'Coq de Leon' hackles are long-fabled, but are seldom seen
outside Spain, perhaps because Leon is a secret place, surrounded by mountains
on three sides and open only to an eastern approach. The winters there
are hard and the summers hot, in a mixed agricultural landscape where
the cornfields are fed by languid rivers winding between poplar-lined
banks. The whole watershed is a huntsman's paradise, but the fishing is
the jewel in its crown and an absolutely unique series of flies has been
developed to exploit the tastes of the trout which abound in Leonese waters.
This article was first published by the magazine Anzuelo y Sedal (now offline), and appears here by kind permission of the author
first reference we have about the Leónese roosters and about the types
of their hackles which are used for tying flies dates from the year 1624.
The Astorga manuscript, written by Juan of Bergara with the technical
advice of Lorenzo García, describes the composition of more than thirty
artificial flies. Unfortunately, he doesn't provide any hints about how
the flies were tied and we can only guess what they looked like. In any
case, and because of the profusion of feathers used for many flies, it
seems obvious that they had nothing to do with the current Leonese sunk
In this old text reference is made to the two basic types of feathers
that we currently find in the Leonese roosters: (i) Parda (brown) feather
and (ii) Indio (Indian) feather; however, those roosters that today we
call "Indios" are described in the manuscript as "negriscos", a term that
at the moment exclusively refers to the feathers coming from Indian rooster
of intense black color. The manuscript mentions the following varieties
of "negrisco": steely, clear, flooded steel enaguado, negrestino steel,
raw steel, "arrubiscado", glassy, olive, black, golden, clear, smoky,
transparent, and crane color. And a wide variety of browns: "conchado
", raw conchado, "roe deer", tan, golden conchado... In the case of the
browns, the manuscript often limits itself to describing their general
aspect, for example: " the darkest brown that one could find.
Regarding the term "obra". The use of the word in the manuscript is usually
interpreted, in the transcriptions that have been made, in the same way
that it is used at the moment among the Spanish wet fly tyers: quantity
and length of those barbs used for tying. However, I do not find this
translation appropriate. When the manuscript appeared, the word "obra"
referred to the quality of the speckling of the brown feathers. For example,
in the description of the hidden fly of March [possibly a type of caddis],
there is reference to a feather "of dull small spots, clear saltada".
The description could refer to a fine speckle, that goes through the feather's
back and of black colour (the term "saltada" could mean both "esaltada"
or "sauté"). Something else that makes this old meaning more likely is
that the text never makes reference to the term "negriscos".
I'll leave the manuscript for now, because it really deserves a separate
article, and concentrate on modern birds of Leon and their feathers. The
first thing you should understand is that the Pardo (brown) roosters and
Indios(Indian roosters) are two well differentiated varieties, selected
over centuries by breeders with the sole aim of getting better feathers.
They are not clearly defined races following a standard to which their
breeders abide, because they are not exhibition roosters but roosters
bred for feathers, and crossings with other varieties are not exceptional,
but although they are not distinct races they are very near to it and
a general description can be made of each type.
The Indian roosters are small slender birds. Their colour is generally
grey and they have a delicate look. In genetic terms, and in connection
to their feather colour, they have a mixture of genes characteristic of
black roosters and of blue-grey roosters. The breeders have selected intuitively
so that the black gene has as little influence as possible since the black
feather is difficult to work and it has less quality. In these roosters
the mantle: the cape and the saddle and the spade feathers; apart from
a wide range of greys - from white to black - can also be of a yellowish
colour, redish or browns, more or less well marked.
brown roosters are a little bit plumper and usually heavier, although
two varieties can be distinguished and the smallest is little lighter
than the average Indian rooster. Its feather type is called "birch" by
the breeders. Feathers of the breast, tail and inferior part of the rooster
are black and the cape, shoulders and back are white, yellowish or red.
The above is a general description of how the birds look, for those fishermen
who are interested: but their feathers deserve our attention, and there
is a great deal to say about them.
Contrary to other lines of roosters which are well-known among the fishermen,
the feathers from the spade, hackle and saddle hackle are the ones we
use in the tying of artificial flies made from Leonese birds.
Perhaps, in the time of Juan de Bergara, the most preferred ones were
the saddle hackles - the manuscript of Astorga just makes reference once
to the place where he gets the feather he needs to tie the flies and he
talks of a feather from the neck. We think that this reference is so precise
because neck hackles were not the ones normally used. The saddle hackles
are longer and narrower and this fact would explain the reason why in
some occasions the manuscript talks about giving several turns to the
feather. Nowadays the saddle feathers are the most appreciated because
of their brightness and because they are supposed to have better general
qualities for the tying of wet flies.
In the Indian roosters, they also market the neck feathers for tying dry
flies. This use is relatively new and the hackles cannot really compete
with the capes produced by the American poultry farmers.
The spade hackles and saddle feathers of the Leonese roosters have long
free barbs, without any web and they are elastic and bright. Artificial
selection has increased these qualities, apart from selecting for a wide
variety of colour to satisfy fishermen's taste and supposedly that of
The feathers that are obtained from the brown and Indian roosters are
taken while the bird is still alive. When the rooster is about six or
eight months old, the breeder carries out the fist plucking called "cleaning".
The feathers from this first plucking are not really worth anything and
generally are thrown away. From then onwards, every two months and a half
or three months - and always with the last quarter of the moon except
the winter plucking - the pluckings are done regularly, also called "layers".
Up to the fourth plucking the rooster does not produce good quality feathers.
every plucking between 6 and 9 bunches of saddle feathers and between
9 and 10 bunches of spade hackles are obtained - from the Indian roosters
it is possible to get, about 200 neck feathers also. Every bunch consists
of 12 feathers and its price varies according to the feathers' quality.
It can range from $ 0.75 for a saddles hackles of low quality to $5 for
the best. That's also the starting price of a bunch of saddle feathers.
I would like to reassure sensitive people, worried about the animal´s
suffering that the plucking process is not harmful at all for the roosters,
who put on an air of resignation. After the plucking, the rooster's skin
is treated with an anti-inflammatory and disinfectant cream or with other
Currently, two main types of Indian are distinguished:
[Follow the hyperlinks to see a picture of each hackle]
- Medium grey. In different tones, darker or lighter, it is the most
commonly used colour in the Indian range.
- Light and bright grey. It´s also named as crystal or pearl.
- Pure white, though sometimes it becomes slightly yellow.
- Reddish, with a darker or lighter tone. It ranges between a light
orange and hazel.
- Grey with more or less defined spots. Most of the tyers of wet flies
think that it generally does not produce good flies.
- Difficult tone to describe (and according to some it is difficult
to find a hackle truly this colour): light brown (hazel) with small
speckles. Somewhere between the "dark rubión" and the "sarnoso".
And the following basic types of brown:
de escoba" (Brush flower) - yellowish or orange background
(if the colour is really bright the feather is labelled as "burning
brown") and with dark speckles and spots (called fleshy leaf) more or
- Hazel background with quite a lot of speckles like the roe deer skin.
- Lighter background than the roe deer, with a similar colour to
chamois and with bigger or smaller speckles (some consider that it should
have a quite large spots; other think that small spots are enough).
- (Cream) Light background, white with dark grey fleshy leaves. You
can get a brown-cream without spots and in this case it would be a brown
- Reddish colours, similar to the Indian "rubión", even though the brown
"rubiones" tend to have tiny spots.
- Clear background with rounded spots that appear to draw a series of
- a mythical feather and it is not clear what it should look like. It
is often said that the authentic "langareto" has long fleshy leaves
that draw three bars over the feather, but it is long while since anybody
has found this feather. Nowadays the "aconchados" with more marked bars
are known as "langaretos".
In the descriptions above I have tried
to follow the majority opinion, as there is not a standard definition
and it is difficult to reach an agreement between all the fishermen and
breeders about the specific characteristics that all the hackles should
have, especially taking into account that every variety has several sub-groups.
Sometimes, it's difficult to even to find a similar feather to the one
which was bought a few years ago which gave a good result.
The centre of Leonese rooster breeders is located in
some vilages situated in the north of the province of Leon, in the river
Curueño valley and nearby. Some decades ago the brown roosters were also
found in the nearby towns of Campohermoso, Aviados and La Mata de Bérbula
and the Indian roosters were typical of La Cándana. Currently, both varieties
can be found in any of the mentioned places and in the surroundings, especially
in La Vecilla where there is a large number of breeders.
The quantity of hackle roosters that are currently
bred in el Cureño, is estimated to be between 2,000 brown and 3,000 Indian,
the majority in the environs of La Vecilla, which comprises the vilages
of La Vecilla, Campohermoso, and La Cándana y Sopeña. It is not a great
deal of birds, but we have to take into account that during the first
roosters competition in 1962, just 49 Indian roosters and 202 brown roosters
were counted. The number, however, increased during the 70´s, but at the
beginning of the 80´s an epidemic of poultry pseudo-pest nearly got rid
of the browns in La Vega del Curueño. This indicates that the breeding
of brown and Indian roosters is an increasing activity, perhaps increasing
too fast and maybe even out of control, so that according to the some
experienced fishermen and fly tyers, the quality of these magnificent
birds is decreasing.
Some breeders from the villages of the river Curueño
valley say that when roosters are taken away from the area, the feather
quality diminishes and that they think it is due to a mysterious element
of the soil that the roosters get when they are fed. It has been attributed
to the uranium seam that is located in the soil, and some say that radiation
could be responsible for the brightness of the feathers.
There is nothing to support the previous statement
but what is for sure is that in that county and other villages near to
León a similar amount of roosters to the one in el Curueño is bred. In
other Spanish counties the quantity of birds is hard to determine but
it is around 1,000 of each race.
Among all these roosters there are some that produce
feathers of especially good quality, and what Fernando Orozco says in
his book "Razas de gallinas españolas" (1989) doesn´t surprise me. He
states: the feathers examined by him from expert breeders were highly
placed even when these came from different races of roosters and from
distant parts from León.
However, this doesn't mean that looking through thousands
of roosters of every type, we can find one, that by chance, has acceptable
hackle for tying flies and it doesn't lessen the importance, exceptional
quality and seductiveness of the feather of the best examples of the brown
and Indian roosters from the Curueño. And it is logical that the quality
of the feather is better in the main breeding area since it is there that
they have had better opportunities and more time to make a good selection.
The roosters and chickens that are taken out of the area to begin new
programmes are not the best examples.
This feather quality may be connected to, apart from
genetic reasons, the type of farming - extensive being better that intensive
-, the nourishment - the more natural, the better - the quality of plucking
and the environment in which the rooster grows. That is why I am talking
about quality and I still haven´t made reference to how measure it.
When buying a bunch of feathers we have to take into
account the following general factors:
The length and the quantity of clean barbs, which is
known as 'obra'. Obviously, it is better that they should be longer for
the same price. The conformation of the barbs. They must not be broken,
damaged or folded. The tips must be straight and must have a similar colour
to the rest of the barb. They must be flexible and elastic. They should
not be either too thin or too thick and the flexibility and rigidity must
Besides, in the feathers of the brown roosters, we have to take into account:
That the feather must be very bright on the front and
it must preserve this bright on the back. The speckles, the fleshy leaves, penetrate the feather and
should be clearly be seen on both sides. It is also important that the
background of the feather is similar on the front and the back and that
the back is not whiter or lighter in colour.
And on the hackles of the Indian roosters it is necessary
to check with special attention:
That the color is uniform, without spots. That the
barbs are fine but really straight and elastic. And that the feather has
similar shine and colour in both sides