I know what you’re thinking. They can go in the stew pot. That’s true, but most of those bony old devils don’t even make good fricassee. They’re great on a fishhook though.
When I was a teenager I was a serious fly-tyer. My grandfather got me started when I was seven and by the time I was in my mid-teens I was pretty good. I even kept a local sporting goods store stocked with a few of my favorite patterns for a while.
I always had my eye out for pretty roosters. I remember one time I was with my grandfather at his fishing buddy’s house. This guy had a mean old bright colored mixed breed rooster, and he was complaining about him. Normy asked me if I wanted him, and I told him that I very much would like the fowl.
Normy laughed at me but my grandfather didn’t. He knew exactly what my intensions were. I wanted those gorgeous neck and saddle hackles. I figured the best use for the meat for crabbing or maybe to catch a coon or two.
The long brown saddle hackles were perfect for tying ‘Queen Bees’, one of my favorite streamer flies. That’s a dandy pattern for landlocked salmon. Those back hackles were also great for a few of my favorite trout wet flies. This old bird also had exquisite long mature neck hackles, great for many of my favorite dry flies.
There’s a big difference between rooster and hen feathers. Hen hackle feathers have a degree of webbing to them and they are rounder and not as long. They’re fine for some wet fly patterns but are totally unacceptable for dry flies or tandem streamers.
Fly tying supplies are expensive. I was a cheapskate and scrounged for all the bargains I could find. A few years later I worked for a college professor who had a woodworking shop on the side. He also got his hands on about twenty big meat chickens. I helped feed them as well as work in the shop. They were major feed burners and grew like weeds.
One evening a fox or a dog slipped through a hole in the coop and killed every one. I carried them two by two to a big hole I dug next to his garden and buried them. However, before I interned their carcasses I skinned out several satisfactory white rooster necks and backs. That evening I toted home a sack full of white feathers.
My mother helped me dye them different colors. We mixed dyes together to achieve the proper hues and I tied flies with these feathers for several years. They weren’t of the same quality of a good old bright colored rooster, but they caught fish.
Since my youth, those hackles are the first thing I notice when I see a rooster. I don’t have time to tie flies like I once did, but I always see value in an old rooster. When they decide to spur me I just admire their feathers a little more. I need to get back into fly tying.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.