MISSOULA — For devoted fly fishers, winter has traditionally been a time of quiet meditation at the fly-tying bench. But this year, a shortage of premium fly-tying feathers has left both hobbyist and professional tiers clucking over the latest trends to hit the fashion industry.
Across America, jewelry-makers and hairstylists have been snatching up the premium chicken feathers used in standby trout-fly patterns such as the Parachute Adams and Elkhair Caddis, creating a sudden run on a market that’s ill-prepared for significant fluctuations of demand.
“Supplies are just decimated,” said Jim Cox, co-owner of the Kingfisher fly shop in Missoula. “We just can’t get the premium feathers. Even the (sales) reps for the suppliers can’t get them for themselves.”
What began a couple of years ago as a scattered interest in feather jewelry has erupted into a full-on fad for hair extensions made out of long, slender feathers — the exact same feathers used in the vast majority of traditional dry-fly patterns.
The problem is that the feathers in question aren’t everyday chicken feathers. The feathers most valued both by fly-tiers and, lately, fashion mavens come from specific types of roosters that are selectively bred to produce long, slender feathers. Such chickens typically take almost a full year to raise before slaughter — unlike meat birds, which are typically slaughtered after just six weeks of life.
What’s more, they’re rare: Only a few dozen commercial breeders exist in America, and most are small operations.
Because of the comparatively longer lifecycle of chickens raised for feathers, some in the industry anticipate that the shortage might not have reached its peak yet.
“I’m not sweating it, but I’m concerned a little bit about it looking ahead, certainly,” said Duncan Oswald, a co-owner in charge of procurement for the Montana Fly Co., a fly manufacturer based in Columbia Falls that owns two factories in Thailand.
Oswald said that while his company is somewhat insulated from shortages due to its size and standing orders with feather producers, he’s seeing the effects of the shortage in the prices he pays for feathers, in the quality of feathers he receives, and even in the calls he receives.
Recently, for example, one of his suppliers called Oswald asking if Montana Fly Co. could sell him some feathers.
“It is getting desperate for some people out there,” said Oswald. “I don’t want anyone taking this out of context to the point that there’s a rush or a panic. ... But it’s something we’re obviously keeping our eye on.”