Tom Whiting noticed a pattern. It was the early 1990s, and fly-tiers from around the world were asking Whiting, a poultry geneticist, for a very specific feather. It had to be long, wide, fat-barbed, and without webbing or a frayed end—something more akin to a squirrel tail than a typical bird feather. The earliest British books on fishing mention such a feather, reportedly plucked from the neck of the Spey cock, an almost mythical rooster bred on the banks of Scotland’s River Spey and deeply connected to flyfishing’s 19th-century start. This chicken supposedly grew feathers that produced seamless, natural movements underwater and made for a fly no salmon could resist.
For years, Whiting was fixated on finding this feather—writing letters to breeders and poring through books—yet he kept coming up blank. “Nothing convinced me that a distinct breed ever existed,” he says. “I found one idealized breed painting, and it looked like a Coq de Leon to me,” referring to a breed of Spanish chicken. But he just couldn’t leave it alone—so he took the matter into his own hands. “Even if this rooster doesn’t exist,” he decided, “I can build it.”
Chickens, Whiting likes to say, are “genetically plastic.” Through selective breeding, a 4-pound barnyard hen, for example, can produce 8-pound great-great-grand-hens with wildly long feathers in an array of colors and textures. The normal taper of a feather—that elegant arc of, say, Shakespeare’s quill—can be altered to a pencil-like thinness or to as wide as an ax blade.