Soft hackle feathers are generally feathers which come from game birds. Game birds are mostly upland ( Northern states such as: SD, ND, MT, IA WI, MI ect) land based fowl that largely feed on grasses. For the most part these birds have a mix of dun, tan, brown or black feathers are primarily wild birds which are harvested by hunters. Because of this it is kind of a good news and bad news for fly tyers.
The good news is that in most instances the skins are inexpensive and often free if you can hook up with some hunters that will save the skins for you. The bad news is that locating skins from other regions can be difficult and often impossible. For example I am still searching for some grouse skins from mountain states....blue grouse and sage grouse.
Often fly tying suppliers will have skins or packs of feathers from birds although many of these skins are actually imported from Asia. Finding a consistent supply of high quality skins from any source is next to impossible since the majority of this birds live in the wild and are hunted (and hence shot).
To find skins, start by developing a circle of contacts. Identify folks that travel and hunt alot. If you are a member of a fishing club, encourage friends and members to save skins. In your area, contact sporting goods stores that sell guns and talk to the owners. Usually, the owner knows folks that hunt and travel. Ask for their names and don't be shy about about calling them and asking them for some names of guys that hunt. Offer to trade them skins for flies or buy them boxes of shot gun shells ( this is a big appeal ). You can also put up notices in the store asking guys to contact you if they have skins.
Park rangers and DNR folks are helpful too. They usually are acquainted with top notch folks that hunt as well. If you start early in the year before hunting season, you can usually get some nice skins lined up for you.
If you like, you can search several places for game bird skins. Two sources I've found have been Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, MT and English Angling Trappings in CT. Craig Mathews of Blue Ribbon often has an usual collection of skins at reasonable prices. ( When I contacted them this winter he said some of the quails are in short supply because of weather conditions..rains ect)
For international folks shipping bird skins are real hassle due to CITES rules. If you are in England or Europe look for Gordon Griffiths fishing tackle dealers. Gordon Griffiths carries alot of interesting and unusual skins at a good price. I have heard that in Belgium they have a number of brokers that sell game birds at a reasonable price. I was also told that in the UK they have Corp hunts at farms. Try to get a game keeper to save the skins for you. A bottle of good scotch should buy you all of the skins you'd want.
Since most of the birds are wild, it is important to give folks an education on how to skin a bird. Begin by laying the bird on its back. With a sharp knife cut up the middle of the bird extending from the tail to the head. Gently peal away the skin. When you reach the wings clip the wing with a side cutters or pruning shear. Begin lifting away the rest of the hide. Scrape the hide to remove all of the fat that you can. I often wash skins in a mix of Dawn dish soap and Woolite to soften the skin, remove oils and dirt. Other good things to use are dish soap, Downy fabric softener or laundry soap ( although most laundry soaps now are very concentrated and don't do as good of a job ). You can use Synthrapol which is a dying agent to remove oils and also mineral spirits.
After allowing the hide to dry, I put it in the freezer for a week or so. In the winter I'll often put some outdoors inside the topper of my truck........my friend puts his on his back porch. If you have a big ice box-chest style this is the best place to store skins for a long time. Unfortunately, most women bitch about doing this (sorry not trying to be sexist here.......gotten ragged on a ton.) Wrap the bird in paper and put him in a bread bag. That way Mama won't be pissed.
Paradyne crystals will kill damn near anything ( including you) and smell nasty. Note: in some states you can't buy these as they can cause liver cancer......As a note keep these away from old folks, expecting Moms and little kids.
Find a gallon jar from a restaurant or food service place (schools for ex) and put the skin in the jar with the crystals and seal it up. After a week or so most of the nasties are dead. When you remove them, let them air out for awhile .....a few days. Reseal the jar as you can use the crystals again. Put the skins in gallon or pint zip locks and store them in a separate Rubber Maid tub....buy these at Wal-Mart ( they store sweaters in them). Never put bird skins in with your genetic hackle........these are too expensive and its not worth the risk.
Bob Whites are one of the most over looked feathers. Bob Whites have tiny feathers which are a mix of brown, tan and gray. They have lots of very small feathers ideal for trout flies.
CA quails are dun with a dark dun tip. Each skin has alot of very tiny feathers. California quails are regional birds that extend from WA, Nevada, Oregon and along the California coast. If you can find some they are very nice.
Scaled quails have brown & dun feathers with a brown edge. I am not sure which region they come from but they are beautiful mixes nice for nice nymphs or soft hackle flies.
Mearns quail come from AZ, TX and Mexico. They are a dessert quails with very unusual markings. Many of the feathers are black and white with spots as above. Other feathers are a mix of marbled brown, black and white.
Chuckars have large flanks with bars. The body feathers are all dun. A few are brown or sandy dun. The flanks are used on some salmon flies.
Partridges have white, dun and brown barred feathers. They are one of the most utilized feathers because the fibers are straight and flare when turned as hackle. Using a skin is preferred over loose feathers as the individual feathers can be selected and sized.
Prairie chickens have large brown , cream and tan barred feathers. They can used for sculpin fins or as wings for the tape wing caddis.
Ruffled grouse have orange, tan and black feathers. Mostly these are pretty large feathers. Woodcocks have similar body feathers which are smaller. Woodcocks also have ginger flanks.
Starlings have iridescent green & black feathers with cream tips. They are dandy for smaller flies.
Jackdaw are similar to the US crow and are native to the UK. They have natural iron dun feathers which is very unusual. The can be used for nymphs, emergers, Black Pennell wets, North Country spiders and as dapping flies.
I don't think I've ever seen a good illustration of this so I made one for you. To tie with these feathers you need to learn how to handle the feather. Hold the feather by the tip. stroke the fibers of the feather downwards. Like the picture below:
The tiny piece at the top of the feather is what you tie in.
Next strip the fibers from the left side of the feather ( if you tie left hand reverse this). The shiny side should face out or toward you. Lay the feather parallel to the hook shank. Tie the small tip section to the hook. Now wind the hackle. The bare stem should be wound tight against the hook and the fibers will flare out.
If you have feathers with a stiff stem like quail, run your finger nail down the stem to flatten it. If you have tiny feathers use a hackle plier to turn the feathers. Because the tip is the weakest part of the feather turn the hackle slowly and stroke the fibers out as you turn the feather with your other hand.
If you live in other regions of the country, I'd be happy to swap some skins with you. I 'm looking for Partridges, Wooduck, Scaled Quails, Cortnix Quails, CA Quails, Mearn's Quails, Sharptail Grouse, Sage Grouse and Blue Grouse. I want clean, full skins ( which include the wings and the tails attached) with no broken parts...if possible. I don't want dog eared birds that got blasted in the back.
I'll trade lots of stuff at wholesale values.....including hooks. If you've got some things let me know. If you know somebody that hunts these.......save 'em and I'll trade. Might be willing to pay cash depending on what, how many and the shape they're in. E-mail me for more info.
If you are looking to buy some of these materials, click on this page.
Hope this helped..........Mike
For more Info Contact:
Mike Hogue / Badger Creek Fly Tying / 622 West Dryden Road, Freeville, NY 13068