Jay Hackles

The very attractive feathers from the wings of the European Jay can be wound on as hackles or tied on as wings. This section is only concerned with jay feathers as hackles, however. For instructions on how to use them as wings, see "Matched Wet Wings" in Chapter 6.

To the unwary, jay feathers can be frustratingly difficult to prepare and wind on; indeed, many tiers eventually resort to using jay false hackles! The following sequence of photographs illustrates how a jay feather, when properly selected and prepared, forms a delightfully colorful hackle, which is also rewarding to tie. As with so many other supposedly difficult techniques, correct preparation is more than half the battle.

Preparing Jayhackles
  • The photograph shows three European Jay lesser covert wing feathers. The two outer feathers are ideal for hackles because only one side is colored, because the tips are rounded, and (although this cannot be seen) because they have softer stalks than the central feather. Feathers like the central one are best used for wings.
  • Form the body as the pattern requires, and cut off all surplus materials.
  • Read the "Note" in Step 4, then select a jay feather of the correct (wet-fly) proportions for the hook.
  • Pull off all the fibers on the dull-colored side.
  • Turn the feather over and, cutting along the stalk with sharp scissors as shown, cut away as much of the stalk and pith as possible. If you accidentally cut through the stalk, start again with a new feather.
  • Now trim the butt of the hackle as if preparing to tie it in (though it will actually be tied in by the tip). This allows the hackle pliers to grip the stalk securely and also ensures a neat final winding-on turn.
  • To prepare the hackle tip for tying-in, pull down the first few fibers with your left-hand thumb and index finger. Trim off some of the hackle tip, so that a small triangle remains beyond the waist, as shown.
  • Maintaining firm tension on the hackle, tie it off with three or four tight securing turns. (S) If the hackle looks loose, rewind it, maintain even firmer tension, and tie it off again.
  • With the fingers of your left hand surrounding the shank and hackle fibers, twist your hand either clockwise or anticlockwise to stroke the fibers into position.
  • Cut off the surplus hackle stalk and complete the fly.
  • Note: Some tyers reverse the tying thread (I would first stop the thread with a wrap knot) so that the thread and hackle are both worked in the same direction. Several half-hitches, or a tied-in loop, will reverse the thread again after tying off.
  • Tie in the hackle tip, by the waist, at the hackle position; then wind the tying thread in close turns to the hook eye. (S)
  • The hackle shown here is colored on the left side. Note: Hackles colored on the left side (those from the bird's right wing) must be wound in the opposite direction to a normal hackle, because otherwise the colored part would be wound upside down. Hackles colored on the right side can be wound on in the normal way.
  • Grip the prepared butt with hackle pliers and wind on the hackle in close turns, working toward the hook eye.
  • Finish the final hackle turn on the near side of the hook.
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