The Global FlyFisher - The Largest and Best Place to go for Online Fly Fishing and Fly Tying
First published before January 1st 2000 - More than 15 years ago
By Bob Petti
I've been fascinated with spey flies for a long time. The first I had ever seen was a Purple Spey tied by Tim Purvis, which arrived in a swap of steelhead flies a bunch of us FF@'ers exchanged several years ago. The next was an Olive Spey tied by Juro Mukai in a swap of atlantic salmon flies. The flies were so beautiful and so well tied, and yet so fishable, that I knew I had to learn how to tie them so that I could have several in my fly box come chinook and steelhead season.
With other salmon and steelhead flies, either the wing or the body is they key element. With classic married featherwing salmon flies, the wing gets all the attention. With many hairwings, the body is the key element, adding the color and flash. With spey flies, however, the flowing hackle is the dominant feature of the fly.
Spey flies were first tied in Scotland for salmon fishing on the River Spey. Although today we tend to concentrate on those flies that featured heron hackle, in fact many of the original spey flies sported hackles plucked from the tail of a "Spey Cock". These feathers were chosen because of their relatively long soft barbules which quivered and flowed so well in the water. They were also chosen because of their availability, as the spey cock was at one time relatively common, as was the blue heron. Today, heron hackles are illegal in many parts of the world and the spey cock is thought to be extinct, so most of us are forced to seek out alternatives to these feathers.
When evaluating potential substitutes for spey hackles, it is important to remember how the feathers are used. Both heron and spey cock hackles were palmered over a large portion of a rather long hook shank, so you need a feather that has sufficient length with a relatively thin and flexible stem. Also, both had sufficient barb length such that the palmered wraps extended well past the bend of the hook, which many believe were intended to simulate the feelers and legs of prawn, common food of salmon at sea. As I see it, these are the two distinguishing features of spey hackles - the length of the useable portion of the feather, the sweet spot, and the length of the feather's barbs.
Blue eared pheasant is the obvious substitute for heron hackles since the color is so similar and the feather's shape and structure are a close approximation.. The main difference between the two is not obvious until the flies are fished. Heron hackles are unique in that their barbs are thick and seem "webby", yet they resist marrying or clumping together when the fly is fished. They wave and undulate in the water unlike anything else, which is why people have been known to risk stiff penalties in order to obtain some of these magical feathers. Blue eared pheasant, on the other hand, has a tendency for its barbs to stick together. Even with that significant difference, blue eared pheasant is the logical choice for flies that call for a heron hackle, especially display flies.
The downside to blue eared pheasant is the price. It's not cheap. A good quality skin can cost upwards of $175US, although for most of us that represents a lifetime supply. You can also find hackles packaged by the dozen according to size, but the price then gets into the dollar a feather range, especially if you opt for some of the bleached then dyed feathers. While a whole skin might be considerably cheaper on a per-fly basis compared to packaged feathers, I still opt for the packages. Blue eared pheasant hackles really shine when you're tying a larger fly and I don't fish enough of the larger flies to justify a whole skin.
Ringneck Pheasant Rump
Unless you are fortunate enough to have a source for high quality strung rump feathers, I cannot stress strongly enough the need to buy entire rump patches, or saddles. There are only a handful of suitable rump feathers on a saddle that will serve as spey hackles, so you must ensure you get as many of them as possible for your money. Ringneck saddles are reasonably priced, even dyed, and you are assured of getting the largest feathers on the bird. The smaller rump feathers make good collars on other wet flies and nymphs, but are not at all useful as spey hackles. They lack both the barb and stem length. On a good saddle, there might be two dozen or so good spey hackles compared to less than half a dozen in a typical package of rump feathers. Get the full saddle - you won't be sorry. Tie some Sparrows with the leftover feathers.
While you can find dyed pheasant rump feathers and full saddles, these usually tend to be muted colors on the dark side - olive, brown, purple, dark claret, etc. The reason is that the processors do not bleach the feather prior to dyeing it. You cannot get a bright color on a naturally dun colored feather. If you are into such things, you can bleach and dye these feathers yourself at home to very bright colors. The bleaching removes the natural iridescence of the feather, a result you may or may not desire.
Not all marabou is used for wooly
bugger tails. Some select marabou feathers make excellent hackles
on spey flies. The key is finding feathers that have thin and
flexible stems and long barbs that are thin and not fluffy. You
can take your chance with a bag of standard strung marabou or
you can buy feathers that are specifically selected and packaged
for use as spey hackles. Some are better than others. If you want
a good source - email me and I'll share one of the better ones
with you. For most flies, marabou hackles should be stripped on
one side so that the palmered hackle is not too dense. Unlike
heron hackles, marabou spey hackles are almost always tied in
"tip first" and wrapped forward. The advantage of marabou
hackles are many - availability, price, consistency, their ability
to take dyes exceptionally well, and their tremendous mobility
in the water.
It's hard to imagine any devote of spey flies who has not been influenced by, or at least heard of, Syd Glasso. His flies were beautifully tied and the patterns themselves were proven fish attractors. His use of saddle hackles and and hackle tip wings paved the way for a multitude of tyers and patterns in the "modern era" of steelhead fly tying. Anyone who ties a "steelhead" spey fly owes much to Syd Glasso.
Not any saddle hackle will make a good spey hackle. As anyone who has tied featherwing streamers can tell you, finding "just the right" saddle hackle is like searching for a needle in a haystack. While finding good saddles for speys not be quite so difficult, it is not simply a matter of opening a package of strung hackle and plucking out any old feather. Good feathers have thin stems, lots of web, and relatively long barbs. In every package of strung saddle, there will be a few that seem like they are solid web - almost like schlappen. Those are the ones we want provided they have sufficient barb length and a good stem.
I hesitate to apply a hard and fast rule as to whether you should double a saddle hackle for a spey fly or strip one side bare. Much of it depends on the nature of the hackle and the style of fly you are tying. The hackles I use do not have real heavy barbs, so I tend to double the hackle. This has the additional advantage of causing the barbs to slant toward the bend of the hook in a visually appealing way.
The advantages of saddle hackles are numerous - availability, ease of use, selection of brightly dyed as well as natural colors, and low cost. The hackles you should be looking for are usually labeled as 5"-7" strung chinese saddle hackle. A 1/4 ounce package will yield maybe a dozen prime hackles appropriate for spey flies. The rest can be used for featherwing streamers, deceivers, and hackle collars on a variety of flies. Saddle hackle is a versatile material, as we'll see in another feature down the road aways.
Schlappen and Coche Tails
Schlappen and coche tail feathers are excellent substitutes for the impossible to obtain spey cock hackles. Schlappen are heavy webby feathers found between the saddle and the tail of a rooster. Coche feathers are found on the sides of the tail and are similar to schlappen only much larger with longer barbs which make them suitable for spey flies tied on larger sized hooks. Both of these feathers are long stemmed with long barbs of almost solid web - very "heavy" feathers. Since the barbs have a desire to marry together to form the thick web, some tyers will burn these feathers slightly to eliminate the barbules that cause the barbs to stick together. A quick dunk in a diluted bleach solution will take care of this, as will vigorous rubbing of the feathers with wet fingers. Given the density of the feathers, these should be stripped on one side before tying in.
Schlappen feathers are available at most shops and mail order facilities. They are slightly more expensive than strung hackle feathers, but typically each feather is appropriate for a spey fly of one size or another so there is very little "waste". They are available in the same range of bright colors as strung hackles as well as a few natural tones. I'm particularly fond of the natural black hackles, which have a magical green iridescence. Coche tails are not as widely available, but are becoming more so in conjunction with the boom in offshore saltwater fly fishing where these feathers are used to tie very large poppers and baitfish flies.
Burned Goose Shoulders
I mention burned goose here only because it is so often sold as "heron substitute" or "spey hackle". I'll make no bones about it- I hate the stuff. If you get one or two good hackles per package, you'll be doing good. The rest will either be so brittle that the stems will snap when you try to make your first wrap, or the barbs will be "unburned" and webby, or the stem will be so thick that it resists being palmer wrapped. Even with the few good feathers in a package, if you can get three wraps you'll be doing well. There will be a temptation to take one extra wrap and that will be the downfall of the fly, as the stem will go from thin to thick in a wrap and you'll find yourself tying off a phone pole which will cause the wing to kick up and the head to be large and lumpy. It's awful stuff. Use it if you must - but do yourself a favor and give one of the other materials a try as well the next time you need to order spey hackles.
There are other materials that can be used for spey flies, but these are not as popular as those already listed. The red and yellow body feathers of the Golden Pheasant can be used to palmer smaller sized flies and yield very interesting results. A skin of a Golden Pheasant isn't terribly expensive and they are typically available in a few dyed colors. Other feathers that can be used for smaller spey flies include those of the American Coot, guinea hen, and even some duck flank feathers.
The most unique material I've ever seen used for spey flies is moose hair. A few years ago on a mailing list devoted to atlantic salmon fishing, there arose a discussion of spey flies and appropriate materials to stand in for the much beloved heron. One of the sages of the list, Bryant Freeman, knocked all our socks off by showing us a fly he tied with dyed moose. I don't remember all the details of the story, but I recall in involving a skin he hung over a water pipe in his house to dry. The hairs on this particular patch of moose were exceptionally soft and if applied to a hook in small bunches spaced out over the length of the shank, the result was a very spey-like false hackle made of moose hairs which undulated and fluttered distinctly in the water like a heron hackle would. I don't know anyone who knows more about materials for salmon flies than Bryant Freeman, an avid conservationist for both the salmon and the animals and birds that provide materials for flies.
Talk to me
Have you discovered a hair or feather that is appropriate for spey flies? If so, write me and I'll update this feature with your thoughts and ideas.