Updated: Mar 2
As I stated in a recent post on the genetics of dry fly hackle, this is the golden age for those with a thing for fancy chicken feathers. Today's dry fly hackle is really quite amazing. Even capes (necks) tie more than one fly per feather and some of today's saddles may tie a dozen flies or more with a single feather. Barb counts are great and the stems are thin and do not twist. In fact, I have not seen nor bought a neck or saddle with twisty stems in probably 20 years. Decades of artificial selection have resulted in some great feathers for the tyer. And there are more colors - both natural and dyed - than ever before.
What about the economics of fancy chicken feathers? First, whatever you buy today, it is likely to be the best hackle you've ever bought. There is really no way to make a meaningful comparison short of taking apart necks and saddles from different decades and comparing how many flies each will tie, tying a few dozen flies with each and comparing the quality, knowing the price of each, adjusting the cost for inflation and other factors, comparing those flies to current fly cost, quality, ease of tying, and other factors...that is a long about way to say it is rather impossible (or at least further than I am willing to do). How do you compare the value of tying with feathers that much easier to work with? If you have ever had to deal with hackle with a twisted stem, you know.
Kelly Galloup (The Slide Inn) has a series of YouTube videos on hackle (links are at the end of this post) that are very informative. In the video on cree hackle (below), he states that today, the biggest difference among Whiting grades are the number of feathers and how many flies a cape or saddle will tie. He further goes on to say that price has been dictated more by color than anything lately with unique colors like cree, champagne, and vermiculated colors often being priced differently from other colors. Like most things, this pricing largely is a function of supply and demand. These colors are rare and tyers (and collectors) have a great demand for these unique colors. We can debate whether or not hackle color really matters all that much on fishing success but the fact is, many are willing to pay a premium to own these colors.
Let's explore Whiting Farms hackle as they have become the gold standard. Gold and platinum hackle are hard to find - few roosters make the grade - but a silver neck has a retail price of $120 and the saddle runs $125. While it is a lot of money, most tyers will never use all the feathers on either of them in their lifetimes. Thus it becomes a question of purchase price versus cost per fly. For example, why buy a platinum or gold saddle in a color you are unlikely to tie 2,000+ flies in when a pro grade at $60 would be more than enough? The "High and Dry" line capes are typically $72 and the saddles seem to be less standardized as I have seen them run from $42 to $100 online. And for those tying larger flies, the Eurohackle saddles run $90 and the capes - which seem harder to find - are around $42. Heritage series ungraded capes sell for $80 and the graded saddles sell for $120 for grade 2 and $160 for grade 1. (Prices are from May 2022)
As you buy higher grade saddles, the cost per fly decreases but the initial investment can be quite significant. Two hundred and forty dollars is more than most are willing to spend for fancy chicken feathers. And the odds of finding a Whiting platinum saddle are decreasing as they are phasing that line out (at least that is what I had heard...). There are also less expensive initial investments such as purchasing half and quarter saddles. You pay a bit more for a half or quarter than half or quarter of the full saddle retail price but that's to be expected. A half silver saddle runs $72 and a bronze grade is $56 and a quarter silver saddle is $46 and $40 for bronze grade. Midge saddles run in smaller sizes, #16 on the larger end, down to #22 or even #24 on the smaller end, so you will pay a bit more of a premium for these saddles.
Non-Whiting Farms Hackle
There are an increasing number of smaller producers and Metz is making more of a name for itself, again. At one point in time, Metz and Whiting were sort of 1A and 1B in the hackle world then Hoffman / Whiting sort of took over as the gold standard. I am sure some reading this disagree but Whiting rather took over and became the gold standard. It is what most any experienced tyer compares any dry fly hackle too. Increasingly, there are more great options from non-Whiting breeders.
I - and many others - see Whiting as rather the gold standard in dry fly hackle but myself and others are buying from other breeders as well. I have recently (within the last few years) bought hackle from Root River Hackle Farms, Sideling Hill Hackle, Fly Fish Food's Yard Bird Hackle (which may be Whiting...), Jim's Fly Company / Campfire Lodge (may also be Whiting...), Metz, and Collins Hackle Farm. And there are many other great options out there, I am sure.
Whiting is the only grower where I can easily find an estimate of the number of flies that their necks and saddles will tie so direct comparisons are difficult. However, we can talk about the cost to purchase a neck or saddle and maybe a bit about a comparison to Whiting in terms of feather count, barb density, and stiffness. To make some comparisons, I will use Jim's Fly Co., FlyFishFood, and other online retailers for prices.
Collins Hackle Farm is pretty old-school and have a great reputation for people looking for hackle to tie Catskill style dry flies. Collins has specialized on breeding roosters with necks that have thin, supple hackle stems that are a pleasure to tie with. With your cape comes the rooster's saddle as well. Graded 1 through 3, the prices for the neck AND saddle are $70, $55, and $35 with the commercial grade selling for $25. They also produce what I think are probably the best hen necks that you will easily find.
Metz - these are graded from 1 to 3 with capes ranging from $32 to $65 and saddles ranging from $32 to $60. On Jim's Fly Co., prices seem to vary not only on grade but by hackle density on the individual neck or saddle. The cree neck I bought did not have the twisted stems of the Metz cree I have from 20+ years ago and ties a nice parachute.
Root River Hackle farms are local - they are in southern Minnesota. The grade their necks from tyers grade to 1, 2, and 3 which are $25, $35, $45, and $60, respectively. Like most hackle producers, there is a bit of a premium put on rare colors like cree. Their saddles are similarly graded and cost $35, $50, $70, and $85 as you up from tyer's grade. Their dyed hackle is a little more expensive. I bought this through Nightmare Musky Flies for, well, musky flies, but found my grade 3 to be a much better saddle than I had expected and quickly began using it for dry flies as well.
Sideling Hill Hackle is a small producer from Pennsylvania that grows a relatively small number of birds that recently (2019) got a boost by incorporating birds from Charlie Collins. I have found mostly necks from Sideling Hill and they run $35 for a grade 3, $45 for a grade 2, and $55 for a grade 1 neck. An interesting deal is their 3B bundle where you get 4 lower feather count saddles for $45. These make some good feathers for tails and there are a few feathers for musky and other large streamers.
Lastly, I'll tackle hackle from FlyFishFood and Jim's Fly Co. together. I do not know a lot about these hackles but I have a Yard Bird saddle (photo above) from FlyFishFood. And Jim's Fly Co. lists there saddles under their Whiting page. Prices for Yard Bird hackle are $60 for either a cape or a saddle and Jim's Fly Co. saddles are ungraded but are $32, $42, or $52 so essentially, they are graded.
Why buy from smaller producers when you can buy Whiting Farms hackle and know exactly what you are getting? For fun, to change things up, to be better able to tie some types of flies, to support smaller and maybe more local producers. And maybe to save some money. Again, I doubt that on average, you save money on a per fly basis but for many, buy-in price is much more important that price per fly unless you are tying to sell flies and doing it by the gross rather than by the few here and there. I do find that smaller producers grades typically vary more in quality than do Whiting Farms. Why buy anything other than Maker's Mark because it is a perfectly fine Bourbon?
Compared to Days of Yore...
It is relatively easy to talk about initial investment (cost per saddle or cape) but more difficult to talk about it in a per fly cost. In asking around for prices of hackle, I got a lot of answers around $20 for a cape around the year 2000. With inflation, that is about $34 today. (Three months earlier when I started this post it was $29...)
But what you got for your $20 in 2000 is nothing like the hackle you are getting today. And in 2014, guys like Cheech (no, not that Cheech) was claiming 2014 as the "good old days" and hackle has only improved since then. First, go read the Web Archive link to the 2014 post and how they measured and compared brands. Their cost per 100 Adams come out to between $2.06 (about 2 pennies per fly) to over $10 per 100 (10 cents a fly). This is greatly different from what I had calculated per fly using Whiting's estimate of number of flies per saddle or cape and their costs. I am not sure what the answer is here. Short of tearing apart a bunch of new saddles or necks, tying a bunch of flies (but which flies? Some flies use more hackle than others), and coming up with a more accurate per fly cost; there really is not a good answer to how much do I pay per fly. Sorry, I am not going to tear apart my necks and saddles for you...
So What do I Buy?
I know I have written something similar before but if you are tying to save as much money as possible, go for it but it is not why I tie flies. My thoughts are:
For most tyers, cost per 100 Adams or another measure is not that important but the buy in cost is. What is the point of buying a Whiting Platinum grade saddle for $240 if you are never going to approach tying the 2,800 - 233+ dozen - flies one ties on average?
Necks or saddles - I have covered some of this ground elsewhere as have others - but if you tie a lot of flies in the same size, saddles are preferable. If you tie a huge variety of sizes, a neck (cape) will probably suit you better.
Buy higher grades for the size and color combinations that you tie a lot of and lower grades saddles or capes when they are colors you will use less often. For example, a grizzly dyed pink neck might be interesting for a few patterns but I would never buy an expensive grizzly dyed pink neck.
I am a huge barred ginger and grizzly fan - and I like dyed grizzly colors. They look good, allow you to use a single feather, and I think the barring helps catch more fish.
Don't over look the lower grades - at least in the Whiting line, the quality is great and you will pay a much lower cost for a Pro Grade or High and Dry neck or saddle.
My personal preference for parachutes is to go up a size in hackle and I would consider that if buying saddles - you may not choose to do that.
You don't need cree. Or champagne. Or vermiculated. Yes, I have some but I bought them either at normal prices or I have bought non-Whiting which do not seem to sell for the premium that Whiting fancy colors often do. I have no science to support it but I am 99.99999% sure that fish do not see the feather from the $400 cree saddle any differently than they see a dark barred ginger from a $52 saddle. Then again, the cool colors are, well, pretty cool!
Hackle today is fantastic and there are more options than we have had in a long time. It is a bit like the beer market - there were once breweries in every little town and we are getting back towards that today after the big few pretty well owned the game for years. I would NOT make the pale, light Pilsner comparison with Whiting Hackle as what they are producing is fantastic.
Buy what makes you happy, I have. I have more hackle than I will ever use but it is part of the hobby. Some days I want to put grizzly dyed brown hackle on my Hippie Stomper rather than the standard grizzly. It probably does not matter to the fish but it does to me, a bit. Truth is, I do not really tie with that much hackle any more other than parachutes.
Links to The Slide Inn / Kelly Galloup Hackle Videos
As always, I have no vested interest in where you buy from - these are not affiliate links.