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badgercape.jpg (169280 bytes)
True badger
#2 cape


badgervarsaddle.jpg (263112 bytes)
Cree Badger Variant
#2 saddle



blonde.jpg (149310 bytes)
#2 cape



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Grizzly Cree Variant
#2 saddle



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Red Dun
#2 cape



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Dark Grizzly
#2 saddle



lightgrizcape.jpg (199639 bytes)
Light Grizzly
#2 cape



brownsaddle.jpg (180072 bytes)
#2 saddle



badgercape.jpg (169280 bytes)
True Badger



badgervarsaddle.jpg (263112 bytes)
Badger Cree Variant



blonde.jpg (149310 bytes)




creesaddlevariant.jpg (289924 bytes)
Cree Variant



redduncape.jpg (189165 bytes)
Red Dun



darkgrizzlysaddle.jpg (308227 bytes)
Dark Grizzly



lightgrizcape.jpg (199639 bytes)
Light Grizzly



brownsaddle.jpg (180072 bytes)
Brown saddle



Pictures and information courtesy of
Dennis and Liz Conrad
Conranch Hackles
35926 N. Conklin Road
Elk, Washington 99009
(509) 292-2141

black stag2.jpg (77414 bytes)
Dennis Conrad with one of his pet projects, raising a pure strain of black dry fly quality birds. He has been told "that it cant be done", but he is already getting a limited quantity of them yearly.

Q & A With Dennis Conrad of Conranch Hackles
Breeder of fine dry fly hackle birds
and exotic pheasant

I have always been interested in raising different types of birds from ratites to poultry, but never more so then when I began tying flies. I started raising some chickens and pheasant for this purpose a couple years ago. It has been a learning process all along but it has been greatly accelerated by the use of the internet and due to a few people with more knowledge in the subject than myself. Dennis Conrad of Conranch Hackles in Elk Washinton is one of those people who has helped greatly along the way.

Dennis and I have been corresponding with each other off and on for the better part of two years now. Recently I got the idea of doing a question and answer session with him on what is involved in raising a flock of birds of dryfly quality. What follows is an account of these e-mails.
Robert Morger

Q  What made you get into this business?

Dennis: That is a very difficult one. Actually I started raising birds about 55 years ago. I think the first reason was for a merit badge in Scouts. I did go on to become an Eagle. I have raised exotic pheasants of all kinds and still do. Why, because I really enjoy the challenge of propagating some of the more difficult ones. Some are quite rare in the wild so that adds to it.

I have always raised some strain or another of chickens. Because of the short time it takes to test a breeding with chickens they are a natural choice for genetics study. The genetics of poultry and foul of all kinds just fascinates me.

Having started as a Fly Fisherman and tied my own flies at about 10 years of age, I naturally drifted toward the birds used for flies. I have used almost every thing possible to obtain from the best grade to the poorest. An old friend had this flock of dry fly birds. I had tried to purchase some from time to time when I had a little money. He would not sell me even one live rooster. I did not understand why at the time. When he passed away I obtained the entire flock. The age of the breeding flock is over 40 years old. There has never been any new blood introduced in all that time. There are enough families that one can by careful breeding and selection keep the colors, perfect them and keep the dry fly quality. It is a record keeping nightmare. But that is one part of raising birds that I enjoy. I suppose I would say I am lucky to have always been one to be able to select well. In my minds eye that is the one most important part of breeding these birds. Anyone can read a poultry raising book, get a degree in poultry and don’t get me wrong, I feel this is important. But the education and some papers do not guarantee one will be successful in breeding these dry fly birds. There are a lot of things one must look for when selecting the actual breeding pens. I feel the hen is the most important in any successful operation. I pay very close attention to my hens. You can not get a top quality neck or saddle from just any old hen even when mated to a super rooster.

For sale dry fly skins we use one rooster mated to a pen of from six to 12 hens. But for replacement breeding stock I do only single pen matings. (one hen x one proven rooster. ) If this mating goes as planned then the young from this mating can be used for replacement. If not of the exact color,type, station,fertility etc, then they will never see a breeding pen.

Q  How big is your operation compared to the bigger producers?

Dennis:  We are a very small operation compared to them. We have no desire to compete with them in numbers, only in quality.

Q  How many birds do you keep in a typical year, and what breeds?

Dennis:  Our target presently is about 1000 dry fly birds par season. Facility limitations presently dictate this number. Plans and facilities are being built to double this number maybe as soon as 2001. Time and money will tell. We do not plan on more than 2000 as this would make us too big for just two people to handle. We do not have any help we are just a small family operation. Consisting of my Daughter Liz and myself. Of course one of us must be here on the property at all times. We have only one breed: Conranch dry fly birds. A lot of people do not understand about different breeds.

Allow me to elaborate on what I know about the breeding of them. If one talked to 50 different people I am sure you would get 50 different answers.

No one knows just what breeds of chickens went into the initial dry fly birds. Five or six breeders started of by selecting from the fancy chicken shows. They were super breeders and masters at selection. Just how they crossed them no one knows. I could list several breeds I am sure they started out with. Rest assured if you took any standard breed and worked with them for five years all you could expect would be some good wet fly birds. Many knowledgeable breeders have tried to duplicate todays dry fly birds and have given up. One would have to be darn lucky.

I am sure that if someone could obtain one good dry fly cock and bred him over finely selected standard hens of different breeds, he could with very close selection get a dry fly flock started. Even better yet a trio (one cock and two hens) of a dry fly flock, one could breed to some of the standard breeds for color and dry fly quality. It would be expensive if one could get the stock.

Q What type of bird makes what type of hackle?

Dennis: I think the above pretty well covers this one. In my flock I do find that one of my Grizzly families has a better saddle than all the others. Another Grizzly family has better hackles. Now this judgment is something that even the most experienced fly tier would not see. One needs to handle a lot of birds to judge that one. So again, the selection for the breeders is so important.

The brown have never had a super saddle but by breeding a Grizzly cock over brown hens (getting a few Grizzly Variants) we can then breed out the Grizzly color in a few generations and have increased the saddle of our browns. Just an example.

Q  How long is a typical day for you?

Dennis: This is an impossible one to answer. It all depends on the season.

Always there is the feeding and checking and cleaning water. One of us can do this part of the operation in 3 hours. Of course if there is a leak one must repair. Problems only happen when one has an appointment or are pressed for time by some outside schedule. Of course isn’t this how our whole life is?

During breeding and hatching season it gets much more involved. We have things worked out to a routine. Egg collecting and marking each egg before it is removed from a pen. Strict records are kept. I feel so strongly about record keeping. Without the time taken for proper and exact paper work one would loose the operation very quickly. If you can not prove where a bird came from, either good or bad, you will fail in the long run. So one must establish a method that works for your operation. Mine might not work for someone else.

Of course winter up here in the North Country adds several time consuming problems. Like having a frost-free hydrant freeze up! Of course they are not supposed to freeze, but we had one do so this winter. What a pain!

Q What is a typical day like taking care of the birds?

Dennis: Depending on the time of year. If it is breeding season there is the care of each breeding pen. Special feed, collection and care of the eggs. Here at Conranch we mark each egg with the pen # before it is removed from the pen. When the eggs arrive at the egg house they are cleaned and held at 55 degrees with a high humidity until Friday night. We set each Friday night. That makes our settings easier to handle in the incubators. At 19 days the eggs are candled and live ones are moved to the hatcher. Like #s are placed in pens that little ones can not get out of in the hatcher. Then on day 20 through day 22 the little ones hatch. This is always on the weekend for us. As the chicks are removed from the hatcher they each one get an identifying toe punch that corresponds to the pen his parents came from. This way we do always know what is going on. Nothing is left to chance or guess work. Two computers are used to track everything. Mine is 8.4 GB so there is plenty of room for records. Everything is constantly being backed up.

We choose to feed manually. Each day each bird is seen by one of us as we feed. We do take the time to observe each bird. We do care and the health of our birds shows. Sure it takes more time, but. It works for us. Auto waters are nice but in the winter it is a pain. Our barns are not heated. They are somewhat open and the health and feather quality is far better than if they were raised inside with heat. Just my opinion.

Q  How are they housed?

Dennis: Our barns are 32 ft wide by 104 ft long. The feather (stag) pens are build in 8 foot lengths. Each of these units are split into 8 12" pens. Individual size is 12 " wide x 18"deep x 18" high. Divided by a solid partition. Bottoms are 1x1 welded wire with two steel support rods underneath and the rest of the pen is 1 x 2 welded wire. Solid tops that swing up for easy removal of a bird.

Each bird has his own feeder that extends into the pen. No head sticking through the wire and rubbing off hackle. I have a feeder that I make that resembles a rabbit feeder.

So you see a barn can hold 832 feather birds. That is not how we have them set up though. We use 64 feet of each barn for stags. 8 pens wide = 512 pens. The other 40 feet of the barn is used for breeder pens and holding pens for the brood cocks. So presently we can raise 1024 feather birds, we have 48 proven brood cocks and about 250 hens.

Q How long are the birds kept before processing?

Dennis:  Ten to fourteen months. The best saddle length does best if over 12 months. In fact the 15" lengths usually come if we hold them until 14 months. Also the #1 necks are almost always from older birds. The quality is always there no matter what age. When the pin feathers are grown out it is time to harvest.

Q  How many birds do you process per year?

Dennis:  Only between 500 and 1,000 right now. By 2001 we will reach our max production of 1,500 stags. That is controlled by our facility and the desire to have no outside help. Liz and I can handle the 1,500 comfortably.

Q  How do you grade our capes and saddles?

Dennis:  It takes a grader quite some time to become expert on grading. Many things go into it.

Everyone has his or her own secret method. Mine are no secret. Number of the different sizes of feathers in a cape, overall size of the cape, (how many flies can be tied per cape) overall appearance, color and after handling and tying for over 50 years I ask myself, would you pay the grade price for the grade you just determined? I have used enough in my lifetime and like everyone else watch my money pretty close. We have the policy that if a customer is not satisfied for any reason, just return and you will be refunded with no questions asked. I must do a pretty good job grading as of this date have not ever had anything returned.

Q  Can you give me a breakdown of usable feathers.

Dennis: Many others have written a lot on this subject. One of the best descriptions can be found in a 1997 published book Rare and Unusual Fly-Tying Materials

A natural History, Volume ll- Birds & Mammals by Paul Schmookler and Ingrid Sils.

True spade hackle are from the humeral tract (small group of feathers found over the first and largest wing bone)

Many feathers including the Marabou from the vent area, soft hackle from the underside of the pelt. Of course there are the Schlappen which are nothing more or less than the tail.

Q  Any personal advise for those out there raising a few birds for the fun of it?

Dennis:  Yes, enjoy. One must love the birds or it is dumb to even try to raise them.

Many standard breeds can be used to obtain very useful fly tying material. Just remember that I would recommend not being hung up on trying to produce dry fly quality. I doubt if one can do it. Breed for health and color. Breed in single pen mating so you know what is producing what. Take pains to keep good records.

Do not try to just get by on feed. Use a good quality feed, grit and fresh clean water daily. A bird should never have the water empty.

We use Purina Layena for our breeding season. Our feather birds are fed a special mixture formulated by Dr Zimmerman who it the head Vet at Purina Labs in St Louis.It is a high protein low fiber feed specially formulated for the growth of feathers. We don’t raise meat nor eggs, just feathers.

Q How would you start a small flock of birds for wet hackle and what breeds would you raise for the standard colors?

Dennis:  I would start either one of two routes. One can visit fancy chicken shows and talk to those breeders and handle their birds if allowed. One could then purchase eggs, young or breeders from these knowledgeable people.

The other way is to get a catalog from one of our reputable hatcheries.

In the past having been raised in Iowa, I had dealings with Murray McMurray. It has been some years since doing so, but always found them to be very fair and kept good clean stock. Day old chick are very reasonable.

What breeds for what? This is the way I see it. Others may not agree.

Barred Rocks for the Grizzlies
Blue Andalusians for the duns
Silver Penciled Rocks or Wyandottes for the Badgers
Buttercup from Sicily for the Buff color and experimenting
Single comb Brown Leghorns for the browns.

Hens from all of the above will give nice hen feathers for tying wets.

Murray McMurray Hatchery
Webster City, Iowa 50595
No connection with this supplier and CONRANCH.

Now if lets say you had some of the above birds and could purchase a pen (5 hens and one rooster) of a high quality dry fly family, with careful breeding you could produce some very good fly tying material. In order to get rid of the webbing one must have the stock to start with. Length of hackle and saddle, higher count of both is just a matter of selection and nutrition on the breeder’s part.

If one could find a dry fly breeder willing to part with a pen of dry fly birds I would say that a reasonable price would be in the neighborhood of $6,000 for the six birds. I would suggest a family of whites so you could cross into the other fancy breeds.

Q  Why is it so hard to breed dryfly quality Black Stags?

Dennis:  Why does everyone dye their blacks? It is very difficult to breed solid natural black roosters. It is easier to dye them. I personally do not like the blue tint one must use to obtain black, so I breed for the natural black. I have bred several of them just by proper selection and good record keeping.

Q  What are your and Liz's plans for the future as far as the birds are concerned?

Dennis:  Having turned 65 years young back in December I am planning on one more year of finish carpenter/cabinetmaker work to support the birds. Then I plan on working them full time. Liz will keep on with the construction company until such time that we feel she is needed here on the ranch full time.

One more barn is planned for this summer which will allow us to increase our numbers. We think we will stop at about 1,500 to 1,800 stags per year. We can handle that without outside help.

I keep on working to breed better quality birds. The record keeping is somewhat simplified with the two computers. It is a busy time for us right now as we are in full production of eggs. Soon there will be lots of babies and that is additional care, but work I really enjoy.

I am doing what I enjoy in life and if I had the choice to go anyplace in the world and do anything I wanted, my choice would be to stay here and do what I am doing. The only thing I might change would be to get on the water more. That is definately in the plans. :-)