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Rooster feathers prized by fishermen are now popular in hair salons

Jennifer Collins Jul 4, 2011

Rooster feathers prized by fishermen are now popular in hair salons

Jennifer Collins Jul 4, 2011

Bob Moon: It’s been a tough weekend for businesses that depend on recreation in the Northern Rockies. Dangerous, high-water conditions have caused a lot of trip cancellations, just when the whitewater rafting and fly-fishing seasons are supposed to be getting under way.

And it seems that’s not the only challenge facing fly fishermen these days. For years, they’ve used rooster feathers — pricey ones, at that — to make the intricate lures that get the fish to bite. And as Marketplace’s Jennifer Collins reports, there’s some new competition for all that plumage.

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 at it.

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 go 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 showgirls. 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 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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