The Quest For Cree

The Quest For Cree

“Cree is the holy grail of hackles. This is not just due to its rarity, but to its remarkable beauty.”

  • By: Thomas Whiting

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The cree cape is a vibrant tweed, splashed with tints of red, white and black. Finding the origin of the term “cree” is nearly as difficult as finding a quality cree. Apparently, the truncated word was, at times, applied to creel. Creel (or crele), a label given to a rare Old English game fowl, is a bicolor hackle with white and red bars. Today we call the creel color a ginger grizzly. Evidently, through time the cree became a tricolor, a creel with black bars. Cree is a coloration, rather than a breed of bird. A simple description has worked in fly-tying: A cree is a tricolored hackle, with red and black on a white ground.

In many ways the cree is a radical cape. A variegated or “splashed” cape may bear individual hackles with separate colors throughout the cape. There are tricolored capes, but only rare capes have individual tricolored hackles. Dr. Tom Whiting, of Whiting Farms, finds a few tricolored dun grizzly crees in the line of birds descended from those he acquired from Ted Hebert. The dun grizzly cree replaces the black bars of the cree with brown-dun bars, creating an attractive cape. Dr. Whiting has never found these capes with gray bars.

In any case, barred hackles have always been popular in fly-tying. The cree, like the grizzly and other barred hackles, is a “flutter feather” that seems to suggest movement or flight in a pattern. G. E. M. Skues refers to the Plymouth rock hackle (the grizzly hackle) as a “cuckoo hackle,” the term originally used for a hackle with black barring on a white ground, and for obvious reason: The male European cuckoo has dark gray and white barred breast feathers. The cree is merely a grizzly hackle augmented with red or medium ginger barring.

Dr. Whiting describes the difficult problem of cree production. “From a poultry breeder’s perspective the color pattern of cree is not too much of a mystery. Obviously the ‘barring gene’ is at work, the same gene that creates the classic grizzly feather pattern. The barring gene, which happens to be sex linked (meaning it is on the X sex chromosome), causes the regular interruption of black pigment formation within the feather follicle as the feather is being generated. The sex-linked aspect of the barring gene also causes the darkness of the grizzly hen feather as opposed to the considerably lighter grizzly feathers of the rooster. The hen can only have one ‘dose’ of the barring gene because she is XZ, while the rooster can have a double dose of the barring gene because he is XX.

“Along with the barring gene, the cree pattern also has brown genes at work. This is complicated . . . but the basic combination of the barring gene and several types of brown genes are what create the cree pattern. So these are the ingredients. Now how to put them together.

“The best way, or the only good way that I have found, is to cross a grizzly chicken with a brown one. And despite the recitation above about sex linkage, it doesn’t matter initially which sex is grizzly and which is brown. That is because you want to have a rooster that has only one dose of the barring gene, in combination with the genetic background of brown. The result is a ‘grizzly variant,’ which looks like a regular grizzly but with a considerable number of non-grizzly feathers. This grizzly-variant rooster is then mated to a non-grizzly hen, preferably a rich brown colored one. A black or red-necked black hen will also work. This is the ‘cree mating.’

“Now this is where the rarity of cree happens. Because of this three-way mating a wide host of all sorts of other color genes are stirred up. A few, a very few, will be cree. Truly good crees will constitute only one or two percent of the output.” And it turns out crossing cree roosters with cree hens produces even fewer.

There’s another reason for the scarcity of cree. Whiting Farms produces several hundred good cree roosters a year, but the public rarely sees them. Cree orders far out-strip the available capes. Though they try to allocate them fairly among all fly shops, the shipments are often not put on the peg wall. Instead, they are snatched up by shop owners or salespeople. Some are stashed away as treasures or saved for special customers. Dr. Whiting is convinced that many of the good crees are left intact and coveted for their rarity and beauty. He believes they never make it to a tying bench.

The color of cree capes may vary as much as the enigmatic blue dun. The tricolored bars can shadow blend or be non-proportional. The best cree pelts will have distinct and somewhat equal red, black and white tints. Rather than appearing like distinct bars, the colors often appear splashed along the hackle. There will be a few variant hackles, such as red game or badger, within the cree cape. In some capes, the larger hackles may be more grizzly than cree. I find the cree black often appearing along the stem, chevroned or V’d with some smudging.

I must admit, heretically, that a cree usually looks more spectacular on the bird than on the hook. The small blotched colors on a cree hackle that are so lovely seem to fade when wrapped as a hackle; the coloring can be very subtle, faint, watery or richly attractive.

The perfect cree is most likely a mythical beast. I think its variegated and dappled character is especially appropriate for caddis and terrestrials. There are substitutes. Perhaps part of the effectiveness of the ubiquitous Adams is the mixed barred Plymouth Rock and Road Island red hackles that create the cree effect, a painterly pattern with small splotches of ginger, black and white.

Part of the pleasure in fly-tying is the beauty of the materials. Just as birds are selected and bred for cree, so too can a tier select and blend hackles to achieve a possible substitute. But it’s still a substitute. The cree hackle, and the fly, in the accompanying photos reveal subtle color splashes. Few hackles are this delicate, this restrained. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that beauty has its own excuse. The grizzly/ginger substitute (one hackle of each color) displays a coarser crimson blush in place of the understated, natural cree. It is your choice. Today, as I write this, my own local fly shop—The Puget Sound Fly Company—has several cree necks available in various shades. Sometimes the quest for cree is only five miles away. In any case, tiers will continue to debate the value and virtue of cree. It is among the small glories of fly-tying.

Darrel Martin is this magazine’s former fly-tying editor.