There's an article in the latest issue of Fly Tyer where Tom Whiting was awarded a "Fly Tyer Lifetime Achievement Award for producing the finest hackle in the history of the craft". It's an impressive article that brings all the top names in the industry (Henry Hoffman, Ted Hebert, Buck Metz, Andy Minor, Bill Keough).
By the way, the 'doctor' in "Dr. Tom Whiting" is from his multiple degrees in Poultry Science with a specialty in Genetics. Something the small time 'ranch' farmers cant hold a candle to.
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I guess I never answered the original question. I have never bought anything more than Hen back thru the mail. At $4 a piece for a hen back for soft hackle, buying sight unseen is a safe bet. For saddles and capes, I buy from either my local fly shop (www.madriveroutfitters.com), Cabala's, BassPro or Jann's Netcraft (www.jannsnetcraft.com/). I get to a BassPro once or twice a year, a I get to stop at Jann's showroom and the nearby Dundee, Mi. Cabela's once a year and always have a wish list in hand. If I'm looking for something specific and right away I go to my local fly shop (50 miles away), otherwise I wait for the next chance at on of my other choices mentioned.
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Let's NOT leave Harry Darbee out of the picture, and from whom Andy Minor got his start as 'setting eggs'. Andy Minor is the one who has reportedly been the one who got Metz into the game. Ergo, the Metz birds can be traced back to Harry.
Thus, Harry Darbee was quite likely the "original" hackle herder for today's genetic hackle.
Thanks for posting this great picture of Harry with one of his hackle growers in his (Harry's) latter years. For the benefit of those who may know nothing about Harry and his birds. He NEVER killed a rooster for their feathers! Why kill "the goose that was laying the golden eggs"? When a bird was at it's prime, he simply caught it and 'harvested' the feathers. The bird was then placed in a large 'chicken house' for a time to keep it from getting it's naked neck sunburned, and allowed to grow another 'crop' of fearthers for a later harvesting