fly tying feathers

Photo: Jeffrey S. Otto/FFM staff

A feather is a key ingredient in fly fishing.

By winding a feather around a hook, fishermen are able to cast their lines and
create the appearance of an insect on the surface of the water. This attracts the attention of the fish, which swim to the surface hoping for a quick snack. But not all feathers are created equal.

“It should be supple, but strong and uniform so when it’s wrapped around the hook, it doesn’t break or twist,” Tom Whiting says.

If there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about fly tying feathers, it’s Whiting.

Owner and operator of Whiting Farms in Delta, Colorado, Whiting has 27 barns that total approximately 300,000 square feet of building space and house upward of 70,000 chickens at any given time.

More impressively, his birds produce the world’s finest fly tying feathers. Estimates suggest Whiting’s chickens are currently responsible for 70 to 80 percent of the market.

fly tying feathers

Tom Whiting breeds chickens for their feathers, which are used in fly fishing, in Delta, Colorado. / Photo: Jeffrey S. Otto/FFM staff

Tom Whiting’s Humble Beginnings

Though his birds dominate the industry now, Whiting found his love for poultry as a child raising backyard chickens and peddling eggs in the suburbs of Denver.

“From the time I was 10, I knew I wanted to raise animals,” he says. “I used to dream about breeding programs. What would happen if I mixed this bird with that bird?”

His love for birds led him to attend the University of Arkansas, where he earned his Ph.D. in poultry genetics and management.

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“While I was there, a movie came out called ‘A River Runs Through It,’ ” Whiting says. “It featured a few minutes of fly fishing. Suddenly, there was a lot of interest in the sport – and a real need for feathers.”

Jumping on the opportunity in front of him, Whiting struck a deal with a hackle producer and immediately began making sales. A hackle is the long, narrow feather found on the neck of a bird that is used for making fly fishing ties. The demand for feathers was so high that before he even graduated, he pre-sold product in anticipation of launching his own business.

fly tying feathers

Photo: Jeffrey S. Otto/FFM staff

A Visit to Whiting Farms in Delta, Colorado

His farm may be large, but Whiting says he focuses on high-margin, low-volume production, placing quality over quantity. Some may argue that the tactic isn’t the optimal business move, but Whiting believes it’s a must when producing premier fly tying feathers. Whiting says before a chicken will allocate energy and nutrients to producing high-quality feathers, it focuses on survival, comfort and reproduction. Only once those needs are met will they begin to develop quality feathers.

“Because these animals won’t attain their full genetic potential unless their hierarchy of needs is met first, these are arguably the most pampered commercial chickens in the world,” he says.

designer fly fishing birds

Photo: Jeffrey S. Otto/FFM staff

Breeding Designer Chickens

One of his favorite parts of the job is using genetics to solve problems.

“I like when people describe to me what they want in a fly tying feather and then I get to figure out how to make that on a bird,” he says.

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His creativity and hard work hasn’t let him down yet. In addition to leading the market with exceptional feathers, Whiting has also developed entirely new chicken breeds.

The most popular are the Whiting True Blue and Whiting True Green, birds with beautiful plumage in a rainbow of colors that lay blue and green eggs.

Whiting says he never envisioned his business growing to this level of influence and success, but he considers himself lucky to be doing exactly what he loves.

“There are all kinds of opportunities out there if you think outside the box,” he says. “I’ve hit a lot of dead ends, but if one out of every five hits, it’s worth the effort to try.”