The Hackle Comparison Nerdalysis
This post has been a LONG time in the making. You could say it began about 20 years ago when I bought my first neck -- a crappy cheap India neck from a local fly shop -- on my search for a decent hackle at a decent price. Not only did the webby hackled flies I tied from that neck not float at all, but the sizes were all over the board and they were difficult to tie with. Had I known back then what I know today, I would have saved a few more pennies and sprung for a good neck early on rather than get by with a much inferior product.
Cheech - I have dabbled in many of the different hackles that are available - I have my preferences - but it seems as if there are a lot of guys who claim that a certain brand is superior just because it's what they have. These are the good old days of tying, and we are truly spoiled with the quality of materials that are available - especially the hackle. I really don't think there is such a thing as "bad" hackle because it is all useful in it's own right, but in regards to dry fly hackle these days it goes from good, to really good, to YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME good.
Caveats and DisclosuresLest this ignites a poop-storm of epic proportions amongst the various hackle brand fanbases, let's set a few groundrules and disclosures:
- We're not at all compensated by any of the growers featured in these tests. We bought all capes with our own money and did not pick and choose what we bought nor did we let the growers choose for us. No favorites here. The theory is that this would represent the quality you would get if you were to buy the product yourselves.
- We sampled from only one or two full capes (necks) of each grade with each grower and we're sampling different colors. So yeah, I'm sure there are better and/or worse results depending on the specific cape. But if the growers are to be consistent with their grading, that shouldn't matter as much right? We're going to assume, within a given grade, regardless of color, the grower's grading would be fairly consistent and we're basing a lot of our numbers on how the products are graded to begin with. Yes, this isn't the most pure statistical scientific way to analyze things, but we don't have thousands of dollars to blow on capes and nerdy measuring equipment.
- We realize the grades across growers are not consistent. We're more concerned with the relative price point and so we chose grades that would hopefully compare given the price you pay and what you get.
- We decided to look only at capes, as opposed to saddles, and focus on the lower to mid-grades of those products because we feel those are the closest products to compare to each other. We might compare saddle hackles down the road but we had to start somewhere.
- No question there are other ways to compare hackle, but when it all boils down, we're really most interested in seeing how many flies I can tie with the hackle I purchase given a relative cost to tie those flies. It may look good, have great colors and have decent stem flexibility, but if the barbs are sparse and the stems short, I will not get as many flies per cape and my overall cost will go up.
- Quality: This is probably the most mis-used word in any hackle discussion. It's so relative and based in opinion. What we found, in reality, is that we could tie flies with all of these capes with no problems. As you can see down further, some had webbier bottom stem sections, but we're ignoring those parts anyway. In the end, the stems were all good for wrapping and didn't break, the feather barbs splayed out like you'd expect, the colors didn't bleed, my flies would still float and most importantly I didn't cut myself on the any sharp edges. So with that said, these are all high quality hackles.
Now let's look at the products we're going to be comparing. As stated earlier, these are all mid to lower-grade options for each grower.
|Cape Brand||Grade||Retail Price|
|Whiting Hebert Miner||Pro||$38|
|Whiting Hebert Miner||Bronze||$60|
|Whiting High & Dry||-NA-||$49|
Measuring PointsSo in order to arrive at some reasonable comparison points, we ended up measuring the following:
- Barbs per cm: This was a number we originally counted on all capes and came up with an average number. We found, however, that the barb density was consistent enough across capes that we decided to use a constant number that represents an average across all growers. One note, however, our higher scoring capes in the overall results also had the highest barb density. So this is an area where we're probably giving a bit of a handicap to the eventual high-scorers.
- Average "Sweet Spot" length on a given size hackle. The "Sweet Spot" would be the the usable fly tying area on a hackle stem with a consistent size. Usually, bottom webbier sections of hackle stems are not super-usable.
- The smallest and biggest size flies you could tie and the average length of those hackles. Although this doesn't factor into the numerical results, we do consider that some capes have very usable very small feathers, while others either don't have any small (i.e. < #22) feathers or they're so small, they can't be used to tie a fly. In the end, all capes had similar large fly feather sizes and good numbers of those feathers. However, I'm usually not buying a cape for bugger hackle, so we left those numbers off the chart below.
- Average number of hackle feathers in a given area. This is basically the feather density. We measure an area, count the feathers, take an average get the density per 1 sq cm.
- Because some capes vary in total feather/skin area, we decided to look at a relatively even "sweet spot" of feathers. So even though some capes varied from others in this sweet spot location and size, we picked an average usable feather skin area of 36 sq cm (roughly 6cm x 6cm). NOTE: This normalized number ends up greatly helping the hackles with lower scores, so if anything, it's a bit of a "hit" for the high scoring capes.
- Total # of Adams (not shown but used in the calculation of the "Cost per 100 Adams"). Using the 36 sq cm "sweet spot" on the cape, we'll assume, for our testing here, you set aside the rest of the cape and tie a bunch of Parachute Adams with #18's through 12's (average size range) using an average length of 3cm to tie one fly. NOTE: Our calculation assumes no waste of usable feathers, when, in reality, you might tie with 4cm of feather and have a remaining 1cm you can't really work with. We're ignoring this cuz the math is easier and because it would likely adversely affect the lower scoring capes anyway. Again, when counting our "sweet spot" feathers, some capes here will take a hit because they tend to have a lot of smaller feathers in areas outside the sweet spot where other capes do not. We're cutting this out of the equation and just working with a standard sized area so we can compare a standard size.
The assumption is that let's say a certain brand cape has less hackle density on the skin, barb density and longer feather length on the "sweet spot" feathers, then it will not surpass another cape in quality on the non-"sweet spot" feathers we're not counting in this exercise. We have, in fact, checked this and were we to include the entire cape across all sizes -- especially the sub-#18 sizes, the disparity would be much larger. In other words, if you look at the scores here, the capes that have a lower "Cost per 100 Adams" (see below) would actually see a much better relative score against the other capes because the "sweet spot" on the cape is where the playing field is most leveled. If we were to, for example, include all the small size feathers (which is a great reason for buying a cape to begin with), the winning capes win bigger and the losing capes lose bigger.
- The "Cost per 100 Adams" value. This is the cost you'd pay if you wanted to tie up one hundred (100) Parachute Adams patterns from the "sweet spot" mentioned above, if using only the usable sections of the feathers. Just like going to the grocery store, you want to see the unit cost of what you're buying -- the total price is almost meaningless these days and it holds absolutely true in the world of hackle. My box of Cheerios got a lot smaller, but I pay a lot more per ounce these days. If I want "cheap" Cheerios, I usually buy the huge box at Costco where the unit cost per Cheerio is much less because I'm buying them in bulk.
So for our purposes here, the Cost per 100 Adams becomes a unit cost that will help to put into perspective how much you're paying vs how much you're getting. Obviously some patterns use more hackle than others, so this will give you a relative number that can be used to compare capes from different growers. One important thing to note about this number, though, is that it's a very good predictor of the overall value you're getting from the entire cape and not just the "sweet spot" area. Because it takes into account standard physical attributes of a cape and compares it cost, you could then extrapolate to compare one cape brand to another -- regardless of their individual grower grading methods.
So imagine our surprise when the capes that people typically call "expensive" turn out to be the best value and the ones we hear people claiming as the budget or economy hackles turn out to be the most expensive. It really turns our pre-conceived notions on their collective heads!
ASSL = Average Sweet Spot Length
FxCM2 = Feathers per Square Centimeter
Avg Length of Feather used per Adams = 3cm
ASSL = Average Sweet Spot Length
FxCM2 = Feathers per Square Centimeter
Avg Length of Feather used per Adams = 3cm
Observations from the DataAgain, this is a relatively rough analysis, but even looking at just the relative scores, you're probably left wondering how there can be such a big difference. We were actually very surprised by this difference as well.
If we go on just the "Price Per 100 Adams", then the Whiting Hebert Miner Pro cape comes out on top as the best value. Notice that the reason it scores higher is because of the relative lower total cost, but it still has reasonable measurements on the feathers. However, given the price per 100 Adams is, not surprisingly, about the same across all Whiting products, it tells us they are pretty solid on their grading system and that we're not up in the night with our testing methods here.
On the other end of the scoring, we find the Keough cape, that usually gets mentioned as an economy cape, actually turns out to be a more expensive option. And finally, we have the Clearwater cape, which cost us the most to buy, but ultimately ended up providing us with the lowest relative value. This was one of the more surprising results of our little study. To put that into perspective, in order to get to a price per Adams in the $2.25 range, they'd need to charge $13 for the cape.
So let's look at it a bit closer to understand the differences here. The two biggest factors in this analysis are obviously average feather length and feather density. In order to get a good feel for both of these attributes, I like to do what I call the "curl test". A cape, at rest lying flat in a package, hanging in a shop or on the counter, as you can see by the pictures above, look fairly similar. However, if you wrap or curl the pelt, splaying out the feathers a bit, you can see both density and feather length quite well. Here are two examples:
|Clearwater #2 Cape: Curl Test|
|Whiting Bronze Cape: Curl Test|
|Click to Enlarge|
This image here is really the whole story when it comes to the point of our post here. When we talk about the "usable" hackle on a feather, comparing the the feathers on each end, we first notice the extreme difference in overall length but also the relative amount of usable hackle compared to the webby portion at the bottom. It's definitely something you can see across all types with the Collins and Whiting Bronze coming out with the best overall usable percentage. But given that most of these capes have a relatively similar price, your biggest difference is the length of each feather, making the Capes with shorter length feathers MUCH more expensive in the long run. So the next time I hear someone tell me they don't buy Whiting because "it's too expensive", I'm going to roll up this blog post and smack 'em upside the head with it.
So with this image in mind, it's easy to recognize that the total price of any cape is just a small piece of the puzzle. Take, for instance, the length of the both Whiting & Hebert Miner Bronze capes -- they're both over 6 inches long! These are capes, not saddles!
The IntangiblesNow we'd be remiss if we just dropped a bunch of numbers here and didn't point out other less-tangible things to consider. And while surely the price and quantity factors are huge selling points, there are some other things to consider.
Clearwater: We had heard some good things about Clearwater, which is why we included them in this review. I've actually tied a lot of flies with the Clearwater and the hackle does a fine job. And even though they scored the lowest in our analysis, if you don't mind paying a much higher price, they have some awesome colors. Plus, the quality of the capes in terms with the feathers is right up there with the rest of the group here.
Keough: This might be a brand you haven't heard of, but through researching the brands we wanted to use for this test, Keough kept coming up. This cape is a very functional cape with high quality feathers, it just didn't quite have the length of the other companies, which pushed it into the "expensive" category.
Metz: For those that have been around the tying world for a while, Metz is a solid name in the hackle world. In fact, my first two "good" capes were Metz brand capes. So, we were a bit surprised they came in behind a few of the capes that scored higher. Still good hackle, but for what you get, it's a bit pricey in our opinion.
Collins: This was the sleeper in our review here. We were really impressed with the consistent length and the incredible natural colors on these capes. Even though they came out a bit higher on the cost side, it's not by much and definitely not a deal killer. Outside of the leading Whiting products, this is a great choice of hackle. This would be a case where, if I saw a color not offered by a Whiting product, I'd definitely spend my money on a Collins. It also should be noted the Collins sends a saddle with the cape, so there is some value in that as well. The saddle we got was not the same color as the cape and seemed like it would be good for tying streamers and buggers.
Whiting: Ok, I'll lump the remaining 4 capes into the "Whiting" category. If you were skeptical before or if you were under the misconception that Whiting is too expensive, you can now hopefully see what we saw in that Whiting is hands-down the best value and probably best all-around hackle grower on the planet. Not only do they offer a huge variety of colors but they also give us so many options from the economical yet awesome "High and Dry" capes to the industry standard Whiting Dry Fly capes. Keep in mind that the bronze and pro grades are respectively the fourth and fifth best grades that Whiting offers. (Platinum, gold, silver, bronze, pro.)
SummaryOne question I know that people will be emailing us or leaving as a comment here after reading this post would "So which one do I buy??!!". The answer is probably a bit trickier than you might think. It really depends a lot on the sizes of flies you'll be tying, the colors you'll be needing and the number of flies you think you'll be tying.
With that said, it's been our experience that you tend to benefit more from a good variety of colors than you do being able to tie 10,000 parachute adams with a Platinum Grizzly cape. That means you still want to pay attention to the price per adams as we have here, but also find ways to get as many colors as you will need/want. So returning to my box of Cheerios, let's say I'm more interested in getting the variety of Cheerios. I like the Honey Nut, Chocolate and the Fruit ones, but Costco doesn't sell those in the big box. Luckily, I can buy the much smaller boxes in all different flavors. My unit cost might be a bit higher, but I get the variety I'm looking for. With that in mind, it sometimes makes sense to look at 1/2 capes or even the less expensive full capes (that still have a decent cost per Adams) in order to get this variety. For instance, the Whiting Bronze 1/2 Cape is only $34 and the Whiting Hebert Miner Pro grade full cape is only $38. You could get two of those in different colors and have roughly the same quantity of feathers/flies as you would a Full Whiting Bronze Cape. And don't overlook the Collins and especially the Whiting High & Dry, when it comes to some great colors. My personal favorite for natural colors is the Whiting Hebert Miner line. While we'll all use dyed capes and saddles, it's nice to see some awesome natural colors. Clearwater also has a good natural color selection too.
Again, as long as your cost per Adams is similar, you can focus more on the color and size range of your purchases, to meet your budget, without having to worry that you're getting an inferior product.
In the end, we understand that there are different ways to look at things and this is our attempt to put into context what you're getting for your hackle dollar. People may disagree and I'm sure we could have done things differently, so this can at least serve as a decent starting point as you look to buy your first or expand your hackle selection. Next up...Saddles!