The Soft Hackle Fly
To say that this month we are going to be tying The Soft Hackle Fly would be a bit misleading because the term “soft hackle” refers not to a single fly pattern but to a whole family of flies. Soft hackles have many forms and variations but they tend to have a few common characteristics, employing a minimum of materials. In fact, a recipe for tying a soft hackle fly in its most basic form would look something like this…
thread: 6/0, 8/0 ; color of your choice
hook: style of your choice, #12-18
body: thread or floss
That’s it! Of course, if you search the internet you can find lots of innovative variations of the basic soft hackle with added bells and whistles because, as fly tyers, that’s what we do.
The history of soft hackle flies goes back at least 500 years to the earliest recorded history of fly fishing. If you want to really get into the details of these flies you can refer to many of the books that are specifically dedicated to soft hackles. Sylvester Nemes is often credited with reintroducing soft hackle flies to the modern world of fly fishing after these flies had lost their popularity over the years. One of his books, not surprisingly named The Soft-Hackled Fly (1975), is considered a classic. Dave Hughes has written two versions of a book titled Wet Flies: Tying and Fishing Soft-Hackles, Flymphs, Winged Wets, and All-Fur Wet Flies (2015).
Soft hackle flies get their name from the soft hackle feathers that are used in place of the stiff rooster hackles that are seen in traditional dry flies. Partridge is a favorite, but tyers also commonly use grouse, hen saddle, starling, and others. As the soft hackle fly hits the water and begins its descent the hackle fibers fold over the body of the fly and tend to trap air bubbles, simulating an adult insect’s wings,legs, and antennae emerging from the transparent shuck. Many soft hackle patterns employ a dubbing ball right behind the hackle that helps to keep the hackle barbules from completely flattening against the body, thus aiding in trapping the air bubbles. Most patterns are tied without weight but some tyers like to lightly weight their soft hackles to help the flies break through the surface film. Traditional soft hackle flies are generally tied without tails, while adding a tail changes the name to “flymph” or “soft hackle nymph”.
There is hardly a wrong way to fish a soft hackle. Perhaps the technique most often used is the classic wet-fly swing where you cast down and across, letting the water move the fly, usually just under the surface, across the current until it is hanging down below you. I recently saw a video of Simon Gawesworth where he mentioned that, because of its simplicity, swinging soft hackles was his favorite way to introduce a beginner to fly fishing. More advanced presentations would involve controlling the speed of the fly by using upstream or downstream mends, according to the action of the current, in an effort to keep your fly in obvious feeding lanes. And imparting a light twitch or a lifting motion to the fly has been known to be irresistible to fish during a hatch where emerging insects are struggling to get to the surface. Fishing the soft hackle fly as a dropper below a dry fly can be very productive, especially during caddis hatches. Although soft hackles are considered wet flies, many anglers report that applying floatant and then fishing the fly in the surface film is definitely worth a try. Apparently it gives a pretty good representation of an emerger or a cripple that didn’t make it off the surface of the water. Good results can also be achieved with soft hackles in still waters. Cast out and strip your line back, varying your retrieves until you find what works best on a given day.
I will have to admit that I have generally been a creature of habit in my trout fishing, concentrating either on dries or nymphs and emergers fished under indicators, while ignoring the wet fly option. In researching the soft hackle fly I have come across testimonials from fly fishermen/fly tyers who state “ this is my favorite fly”, or “If I could only fish with one fly for the rest of my life…”. I suggest you click on the following link for an article called “Lessons From A Simple Fly” in the online Fly Fisherman (July, 2016) magazine to read the words of Yvon Chouinard, the outdoorsman extraordinaire and founder of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear company.
Chouinard tried to simplify his fly fishing by fishing for a year with only one fly pattern, a pheasant tail soft hackle. In using a range of sizes of just that one pattern he was able to land an amazing variety of fish, including salmon, trout, atlantic salmon, steelhead (up to 37 inches), as well as bonefish and many other saltwater species. Despite all of the fishermen that swear by soft hackle flies, and fish them religiously, there seems to be many more anglers that rarely, if ever, use them. So, even though we have countless modern materials and fly patterns that we have at our disposal today, you would think that we could find a place in our fly tying arsenal for a simple pattern that has withstood the test of time for half a millennium. Perhaps you can join me in setting a goal for this season to stop ignoring those soft hackles in your fly box, and to start experimenting with different presentations in order to discover why these flies have been so successful for hundreds of years.
Join us at the Royal Treatment Fly Shop in West Linn on Wednesday, April 26 to tie up some soft hackle flies. These are flies that are suitable for tyers of all levels of experience. Our friends at the Royal Treatment have some equipment to loan you for the evening, so come even if you don’t have your own vise and tools yet. We’ll be getting started at 6:00 pm. Hope to see you there!