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What is Cree Hackle?

By Dennis Conrad
Photos by Dennis Conrad and Gerald Wulff

Allow me to introduce myself. I am an old flyfisherman/fly tier of over 58 years. I have been breeding birds of all different kinds from Exotic Pheasants to the Genetic Dry fly birds since age 10, am now 68. I am Co-owner with my daughter Liz of Conranch Hackle. I am not an expert but do have a lot of experience in breeding the birds and all aspects of fly fishing/tying.

All of this article is only my opinion and may differ from what you believe. Again I am not an expert, facts of my breeding records can and do back up my thinking and beliefs. No smoke and mirrors, no marketing ploys. Am I attempting to sell Cree? Nope, every Cree I raise is sold before processing, even before grading. 'Nuf said. If you believe Cree is something other than what I think, so be it. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. My thoughts are based on many years of actual breeding, not something some expert has told me.

Cree Variant

What is Cree? No one really knows but in asking around in our fly tying circles we find more thoughts and opinions than one should. Why? There has really never been a standard written down as to what really comprises the color Cree. It has been told that the Cree color has been named after the colors of the Cree Indian Nation. In my search I can not find facts that substantiate this. It may be true but the three colors that are alluded to is just not so. Some say that the colors are Grizzly, ginger and brown. Now I see this as being four colors. Black, white, ginger and brown. But in looking at Crees I see the colors as being 5.

First generation Cree They are Black, White, Light Cream, Ginger and Brown. There may even be shades of the above to include Tan. Enter into the ball game the color Variant. Many Variant saddles and capes have many multi colored hackle feathers. Is this a Cree? I say no, but they will tie into beautiful flies. If the multi colored hackles are less than 20% I call them a Cree/Variant. I place no higher value on them because of the color. Many skins get offered to the fly tier with a false color description on them but then who is the one to say which color is which? If you the fly tier are willing to pay extra for a skin incorrectly described, so be it. Just beware the buyer. I do not feel any breeder or grader or fly shop owner would intentionally falsify a color. I would say it would only be because we really do not have a standard for Cree.

Four years ago we found a rooster at processing time that was the most beautiful Cree colored rooster that I had ever seen. It has over 95% multi colors. We do keep a very fool proof ID system on every bird that we hatch. In checking we found this rooster was from one of our very old Grizzly families. Never in over 50 years had any outside blood been entered into the family. Where did it come from? From the same place where almost all Cree roosters come from. It has been said that the Cree color occurs once in 250,000 birds. I for one do not know what kind of record keeping proves or disproves this theory. Just figures drawn out of the hat? Maybe so but never the less they occur whenever Mother Nature says so.

This rooster was processed into a full skin and dragged all over the country to different shows with a not for sale sign on it. We just wanted to educate fly tiers as to what a "Real Cree" was. We turned down many real offers for this full skin.

Three years ago I was in the third year of an intensive Blue Dun breeding program and had in my mind that the Cree genetic code could be broken. I had a selected rooster, single pen mated to an outstanding hen and set 47 eggs from this pair. I had 3 eggs that were infertile and hatched 44 chicks. 23 of them proved to be roosters. Of these low and behold we had hatched 9 Cree colored rosters.

Back into the records to see if we had the parents of both the producing hen and rooster in our brood yards. Liz after a quick search of the computer records gave me the band numbers of all 4 parent birds and where they were located in the breeding barn. Yes, some shuffling took place and our Cree breeding program was moving.

Young 2nd generation Cree

At this time we are in the second generation and are producing Crees. Not as many as I would like but we are satisfied and will continue to work with this program. Our percentage of Crees is on the upswing.

I recently took a young Cree rooster (second generation) to the FAOL Fish-in at Lowe, ID and processed this bird in a show and tell for anyone interested in seeing how we process. After it was completed and on the board it was photographed beside "Big Bird" (the Cree that had been dragged all over the country. The one that was a "Nature Freak"). We had sold Big Bird to Dick Lane and he stated that at the time of comparison he had already tied over 200 flies from it. We show the two full skins here so you can see the difference. One a Freak of Nature and the other a planned breeding, (second generation). On closer inspection we found that both the first generation Cree and second generation meets all of the color requirements that I place on "What a Real Cree should be."

Big Bird on left, 2nd generation on right

The dry fly quality hackle of the birds should contain over 50% of all 5 of the multi colors. The black barr must be complete and form a slight "v" or chevron, or better yet go all the way across in a straight line. Not all of the hackle has all of the perfect barring but over 50% does. I am finding that there are some feathers that are only partially gene-blended. (The colors stop and start in full color, not blended like we want in the Cree). Some of the feather may be the most beautiful blending after the solid part. Very tie-able as a Cree.

In fact if the percentage of multi colors is below 50%, we call then Cree/Variant. Some set the percentage at 20%.

The saddles and capes do color differently. We may find a perfect saddle and a more ginger cape. It this cape a Cree? Well, there may be a lot of Cree-like hackle that would be perfect for Spruce Cree flies. The smaller dry fly hackle may be only be light to dark ginger and may have some barring on not. Some capes are outstanding in all respects to our standard for Cree, but the over 50% rule must be met for our Crees.

We have chosen to process our Crees only in full skins and after much conversation and discussion between Liz and I, have set our prices for the full skin only, at between $150 and $250 ea., depending on the Cree quality. None are for sale at this time. Sorry. We do have a list and will hold to the list.

Four from 1st generation,
wish I had gotten a photo of all 9

So far we have produced over 30 Crees in two years and we only produce about 2,000 birds per year. This sort of blows the 1 in 250,000 theory.

My advise to the fly tier that wants to tie with Cree is to purchase with caution. If you are willing to pay extra for a color that someone may or may not have labeled correctly, it's your money. I seriously doubt if anyone would ever find a Cree on E-Bay or hanging in a local shop. True Cree are almost always sold before the brokers get their hands on them.

How many true Crees have been bred and offered to the fly tier in the past 50 years? I am sure no one knows but I would suspect that the low number would surprise all of us. The Cree is one of my favorite colors to tie with (course I have an inside source) and they do drive the fish crazy.

Many of our customers enjoy tying with the Cree/Variant. They also do a fantastic job on our flies. Try to understand what a True Cree really is before you spend your hard earned dollar. Take a good look at the Barred Ginger because there are many Cree-like hackle feathers on them and the price is far less. Read and try to understand all that has been written about Cree. Ask the author how many Crees he has produced. Does he really know what he is talking about or is he just repeating what someone else has told him? Remember just because someone tells you something does not make it fact.

I am not trying to press my thinking on anyone. These are only my personal thoughts and you may not agree. My records and many visitors to the Ranch substantiate my statements. Good luck to all. ~ Denny Conrad

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