Special Feature:
Coq de Leon
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'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 Alejandro Viñuales.

he 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 flies.

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. 

The 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 trout.

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.

In 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 traditional products.

Currently, two main types of Indian are distinguished:

[Follow the hyperlinks to see a picture of each hackle]

  • "Acerado" - Medium grey. In different tones, darker or lighter, it is the most commonly used colour in the Indian range.
  • "Plateado" - Light and bright grey. It´s also named as crystal or pearl.
  • "Palometa" - Pure white, though sometimes it becomes slightly yellow.
  • "Negrisco" - Black
  • "Rubión" - Reddish, with a darker or lighter tone. It ranges between a light orange and hazel.
  • "Sarnoso" - Grey with more or less defined spots. Most of the tyers of wet flies think that it generally does not produce good flies.
  • "Avellanado" - 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:

  • "Flor 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 less thick.
  • "Corzuno" - Hazel background with quite a lot of speckles like the roe deer skin.
  • "Sarrioso" - 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).
  • "Crudo" - (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 "palometa".
  • "Rubión" - Reddish colours, similar to the Indian "rubión", even though the brown "rubiones" tend to have tiny spots.
  • "Aconchado" - Clear background with rounded spots that appear to draw a series of shells.
  • "Langareto" - 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 be equal.

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

© 1993-2005 All Rigths Reserved. Andrew N. Herd.  
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