I often say that fly tying is merely a vast collection of techniques. There are so many, it's difficult to learn them all, and even more problematic to master them all. No matter how long you've been tying, there is always a new skill to add to your repertoire, or an old skill that can use refining. Over time, the best tiers return to skills they learned long ago, and polish them to the point of perfection. In fly tying, as in everything else, it's the small details that separate an average fly from a perfect fly, and wrapping hackle is a shining example of that.
I have been teaching fly-tying classes since I was 12 years old, and I'm now 46. During those 34 years of teaching, I've found mastering a tight, compact dry-fly hackle collar is a common trouble spot for tiers of all skill levels.
In so many books and Internet fly-tying instructions, wrapping the hackle is often glossed over. What we often read is "Step 5, wrap the hackle." Presumably, complete instructions are not provided because it's not pertinent to a specific fly pattern, but directions like this can lead to insurmountable frustration.
I am going to try to lessen those frustrations by sharing some of the little tricks and tips I have learned over the years. These techniques might seem insignificant, but they actually have a huge impact on your finished dry fly.
Choosing the Hackle
The first step in creating a neat, upright hackle collar on a dry fly comes with feather selection itself. I almost always prefer saddle hackle feathers for my dry flies. I live in Colorado, and I admit I am firmly entrenched in what might be called the Western school of fly tying. I prefer to tie my flies a bit more heavily hackled than my Eastern counterparts, and I find that quality dry-fly saddle feathers are denser, with more barbs per inch of hackle stem. The stems are also more consistent from top to bottom and therefore easier to wrap than neck hackles, which tend to be more tapered through the usable part of the hackle.
You certainly can create beautiful hackle collars using neck feathers, and in many cases, such as with Catskill-style dry flies, a sparse hackle collar is desirable and historically accurate. But my preference is for floaty flies with lots of surface area and minimal upkeep on the water, and I find that saddle feathers work best to produce the look and the function I'm going for.
Once you select a feather, you must match it to the hook size. Typical hackle collars should have barbs from one and a half to two times as long as the gap of the hook. You can size the feather using the hook itself or any of the myriad hackle gauges that are available these days. I tend to slightly undersize my hackle and find it more pleasing to my eye, but that's a matter of my personal style more than function, when I am honest about it.
Prepping the Hackle
Preparing the hackle and getting it attached to the hook is most often when things go awry. What is supposed to be a simple act of tying the feather in and wrapping it forward is a much more involved and detailed process if you want a neatly wrapped and compact collar that is beautiful, functional, and durable.
To prepare the base of the selected feather, I look for the point on the feather as close to the butt end as possible where the stem and width of the feather levels out. I call this area the "sweet spot" and I never try to stretch a feather by leaving any of the web or thick stem at the base—particularly in the case of neck feathers. The thicker stem and more webby fibers near the base of any feather won't wrap as neatly nor stand up as nicely as the harder fibers slightly farther up.
I strip the barbs from the base of the stem for a length equal to the hackled area of the fly plus about a half turn around the hook. When properly prepped and tied in, the stem itself should be bound to the shank over the area the hackle will be wrapped, and there should be about a half turn of bare stem beyond the tie-down point. This bare stem allows the hackle fibers to stand up straight on the first turn rather than sweep back along the body.
Omitting this bare stem section is one of the most common mistakes I see in otherwise nicely tied dry flies. Without the half turn of bare stem at the beginning of the hackle collar, you'll end up with hackle fibers that lie back at an angle over the body of the fly rather than standing erect and upright at 90 degrees to the hook shank.
Incidentally, I always tie my hackle feathers in with the inside/concave side of the feather toward the shank, resulting in the feather wrapping with its outside/convex facing forward. I find working with the feather in this manner allows me to place the wraps more closely together and results in fewer trapped fibers in the collar.
Use Your Fingers
In most instances, I prefer to wrap hackle using my fingers rather than hackle pliers. Modern hackles are plenty long enough for this, and I find I have much more control over the feather with my fingers holding the feather close to the hook shank, than I do with a hackle pliers attached at the tip of the feather.
When I begin to wrap, I try to set the feather upright on edge for the very first turn, placing the first wrap as vertically as possible. Any deviation from upright on this first turn will cause each succeeding turn to follow suit, so this initial turn is really the key to happiness. After all, a fine-looking dry fly makes everybody happy. I also concentrate on wrapping the hackle under firm pressure, as good tension helps to accurately place the wraps as well as splay the fibers around the hook.
Keep it Close
I start my fly-tying classes teaching students to tie the Brassie, a fly with a tightly wound copper wire body. Aside from being a really effective fly, the Brassie also teaches my students to consistently place their wraps one right next to the other, and it's very obvious when things go wrong. A well-tied Brassie has nearly vertical wraps with no spaces between.
Once you've mastered the Brassie, that skill partially transfers to wrapping hackle. By wrapping a hackle collar with the same details in mind—tilting the wraps slightly back as they come around the hook to tightly compact them—you create either a seamless wire body or a densely packed collar. The principles are the same.
When wrapping the hackle from the back to the front of the wings—whether the wings are made of hair or hackle tips or even duck quill—wrap the hackle evenly to the back of the wings, then sweep the wings back and place the next turn of hackle immediately at the front edge of the wings. The stiff hackle will help to prop the wings more upright, and if you do this correctly, there will be no "travel gap" coming from the front to the back.
Finally, once the hackle collar is neatly wrapped, the tie-off is of utmost importance. One of the biggest keys to getting a clean tie-off that doesn't ruin your hackle job is holding the feather tip just forward of vertical and making the thread wrap over it at precisely vertical all the way around the hook. This turn should go straight up and over the feather at the point it intersects the hook. If you angle the wrap to the back, the thread will displace the wrapped hackle and fold it out of place, and angled to the front will catch the fibers on the tip of the feather and force them to lie down over the hook eye. You are ultimately trying to capture the tip of the feather in one precise spot just behind the hook eye.
If you are careful with these details, you'll have perfect dry-fly hackle you can be proud of.
Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie's Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado. His latest book is Tying Nymphs: Essential Flies and Techniques for the Top Patterns, available from Stackpole Books/Headwater Books (2016).