“Dry-Fly Hackle: What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been” by John Merola

My odyssey through the land of dry-fly hackle started around 1970. I had become a member of the Southern New York Sportsmen’s Association and entered their essay contest for youth members. I guess I was a better writer back then, since I found myself headed to Camp DeBruce Environmental Education Camp in the Catskills on a scholarship granted to the winners of the contest.
“The cabbage is roughly the consistency of the human head,” said the firearms safety instructor as he walked some paces away from the cabbage he had placed on a stump. He fired a shotgun and exclaimed “Coleslaw!” After this unforgettable demonstration. we were led up to one of the buildings for a fly-tying demonstration.

The counselor had the materials laid out on the table. While the demonstration was in progress, I saw an older gentleman standing in the doorway. He was brought in and introduced to us “This is Mr. Roy Steenrod.” I wish I knew then what I know now!

The end result of all of this was a raging desire for me to get better at fly tying and obtain materials. I found myself scouting the ads in the back of Field and Stream and began ordering from Reed Tackle, in Caldwell, New Jersey, and the Fireside Angler, in Melville, New York. I was tying mostly Bergman-style wets with the materials I had been able to get, and I had some loose hackle in cellophane packets. Soon it was time to jump into the deep end of the pool and get a rooster cape.

I asked my father to take me to the Fireside Angler; we were living in Douglaston, New York, at the time, so it was a ride of about forty minutes to get there. I still remember walking into what was essentially the mail-order distribution area. It was set up with metal shelving and cardboard boxes to hold the various items. I was greeted by Eric Leiser, who after being shown my sad attempts at quillwinged wet flies told me in a nice way that I could do better. That same day I left with a Plymouth Rock grizzly neck and several imported necks my father was nice enough to purchase for me. I would follow Eric up to the Fly Fisherman’s Bookcase and Tackle Service when he sold his share in Fireside Angler.

On August 4, 1973, I purchased a copy of Eric’s first book, Fly-Tying Materials. He inscribed it to me as follows: “‘The angler though tired never tires.’ Best wishes for a full life of tight lines and the time to enjoy it all.” Thank you for that blessing Eric. It seems to have worked so far.

The book included a section on photo dyeing to get the color dun, and in fact, photo-dyed dun was what you were able to get at this point. Mike Valla fully chronicles Eric’s journey from the Fireside Angler, to the Bookcase, to River’s Gate in the January/February 2011 edition of Eastern Fly Fishing (which you can get as a download for $4.99), so I won’t re-create the wheel here. Around this same time, down in Pennsylvania, Bucky Metz had gone into the largescale breeding of roosters specifically for fly tying. Good friend and fellow guild member Doc Katz recalls getting his first Metz capes from Fly Fisher’s Paradise while he was a graduate student at Penn State around 1973

Photo provided by Whiting Farms
The chart graciously supplied to us by Whiting Farms shows the development of genetic hackle. Harry Darbee rightfully stands as the forefather of many of the beautiful duns that have made their way to us. Mike Valla’s Tying Catskill Dry Flies has a beautiful chapter on the history of hackle breeders, including a nice part on Doc Fried. I recall Dave Brandt telling me at the CFFCM show when the book was coming out that it was “Delicious!”

After completing my graduate studies, I moved to New Haven, Connecticut, in the summer of 1986. This was the beginning of my really starting to acquire quantities of great hackle. My first Metz blue duns came from the late Dom Piscitelli of Piscitelli’s Rod and Gun in a fantastic package deal he put together for me. I also had joined the Housatonic Flyfisherman’s Association at this time and met some great fly tyers who helped me along, in particular John “Moose” Bellows and Paul Uhlan, who are currently striper fishing together in heaven, I have no doubt. The late Gabe Macare’s Mill River Fly Shop had a good selection of Metz, and I would buy a cape here and there on my way to HFFA meetings, since I now had a driver’s license and my own money. I was able to take a few intermediate classes with Dick Talleur at the Mill River Shop right before he was to become one of the first professionals to take up the Whiting banner.

While Metz was busy supplying many more fly tyers with good hackle, Henry Hoffman was developing his flock of Super Grizzlies, which would be ultimately taken over by Dr. Tom Whiting, as shown in the chart. I recall Dick Talleur relating a story in writing of how he was able to get a few Hoffman saddles in a back-room deal while he was at Blue Ribbon Flies. Not many people got their hands on Hoffman saddles until Dr. Whiting took over. I bought my first Hoffman saddles at The Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, New Jersey, at the Blue Ribbon Flies table around 1990. Most, if not all of the duns originally available in the Whiting Hoffman line were dyed.

Now we are approaching the turning point in the availability of natural blue duns by the everyday fly tier . . . the acquisition by Dr. Whiting of the Hebert/Miner genetic stock.

Andy Miner, Jr., was the “Johnny Appleseed” of the hackle world, according to Dr. Tom Whiting in his excellent article on poultry breeding, available for free from the Whiting Web site. He notes that Metz, Keough, and Collins all founded their production with Miner stock. Dr. Whiting acquired the genetic line that he trademarks as Hebert/Miner hackle in 1996. He explains that this designation is to “delineate that its origin was from Andy Miner through Ted Hebert.” This line is promoted by Dr. Whiting as the traditionalist’s choice. Incidentally, the four breeders mentioned here constitute the bulk of my hackle collection, which I estimate is 60 percent Whiting Hoffman and Hebert/Miner and 40 percent Metz, Keough, and Collins, combined. One of the primary impacts of the Hebert/Miner line was to make natural duns available to a greater number of fly tyers. Being a traditionalist myself, I can confess that I have examples of Hebert/Miner duns in at least six different shades.

Bill “Bugs” Logan did a very nice article on the colors of hackle available today called “Cool Shades”(Fly Tyer, Autumn 2016). He calls the dun color selection a “vast gray area.” He shows ten shades of solid dun and ten shades of barred dun. Of the ten shades of barred duns, eight are from Charlie Collins. This is not surprising, since Charlie has very beautiful barred colors in his flock. To paraphrase Charlie from a recent conversation, “There are things the little guys can do that the big guys can’t and things the big guys can do that the little guys can’t.” The twenty-first century tyer has a selection of hackle available that we would never have even dreamed of in the earlier years of fly tying.

Whether to buy capes or saddles is a question that has been asked by many fly tiers. My answer is “both,” but there is an expense associated with doing it this way. For more on this subject, take a look at Tim Cammisa’s video “Fly Tying: Differences Between Saddle Hackle and Capes,” available on YouTube.

In reality, the fly-tying hackle market is a niche market. We saw just how much of a niche market it was when the hairdressers decimated the availability of grizzly dry-fly saddles, as well as other colors. My friend Dave Goulet, former proprietor of the Classic and Custom Fly Shop on the Farmington River, tells me that this started in 2010 in California. More than a few fly tyers took advantage of this situation by cashing out some of their saddle collection. Once the hair fad was over, some of the saddles found their way back into the marketplace. I fairly recently bought a nice dun saddle from a hairdresser on eBay for thirty dollars.

So with so much beautiful hackle available today, how do you go about assembling a nice collection without having to liquidate your retirement account? I look to a hackle co-op with my friends. I have had the opportunity over the past decade to get very good deals on larger quantities of necks—six or more. We split the cost, then we split the necks. We have become very accurate at cutting rooster necks in half with a razor blade, then we do a round robin, each choosing a half neck in turn.

Another excellent way to add to your collection is to buy Charlie Collins’s commercial grab bags and split the lot with a friend. While Charlie doesn’t guarantee what colors you will get, I haven’t got a bad one yet. His tailing packs also fill the void for tailing material that has come about as a result of spade hackle not appearing on necks the way it used to. Buy some at the International Fly Tying Symposium coming up soon. Dave Brandt, in his excellent DVD, Tying Catskill Dry Flies, points out that he looks for necks that still have good hackle for tailing. I do that too, particularly at table sales and shows. I have found older Metz number 3s that have a ton of spade hackles on them.

“I’ll see your dun and raise you a golden grizzly.” Photo by John Merola
On the Whiting front, I recently purchased one of their “Introductory” hackle packs when Cabela’s had them on sale and was pleased with it. Can you ever have enough black, brown, grizzly, and dun capes? (There are four half capes in this pack.) They also sell half saddles this way, which might be a good way to add some saddle hackle to your collection. Whiting sells tailing packs, too. Their coq de leon tailing packs are very beautiful but, also top dollar as far as tailing goes.

So get together with some friends, buy a bunch of hackle, and split it up. Isn’t sharing ideas and materials with friends a good part of what this is all about?

As we near the end of this journey through over four decades of hackle, I look back at all the fun times and friends I have made over the years through fly tying and fly fishing. My first fly tying demonstration at DeBruce in the presence of Roy Steenrod leaves me as an adult whose favorite dry fly is the Catskill-style Light Hendrickson. The kindness and generosity of my father, John A. Merola, and my early mentor, Eric Leiser, have left me as an adult with a lifetime hobby.

To my friends in the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild, the Housatonic Fly Fishers, and the Farmington River Anglers, thanks for all the years of companionship. To my friends who are no longer with us, Paul, Moose, Ed, and all the others who took me under their wings as a young adult, I miss you all and ask that you reserve me a place at your celestial tying table.

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