Look up "hackle" in the dictionary and you will find something like: "the long shining feathers from the neck of the domestic cock, peacock, pigeon, etc." But when a flytyer uses the same word, it may mean:

  • one of the feathers just mentioned, or
  • any other type of feather that can be wound on at the "hackle position," or
  • the wound-on collar (formed from those feathers) that many fishing flies sport just behind their heads, or even
  • a body hackle, which is wound spirally up or down the fly body.

To complicate matters further, there are dry-fly hackles and wet-fly hackles, all with their own characteristics.

Small wonder, then, that beginners often find "hackle" the most confusing of flytying terms. Luckily, there is less confusion about the purpose of a hackle. Though many different styles of finished, wound-on, hackle can be tied, they are all intended to make an artificial fly more lifelike. Wound-on hackles imitate the legs and breathing apparatus of natural insects, and there is no doubt that the extra movement of the hackle fibers under water often helps to deceive the fish.

Beginners often ask me to explain the difference between dry-fly and wet-fly hackles (not really such a naive re-questi because both dry and wet flies make contact with the water). The main differences are in the way the hackle is prepared and tied in (as shown in the instruction sequences in this chapter) and its position on the hook (see the diagram under "Proportions of a Fly" in Chapter 2). Whereas dry-fly hackles are designed to help the fly float on the water's surface, wet-fly hackles (usually softer and/or sparser) are designed to allow the fly to sink easily beneath it.

The instruction sequences in this chapter are divided into those for dry-fly hackles and those for wet-fly hackles. All the techniques described fall neatly into one or the other of these categories except for "palmering" - a body-hackle technique that may be used for dry or wet flies. The dry-fly hackle sequences show techniques for the following:

  • simple dry-fly hackles (this is an important technique and I refer back to it from many other places in the chapter)
  • how to wind one hackle through another
  • fore-and-aft hackles
  • body hackles (two different styles)
  • parachute hackles.

The wet-fly hackle sequences show techniques for:

  • simple wet-fly hackles
  • body hackles for wet flies
  • false hackles and beard hackles
  • jay hackles.

At the end of the chapter there are some notes on common problems with hackles, and how to avoid or remedy them.

Fur hackles are not included in this chapter, because the necessary techniques have been illustrated elsewhere in the book.

For a deer-hair hackle (Muddler Minnow type) see "Deer-Hair Bodies" in Chapter 4.

Dubbed fur "hackles" (as used in numerous nymph imitations) are made by winding on the dubbing thickly at the thorax and then picking out the dubbed "hackle" with a dubbing needle. Two last points about the instruction sequences:

  1. Most of them show a standard yarn body that I tied in before tying the hackle. I did this to make the sequences more realistic but the yarn body is not intended to be that of any particular pattern.
  2. To save space, I have not included detailed instructions in this chapter if the techniques are described elsewhere in thè book. For example, where the instructions state "finish off the fly," this means tie a wrap knot and cut off the tying thread (described in Chapter 2), then lacquer the head of the fly (see "How to Lacquer a Fly" in Chapter 8).

It is sometimes a problem to decide where to tie in and wind on the hackles for winged patterns. The following notes, together with the information in Chapter 6 ("Wings") should provide most of the answers. Any upright (dry) winged pattern: Tie in the hackle behind the wings. Wind two turns of hackle behind the wings, then wind on the rest in front. Do not take the hackle between the wings.

Spent (dry) wings: As above, but use less hackle, and do take the hackle between the spent wings. Advanced (dry) wings: Wind the whole hackle behind the wings, but tie it off in front of the wings. Sedge wings, flat wings, ant wings (dry): Wind the whole hackle, and tie it off, in front of the wings. Wings on a parachute fly (dry): Wind the whole hackle around the base of the wing (there is no need for wire). Tie off the hackle tip on the shank.

Any sloping-back (wet) wing: Tie up the wet-fly hackle first. Tie on the wing afterward. Streamer wings (wet): As above, or tie up the wet-fly hackle in front of the wing.

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