With over 50 years in the business of feather production, Metz is going from strength to strength and continuously bringing to market the best-quality feathers for fly tying. Through meticulous breeding it has raised chickens whose plumage possesses precisely those qualities sought after by every flyfisher. The hallmarks of a Metz feather are long, narrow feathers with short, dense fibres and brilliant sheen, stubbornly buoyant and flexible enough to be wound round the smallest of hooks. What began as a passionate search for decent feathers to use for fly tying turned into a business that would change the face of the premium feather industry.
The Chosen Few
Robert ‘Buck’ Metz Jr was a poultry farmer in Belleville, Philadelphia, in the USA, who began fly fishing and tying in 1972, learning the art from George Harvey, the famous fly tyer. Buck became interested in feathers soon after learning to tie, becoming aware that good feathers were hard to find. The only feathers available in any quantities back then were Indian and Chinese, of a variable quality. Buck wanted feathers to meet his needs plus those of a few friends, and George put him in contact with Andy Miner, from Minnesota. Andy, a lawyer by trade, is well known as the originator of the now-famous ‘Miner line’ of hackle. He gave Buck his first 12 dozen fertile eggs, mostly of blue Andalusian stock, to begin his search for the perfect fly-tying hackles.
Buck grew his first batch of birds specifically for flytying feathers and managed a few hundred birds for his friends and himself in the first season. After that, he decided that the birds should be able to pay for themselves and continued to grow more, tentatively raising production the next year to 1,500 birds for the feathers on their necks. The Hobbyists The market at this point was strictly for quality necks. Saddles were not being marketed for anything other than ‘by-product’ soft hackle.
Up until this point, no-one had ever grown birds commercially for feather production and all the quality feathers were in the hands of notable hobbyists. At that time, it was perceived that top-quality dry-fly feathers could only be obtained from roosters that were three years old.
Colours And Timescale
Metz (the company) was responsible for introducing two things that were to revolutionize the hackle industry. Firstly, it genetically bred colours to breed true. This allowed it the ability to accurately predict quantities of offspring from various coloured birds, resulting in longevity of breed lines and traits. Secondly, it was able to develop the genetics, feed and facilities to optimise the growing of the birds in order to shorten the maturing time of the feathers. This made feathers available in one year rather than three, which made the production of quality hackles affordable. The application of scientific poultry management techniques in order to create a product perfect for fly tying allowed Metz to become the industry leader.
Four years after Buck began producing birds, Metz’ production had grown to 5,000 birds a season, with commitments from major customers to purchase his full production. Metz continued to expand colours and quantities each year, while genetically improving the quality of the feathers. By 1984, production of feather birds had soared to 50,000 birds annually and discerning fly tyers around the globe were using Metz hackles. A network of distributors was established, including Turrall in the UK, and three years later production had doubled to over 100,000 birds.
Feathers For Tiny Flies
By now, several other commercial operations existed, but none could compete on a global scale with Metz in terms of quality and or quantities of product. Developing its product has always been central to the business and, as such, Metz first began working on saddles, now called microbarb saddles, for the dry-fly market, when genes were uncovered from breeding lines that allowed the birds to grow long, slender saddle hackles that appeared to never stop growing. With microbarb saddle progress well on its way, focus was placed back on to necks, particularly the quills of the necks. Supple, thinner neck quills were bred into the birds, resulting in feathers that could be used on the smallest of hooks and that didn’t twist when wrapping. Length of useable feather was increased, as well as continued work on decreasing web.
Improving The Look
The 1990s were a time of growth and development within Metz. Al Brighenti, producer of the grizzly hackle, sold his premium line to Metz, which originally sought to improve the vigour in its existing grizzly lines as well as improve barring patterns through the incorporation of the Brighenti line, but this also allowed the development, improvement and supply of new lines.
With the increase in demand for larger, warm-water flies, selection began on what is now known as the Magnum line of grizzly and cream in order to cater to the saltwater markets. Years of crossbreeding, back-breeding and purification have yielded the first truly genetic hackle specifically engineered for all warm-water applications. The Magnums were first marketed in the mid-2000s and today demand is continuing to rocket for these effective feathers.
The Metz expansion continued with the addition of a game bird division planned to service the shooting industry, as well as to allow the development and growing of top-quality Hungarian partridge skins for the fly industry. The latest purchase to the Metz line was Shannon Owen’s line from Arkansas. The Shannon birds, with feathers known for their thin and supple stems, were purchased not only to improve hybrid vigour of the Metz line but also to incorporate the unique feather features into the range.
Metz will continue leading the way for the future by building on the top-quality feathers it is producing. As Buck always said: “If there is a cardinal rule in chicken raising, it is this: Do not maintain the quality of a flock, improve it!” Metz will be doing just that; creating longer hackles will not only mean finer stems on the feathers but also more wrap on the hackle. The continued commitment to top-quality commercial production of genetic hackle at affordable pricing is what sets Metz aside from the competition.