(from the November/December 2011 issue
The hair-hackle craze appears to be slowing down, but its effects may be long-lasting.
[by Zach Matthews]
Tulip bulbs, South Sea stock, dot-coms, Beanie Babies . . . and chicken feathers? That’s just a short list of some very bizarre historical “bubbles,” in which the mania to own something that was ultimately only minimally valuable drove prices through the roof. Flyfishing would be one of the last areas you might expect to see affected by such a fad, but if you tie flies (or have daughters), you know we’re in the midst of one now.
“It’s getting ugly out there,” says Dr. Tom Whiting of Whiting Farms, who, along with Metz Feathers and Keough Hackle, make up the world’s only three sources of “genetic hackle.” So-called genetic hackle is simply the result of a long breeding process, dating back to the 1950s, in which fly-tying companies have managed to grow roosters with monster “saddle” hackles, the feathers that sprout above the birds’ hips. Originally only a few inches long, today’s genetic saddle feathers can grow to more than 14 inches in length—so long that breeders have also had to select for birds with long legs to keep the precious feathers clean. (The “genetic” moniker is actually a misnomer, Whiting explains, as classic breeding techniques—rather than any kind of scientific genetic engineering—have been used to grow today’s birds.) These saddles were meant for fly tying, but that’s not why they’re being snapped up now.
“One tier told of selling two premium-grade saddles in pink grizzly and yellow grizzly on eBay for nearly $1,000 apiece.”
The source of the fad is, of course, women’s fashion. Chris Nicholson, of Atlanta’s Chris Nicholson Hair Design, summarized the trend in excited tones: “We were weaving two or three feathers into women’s hair for seventy-five dollars a pop, and they were lining up!” The source of the trend seems to be in dispute. Bruce Olson of Umpqua Feather Merchants says his dealers started seeing demand emerge on the Front Range of the Rockies, where initially the feathers were used mostly to make feathery jewelry. For the hair extensions themselves, some ladies we interviewed cited Justin Bieber’s girlfriend Selena Gomez as the first “celebrity” to flog the fashion. Everyone agrees that Steven Tyler (originally the lead singer of Aerosmith, of late more famous for his stint on “American Idol”) lit the bonfire when he appeared on the cover of the May 12, 2011, issue of Rolling Stone sporting a hank of natural and dyed grizzly saddle feathers in his long tresses.
Suddenly, the fly-tying companies simply couldn’t keep up with demand. Two of the three were “tapped out” by midsummer, while orders from as far away as South Africa and Australia continued to pour in. “We even had people buying our taxidermy mounts,” Dr. Whiting admitted, “and when they start asking about feather length (of the mounts), you know they’re not for display.”
In the spirit of good reportage (and, admittedly, naked greed), I tested the waters of eBay in the height of the craze. In late July, I was able to sell a somewhat used natural grizzly saddle (original price $15.99) for a whopping $250 amidst a flurry of bids. That’s a nearly 1,500% markup on a used product.
Paul Puckett of Atlanta’s The Fish Hawk fly shop offered this analysis: “They seemed to be most interested in grizzly or cream, because they could dye them whatever color they wanted. Saddles went fast— we were sold out by the end of May—and as the trend continued, they started buying up necks and even loose feathers.”
Bruce Olson of Umpqua was in the factory one day in late spring when “a fashion industry guy” showed up, and wound up leaving with a tub of “trimmings—the feathers we cut off the saddles to make the pelts uniform for sale. He paid good money—thousands—for all those feathers.”
Fly tiers who initially might have harrumphed at the craze suddenly realized that they were sitting on a potential pot of gold. One tier told of selling two premium-grade saddles in pink grizzly and yellow grizzly on eBay for nearly $1,000 apiece. “I’d never use up those colors,” he admitted, and in the meantime, “I put that money in my mutual fund.” Ron Foster, a commercial fly tier for Tailwaters Fly Fishing Company in Dallas, set up “feather consulting appointments,” in which he sold individual feathers from his private stash “for three to five dollars apiece.” Initially, demand was all for the long saddles, but over time, the buyers branched out. “Those girls were very enterprising. I ultimately cleared over five thousand dollars,” he said, “and I plan to use the money for trips.”
Foster’s appointments might be the best barometer we’ve come by to gauge the extent of the trend. “My demand pretty much ended [by late July],”he explained. “And I think the trend is about over. My buyers agree—they see fashion moving on.” Umpqua’s Olson concurs, and also believes “they priced the fad out of the market. Some of the prices were just getting exorbitant.”
Long term, the trend means that fly shops are likely to be back-ordered for up to two years on premium hackles, even if demand drops back to normal. And while the summer of 2011 will be remembered as the year fly-fishing suddenly went hautecouture, don’t worry: there are enough flies in the pipeline to keep bins supplied and fish fed for longer than fashion’s fickle attention span.
Zach Matthews is the editor of the Itinerant Angler website and a frequent contributor to American Angler.