David Rice Fishing
Choosing Capes & Saddles
I hope to describe to you, the reader, the important essentials in choosing a cape or saddle suitable for your fly tying. I am constantly surprised at the choices some make when purchasing either necks or saddles. I am not laying claim to the title of "World's greatest authority on capes", but I do have the experience of handling thousands of capes behind me and producing flies commercially, I also happen to breed what I consider to be the highest quality genetic poultry in Europe, having obtained Darbee and Miner stock from the USA. I hope this gives me an insight into capes that perhaps the novice might not have.
Ignoring colour for starters, the first question to ask is what flies will I be tying in what quantity and what sizes. The production fly tyer will have a different answer to the average home tyer. My experience of fly tyers in general is that fly sizes below #20 are very rarely produced in UK/Ireland and the bulk of the patterns are in the #10 and #12 range. Again in the UK/Irish market traditional wet flies and lures greatly outnumber the quantity of dry flies produced.
Cape & Saddle Pricing
Various claims will be made by different breeders of genetic hackle and the processors of both Indian and Chinese capes as to the relative value of their products. Essentially capes and saddles are graded by their ability to tie small dry flies. This pattern of grading reflects the demand in the US and the difficulty in obtaining high quality Indian pelts suitable for small dry flies (Chinese capes are not considered as dry fly hackle at all). The greater the number of tiny flies a pelt will produce, generally the higher the price. However, the relative cost per fly will vary from brand to brand. If you do not produce flies below a #18, say, there is little point in spending your hard earned cash on a pelt that will wrap a #28 fly. Such a pelt will certainly cost you considerably more that a pelt that will wrap only to #20. The other factor to take into account is the feather count on a pelt. An Indian neck is likely to give you only a few dozen usable hackles. A half decent genetic neck, will on the other hand give you literally hundreds. I used to buy commercial grade Hoffman necks for my fly tying. These are necks Tom Whiting wasn't willing to stick the Hoffman name on as they weren't up to the quality he wanted to retail at. They cost me the princely sum of $3.99 each. Sadly no longer available, I reckoned on getting about 700 flies per neck. The smaller feathers near the head went to my dry fly production and the larger feathers were dyed an appropriate colour and went into my wet fly production. This raises another point worth noting. The small feathers at the top of the neck may be relatively web free and of good dry fly quality, but the web on the larger feathers of genetic necks can be very webby. If you want large web free feathers, examine the cape before purchase. A lower grade pelt may provide a greater quantity of the type of feather you seek. I am not a poultry geneticist (although I do have more than a passing interest in the subject) and I'm sure more knowledgeable people than me may have evidence to contradict what I am about to say, but my comments come from observation of the poultry of various breeds that I keep. It has already been established that the genes involved in feather growth of the saddle are largely independent from those of the neck. By that I mean if you select for narrow dry fly hackle on the neck, you don't get them on the saddle. You have to select independently for saddle quality. On some of my Roosters, I note a break point approximately one third of the way down the neck where the feathers change quite dramatically in form. This is particularly in evidence on some Old English Game I have. I wonder if there are at least some genes that control feather form about the head and others that control hackle growth nearer the back.
Back to the problem at hand, what pelt to choose.
For smaller dry flies (less than 14), there is no doubt that a genetic neck is far better value for money than a bag full of Indian necks. The number of Indian necks with quantities of feathers below this size is not large. Genetic necks from the US are now available at £25.00 for a full neck and slightly more than half this for a half neck. So for the price of two good Indian necks, you can have half a quality genetic neck from a US breeder. Having seen examples of English reared hackle, my opinion is that the American products are greatly superior and I wouldn't entertain the English product currently at the price it is on offer.
For smaller flies, there are also a number of breeders offering genetic saddles in appropriate sizes. Where production tying is taking place, these are superb products to use. Hackle after hackle in the same hook size and some brands produce several flies per hackle. The one problem with this that no one ever tells you about is that a saddle seldom contains more that two hook sizes of hackle. If your tying is restricted to a couple of hook sizes or you've got the resources to buy several pelts and access to sufficient quantities to choose yourself the pelts you want, then there are some superb offerings out there.
For larger dry flies, I would still tend towards the genetic pelt. You get more for your money than with Indian necks and you can still use the smaller hackles for spent wings if you don't actually want to tie tiny dries. Be wary of my earlier comments on increasing web as the hackles get larger. Indian necks will give you quite a few hackles in the required sizes when you start talking size #10 and #12. Careful selection of the cape will produce dividends as the quality of hackle on superficially similar capes can in fact be greatly different. Cheap Genetic saddles also come into there own when talking hook sizes #8 through #12. These are available for under £10.00, will give you lots of hackle of prodigious length and are available in a huge range of colours, Again choose wisely as web can be prevalent on some saddles, not a quality one would wish in a dry fly hackle.
The largest market here is for hackle for wet flies. This can be either sunk flies or what I would call surface film wets, such as bushy bob flies. If one reads the book by Mr. Justice Kingsmill Moore, that great Irish Angler, then all Bumbles (read palmered flies), should be tied with quality cock hackles. However, it is true that many very effective dressers use the softer Chinese hackle to excellent effect. I would therefore be of the opinion that personal preference is the ultimate arbiter in this case as they both work as far as the fish are concerned. For sunk wet flies, mobility of the hackle is all important and Hen necks, from whatever source or Chinese necks are both excellent.
For Salmon flies, which in the main fall into the sunk wet fly category above, mobility is what counts. Again Chinese necks generally will provide excellent service to the fly dresser. These are variable in quality. Inspection before purchase is recommended. Either that or buy a graded pelt, such as those on offer from Wapsi.
I have noted the comments by some authors, regarding turning problems on hackles. I am not disputing at least some of these claims, but there is another answer. Firstly, if you don't put the hackle squarely on the hook, such that the shaft is not at right angles with the hook and such that the barbs on both side of the hackle are not at right angles also to the hook shaft, then you are almost certain to encounter turning problems. Secondly, if you fail to maintain sufficient tension in the hackle whilst wrapping it around the hook, then it does have a tendency to twist and will also have turning problems. In reality, the problem is not one with the hackle, but one of technique on the part of the tyer. Don't just take my word for it. Exactly this was written in an article by John Veniard years ago.
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