Monday, February 25, 2013

Solving Problems

For those of you who aren't aware, I am an engineer by trade...meaning an inherent problem solver. Or perhaps problem maker--then solver. So when recently presented with the problem of running out of some black hackle that is key for one of my most productive dry flies, I obviously had a problem to solve. The first solution that popped into my head was to go check out ebay. There were a few matches, but only a few and not really what I was hoping for. Mostly they were tiny saddles with short feathers that would probably only yield one fly each. What I wanted was a nice high quality saddle with long feathers that are all in the 16-20sz range.

Next stop was to google it. But again no satisfactory products could be found. Part of my problem was probably that it's impossible to really tell what you're getting just by looking at sample pictures, and I didn't want to end up paying $50 for something that wasn't what I needed.

Finally a good idea found its way through the neural maze in my head and I googled "dying hackle." And with a very short bit of research it sounded like a great idea and pretty simple solution. I have a bunch of nice grizzly hackle that should hopefully dye black. So, off to the crafts store to get some dye!

With the dye in hand I started pulling off a handful of feathers from the grizzly saddle that were the right size. A close-up of the feathers to be dyed:

And then came the fun part. In my research what I had discovered is that there are about six million modes to dye:  suggested means to getting stronger colors, best ways to set the dye, don't spill anywhere, etc. My simple mind doesn't do too well with that many options, so I just poured some water into a mug I don't drink from, mixed in an unmeasured amount of dye, heated it up and off I went. With a few feathers clipped to some forceps I mounted them over the mug and let them sit for a few minutes.

After the feathers had been in the dye for 5min or so I pulled them off, rinsed them, dried them, and took a look at how I had done. The result was a bit disappointing. They were certainly darker, but still more grey than black. This picture looks better than they do in real life:

Now it was time to experiment. I tried leaving a few feathers in overnight, I also tried putting some undiluted dye onto a spoon and spooling a feather into it, and then also tried leaving that one overnight. The undiluted dye made it slightly better, but not much. The overnight process surprisingly didn't seem to add any color. The next morning I tried nuking the dye in the microwave and getting it really hot, then putting one feather into it for 10min. That seemed to do the trick. Still not 100% black, but significantly darker than all previous trials. See below; it's pretty easy to see which was the better result.

And so with a good recipe, I made up a handful of other feathers and headed over to the vice to see how it turns out. My big complaint about making the following fly with grizzly hackle is that the body where the hackle is wrapped ends up looking discolored and lighter against the rest of the black body and thus, at least to my non-fish eyes, looks fake. Using black hackle keeps the body and hackle all nicely color-coordinated (unlike my wardrobe) and looks more real, again at least to me. 

Here is the tying process, which I might have posted previously.

Staring with a sz16-20 dry fly hook, wrap black thread to the bend, and add in some black hackle fibers for the tail of the baetis.

Next wrap up a thread body and tie in a newly dyed hackle feather. I don't particularly like dubbing, but you could dub up a black body. I prefer to keep this somewhat skinny and I also find that dubbing tends to attract water and cause dries to sink worse than thread wrapped bodies.

Wrap the hackle as you would with an Adams.

Tie off and trim hackle and thread, and if you like your flies to last glue it up. And you're done! Easy as that.

This fly can also be tied with a parachute, although in this mode it's less important for black hackle since the wrapping is around the post and doesn't discolor the body.  The fly pictured below was tied with undyed grizzly hackle.

I've had a lot of luck with this fly as a baetis pattern for trout, and last time I went for panfish it was a particularly good pattern. You might think it would be hard to pick out, but it's actually quite good for overcast days because the solid black sticks out amongst the bright haze of reflected clouds that is always on the water.


  1. When you started talking about dying, my mind went back to the days when my mother used to dye clothes in the washing machine. It's a wonder we weren't always wearing tie-dye clothes. Now days, even the thought of dying in the washing machine produces a night in the dog house.

    1. Mark: just think of how much tying material you could dye at once in a washing machine!!

  2. Pretty fly Tim. But there has got to be a better way. With the time spent dying flies I might as well cook myself dinner as well. That would cut down my drinking and tying time.

    1. Not to worry Howard, all you have to do is dye up a bunch of hackle all at once and you're ready to tie a round of flies. And the dying process actually only takes a few minutes...just get it really hot for a strong dye.