Trapped Hackles

Trapped Hackles

There's one step where hackling can go horribly awry. Here's how to avoid problems.

  • By: A. K. Best
During conversations about how to correctly tie mayfly dun patterns, hackling seems to generate the most controversy. One school of thought holds that there is only one correct way to tie the hackle to the hook, where to tie it and how to wrap it. Another group maintains that it doesn't matter how it's tied to the hook, where it's attached or how it's wrapped as long as you achieve the desired effect. In other words, if the dry fly floats the way you want it to and fools fish, who's to say you didn't do it right?

And then there is the old tier's/fly salesman's trick of tossing the fly onto a tabletop to see how it bounces and if it stays upright--which would be fine if trout ate flies from the top of your table. I've never seen a dry fly bounce on the water the way it does on a hard surface.

In any case, many of the so-called rules of hackling have been changed by the development of today's genetically engineered hackles. The dryfly neck and saddle feathers available to us these days have longer, thinner quills with a hackle density and stiffness we only dreamed about just 10 years ago. Breeding improvements have reached the point where you almost have to work at it to tie a poorly hackled dry fly. That is, until you start tying off the hackle tip after making the final wrap. This is usually where things go horribly wrong.

Most fly-tying instruction books and magazine articles have very clear instructions on how the hackle should be prepared for tying to the hook, how to place it on the hook, exactly where it should be held prior to tying down, and how to tie it down and how to wind it around the hook. The reader is then told to tie off the hackle tip on top of the hook, clip it away and whip finish.

But much of this information is merely a repetition of what has been written for the past 100 years and does not take into account the physical changes selective breeding has wrought on hackle during all that time. Specifically, today's genetic hackles are much denser, with many more barbs per given length of quill than the "natural" kind. And that's great--except for the fact that more barbs means there's more of a chance that some of them will end up under your tying thread just as you're taking the last few steps toward finishing your fly.

New materials require us to learn how to handle them properly to achieve the desired effect in the finished fly. The new high-density fibered hackles are an excellent example of this.

Here is what I do to avoid trapped hackles:

1) Prepare the hackle butt by snipping away enough barbs so that when you begin to wind it around the hook there is a little bare quill at the beginning of the first turn. This will prevent the appearance of trapped hackle fibers as you begin winding it. Place the butt on the hook with the dull side up.

2) Wind the hackle collar using your favorite method. When you get to the last turn of hackle, bring the hackle tip around and stop winding when it's parallel with the floor and the hackle tip is pointing straight toward your stomach as shown.

3) Hold the hackle tip in this position while you reach around with your materials hand and grasp the bobbin to come around and up behind the hackle tip. When the tying thread is level with the hackle tip, wind them both up towards the top of the hook at the same time. Stop the hackle tip when it's just past vertical and continue with the tying thread to complete one full turn of thread over the hackle tip.

4) Pull the hackle tip back up to the top as you continue to make one more complete turn of thread and clip off the hackle tip.

(Winding both the hackle tip and the thread in this fashion will allow the tying thread to slide through the hackle fibers at a slight angle rather than over the top of them and trapping few if any hackle fibers over the hook eye.)

Tying Tip

Some tiers have written that we should use some sort of hackle guard, or fold the fibers back with our thumb and forefinger to avoid the problem of trapped hackles over the hook eye--but this creates the problem of trapping them in the other direction. In other words, instead of trapping the fibers forward over the hook eye, they are forced back into the hackle collar as shown here. The method described in this article should do the trick.

Parachute Patterns and Today's Saddle Hackle

Although the feathers from both the neck and the saddle patch now have many more hackle fibers per inch than they did just a few years ago, today's saddle hackles seem even more densely fibered than neck hackles. Until recently, the favored method for tying on the saddle-hackle butt has been with the dull side up, which causes the hackle fibers to lean forward slightly. It was believed that this helped support the fly a little better--and while it might, it also increases the chance for more hackle fibers to be trapped over the eye when tying off the tip.

However, hackle fibers from today's birds are so stiff it no longer matters which side of the feather faces forward. In fact, in order to further reduce the possibility of trapped fibers over the hook eye, I currently tie in the hackle butt with the shiny side up. This will make the shiny side of the hackle fibers face forward and appear to be more perpendicular to the hook as the feather is wound forward.

If the above seems like somewhat of an uncomfortable departure from tradition, consider the parachute hackle collar. I can think of about a half dozen methods for what is supposed to be the easiest and best way to tie the hackle stem to the fly, as well as how to wrap it and how to tie it off. I've tried all of them, and always end up with more trapped hackles than I'd like to see.

I've found that it doesn't really matter what method is used to tie the feather on or how it is wound as long as the completed horizontal collar doesn't come loose during use or contain a bunch of hackle trapped either up or down on the post. I am convinced that the absolute best hackle to use on a parachute collar is the most expensive saddle hackle you can find. The best saddle has tremendous barb-count per inch of feather and the hackle fibers are the stiffest available, which means that it takes fewer turns of hackle to complete a good-looking horizontal collar that will support the fly on the surface film. In addition, there is usually no web.

My favorite method of attaching the hackle to a parachute pattern is to tie the trimmed hackle quill to the side of the hook facing me at a 45-degree angle above the hook shank, with the tip towards the rear as shown in Photo 1 on the facing page. Notice the shiny side of the feather is up and the hackle fibers are horizontal. It is also important that the hackle feather should be trimmed a little farther back on the side that will go around the post first. This will prevent any hackle fibers from becoming pinched into an up or down position on the first turn.

And to prevent your hackle collar from sliding over the post, I make the first turn of the hackle collar the top turn and each succeeding turn is wrapped below the previous turn. This method absolutely prevents the hackle collar from sliding up the post and coming off, since each turn is pulling down on its predecessor.

Tying off the tip on a parachute-hackled fly has always presented problems with trapped hackle fibers, and this is particularly true with especially dense hackles. But there is a way to prevent all but one or two hackle fibers from being trapped (see above). In fact, often you'll be able to tie off the hackle with no trapped hackle fibers at all.

Perfect Parachutes:
Try the following:

1) Mount the hackle at a 45-degree angle to the shank, tip rearward and shiny side up.

2) On the last turn of hackle around the post continue wrapping until the hackle stem is parallel with the hook shank as shown.

3) As you hold the hackle feather in this position with your right hand, reach over with your materials hand to stroke all the fibers in the collar back toward the bend of the hook as shown. The hackle feather is now being held tightly to the side of the hook by your materials hand in its rearward position.

4) Gently pull the hackle feather from your materials hand to a position that is slightly forward of the hook eye. You may see several hackle fiber tips still trapped in your materials hand as shown.

5) Use your bodkin to stroke the hackle fibers out.

6) Take two turns of thread over the "V" created by those hackle fibers still held fast and those you just released.

7) Gently pull on the hackle to completely tighten the collar, take a couple more turns of thread to anchor, clip off the tip and whip finish by stroking the hackle collar to the rear once again. Some of the hackle fibers may appear to be displaced by all the stroking you have just done. Not to fear! Simply stroke them back into their original position with your thumb and forefinger.

Tying Tip

I don't worry very much about a couple of unruly hackle fibers in the flies I tie unless they are going into someone's collection--most of the time, it's just wind, bind, snip and whip. In fact, hackling flies is much like a lot of other operations in fly-tying in that the slower you go, the more problems you are apt to create. As a rule, go about it as if you really know what you're doing, even if you don't! Nine times out of 10, it'll come out OK. And if you find a trapped hackle or two, snip them off. It's what the professionals do.