As I peruse Bourbon websites, social media, and Reddit, I long for the days that a person could actually find some of the fine whiskeys people are bragging about buying. Make no mistake, bragging is 100% the correct word here. It has become a game of "look what I bought"! And I see that same thing in the fly tying world. "True cree", "Champagne", and unique variant necks and saddles get sold right away, often to a shop's "loyal collector buyers" and sometimes for ridiculous prices when you can find them at all. And then many or even most of these fine fancy chicken feather sit in someone's collection never to be tied with. Or in the case of rare Bourbons, never to be drank. To hell with that, I say.
I feel old in writing this but back in my day...
I have a Metz cree neck from somewhere in mid-1990's that is gorgeous - a BEAUTIFUL cree coloration. I paid whatever the normal going price for a neck was at that time. I did not have to pay some crazy price because it was cree like so often we do today. A bit less than a decade later I was able to buy a bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year which today you can mostly find in lotteries for non-profit groups, on websites with absorbent mark-ups, or you can get really lucky or more likely know somebody that runs a liquor store. That bottle of Old Rip was a fantastic Bourbon but a $1,7000 whiskey, not for me. And really not for most anyone that does not have more money than they know what to do with.
Unfortunately, that old Metz cree is maybe the worst neck in my "collection" as it has twisted stems and is damn near impossible to tie a really good dry fly with unless I mitigate the twist with some dubbing so it is fine for "new school" thorax flies but not much else. That bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle was a hell of a lot better than that cree cape.
My lament is maybe one of disappointment or jealousy and it is maybe a bit misplaced. Yes, I would like to be able to get my hand, err, my lips on a bottle of Eagle Rare or my hands on one of those cool champagne saddles with the mottling that makes them super-sexy! Years ago, I bought my brother a bottle of Eagle Rare for MSRP which was around $30 at the time. It was one of my favorite Bourbons and was generally pretty easy to find. As he asked for it again a few years later and I had to break the news that there is not a chance in Hell I will be able to find that bottle and if I did, it is out of the range I am willing to spend on a bottle that still has an MSRP of around $40. I do not have the money to be a collector of either Bourbon or hackle, let alone both. So I drink the many fine Bourbons I can afford while tying with the amazing hackle that is available to me.
Why I think my lament is a bit misguided is that the "Bourbon craze" and the thirst that tyers, collectors, and those doing hair extensions have for genetic hackle has been a rising tide. While I can not get my hands on Old Rip, Eagle Rare, or bottles of Weller anymore (Hell, finding Buffalo Trace has been hard enough...), there are more fantastic and affordable Bourbons than ever before. And the same goes for fancy chicken feathers. There are more great necks and saddles in a wider range of colors than ever before. And for a greater diversity of purposes. Today, I can buy saddles suited for #22 dry flies, wings on flatwing streamers, or tails on bass and musky flies.
If you are of a particular age - that is if you have been tying for 30 years or so - you will remember that Indian necks were standard and were slowly being replaced by Hoffman, Metz, and Whiting "genetic" necks. Saddles were still largely used as palmered hackle on buggers or tails on Lefty's Deceivers. Indian necks were good down to maybe a #16 or #18 if you found the right neck. And a feather tied a fly or you used a couple of feathers on more heavily hackled flies. The genetic hackle of the day was leaps and bounds better but you paid a premium compared to the Indian necks. However most "serious" tyers were willing to spend what it took as the genetic necks were such a step up from the Indian necks. It was akin to moving up from a Thompson AA vise to the Renzetti's of the day.
We are in the golden age of fancy chicken feathers (and quality Bourbons). Not only are the feathers that Dr. Tom Whiting is producing more and more fantastic all the time; the great majority of them come at a price that is quite reasonable for most tyers. Today, the bronze grade feathers are at least the gold grade of 10 or so years ago. The barb counts are fantastic and the feather length allows for double the number of flies per feather as they did a decade or so ago. The number of quality feathers per neck or saddle have increased spectacularly. Most tyers could buy a Whiting bronze or tyers grade neck in a few colors and be in fancy chicken feathers for the rest of their tying days.
Today the lament is often that that feathers are too good - the barb counts are too high and the barbs are too stiff to tie some of the classic dry fly patterns. With the selection on the roosters for their fantastic feathers, hen feathers have changed too. But even there, the bigger producers have newer lines of chickens better suited to soft hackles and warmwater flies.
And it is not just Whiting. Smaller producers like Sideling Hill, Root River Hackle, Charlie Collins, Bill Skilton, and others are producing superb hackle, often at a price that is a fair bit more budget friendly than the Whiting/Hoffman/Hebert lines. I have rooster feathers from most of these folks and hen necks and saddles from Collins that are all superb. I would not hesitate to recommend them to those looking for a more budget friendly way to buy quality tying hackle.
The tide is rising. Sure, I lament the fact that I can not pick up some of the feathers that the cool kids are bragging about online but I have more excellent hackle than I will use in my lifetime. I will enjoy tying with them as I drink my excellent, yet quite affordable 1920 Old Forester, J. Henry, or Larceny Bourbon (neat, thank you very much!).