The Nu-No Hackles

No-Hackles revolutionized the way we tie flies. The author’s improved patterns continue that tradition.

by John R. Gantner

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The No-Hackle Dun, described by Doug Swisher and Carl Richards in their classic book, Selective Trout, was a great advancement in dry-fly construction. (Selective Trout was first published in 1971, but The Lyons Press produced a revised edition in 2001.) The pattern immediately won my favor, and a few days fishing the challenging waters of Montana’s Armstrong Spring Creek proved its value: super-selective trout with college degrees in “bugology” eagerly ingested the No-Hackle with misplaced confidence. The imitation was deadly: The impostor rode the water’s surface, displayed the proper profile, and created the correct impression on the meniscus, leaving the fish with little doubt of its authenticity. The No-Hackle consistently hooked fish while other anglers who cast standard bushy-hackle dry flies felt the sting of repeated rejections.


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Extended Body
Nu-No Hackle Hexagenia


Hook: TFS 921 or your favorite brand of 2X-short dry-fly hooks, sizes 12 to 8.
Thread: Size 10/0 (70 denier), color to match the thorax.
Abdomen: Cellophane hollow body.
Tails: Two or three pieces of monofilament.
Thorax covering & head: A narrow strip of 1-millimeter-thick closed-cell foam.
Wings: Two pieces of .5-millimeter-thick closed-cell foam.
Note: This recipe and the accompanying tying instructions are ideal for creating imitations of larger mayflies such as the gray drake, green drake, and Hexagenia. Select materials in colors to match the natural insects.
 
Taking a scientific approach to their study of trout fishing, Swisher and Richards used home aquariums, microscopes, streamside study and collection, and close-up photographic evidence to determine what factors are truly important in creating effective replicas of the insects that fish eat. Nowhere were their discoveries more surprising than with adult mayflies. For centuries, tiers have wrapped hackle on their flies to simulate legs and keep their patterns afloat. According to Swisher and Richards, however, “Observation of our photographic efforts indicated that legs play a very insignificant role in the outline of most mayflies. This fact prompted a close-up study of standard artificials, where we noticed that hackle was a ridiculous imitation of legs. It was not only too bushy, but also obscured the outline of both body and wings.”

There are times when bushy Royal Wulffs and Humpies work just fine, such as when rises are sparse and you’re searching the water with attractor patterns. More often than not, however, selecting the proper imitation of a real insect is critical to angling success. Swisher and Richards stated “The single most overriding problem the fly-fisherman must deal with is procuring an artificial fly that will gull the trout into thinking it is a natural insect.” At no other time is this deception more difficult than during an intense mayfly hatch when the trout become “species specific” and take the hatching insects one after another. At these times, the fish will ignore all but the most realistic patterns designed to mimic the physical characteristics of the hatching insect.

No-Hackle Pros and Cons
The traditional No-Hackle has several advantages. First, the design has a low profile and the body is clearly outlined on the water’s surface. The leading edges of the wings are clear and sharp, and positioned high above the body. And finally, the splayed tails lie realistically on the surface. The No-Hackle has merits, but what about its limitations?

No-Hackles were designed in the 1960s and early 1970s using the materials available at that time; the explosion in synthetic fly-tying materials had not yet occurred. Swisher and Richards made the most of the materials at hand, but these had drawbacks. The original No-Hackles did not float well unless heavily gooped with flotant, and even then they weren’t buoyant in turbulent waters. To float at all, they were tied on 3X-fine hooks that could be straightened by lunker trout. The duck quill wings were fragile; they disintegrated under a trout’s toothy attack, and even lost their shape from the trauma of casting. Smaller No-Hackles, riding low on the water and with only dark quill wings to flag their position, were difficult to see on the water. And, despite claims to the contrary, the original No-Hackles are not easy to tie properly; if the wings are not perfect, the flies tend to lie on their sides.

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Nu-No Hackle Spinner

Hook: TFS 921 or your favorite brand of 2X-short dry-fly hooks, sizes 12 to 8.
Thread: Size 8/0 (70 denier) or finer, color to match the thorax.
Abdomen: Cellophane hollow body.
Tails: Two or three pieces of monofilament.
Thorax covering & head: A thin strip of 1-millimeter-thick closed-cell foam.
Wings: Clear, crinkled cellophane, burned or clipped to shape.
Thorax: Dry-fly dubbing, color to match the natural insect.
Note: Use this pattern to create imitations of larger mayfly spinners.
Even though No-Hackles had problems, they were fish-catching machines and I tolerated their limitations. Although they were an instant revolution, anglers eventually turned to parachute, hair-wing, and other low-riding patterns.

Designing the Nu-No Hackle
Today, we have a wealth of new tying materials and techniques, and the stage is set to revisit the No-Hackle concept for imitating mayfly duns and spinners. We can use these fresh resources to correct the shortfalls of the original patterns.

The shape and proportion of the bodies remain of utmost importance. The shape of the wings is also equally important. The tails and legs are less critical because they are seen briefly or not at all. The tails, however, do play an important role in helping these flies float correctly on the water. Our new patterns must float well, land on the water in the proper upright position, be durable, and also be reasonably easy to construct. We can accomplish all this while retaining the basic concepts of the original No-Hackle pattern.

Swisher and Richards felt the construction of the tails was important to keeping their flies floating upright. They said, “The most important point to remember when tying the No-Hackle flies is to spread the tail fibers as much as possible in a horizontal plane.” I have exchanged the hackle-fiber or deer-hair tails of the original No-Hackles with hackle stems or monofilament. Monofilament is stiffer, more durable, can be colored with a marking pen to correspond to the hues of the living insect, and offers a good use for the old tippet material that has been in your vest for too long. I use 2X hard monofilament for the tails on my Hexagenia and other large drake-style imitations, 5X for the small Blue-Winged Olive, and sizes 3X and 4X for flies in between.

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Nu-No Hackle Dun
Hook: Standard dry-fly hook, sizes 20 to 14.
Thread: Size 10/0 (70 denier), color to match the thorax.
Tails: Two or three pieces of clear monofilament.
Abdomen: A narrow strip of .5-millimeter-thick closed-cell foam, color to match the natural insect.
Thorax covering & head: A narrow strip of 1-millimeter-thick closed-cell foam.
Wings: Two pieces of .5-millimeter closed-cell foam.
Thorax: Dry-fly dubbing, color to match the natural insect.
Note: The Nu-No Hackle Dun is perfect for matching medium and smaller sized mayflies.
An adult mayfly body has a slim, smooth, tapered abdomen, and a knobby, humped thorax. The abdomen is often visibly segmented, and the color is lighter on the belly than on the back. Much of a fly’s buoyancy comes from the body. Although dry-fly dubbing provides decent buoyancy when greased with flotant, I prefer using closed-cell foam for the abdomen.
A mayfly’s thorax is wider than the abdomen, but the thoraxes of many patterns, including the original No-Hackles, are too slender. I increase the buoyancy of the Nu-No Hackle with a PFD (personal flotation device): a foam strip folded over the thorax and between the wings. This foam strip can match the color of the upper thorax of the real insect, or it can be white or brightly colored to act as an indicator.

The original No-Hackles had duck-quill or shoulder-feather wings. These were not durable or easy to tie, and they came in few colors. Substituting shaped foam in place of the quill wings creates durable wings. You can also color foam wings with marking pens to match the real insects.

The position of the wings is very important. Increase the stability of a fly by placing the bottom edges of the wings low and outside the body. If you place the wings directly on top of the thorax, you’ll need to add a parachute hackle to keep the fly upright on the water. The outboard wings add width and stability to the fly, improving its footprint and attitude. Although the tips of the wings may be the first—and possibly the most important—thing a trout sees, they do not have to be completely realistic in size and appearance. The wings do need to be about the same height and color as the wings of the natural insect, but I typically make the wings one size smaller for the fly I’m tying; for instance, if I’m making a size 14 Nu-No Hackle, I construct the wings using a size 16 wing burner.

The original No-Hackle was tied in sizes 14 to 22—and even smaller—to imitate tiny mayflies. But, what about large mayflies such as the Hexagenia, western green drake, eastern green drake, and all the other drakes and mega-mayflies? I use patterns with extended hollow abdomen to imitate these larger bugs. Although it takes about four minutes longer to tie, this sort of pattern is a realistic-looking impostor of a generously proportioned mayfly. When compared to the bulky appearance of the Para-dun, which was once the accepted extended-body fly, the Extended-Bodied Nu-No Hackle Drake and the Extended-Bodied Nu-No Hackle Spinner give renewed meaning to the term realistic imitation.

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Nu-No Hackle Spinner
Hook: Standard dry-fly hook, sizes 20 to 14.
Thread: Size 10/0 (70 denier), color to match the thorax.
Tails: Two or three pieces of monofilament.
Abdomen: A narrow strip of .5-millimeter-thick closed-cell foam, color to match the natural insect.
Thorax covering & head: A narrow strip of 1-millimeter-thick closed-cell foam.
Wings: Clear, crinkled cellophane, burned or clipped to shape.
Thorax: Dry-fly dubbing, color to match the natural insect.
Adult mayflies fall into two categories: dun (subimago) and spinner (imago). The two differ slightly in body color, but the most significant differences are the color or placement of the wings. The wings of the dun are dull, opaque, and evenly colored or mottled, while the wings of the spinner are transparent and shiny. White feathers or polypropylene yarn, as specified in the original patterns, don’t adequately imitate spinner wings. Cellophane, however, creates clear and shiny wings, and crinkling the cellophane before shaping provides a very believable veined appearance. As you’ll see in the tying photographs, I tie the Nu-No Hackle Spinner and Extended-Bodied Nu-No Hackle Spinner in reverse with the tail over the hook eye. This places the foam PFD over the hook bend for improved balance on the water.

Many good low-riding dry-fly patterns have been developed in recent years. The Spundun and Sparkle Dun, hair-wing duns, foam-top patterns, foam-body parachutes, and other flies have solved some of the problems of the original No-Hackle design, but each has its shortcomings. The deer-hair patterns are not very durable, and the hair eventually saturates and sinks. Parachutes, unless hackled very sparsely, tend to blur the outline of the wings. The best answer is to resurrect the No-Hackle patterns using new materials and tying techniques. Go back to the teachings of Swisher and Richards, but apply all the modern devices they did not have available.

Trout continue to become more educated and selective, and anglers must have more realistic imitations to fool them. Try the Nu-No Hackle patterns or design your own No-Hackles. You’ll be glad you did.

John R. Gantner is a regular contributor to our magazine. He is one of the most prolific fly-fishing authors living on the West Coast. John lives in California.
 
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