Al Campbell, Field Editor

June 9th, 2003

Dumb and Dumber - part 2
By Al Campbell

As I indicated last week, Ewing has the best saddles for tying flies. That is, if you want quality, brand name saddles for tying wooly buggers. Their woolly bugger and super bugger saddle patches are perfect for buggers. However, they aren't so great for tying small dry flies.

If dry flies are your bag, you have a lot of possibilities. This is also the area where Dumb and Dumber start arguing about who has the best hackle. One guy will say Whiting has the best hackle for sure; then the other guy will say the first guy is wrong because Keough has the best hackle. Before long, somebody else will mention Collins or Conranch or Metz/Umpqua. Then the name calling usually begins. The fact is they are all wrong and they are all right; but how can that be?

Which do you want; long saddles that will tie the smallest flies, or a cape that will do the same? For the most part, a neck (cape) would serve most tiers better than a saddle because a neck offers a far greater variety of hackle sizes than a saddle, which usually offers only two or three sizes. However, commercial tiers might find a saddle more suitable to their needs due the volume of flies they tie in one or two sizes. To really discuss hackle, we need to break the categories into capes and saddles, and that is where Dumb and Dumber usually make their first mistakes. Both capes and saddles offer hackle feathers, but they are definitely not the same; so how can you argue about something that hasn't been defined into categories that are comparable?

When you look at saddles, Whiting has long thin feathers capable of tying some of the smallest flies a saddle feather can tie. That is probably their strongest point. Their feathers twist sometimes, but not as much as some others do. However, they lack depth of color and variety of color compared to several other breeders. That is one reason they added Hebert to their line. Hebert has better colors and more color depth than the original Whiting line, but lacks in saddle feathers that will tie the smallest of flies. If you're dedicated to saddle feathers and hook sizes 18 or smaller are your game; Whiting may be the only supplier who can consistently fill your order.

As a retailer, I can tell you from experience that more trout flies are sold in sizes 14 to 18 than the smaller sizes. Those numbers vary somewhat with the market, but the average numbers fall into those sizes. Whiting has those sizes, but they are not alone in that market. As I write this, I have a #3 Conranch saddle next to me that has a few dozen 12 to 14 inch feathers that will tie flies in sizes 14, 16 and 18. Right next to it I have a #2 Keough saddle with feathers in the 8 to 12 inch range that will tie flies in the size 10 to 14 range. Next to it I have a Collins saddle (was included with a #2 neck) that has 6 to 8 inch feathers that are predominantly size 8, 10 and 12. To the right of the Collins I have a Whiting #3 saddle (purchased the year before they went to color grades) with two 12-inch feathers that will tie size 18 flies, and other feathers ranging from 8 to 10 inches in length that will tie sizes 12 through 16. The Metz #2 saddle to the far right doesn't have a feather on it that will tie anything smaller than a size 12, and not one feather is longer than 9 inches. However, the Metz saddle has longer and better quality dry fly hackle than the Spencer saddle just to its left.

Comparing barbule density and stiffness, the Conranch saddle has the edge with Whiting close behind. The others don't compare on these saddles I'm looking at. However, if the Keough didn't have so much web and had stiffer barbules, it would be comparable to a better degree than it is.

As far as depth of color and sheen go, the top three in my possession are Conranch, Keough and Collins saddles. Feathers with obviously twisted shafts will surprise a few people. The Whiting saddle has the most feathers (eleven) with the dull side turned outward about half the way down the feather, followed by the Keough. The Spencer has no feathers twisted around like that, but it also has the shortest feathers of the bunch. The Conranch saddle has one feather like that.

Does that comparison prove anything? It proves I have a lot of hackle from a variety of suppliers, but not a lot more. It might point out some tendencies between the different brands, but one or two saddles or capes don't qualify as a good test. However, if we let Dumb and Dumber go at it again, Dumb would claim Spencer has the best saddle because it doesn't have any twisted feathers. Then Dumber would argue that Whiting is the best because that is all he ever uses and all he will ever use, and besides, it will tie the smallest flies. I'm sure someone else would claim another brand was the best because it costs less.

What is the real test? How well they tie what you want to tie is the best test I know. If you're tying a size 14 elk hair caddis, it makes sense to choose a saddle with a lot of long, web-free feathers in the size 14 range, with good color and minimal twist. After you add all that up, factor in price too. Before anyone starts claiming I proved one brand is superior to another, keep in mind I just compared a few single saddles to other single saddles. I'm also convinced each saddle has its virtues and could be the best saddle for the tier at that time. However, I do believe certain saddles will be more cost efficient and easier to use than others, so they have a greater value to me than others.

I could make the exact same comparisons with capes, and I have capes from all those companies; but I won't. However, after comparing about 20 capes, I find Conranch consistently has the largest "sweet spot" of long size 14 through 20 feathers while Whiting seems to lean to slightly smaller feathers. The others lean to larger feathers in the area of the cape where the most feathers are found. In the super-small range, Conranch has longer and more feathers in the size 26 or smaller range than the other capes with Whiting very close behind. Most of the capes don't have any usable feathers smaller than 28 and a few don't have anything usable smaller than size 22. Again, Conranch, Collins and Keough have the nicest colors with the deepest hues.

Here is where one brand stands out from the rest. The idea is called personalization. Of all these companies, there are only two brands that allow me (the average consumer) to call and request a color and shade of cape or saddle in exactly the size I want and need. I know the owner of one of those companies ties flies so he can understand what I'm asking for, and help me select the perfect cape or saddle for my particular needs. I won't say his hackles are the absolute best because they may not be the best for your needs. However, for dry fly tying, I haven't been disappointed yet, and I can get some rare color phases that I haven't found in other capes from other companies.

Collins and Conranch deal directly with the consumer. Denny Conrad at Conranch is a fly tier with a lot of experience. Both companies will try to work with you to find the right hackle for your needs, but having bought and tied with hackle from both, I believe I have a better chance to fill my exact needs by shopping at Conranch. If I want an odd shade or an uncommon color, I can call Denny and request it; and if he doesn't have it then, he will look for it and call me when he gets it. Sometimes it's that kind of personal service that makes the real difference.

Does that mean I think Conranch or Collins have the best hackle? No! Let's face it, it's really dumb to think that one hackle producer could possible have the best hackle for all occasions. It's even dumber to believe everyone else should buy the hackle I use because I think it is the best. The best hackle for my needs is the one that provides the best value to me. That value might be based on price, selection, service and/or the type and size of flies I want to tie. That value could easily be a combination of hackle quality, more hackle in the right size for my needs, or having the exact shade I need. Personal service could be the factor that swings me one direction or another. They are all factors that play in our choices, unless we are either Dumb, or Dumber.

Who has the best hackle? They all do; as long as their hackle is what we need and best serves those needs. For the record, I think Denny Conrad has gone the extra mile more than once to find exactly what I want, and that kind of service is worthy of my business. However, he can't provide everything for everyone, and that is precisely my point. If I needed a lot of saddle hackles for size 4 wooly buggers, I'd be on the phone to Ewing Feather Bird Company in a moment, and I wouldn't feel I had forsaken any friends in the process. The only guys who don't know the value of variety and versatility are Dumb and Dumber.

I used this one idea to point out how we let our personal bias get in the way of good communication, and to point out one specific problem I have seen repeated many times on the bulletin board. Who has the best hackle? The guy who can supply the right color and size you want, in the quantity you want, when you want it, and at the price you are willing to pay. That might be Whiting, it might be Conranch or it might be Keough. The best hackle is the hackle that suits your needs, period.

No single company can successfully supply all the hackle we might ever need; but don't try to tell Dumb or Dumber that. Those guys will argue their favorite hackle, cars, pontoons and anything else you mention until they turn blue. What they lack in experience, they make up for in personal bias. Unfortunately, the real loser is the poor guy who asked the open question and was subjected to a mountain of dumb answers before anybody was willing to refine the question enough to reveal the correct need, and give the correct answer.

Hackle is just one area where Dumb and Dumber are very vocal. Do I really need to visit the other areas? ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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