A Guide to Chicken Feathers Used for Fly Tying
Updated: Feb 20
Dry fly hackle, soft hackle, schlappen, CDL, capes, saddles, the world of fly tying is swamped with chicken feathers, and trying to figure it out can just turn it more into a confusing cacophony. There are so many uses for chicken feathers and when looking at some fly tying recipes or when buying feathers from fly shops online it is not always clear on what you need and what you may in fact be purchasing. This guide will hopefully clear up some of that confusion and provide a list that you can find answers to your feather questions.
Beyond this guide, I have another guide, A Guide to Fly Tying Feathers, that covers: duck, grouse, ostrich, partridge, pheasant, peacock, starling, and turkey. Between these two guides it is my goal to provide a one-stop-shop for general questions on fly tying feathers.
As with any fly tying material, there are numerous ways chicken feathers can tied and used. Throughout this guide I will cover some questions about roosters, hens, dry and wet fly hackle, general applications for chicken feathers, some unique chicken feathers, and a couple fly pattern recommendations. Just keep in mind that not every possible use of these feathers is laid out and you can experiment with them in your fly patterns beyond what is written here.
One more thing, if you are a bird hunter (or know one) then you are lucky. Knowing how to skin and preserve your own game birds will gift you with a lifetime supply of amazing feathers. To learn how to do that check out this step-by-step guide: How to Skin Game Birds for Fly Tying.
(And also check out: How to Fly Fish Pocket Water: Targeting Trout Around A Single Boulder)
Rooster vs Hen Feathers
Put as simply as possible, rooster feathers are predominately used as dry fly hackle (with a couple exceptions) and hen feathers are used for a variety of flies like streamers, wet flies, carp flies, and so on. Rooster feathers are longer, shinier with narrow tips, and have stiffer barbs (feather fibers) while hen feathers are shorter, have rounded tips, and softer barbs.
Saddles vs Capes
Saddles and capes (both called pelts) come from both roosters and hens and the feathers on each have their own characteristics. The main thing you should know about both rooster and hen pelts is that saddles are taken from the back end of the bird and there is more uniformity in feather size while capes are taken from upper part of the bird starting at the neck and have more variety in feather sizes. Also, you may find that some fly shops, tyers, and producers call a rooster or hen cape a "neck" instead (so cape and neck are one in the same).
Rooster Saddles vs Rooster Capes
When it comes buying rooster saddles you will generally get just a couple sizes out of one saddle (example- hooks sizes 12-14s, 14-16s, 16-18s and so on). Although you only get a couple hook sizes from these feathers the feathers themselves are incredibly long and consistent in size, so you can tie multiple dry flies from just one saddle feather. Saddles are a great option for commercial tyers or for anyone that plans on tying a lot of dry flies that are going to be the same size +/- one hook size.
Rooster capes have more variety in feather sizes than rooster saddles so you could get feathers as small as size 20 to as large as size 12 in a single cape. The feathers are shorter than saddle feathers so you typically will only be able to tie one or two dry flies from a single cape feather. Capes are a perfect option if you want to tie a variety of dry fly sizes using that particular hackle color.
For both rooster saddles and capes, you can buy them as full or half pelts and in some cases even buy quarter saddles, it just helps to give you more purchasing options without having to buy an entire pelt in a color that you may not need too much of.
Real quick, a few other things to think about when deciding between buying rooster capes or saddles:
Capes can be a cheaper option for the non-commercial tyer if you have an assorted list of dry flies that you want to tie and will need to have a range of hackle colors and sizes in order to do so.
Saddle feathers, because of their length, can be easier to manipulate and tie with.
When using saddle feathers, you will not have to hunt around for the size you need since you know all the feathers in a particular saddle are generally just two sizes.
Hen Saddles vs Hen Capes
Hen cape feathers are longer and narrower than hen saddles and the barbs (the feather fibers that come off the feather stem) are slightly stiffer. Hen capes will give you more variety of sizes and can be used to tie a wide range of patterns from small wet flies (aka soft hackles/spiders/flymphs) to streamers and can also be used to wing dry flies (i.e. tying wings onto a dry fly such as an Adams Dry Fly).
Hen saddles have more rounded feather tips and the barbs are a little longer than barbs from a cape. Hen saddle feathers will generally tie larger soft hackles and wooly buggers, they can be used for Feather Game Changers, and be used to make collars on salmon flies.
(Further information on Wet Flies: Tactics and Techniques for Multiple Fish Species)
Grading, Colors, and Product Lines for Saddles and Capes
Grades for saddles and capes depends on the producer; an example is Whitings Olympic Grading System (pro, bronze, silver, etc.) or Metz's Grade 1 or Grade 2 (some other producers are Ewing, Keough, and Collins). The grades can help you to know a few things about the product you are getting:
Quality- how in-tact are the feathers/barbs (like broken tips), stem stiffness, useable length, etc.
Quantity- how many flies you could expect to tie with a given pelt.
Uniformity of Color- how consistent the color is throughout the entire pelt.
*Buyers tip- check out the producer's website or ask the fly shop about the grading system and what you could expect from a saddle/cape that you are considering on buying. The grading system also seems to take more importance with dry fly hackle from rooster capes and saddles.
Beyond grades, there is a wide range of colors you can find for pelts and some can even be dyed to a variety of colors (it helps to see the color if the fly shop has photos, or can send you photos, of the actual pelt you plan on buying if you are getting it online). Useful terms when looking at pelt colors:
Barring- black stripes on the feathers.
Speckling and Mottling- very fine black or dark markings that are peppered throughout the feather (very 'buggy' looking).
Badger- a black or dark line that runs straight down the length of the feather.
Grizzly- feather that is barred black and white (and producers will then dye this into many other colors).
Variant- the pelt will have variable colors and patterns with the core color being labeled first (i.e. a "Grizzly Variant" pelt will mainly have grizzly feathers but could also have furnace, brown, or some other colors mixed in with it).
Producers may also have different product lines for rooster and hen feathers. Some of these product lines are offered from multiple producers while some products are offered by only one producer. Again, for some specific product lines, it helps to go to a producer's website or to ask a fly shop to help understand the product you are buying (like the Whiting 4B, Whiting, High & Dry, Herbert/Miner, Metz Micro Saddles, and Metz Magnum Necks lines). Below, I will cover a handful these products that you may come across when searching for capes and saddles, just remember that these products are still from chickens.
Indian and Chinese Saddles/Necks
These pelts were mainly used before chickens were raised more specifically for fly tying (which picked up in the 1970's), rather these birds are bred for their meat and the pelts are shipped over to U.S. The good thing with either Indian or Chinese pelts is that they are very cheap. With Indian necks you do not get very long feathers and the barb count is not very high, but they can be used for nymph legs, wet flies, and as wings for dry flies (like spinner patterns). Chinese feathers are softer and more useful for wet flies, saltwater patterns, streamers, and bass flies.
(Suggested fly pattern: The Humongous)
Coq de Leon (CDL)
CDL has been around since at least the 17th century and is considered the oldest line of bird that has been bred for their fly tying feathers. Although the name is in french the birds originated in Spain; 'coq' means rooster and Leon is a region in northwest Spain, the term 'CDL' also refers to both roosters and hens. Further, much of the genetic breeding has been continued by Whiting Farms out in Colorado after they brought birds over to the U.S. from Spain.
Over the past decade or two, CDL has been going through some unique changes (mainly from birds that are bred at Whiting Farms) but there are a few characteristics that still remain true to the CDL line. The birds and their feathers are larger than normal chickens, their feathers have a glossy and translucent look to them, some of the bird feathers are marked with fine speckling, and the two main color lines are 'pardo' (mottled look) and 'indio' (solid colors). As with other rooster and hen products, CDL comes in a wide array of colors (both with or without speckling) and some pelts can also be dyed by the producer for even more options.
CDL Rooster Capes and Saddles
This is a great tailing material, it can be used as hackle for larger dry flies (the saddles are generally size 4-8), used to palmer streamers (like hackle for a wooly bugger), tying musky flies, , winging streamers, or creating legs and spent wings.
CDL Tailing and Mayfly Tailing
These feathers come from the rooster's shoulder and are sold in "Tailing Packs." They are used for tailing on dry flies and nymphs because of the barb's stiffness and can be dyed in specific mayfly colors (Mayfly Tailing Packs). So, wherever you have a nymph or mayfly dry fly pattern that has a tail you can use CDL tailing as a good option.
CDL Tail Feathers
These are different from 'CDL Tailing' and are taken from, obviously, the tail of the bird. The feathers can be used just like pheasant tails such as wrapping nymph or dry fly bodies, or used as thicker tails on nymphs.
(Suggested fly pattern: The Americanchie)
CDL Hen Capes and Saddles
Just like the CDL Rooster Capes and Saddles, the hen pelts have various uses. The feathers can be used to tie nymph wing cases and legs, and even used for larger soft hackle flies along with tying on collars. Additionally, capes can be used for matuka-style fly patterns. Saddles can have feathers that range in sizes 8 to 2.
CDL Hen Soft Hackle with Chickabou
This CDL Hen pelt is great for use on larger soft hackles, tying on collars, palmering streamers (size 8 to 4 or 2), and can also be used for wing cases on nymphs. What is also cool about the pelt is that it includes chickabou. Chickabou is a soft webby feather that has a wide range of uses, originally this material was only used from turkeys and their feathers called marabou. Chickabou is smaller, finer, and more delicate than turkey marabou and is great for tailing material on wooly bugger and leech patterns, and can be wrapped to make bodies on nymph, soft hackle, or streamer fly patterns. Also, you can palmer the soft hackle and chickabou for steelhead, saltwater, salmon, and larger trout flies.
This is another unique pelt that has come into the fly tying world with a splash. What a lot of tyers are using Brahma for is a substitute for partridge feathers. Partridge is a sought after material due to its soft mottled feathers that tie stunning soft hackle flies. However, over the years partridge has been harder to come by and the price for the feathers has risen considerably. Enter the Brahma hen. A Brahma hen pelt can have similar mottled looks as partridge but as a bonus has longer more usable feather stems than partridge. These feathers also can look similar to CDL but they are muted in color, not glassy, and are smaller feathers with even finer dark markings than CDL.
Brahma Hen Capes and Saddles
Brahma saddle feather sizes are generally 12 (maybe 14) up to 6 or 8 and are a nice option for soft hackle/wet flies in those sizes as well as carp flies. If you are wanting to tie smaller wet flies that traditionally need partridge then consider the Brahma hen capes. However, the feathers with the mottled "partridge" look are only on the wing pads and generally only go down to size 12, 14 or maybe 16, and they go up to around a size 10 (but here is a video on how to use larger soft hackle fibers to tie smaller flies, so you could use those mottled Brahma feathers to tie size 16s or smaller). The rest of the Brahma hen cape feathers do not have that mottled look but still make fantastic hackle for wet flies down to size 20.
Brahma Soft Hackle with Chickabou
This Brahma hen pelt has shorter fibers and finer dark markings than the CDL Hen Soft Hackle and is muted in color rather than glassy-looking. It is utilized for smaller soft hackles than CDL (think size 12 up to 8 or 6). Also, the pelt comes with chickabou but is smaller than the chickabou from a CDL Hen. Chickabou is a soft webby feather that has a wide range of uses, and originally this material was only used from turkeys and their feathers called marabou. Chickabou is smaller, finer, and more delicate than turkey marabou. The chickabou can be used for tailing material on small wooly bugger and leech patterns or can be used for wrapping bodies on wet flies.
Schlappen and Strung Saddle Hackle
These are the last chicken feathers I will cover in this article. They are very similar to one another and fly tyers will use them a lot for palmering and tailing streamers as well as tying saltwater patterns, tube flies, and spey and salmon flies. In all honesty, it comes down to personal preference when selecting these feathers and the effect you are looking for in the fly pattern. Also, anywhere you see 'strung' just means that the butt ends of the feathers are sewn together with string in order to keep them together. Length will usually be labeled on the package, something like "5-7in feathers" and there usually is not a grading system when they are packaged so you can end up with schlappen feathers in a Strung Saddle Hackle package and vic versa (and not every feather is usable so there are throw-away ones).
This is a very webby feather and has softer, longer, and thicker feather fibers than strung saddle hackle (it builds a little more bulk in the fly). It is also dull rather than shiny.
Strung Saddle Hackle
Sometimes also called strung rooster, it is thinner and more rigid than schlappen and shiny. Additionally, strung saddle hackle can also be barred. There is also strung chinese/indian saddle which is a bit webbier.
American Rooster Cape/Neck
American Rooster is shiny and webby with long feather fibers, and a little thicker than strung saddle hackle. So you get thicker feather fibers than strung saddle hackle but the shiny look of schlappen.
Hopefully this guide has helped to clear up some of the confusion you might have about the various applications for chicken feathers. Again, check out A Guide to Fly Tying Feathers for information that covers: duck, grouse, ostrich, partridge, pheasant, peacock, starling, and turkey. Lastly, if you have any questions or comments please feel free to post them in the comments below.
(Also, check out this how-to article, Improve Your Skill at Reading Water for Fly Fishing: Riffles)