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Raising fly feathers

Most people raise poultry for the eggs or meat, but a Colorado man is strictly in the feather business.
Photo courtesy of Whiting Farms

Fly fishermen depend on the right feathers in their flies to catch trout. Tom Whiting of Delta, Colorado is using his background in genetics to breed chickens that make good fly tying feathers. He sells his feathers in 42 countries and is one of only a few in the world who raise chickens for this purpose.

Whiting says it’s a difficult, challenging business that demands perfection. His customers depend on the characteristics of a single feather to catch fish.

"The rakus, or some people misidentify it as the quill, but the center part of the feather has to turn perfectly so it won’t fracture, it’s flexible enough it won’t roll so the hackle collar stands up straight. The barbs have to be a certain straightness and density, it’s got to be the right color and has a nice sheen to it so the fly looks nice," says Whiting. "I don’t think the fish care too much but we don’t sell the feathers to the fish, we sell them to the fly-tiers."

Whiting says feather characteristics are bred into the bird to create dry flies – those that sit on the surface of the water – or wet flies which sink under the water. He also breeds for color.

"Beautiful duns for mayflies, and gingers, and the most important color is referred to in the fly tying world as ‘grizzly’. It’s this black and white barring and it looks like the beatings wings of a mosquito or something," he says. "And, we dye quite a lot over usually grizzly or white substrates because some colors the birds can’t produce like greens, olives, and things like that."

So, what happens to the rest of the chicken? Whiting says he can’t sell them for meat, so each one is humanely euthanized, composted, and the end product is used on his farm land.

Learn more about Whiting’s farm and his plumage business

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