Hackle Cut
The saddle is cut from the back of the bird.
The top cut of saddle is wider across and
cut in a straighter line than neck capes.

An easy way to distinguish the difference between capes and saddles is by looking at the top cut mark. Looking at a complete cape, you will notice the cut on the top will be a neck shape, while the saddle has a long straight cut.

Notice the angle the barbs are pointing.
Compare the angle between a saddle hackle,
strung hackle and cape hackle feather.

Notice the angle the barbs are pointing toward the tip of the feather are different between a saddle hackle, strung hackle and cape hackle feathers. Most fly tyers probably never noticed the angle of the barbs, but it can make a difference in the profile of a fly and effect how the barbs react when wet. The above saddle hackle feather will maintain the original profile better than the rooster cape hackle feather when wet, partially because of the barb angle to the stem. This principle could apply to almost every feather and fly design to a certain extent, but you don't need to run out and buy speacial measurement tools.

Hackle feathers are often used for streamer fly wings. Rooster saddle hackle feathers are most often used for streamer wings because they maintain certain flexibility of the stem and the angle of the barbs will help keep the intended profile when wet. Besides rooster feathers, there a several different spieces of birds the produce feathers suited for streamer flies.

Hackle Pliers
Pair of basic hackle pliers
with non-skid jaws

There are people who never use hackle pliers but most fly tiers will have a pair and put them to good use.

Plate from "Favorite Flies"
Published in 1892

Fly tying books from the 1800's and early 1900's

Tarzana Steel Head Fly
This steelhead fly uses the tip of bleached
grizzly hackle feathers for the under wing
and black schlappen hackle for the beard

If you have read this article and are still confused, like mentioned at the beginning of the article, fly tying hackle is a complete subject by itself. There are many varieties of chickens and generic lines, plus the fact that interchangeable terms can be used to describe the same thing, will prove daunting to the beginner fly tyer. We are starting to post more articles that concentrate on individual types and variations of hackle feathers with detailed descriptions and photos. Will also be covering hackle feathers from other species of birds including, guinea fowl, peacock neck feathers, ect...

The term "Strung" is the process of somebody physically sorting the feathers by length and sewing the base of the quills together. 

While chickens have been selectively breed for hackle feathers, most birds will have feathers that can be used as hackle.

More detailed descriptions and photos.
Strung hackle is most often rooster hackle located from the area between the neck and saddle that are termed as spade feathers.

Commercially available bird skins and feathers bought in a fly tying shop will be clean and have uniform color when dyed. If acquiring bird skins and feathers from other sources then precautions should to be taken to avoid insects or other pests that could infest your fly tying supplies.

flytyinginstruction does not advertise or endorse individual brand names. Any company names used or shown in any image are for reference or in the case of photos would be what we had laying around and not intended for promotional solicitation
. We do not sell fly tying hackle and this page is for informational purpose only.

Fly tying equipment and materials
reference guide. Learn how to tie
flies for fishing and display.