Pa. farmer's feathers tickle fancy of fly fishermen from Andes to Alps


BELLEVILLE, Pa. -- The office of Robert K. "Buck" Metz looks like the den of an avid sportsman. Mounted on one pine-paneled wall is a huge, brightly speckled 6 1/2 -pound brook trout he caught in Labrador. On the wall behind his desk are four stuffed birds.

But something's wrong here. These birds are not trophies of a successful hunt for pheasants or ducks. They are roosters.

These dark, lustrous birds and their kin are the pillars of an empire ruled by Mr. Metz, an empire whose influence extends around the globe. From the wind-blown lakes of the Andes to the rushing streams of the Alps, anglers revere Mr. Metz and his roosters.

Fly fishermen use feathers from his roosters to create artificial flies that resemble mayflies and other aquatic creatures eaten by elusive gamefish such as trout. Fly fishermen, like the fish they pursue, are a finicky lot. To an extraordinary degree these anglers have come to insist on Metz necks -- the skin from the rooster's neck with the feathers still attached.

From Belleville, a small farming community about a three hours' drive northwest of Baltimore, Mr. Metz has built a multimillion-dollar business that dominates the world market for high-quality feathers for fly tying.

In a sense, he invented the industry he has come to rule.

Before he came along, the feathers for flies were generally byproducts of birds raised for their meat or eggs in India, China or the Philippines. No one else had been able to figure out how to successfully raise birds for their hackle feathers on a commercial scale.

Starting two decades ago with some eggs given to him for free, he developed lines of genetically distinct birds that produce feathers with the deep natural colors sought by fishermen to create convincing imitations of real insects: bluish-gray feathers, chocolate brown ones -- even one multicolored type, called Cree after the Indian tribe, bearing three distinct shades on each shaft.

Metz feathers also have short, web-free fibers and flexible stems. When wrapped around a hook, they float high on the surface tension of the water, like a resting mayfly.

Such distinct qualities -- and the growing interest in fly-fishing -- have made Metz feathers so popular that in Europe, Japan and the United States anglers demand more sets of feathers than he can turn out. Demand is so great, Mr. Metz said, that "dealing in hackles is almost like dealing in drugs."

Luciano Viti, the owner of a small hotel in Florence, Italy, who has fished for trout from Argentina to Yugoslavia, ties his own flies. Naturally, he is familiar with Metz.

"In Italy he is very well known," said Mr. Viti, noting that the same is true in France and England.

Mr. Viti said that he owns four or five Metz necks himself, but he added, "In Italy the Metz necks are hard to get. He is sold out. You can't buy what you want, only what he gives you."

It is hard to exaggerate how thoroughly Mr. Metz has come to dominate this market.

Orvis, one of the most respected mail order outlets for fly-fishing gear, sells only one brand of hackle feathers: Metz.

"He's by far the best-known. He's got the greatest products," said William Reed, a buyer for Orvis who used to tie flies professionally.

In this country, as in Europe, the main problem is getting enough of the Metz necks. "We could probably sell many more necks if we could buy them," Mr. Reed said.

If there's a shortage it's not because Mr. Metz is running a small operation -- his business generates almost $2 million a year. "We're the largest in the world by at least a factor of three," he said.

As a member of a family that for three generations has made its living in Belleville in the poultry business, Mr. Metz is regarded locally as just another chicken farmer, albeit a successful one who drives a red Porsche.

His business card includes his home phone number as well as his office number. The headquarters of his international enterprise is a former Swiss cheese factory -- a squat white clapboard building with a tin roof that looks like a chicken house with window air conditioners.

"People around here aren't aware I'm famous. You can't be an expert if you're a hometown boy," he said.

But the number of his birds is testimony to his success.

Mr. Metz has so many buildings full of roosters, he has a hard time keeping track. "I don't know how many houses are devoted to feather production. I think it's about 12. I'd have to sit down and count them up," he said.

At times his stock numbers as many as 150,000 birds. Not bad for an endeavor that started out as "something of a lark," in Mr. Metz's words. "I thought it might be some pin money so I could buy some fishing rods or something."

Mr. Metz started his business in the early 1970s, when, as a recent convert from golf to fly-fishing and tying, he was having trouble finding good material to make flies.

So one day he set off for Minnesota in a borrowed car to get eggs from a man who had been raising feather birds as a hobby. He was accompanied on this unlikely journey by George W. Harvey, an institution among fly fishermen, who for years taught the sport to Penn State undergraduates. The hobbyist, Andy Miner, gave them 12 dozen eggs.

Back in Pennsylvania, Mr. Metz popped the eggs into an incubator. About three-quarters of them hatched. When the birds matured their feathers bore a rainbow of colors. That was good. But genetically the birds were all mixed up and did not breed true to color. That was bad.

Mr. Miner "was not particularly fussy about keeping birds pure about color. . . . It was a real menagerie," Mr. Metz said. "It took me about five years to straighten all the colors out."

Despite that problem, the birds represented a wonderful starting point. "It was the nicest stuff we'd ever seen as fly tiers. George Harvey had been tying all his life, and they were the nicest he had ever seen," Mr. Metz said.

As the word spread in fly-tying circles about the birds, Mr. Metz got an inkling that more than pin money might be at stake.

His business success has largely been a matter of figuring out how to raise a large number of birds while maintaining control over the quality and color of the feathers.

One breakthrough he realized in the raising of the birds is apparent from a visit to one of his production houses. The building holds row upon row of raised wire cages, each containing a single bird protected from its neighbors and with room to move.

Conventional chicken farms raise their birds in big flocks that crowd together on the floors of large chicken houses. But feather birds are young mature roosters ready to mate. In the absence of hens, they will try to mount each other, grabbing their cohorts by the back of the head and neck. That means the roosters would be plucking and damaging the feathers, the thing of greatest value on the birds.

"A little bit of that and you've got a bunch of bald men in there," he observed.

And little is wasted in his operation. After the birds have been killed and the neck feathers removed, what remains is sent to a local processing plant and turned into animal feed.

While his methods for raising birds have been copied, he has an advantage that will be very hard to overcome: two decades of careful breeding that have produced very special strains of birds. This is his greatest resource, one he carefully protects. He keeps a small flock, containing about 800 birds representing all his lines, on a small farm 80 miles away, just in case some disease or other disaster should strike his main flock.

Much of his worldwide reputation stems from an almost fanatical devotion to quality. The most important part of maintaining quality comes at the grading stage, when the hackle necks are divided into three categories. It's mind-numbing work: picking up each piece and examining it for such things as color, fiber quality, feather count and damage. For years, Mr. Metz did the work by himself because he couldn't find anyone he trusted enough to replace him.

"It's hard to find a person with the dedication and the skill," he said. "I found that person in my wife."

That emphasis on honest grading and consistent quality is probably why Mr. Metz had no trouble cracking the Japanese market.

"The Japanese appreciate quality," he said. "Our own internal approach fit in with the Japanese approach to things. Early on we were setting the standard for the product worldwide."

Mr. Metz has plans for extending his fame. Maybe his name will become a household word in Maryland, based on his latest project: a new line of chickens whose feathers are ideal for catching saltwater fish like blues and rockfish.

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