Neat Vertical Dry-Fly Hackle every time

Neat Vertical Dry-Fly Hackle every time

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 baseparticularly 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 mindtilting the wraps slightly back as they come around the hook to tightly compact themyou 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 wingswhether the wings are made of hair or hackle tips or even duck quillwrap 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).

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

Recommended for You

Fly Fisherman's documentary Industry

Fly Fisherman Magazine Documentary Recognized by Outdoor Writers Association of America

Fly Fisherman - June 24, 2019

Fly Fisherman's documentary "One Path" was recognized with two awards.

Modern methods for catching smallmouths on topwater flies. Bass

How to Catch Smallmouth Bass on Topwater Flies

Dave Karczynski and Tim Landwehr

Modern methods for catching smallmouths on topwater flies.

These dense, indestructible nymphs will improve your subsurface game. Fly Tying

Perdigon Nymph

Charlie Craven - January 15, 2019

These dense, indestructible nymphs will improve your subsurface game.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Breaking the Surface

Breaking the Surface

Attack of the Bass continues as Breaking the Surface attacks bass with fly and lure 12:30pm ET Sunday, April 17th.

 Getting Started In Fly Fishing

Getting Started In Fly Fishing

Getting Started In Fly Fishing

Fly Fishing for Taimen in Mongolia

Fly Fishing for Taimen in Mongolia

Finding giant Mongolia taimen and a state of enlightenment.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Read about Colorado's backcountry fly fishing in United States

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area Colorado

Steven B. Schweitzer - May 03, 2016

Read about Colorado's backcountry fly fishing in " Indian Peaks Wilderness Area Colorado."

Drift boats help you search through miles of river quickly and effectively. Here's the top models on the market today. Gear

Top Drift Boats of 2019

John Fedorka - April 02, 2019

Drift boats help you search through miles of river quickly and effectively. Here's the top...

Fly-Fisherman Editor Ross Purnell shares his top five best trout fishing destinations in the world. Worldwide

5 Best Trout Fishing Spots in the World

Ross Purnell, Editor

Fly-Fisherman Editor Ross Purnell shares his top five best trout fishing destinations in the...

See More Stories

More Fly Tying

Tweaking the Adams Fly: one of the most compelling things about tying flies is that no matter how long you've done it or how many flies you've tied, there are always little tricks you learn as you go. Fly Tying

Tweaking the Adams Fly

Charlie Craven - July 26, 2017

Tweaking the Adams Fly: one of the most compelling things about tying flies is that no matter...

Read Fly Tying

Water Boatman Fly

Charlie Craven - September 16, 2016

Read "Boatman Fly" to learn how to tie this neat fly!

I developed the Home Invader about 15 years ago for fishing smallmouth on the Delaware River, and for brown trout on a southeastern Pennsylvania spring creek. Fly Tying

The Home Invader

Doug Mcknight - January 30, 2016

I developed the Home Invader about 15 years ago for fishing smallmouth on the Delaware River,...

See More Fly Tying

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×