There is no single correct way to hackle a wee fly, and there are a handful of ways to get the job done, but hackling is important to the proper construction. And some ways are better than others. Following is the most effective method of hackling I’ve found. This is the hackling method of G.E.M. Skues, James Leisenring, Pete Hidy, Bill Shuck and many of the masters of soft-hackle design. The method may also be applied to hackling other types of wetflies tied with in-the-round front collars.
And the hackle feather need not be tied in first, as illustrated here. It is done this way with spiders because we want to provide bulk (bedding) and elevation under the hackle by dressing the body material to the hackle tie-in before winding the collar, this providing a seamless transition from body to hackle. However when dressing winged patterns, or patterns with multiple collars, it may be easier to tie the front collar in last, after completing the body, in which case the same method still applies.
Choose a hackle. Generally, the hackle barbs on a finished spider will be slightly longer than the body, or extending a bit beyond the hook bend when pulled back. Longer, or shorter, as desired. Gauge the hackle length by holding the center stem against the hook eye, hackle barbs aligned parallel with the hook shank.
Prepare the hackle by stripping the stem up to the point you are into good, usable barbs of the length desired. Tear away a few extra barbs from the side of the hackle that lays against the hook shank, creating a flat to help seat the hackle properly when beginning to wind it. Strip the barbs from one side of the feather stem if a sparser hackle is required.
Start the thread about five turns behind the hook eye and wind back toward the bend until about a quarter of the shank is covered, now wind forward to within a few thread turns behind the hook eye. This provides a bedding for the hackle stem as well as some build-up through the thorax area.
Place the hackle on top of the hook shank, concave side up. Hold the hackle stem in place while applying a couple loose turns of thread, tightening while winding the thread back over the stem to about the center of the thread base. If the hackle pulls over to the side of the hook shank a bit, that’s okay as long as the concave side is still facing back.
Trim away the thread tag and remaining hackle stem.
Proceed winding the tying thread back toward the hook bend. Tie in tailing if used, then ribbing and body material. Winding forward, I generally end the ribbing at the center of the thorax area, then cover with a thorax or add a short ball of dubbing to flare the hackle.
Cinch down and trim the ribbing, then spiral the tying thread back to the base of the thorax.
Dub forward over the thorax to provide profile and a bit of mass to keep the hackle flared. The ribbing winking through the thorax dubbing will provide enticing inner flash when the fly is wet.
Here is an important step: After finishing the body, leave the tying thread positioned far enough behind the hook eye to provide a gap for the wound hackle, which is then wound back to the thread’s position.
Pull the hackle stem back perpendicular to the hook shank and apply two full turns of hackle, winding back to the tying thread position. Holding the hackle tip at the top of the hook shank, apply a couple turns of thread over the end, then wind the thread forward over (through) the hackle to the hook eye, generally one to four turns, depending on how many turns of hackle were applied.
Trim away the hackle tip (or it may be left to create a wing). Square away the hackle with your fingers.
Gather and pull back the hackle and apply thread turns, then whip-finish to create the head. Using this method there is little to no build-up in front of the hackle, so the head may be as small as you like.
The hackle collar on the finished fly should flare perpendicular to the hook shank. The hackle lay-back occurs when the hackle is pulled back to finish the head. Take care to finish the head against the front of the hackle stem, unless you intend to strap the hackle back. The collar stem is locked in place with tying thread (it won’t unwind) and the hackle barbs are spring-loaded. The water current will move them back against the body, yet they will want to spring back to the perpendicular position, producing lifelike motion.
Some types of hackle barbs are fatter than others. The Hares Ear sample above is tied with brahma hen, which has thicker barbs than partridge, hence dresses heavier. If you want a sparser hackle, remove the barbs from one side of the feather before tying in.
If hackling a flymph, position the thread where you want the hackle to end, strip the hackle on one side and apply four or five full turns back over the dubbed thorax area to the thread position. Then wind the thread forward over the hackle stem to the hook eye.
When hackling spiders I generally apply two turns of hackle, whole, or stripped on one side. Some feathers with very thin hackle barbs may require more than two turns, so work accordingly until you get the result you want. If only one turn is needed to get the result, the same method applies.
Modern tiers tend to hackle their spiders very sparse, with one turn of hackle – and that may be a good way if one is fishing pressured spring creeks in Pennsylvania, for example; however, if you look at plates of the old Yorkshire spiders, you see they are heavily hackled. Leisenring and Hidy recommended two full turns of hackle and, for the most part, I agree. Hackle barbs are very tender and with use are torn away. After a couple trout chew on it, you have a sparsely hackled fly. A few more fish and the fly may have very little hackle at all. So keep in mind that your fly will become sparser with each trout you catch.
Some hackles, like mallard flank, may have too thick a stem at the base, and these are better tied in by the tip. Prepare the hackle the same as above. Wet your fingers and train the hackle barbs away from the stem. Wet the hackle tip while separating the barbs away from it. Lay the tip on the hook-shank and tie in – the same as the basic method except the hackle stem is reversed. As a general rule of thumb, if the feather is wider than it is long, tie in by the tip.
I might be nitpicking here, but I prefer the heads on my flies as small as possible. I can’t think of many insects or baitfish that have heads resembling the thread “heads” we build on our flies. For example, the heads of streamborn insects are usually the same width and coloration as the thorax. On some mayfly nymphs the head is actually wider than the thorax. For that reason, I consider whatever material is behind the finishing thread to be the actual head and body of the fly. Hence, I usually want to keep the thread head as inconspicuous as possible.