Rooster feathers prized by fishermen are now popular in hair salons

Jennifer Collins Apr 11, 2011

Rooster feathers prized by fishermen are now popular in hair salons

Jennifer Collins Apr 11, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Washington lobbyists like to throw parties. It’s a pretty effective way to get their people close to Congress-people. But there are only so many cocktail and heavy hors d’oeuvres parties one can go to. Which is why the American Fly Fishing Trade Association’s goin’ out on the river next week. They’re taking lawmakers along to talk about conservation and fisheries management. The gathering comes as fly fisherman are facing some challenges. For years they’ve used rooster feathers — pricey ones, at that — to tie the intricate flies that get the fish to bite. This year, though, there’s stiff competition for all that plumage.

Marketplace’s Jennifer Collins reports.

Jennifer Collins: Gabrielle Aquaro has worked in Southern California hair salons for 15 years, so she’s always on the lookout for the latest trend. About six months ago…

Gabrielle Aquaro: I saw these feather pieces in this girl’s hair. She had some wild, curly hair. And I thought that looks really cool, what is that?

So she mentioned the feathers to her dad.

Aquaro: He says, ‘I’ve got just the thing for you kid. Come on over.’

Ted Aquaro: Well I thought it was a great idea and I had all my fly tying stuff in the garage just gathering dust.

In his kit, Ted Aquaro had a stash of long thin feathers. Gabrielle bundled them, a few at a time, and layered them into her clients’ hair for $25 a pop.

Aquaro: And are you happy with that placement?

Customer: Yes. No, I love it.

Other stylists have also discovered the trend.

Aquaro: And now it’s, it’s blown up because now you know Steven Tyler on American Idol’s got bushels of feathers.

And Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus.

Aquaro: Everybody’s into it.

Which is fine for Steve Ellis, owner of a fly shop in Southern California. He supplies Aquaro’s feathers and says business has been booming.

Steve Ellis: Oh, we love it. We love to see all these cute girls come and we have a good time with all us old crotchety guys in here. We just love it.

But some of his customers don’t, like this guy, Rich Peters.

Collins: Are you a fisherman?

Rich Peters: No I just tie flys.

Ellis: He’s a fisherman who’s not very good.

Peters: But I can’t tie them any more ’cause I can’t get any feathers. These guys don’t have any feathers.

Ellis: Oh stop.

Thing is, it’s kind of true. Fly shops across the country have been selling out of feathers. And the problem goes back to one farm.

Tom Whiting: I’m Tom Whiting. I’m the owner and founder of Whiting Farms where we grow the feathers for the fly tying world.

Seven out of 10 top fly feathers are Whiting feathers.

Whiting: But which are also used now in the fashion world.

Whiting is a geneticist in Western Colorado. He raises roosters — about 65,000 at a time. As much as a third of his sales now got to fashion.

Whiting: We have orders far in excess of what we have in our system.

For years, Whiting was looking for that kind of success. He sold feathers to craft stores, makers of Hawaiian leis, even Vegas show girls. But he’s never seen demand like this. He raised prices on pelts of the popular feathers about 40 percent, but even that hasn’t slowed sales.

Whiting: They were going on eBay for $100, $150 apiece when the suggested retail price was like $36.

Whiting says it takes more than a year to boost production. In the meantime, he’s reluctant to raise prices too much.

Whiting: Because when this fad sort of runs its course, my core business is fly tying feathers — whom I don’t think they will pay those type of fashion prices. And I would be shooting myself in the foot.

Gabrielle Aquaro says she doesn’t see the fad running its course any time soon.

Aquaro: You know, we were joking that Whiting Farms is just sitting there waiting, waiting for their roosters to die. Because the minute that sucker’s dead, they’re on ’em.

Question is: Who gets the feathers? Fly fishermen or their daughters?

I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

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