The Soft-Hackle Wet Fly—Back to Basics

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Video soft hackle patterns

Soft Hackle Wet Fly

There is beauty in simplicity and the traditional soft-hackle wet fly is quite simply, beautiful. In its bareness, in the liveliness of its soft hackle fibers it suggests all that seems necessary to tempt fish. Because of its simplicity it’s also one of the easiest flies to tie—and often one of the deadliest.

Also called a Hackle Fly, North Country Fly, Stewart Spider, or Yorkshire Spider, these flies were first mentioned in Dame Juliana Berners’ 1496 Treatise of Fishing with an Angle. Likely their history extends even farther back than that. But it wasn’t until Sylvester Nemes’ 1975 The Soft-Hackled Fly that they began to receive the attention they deserve in the United States, and became known in general as “soft-hackle” flies. (Incidentally, The Soft Hackled Fly was updated in 2006 as The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles; I highly recommend both the original book and the update for their history, fly patterns, and ideas.)

The most basic version of the soft-hackle fly consists of a hook shank wrapped with thread, floss, or peacock herl and a hackle (partridge, grouse, hen or some other soft-hackled bird) wound around the forward part of the shank. Here the hackle suggests the legs or emergent wings of various insects such as caddis or mayflies. Slightly more elaborate versions include a small thorax of dubbed fur just behind the hackle. Others —often more specifically imitative of a mayfly nymph—will sport a tail and perhaps a body of dubbed fur, in which case the fly is often referred to as a soft-hackle nymph or “flymph,” a type popularized by Leisenring and Hidy. However you tie it, the soft hackle wet fly deserves an honored place in your fly box.

I first began tying these flies as a teenager in the 1950s after reading an article by Ray Bergman in Outdoor Life magazine titled Basic Wet Flies for Trout Fishing. They weren’t called “soft-hackle wet flies” back then, just “hackle flies.” Among my favorites were the Gray Hackle and Peacock and the Orange Fish Hawk, both tied with soft grizzly hen hackle on a #12 or #14 hook. Both were well-suited to the small skills of a beginning tyer and fly fisherman. Another favorite—one not found in Bergman—was one I called a Gray Pigeon (or sometimes a Flipper Fly). This pattern was hackled with a soft iridescent gray-blue feather taken from the neck area of a common pigeon with a body of soft gray fur clipped from the stomach of my old cat Flipper (who also supplied me with the pigeon).

I caught a lot of trout on these patterns but somewhere along the way, as my fly-tying skills became more developed and my flyfishing more sophisticated, I became interested in flies that more exactly imitated the insects in the streams I fished, flies that demanded more skill in both tying and fishing. I began to fill my fly boxes with more complicated patterns, relegating simpler flies to boxes that I rarely looked into. Eventually they became forgotten flies, rusting away and eaten by moths

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Then in the mid-70s my interests began to shift back to simpler, more impressionistic patterns; flies that suggested insects or baitfish in general, flies tied with soft fibers that would move in the current like a living insect or baitfish. It was at this time that I tied the first Sparrow and other flies utilizing the soft aftershaft feathers found on a pheasant; also the Soft Hackle Streamer which (when you look at it closely) is simply a traditional soft hackle wet fly tied with a much longer marabou hackle thus allowing it to suggest a baitfish. About this time that I became friends with Sylvester Nemes, whose book rekindled my interest in the traditional soft-hackle wet fly. Since then I always carry a selection of traditional (and some not-so-traditional) soft-hackle wet flies with me wherever I fish.

Following the tying instructions given below I’ve listed some of my favorite soft-hackle patterns. While most of them are tied with partridge feathers, you can tie a whole range of soft-hackle wet flies using grouse, pheasant, woodcock, snipe, starling, grackle, sparrow, common hen in various colors, and, yes, even pigeon. For exceptionally soft-hackled flies, especially in the smaller sizes (#16-20), you might also want to tie some using the aftershaft feathers attached to the main body feathers of most of these birds; these mostly dun-colored feathers are the softest of the soft hackles and should not be overlooked by the tyer. They are very effective, especially in slower-moving or still water, where they are most productive. The ultra-soft and heavily-barbuled feathers found around the anus of most roosters and hens are also quite useful, especially grizzly; I refer to this feather often as a CPF (chicken-poop) feather throughout my web site.

Hook Selection

The soft-hackle wet fly is usually tied on wet fly hooks (any shape, model, and size you like) because it is usually most effective fished just under the surface. You may, however, tie it on lighter-wire dry-fly hooks to fish it in the surface film, perhaps as a drowned nymph that didn’t quite make it. A general rule for determining which hook to use is this: If you want the fly to imitate a caddis, tie it on a regular or short-shank hook without a tail; if you want it to imitate a mayfly, tie it on a regular or long-shank hook and add a tail.

While it’s most often used for trout, soft-hackle wet fly is also a fine steelhead and salmon fly, especially in heavily-fished waters or when the water is low. For a deeper, faster-sinking fly, use a 2x heavy wire hook or weight the fly with a copper wire or lead-wrapped body. Some anglers even tie it with a bead-head. Its effectiveness is not limited to fresh water either — it’s a productive bonefish fly, especially in smaller sizes (#8-#10).

Fishing the Soft-Hackle Wet Fly

Probably the most common way to fish a soft-hackle wet fly is to cast it across and slightly downstream, letting it sink and then swing in the current, rising with the tightening line much as a natural rises to the surface before hatching. It’s on this rise that fish usually strike. Another productive method is to cast the fly upstream on a short cast and then let it dead-drift back to you just under the surface (or, if tied on a light-wire hook, in the surface film). On lakes and ponds a soft hackle fly cast in front of a cruising trout and then twitched slightly can be absolutely deadly. Many soft-hackle fly anglers, especially in Europe, favor fishing two or three of these flies (of different colors and sizes) at a time.

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And now it’s time to tie.

Tying the The Partridge & Olive

Hook:

Daiichi 1150, 1550, Mustad 8100BR, Tiemco 3769, or any hook that you prefer, sizes 10-18

Thread:

6/0 Olive or size A flat nylon

Body:

Olive thread or size A flat nylon

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

Hare’s Ear or gray squirrel blend

Hackle:

Hungarian Partridge

Head:

Hare’s Ear or gray squirrel blend

Soft Hackle Wets

Here are some of my favorite soft-hackle wet flies that you might want to tie up and try next time you’re on the stream. All are tied in the manner described above.

The Partridge & Chartreuse

Hook:

Daiichi 1150, 1550, Mustad 8100BR, Tiemco 3769, or any hook that you prefer, #12-16

Thread:

6/0 fluorescent chartreuse or size A flat nylon

Body:

Fluorescent chartreuse thread or floss or size A flat nylon

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

Hare’s Ear or gray squirrel blend

Hackle:

Hungarian Partridge

Head:

Fluorescent chartreuse thread or dubbed hare’s ear or gray squirrel

The Partridge & Orange

Hook:

Daiichi 1150, 1550, Mustad 8100BR, Tiemco 3769, or any hook that you prefer, #12-16

Thread:

6/0 orange or size A flat nylon

Body:

Orange thread or floss or size A flat nylon

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

Hare’s Ear or gray squirrel blend

Hackle:

Hungarian Partridge

Head:

Orange thread or dubbed hare’s ear or gray squirrel

The Partridge & Yellow

Hook:

Daiichi 1150, 1550, Mustad 8100BR, Tiemco 3769, or any hook that you prefer, #12-16

Thread:

6/0 yellow or size A flat nylon

Body:

Yellow thread or floss or size A flat nylon

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

Hare’s Ear or gray squirrel blend

Hackle:

Hungarian Partridge

Head:

Yellow thread or dubbed hare’s ear or gray squirrel

The Pheasant & Black

Hook:

Daiichi 1150, 1550, Mustad 8100BR, Tiemco 3769, or any hook that you prefer, #14, #16

Thread:

6/0, black

Body:

Black thread

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

Black fur dubbing

Hackle:

Iridescent black ringneck pheasant feather taken from head or lower neck of pheasant

Head:

Black fur dubbing or thread

Brown Hackle, Peacock

Hook:

Daiichi 1150, 1550, Mustad 8100BR, Tiemco 3769, or any hook that you prefer, #14, #16

Thread:

6/0, black

Tag:

Gold wire, optional

See also  Contours

Body:

Peacock herl

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

None

Hackle:

Brown mottled hen or grouse

Head:

Black

Aftershaft Soft Hackle Wet Fly

Hook:

Daiichi 1140, 1150, 1550,1640 Tiemco 2487, or any hook that you prefer, #14-20

Thread:

6/0, olive, orange, yellow, black, rust

Tag:

Gold wire, optional

Body:

Olive, orange, yellow, black, or rust thread

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

None

Hackle:

Aftershaft feather from partridge, pheasant (hen or cock), grouse

Head:

Olive, orange, yellow, black, or rust thread

Soft Hackle Nymphs

These flies differ from the above soft-hackle wet flies in that they’re most often tied on a 1xl or 2xl hook, with a tail and with a body and thorax of fur, to imitate an emerging mayfly nymph. To imitate a caddis, simply tie the same fly on a regular or a shorter-shanked hook and omit the tail. These patterns may be varied, of course, to match more closely the sizes and colors of insects found on your local waters.

Partridge & Hare’s Ear

Hook:

Daiichi 1710, 1280, 1640, Mustad 9671, TMC 3769, 5262 or any hook that you prefer, #14, #16

Thread:

6/0 olive

Body:

Olive thread

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

Hare’s Ear or gray squirrel blend

Hackle:

Hungarian Partridge

Head:

Olive thread or dubbed hare’s ear or gray squirrel

Partridge & Muskrat

Hook:

Daiichi 1710, 1280, 1640, Mustad 9671, TMC 3769, 5262 or any hook that you prefer, #12-16

Thread:

6/0 gray

Tail:

Partridge

Body:

Blue-dun gray muskrat body fur

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

Blue-dun gray muskrat body fur

Hackle:

Hungarian Partridge

Head:

Gray thread or blue-dun gray muskrat body fur

Partridge & Red Squirrel (Hendrickson Nymph)

Hook:

Daiichi 1710, 1280, 1640, Mustad 9671, TMC 3769, 5262 or any hook that you prefer, #12-16

Thread:

6/0 rust or brown

Tail:

Pheasant tail fibers or wood duck

Body:

Red squirrel fur (from the back of the squirrel, to include predominantly rust-red hairs)

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

Red squirrel fur

Hackle:

Hungarian Partridge

Head:

Rust or brown thread or dubbed red squirrel fur

Soft Hackle March Brown Nymph

Hook:

Daiichi 1710, 1280, 1640, Mustad 9671, TMC 3769, 5262 or any hook that you prefer, #12, 14

Thread:

6/0 rust or brown

Tail:

Pheasant tail fibers

Body:

Red squirrel fur mixed with amber fur dubbing

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

Red squirrel fur mixed with amber fur dubbing

Hackle:

Hungarian Partridge

Head:

Rust or brown thread or red squirrel fur mixed with amber fur dubbing

Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail Nymph

Hook:

Daiichi 1710, 1280, 1640, Mustad 9671, TMC 3769, 5262 or any hook that you prefer, #14, #16

Thread:

6/0 rust or brown

Tail:

Pheasant tail fibers (three or four)

Body:

Pheasant tail fibers wound over hook shank

Ribbing:

Gold wire, optional

Thorax:

Hare’s Ear or gray squirrel blend

Hackle:

Hungarian Partridge

Head:

Rust or brown thread or dubbed hare’s ear or gray squirrel

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>