U.S. News

When Fashion Meets Fishing, the Feathers Fly

Katie Zezima|The New York Times

The most enthusiastic customers at the Eldredge Brothers Fly Shop of late are not looking to buy fly fishing reels or snag stripers. They are here to make a fashion statement.

Ken Wramton | Getty Images

In an improbable collision of cutting-edge chic and a hobby that requires drab waders, fly fishing shops around the country are suddenly inundated with stylish women looking to get in on the latest trend: long, colorful feathers that are bonded or clipped into hair.

Demand for the feathers, before now exclusively the domain of fly fishermen, who use them to tie flies, has created a shortage, forcing up the price and causing fly shops and hairdressers to compete for the elusive plumes.

“I’ve been out for probably a month,” said Bill Thompson, the owner of North Country Angler in North Conway, N.H. “There is that worry that next year, fishermen won’t have materials they’ll need.”

The circumstances are especially strange because a proudly stodgy and tradition-bound industry content to hide from the world beyond the river is competing in this niche marketplace with a fad that may not last as long as a trout’s spawning season.

“For someone to use them as a fashion statement is just sacrilegious,” said Bob Brown, 65, a fly fisherman who lives in an recreational vehicle parked in Kennebunk, Me. He said he had been tying flies for 50 years and this is the first time he had ever heard of a feather shortage.

“They’ve been genetically bred for fly tying, and that’s what they should be used for,” Mr. Brown said.

Fly fishing feathers — which individually are called hackles and as a group called saddles — are harvested from roosters painstakingly bred to grow supple feathers. It takes more than a year for a rooster to grow feathers long and pliable enough for use by fly fishermen. Because no one could have predicted the fashion trend, there are not enough to go around.

Thomas Whiting, the owner of Whiting Farms, the country’s largest hackle producer, said the company stopped taking new accounts several months ago after being unable to fulfill orders for current customers. Today, about one-fifth of their feathers are used for “fashion fodder,” Mr. Whiting said.

Mr. Whiting produces about 80,000 roosters a year for feathers and owns specific genetic lines that guarantee long, strong feathers. Each bird has his own “apartment” where he is “truly pampered” before being euthanized and plucked, he said.

“The fashion world is a vastly larger animal than the fly fishing world,” Mr. Whiting said. “We can’t keep up with demand. Things are pretty crazy.”

The feathers, anglers said, are used to help the flies that mimic bugs that sit atop the water, which are called dry flies, as well as wet flies, which sink below the surface and are supposed to look like bait fish.

Dry flies typically use brown and neutral feathers, which women prefer for a more natural look, and flies that sink often use feathers in colors like yellow and electric blue, which deliver more pop as a hair accessory. Some feathers come in solid colors, and others have patterns of contrasting colors.

The qualities that make the feathers so attractive to anglers — pliability and durability — are also what appeal to hairdressers. The feathers can be washed, blow dried, curled and flat ironed, and typically stay in hair for a few months.

“They’re just like hair and they don’t fade,” said Sheryl Miller, the artistic director at Fringe Hair Art in Kennebunkport, Me., where three feathers cost $25.

Here at the Eldredge Brothers Fly Shop on Saturday morning, Tom Cormier said, “Feather call,” from behind the counter as he hung up the telephone. Another disappointed feather-seeker was on the other end.

The store is keeping and will eventually sell one saddle, a large mane of about 300 white, velvety-soft feathers that Jim Bernstein, the store manager, said sold for about $120 last year.

“I found out this is worth $1,000,” Mr. Bernstein said, adding that no fly fisherman would pay that much. “It would be nice if you had blond hair. It has that subtle barring on it.”

The store would have more, Mr. Bernstein said, were it not for a monthlong delay from its supplier. It has a wall filled with packages of colorful feathers, but they’re the wrong ones — too short and wide for most people’s tastes. But that seems to be changing.

“Now they’re buying any saddles, wider feathers, and that’s going to affect fly shops even more,” Mr. Bernstein said.

Mr. Bernstein has no problem selling to hair-extension seekers; he even teaches them how to dye the feathers. Todd Lanning, manager of South Fork Outfitters in Swan Valley, Idaho, says the trend is good for fly fishing.

“It’s business. We’re happy to sell whatever feathers we can to whomever,” said Mr. Lanning, who has received some calls about his feathers. And, he likes the look.

“I think it’s kind of cool,” Mr. Lanning said. “I think it’s kind of sexy, to be honest with you, for lack of a better word.”

But other fly shops want nothing to do with the fashionable. Tom Ciardelli, the owner of Hanover Outdoors in Hanover, N.H., refuses to sell feathers to anyone other than fly fishermen.

“We felt we would be better off with good will than just selling out,” Mr. Ciardelli said.

The feathers are fetching big interest — and money — on the Internet, with nearly 6,000 listings for “hair extension feathers” on the Web site etsy.com and more than 6,000 listings on eBay. Feathers that used to cost a few dollars are fetching $20 each in some salons.

The situation has spawned some interesting business alliances.

“We do get our feathers from a local fly fishing shop,” said Rebecca Pellman, a spokeswoman for Vain, a salon with two Seattle locations. She said she understood why fishermen might be upset.

“Can you imagine some Dad type coming in for feathers and hearing, ‘Sorry, I sold them all for people’s hairdos?’ ” Ms. Pellman said.

She estimates that the salon has put feathers in the hair of at least 1,000 clients. But she and others recognize that the shortage, and the hairdos, will probably be short-lived.

“It’s a fad,” said Jim Makris of the Opechee Trading Post in Laconia, N.H., which still has some shorter feathers available. “And like all fads, it will go away. But right now, it’s hot.”