The Genetic Hackle Beginnings

Yesterday killing some time at my sons soccer game while trying to distract my thoughts about hurricane Sandy I brought a book by Mike Valla Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies to past the time between games.

If you are a fly tier the history of fly fishing the Catskills is like preaching to the choir, but to those unaware the birthplace of the American Dry Fly and Genetic Hackle has deep roots linked to this region of the United States.

This is not the first time I have read this book cover to cover, it covers multiple generations of famous fly fisherman such as Theodore Gordon, Roy Steenrod, Herman Christian, Rube Cross for their influence and style of fly tying linked to the Catskills.

But let us not forget the visionaries and legends of the genetic hackle Walt and Winnie Dette, Harry and Elsie Darbee. Many others followed locally in the Catskills such as Doc Alan Fried, their generosity to continue the established DNA forward has much to do with today’s Genetic Hackle.

Hackle growers such as Andy Miner, Charlie Collins, Whiting and many others benefited by the work first established by these pioneers.

Mike Valla as a very young boy stumbled upon this mecca of the greats by chance, it greatly influenced his life’s course, and is much reflected in this wonderful book he has written.

Today I turn to page 80 of this great book, to re-read about hackle. It starts off with hackle/feathers to make fishing flies has even earlier roots by some historians with Claudius Aelainn (A.D. 175-235) so wrapping hackle on a fishing hook has it’s real beginnings centuries before.

As descendants of Europe much of the early fly fishing influence in this region was from the British. They are well known to not underestimate the quality of the proper chicken feathers to produce good quality trout flies.

Their findings in the early 1890’s stressed the importance that quality over the exact color shades are as true today as it was in their times. Great care and judgement in producing chickens to meet the needs of fly fisherman were essential to a fly dresser.

Mike Valla was very fortunate to be taken under the wings of the Dette’s. I can recall my early years of stumbling upon fly tying legends to fill in the gaps of what printed literature could not provide. My heart goes out to Mike in his experiences. Mike from New York and the Catskills and I from Boston and its not so famous rivers and lakes. But all in all the footsteps that were laid before us had a profound experience on who we are today.

I highly recommend anyone who has a passion about these chickens bred for their feathers get a copy of Mike’s book. The writing is captivating and well written, the pictures and quality of printing is outstanding and worth the space on anyone’s bookcase. Just to let you know I have no monetary attachments to this book. I just feel it is a go to book on the history and knowledge of the beginnings of Genetic Hackle of America.


Tallow Hill Farms

P.S. Don’t Forget,  If you would like to participate in this conversation please comment or better yet if you would like to be a guest blogger and want to share your genetic hackle experience please contact me and lets get you expressing what you know about the genetic hackle business.

Are You A Chicken Hackle Breeder Or A Raiser?

I just looked at my previous post about what is genetic hackle and made a few corrections to the text. Most of what I will post will be off the cuff and raw, so please bear with me with my future posts hopefully we will all learn something out of this.

Well, my question in this post are you a chicken hackle breeder or a raiser.

Either goal as a chicken grower works, if you wish to jump in and grow chicken hackles.

I just looked at few forums about growing hackle and most of the feedback was centered around it is not a viable solution to getting cheap hackles for fly tying due to quality issues and not cost effective.

I have to agree with this feedback. But on the other hand if you already own chickens or want to do so, why not raise chickens that will give you more than just meat and eggs.

I started this endeavor about 10 yrs ago originally for eggs and meat. But having tinkered with genetics all my life with many kinds of animals I just couldn’t raise chickens for the sake of supplying just food for the table.

Even as a young man I cruised the want ads looking for rooster owners looking to get rid of excess roosters. Over the years I accumulated many kinds of rooster pelts. I have to admit non come close to what is bred for genetic hackle today. But just the same every chicken skin has many many uses to the fly tier. I believe in wasting nothing.

As I went to farm after farm to collect roosters I just couldn’t ignore why I never saw any really nice roosters to start as a base. That always was something I kept at the back of my mind. I always thought more people would be into developing chickens for more than just eggs and meat.

My day to jump into raising chickens for feathers started about 10 years ago and God willing I hope to see my genetic hackle goals mature.

Getting back to the original topic will you be a breeder or a raiser of genetic hackle.

It makes no difference to a breeder what animal they will raise. Genuine breeders are long range dreamers. They have a vision of working with the genetics of a particular animal and coaxing it along to change by picking particular traits to be expressed.

In the old days genetic selection was all done visually and by chance, very few of the old time breeders knew very much about genetics. Much of their knowledge was done by hard knocks. With little knowledge available to them unlike what is available to day the humble beginnings of genetic hackle bloomed. Their only knowledge bank to work with was from from one breeder to another breeder if you could find someone that would be willing to discuss their breeding secrets.

Things have changed much since those days. Little did I know when I was in high school over 40 years ago learning Mendelian genetics (a scientific theory of how hereditary characteristics are passed from parent organisms to their offspring) was going to be so important to me in later years.

Every animal bred today started off as a vision to someone as to the potential that animal could be in the future. I originally come from the aquaculture industry and much has changed since the early days of importing wild fish to supply the ornamental aquarium industry. Those early days in aquaculture were crude.

Large holding facilities were created for receiving wild fish to be resold. Lucky we had visionaries to see importing wild fish was not a long range viable business model and fish farming for this industry was started.

Fish farming was not new, many old civilizations practiced fish farming but to the new world it was. In a way so did genetic hackle, the Japanese cultured chickens for specific feather traits not unlike today’s genetic hackle farmers, only their genetic selection was focused around non-molting genes and elongation of tail and saddle hackles.

The humble beginnings for genetic hackle started around raising capes (neck feathers) for fly fishing. Individuals such as Harry Darbee, Andy Miner, Hoffman just to name a few they all had that vision to produce a feather the would meet the needs of fly tiers because nothing out there existed.

In those early days chicken pelts (neck feathers) were available from your friendly farmer or could be bought in specialty fly fishing shops imported from India. I remember those days importing many chicken capes then sending them off to fumigation before receiving them.

Since everything was imported sight unseen from India, you would receive many many junk chicken capes to find just a few capes to meet your dry fly tying needs. Those days you would look to find the smallest and stiffest feathers to float those dry flies in the waters surface film. I still have some of those capes in my  fly tying collection.

Today’s genetic hackle has all changed, not only can you find excellent quality feathers for every need, the economics in every feather is a consideration. Dry fly hackle exist in just about every hook size but the lengths of each feather being bred is reaching lengths no one in the old days would even of dreamed could be accomplished.

Yes much has changed in genetic hackle. This is what breeders do. They are long range dreamers.

The recent interest in all the forums about raising genetic hackle has many interested in this topic. Some of the questions about growing hackle are about the husbandry of the bird, some about obtaining already made birds and so forth. Much of this interest is fueled around the most recent fashion trend demanding genetic hackle and disrupting the supply and prices that fly tiers have enjoyed for so many years without competing industries for the available supply.

As in every industry you have the get rich overnight crew thinking that getting a few genetic birds will pave their way to riches. A fool hardy approach unless you have the ability to scale and know how. There is so much to learn about producing true dry fly quality feathers from chickens.

These are what I call raisers, they exist in every animal niche. Soon as someone figures out how to make money in a niche you have tons of wannabes who think they can pop out animals for sale. These individuals fade into the distance sooner or later. But a breeder will push along looking for those genes to express themselves.

In recent years I have been in discussion with many chicken farmers who would love to raise genetic chickens for eye candy. These raisers have no vision to be the next Whiting, they think if they have a good utility chicken it would be nice to add some ornamental addition to their flock. Nothing wrong with that and all for the right reasons to raise beautiful birds for their viewing enjoyment.

So if you have visions of being the next Whiting good luck. The breeding game is a numbers game. Genetic mutations are hard to come by and closely guarded. Fortunately genuine genetic hackle breeders are starting to make eggs and birds available. These are true breeders with real genetic hackle if you are willing to pay the price of entry to the genetic hackle farming.

Real breeders will be here tomorrow, raisers will be here today gone tomorrow.


Tallow Hill Farms

P.S. If you would like to participate in this conversation please comment or better yet if you would like to be a guest blogger and want to share your genetic hackle experience please contact me and lets get you expressing what you know about the genetic hackle business.



What is genetic hackle?

Genetic hackle can be several things for a chicken grower.  Generally genetic hackle is related to the fly tying business. It has been this way for many years that the common chicken’s feathers was manipulated by genetics to meet the needs of fly tiers.

Most recently genetic hackle growers have been over whelmed by the fashion industry. In particular Steve Tyler of Aerosmith in a talent show wearing a genetic hackle in his hair. Almost overnight the genetic hackle industry was transformed. Much of this a hassle for fly tiers who were the core users of genetic hackle by raising prices and limiting supplies.

Either way the primary draw to genetic hackle is the extreme lengths attained by selecting for very long saddle hackles. This genetic selection goal is only one of the needs of a fly tier.

In my honest opinion genetic hackle is all about selection of your breeding stock to change the feather traits of your chickens. Not all genetic hackle breeders have the same goals.

Most genetic hackle breeders focus on what we call dry fly hackle. These breeders focus on very small and long feathers to float fly fishing flies on the surface of water. It all started because chicken feathers do not naturally grow this way without selection pressure to guide the chickens feather traits in this direction.

Today genetic hackle could mean several things.

Some will follow the traditional route of selecting for dry fly qualities. Some will breed for the ornamental value of having some roosters running around with long saddle feathers for eye candy.

Chicken traits with time and planning can be manipulated very easy.

Lets see what we all can do to meet the needs of who wants to breed genetic hackle.


Tallow Hill Farms

Hackle Growers Welcome

Chicken growers WELCOME!

This blog is your opportunity to ask questions and learn what experiences hackle growers do to grow beautiful and ornamental chickens.

Not all chicken growers want to grow ornamental chickens for sale but wish to have these beautiful birds roaming their property as eye candy.

But on the other hand if the hackle growing bug has bitten you have come to the right place to learn and share your experiences with other like minds.


Tallow Hill Farms