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Soft Hackle Hacks

Simple soft-hackle wet flies imitate nothing in particular yet they catch trout everywhere. Learn the tricks for tying and fishing this important family of patterns.

[by Andrew Puls]

MANY OF TODAY’S PATTERNS ARE ONE-TRICK PONIES. Our fly boxes, particularly those of serious hatch-matchers, are crammed with patterns designed to fit specific needs and circumstances. We carry dry flies, emergers, cripples, spent adults, floating nymphs, weighted nymphs— the list goes on. Some flies become even more specialized because they are tied to imitate a particular species or group of similar species of insects. While being prepared with a plethora of specialized offerings never hurts, it often pays to have a few flies in your arsenal that are more versatile and just plain “buggy” looking. In many situations, these generic, multipurpose patterns can save the day.

Soft hackles are perhaps the most versatile patterns because you can fish them effectively from the streambed to the surface. These simple flies are chameleons, effectively imitating almost the entire life cycles of mayflies, midges, caddisflies, and a host of other arthropods. Loaded with floatant, they function as emergers, cripples, or spent adults. Squeezed wet, you can dead-drift soft hackles slightly below the surface or just underneath the froth in foamy pockets. When swung through the current, they imitate nymphs or pupae rising to the surface. On top of that, their soft, undulating hackles provide the ultimate in buggy impressionism when fished deep as helplessly drifting nymphs or larvae. The simple fact that soft hackles, which date back to the dawn of fly-fishing, are still stocked in fly boxes and shop bins is testament to their ability to fool trout.

How to Prepare a Soft Hackle

In addition to their versatility, soft hackles have other qualities that are of considerable value to anglers and fly tiers. Soft-hackle guru Sylvester Nemes observed that we can often fool fish into eating soft hackles that are two full sizes larger than the hatching insects. This is a huge benefit when dealing with the frustration of missed fish and straightened hooks, problems that are synonymous with matching hatches of tiny mayflies and midges. Furthermore, it is seldom necessary to tie imitations of specific insects; a small selection of soft hackles in sizes 18 to 12 tied using a few basic colors and body materials is usually all you need for successfully matching the majority of hatches. Of course, those who find themselves regularly using soft-hackled patterns for a particular hatch might want to design a pattern that more precisely matches those insects. The great thing is that whether the flies are imitative or nonspecific, the speed at which you can spin up soft hackles makes losing a few inconsequential.

In spite of their effectiveness in a wide array of fishing situations, tiers and anglers often overlook soft hackles. I suspect part of the reason is because they don’t fit our idealized image of an insect. Most of today’s patterns strive to be facsimiles of insects suspended in time, such as mayflies with perfectly erect wings floating placidly on the current. Ironically, this isn’t representative of what a large percentage of insects resemble, particularly those that the trout eat. When insects engaged in the high-stakes games of emergence are pitted against the overwhelming forces of stream current and surface tension, many are beaten, bent, and twisted into nearly unrecognizable messes. The discrepancy between the appearance of the naturals and their imitations becomes greater when comparing the rigidity of many patterns with the constant writhing of frantic naturals. The beauty of a soft hackle is that it creates a sparse, thin approximation of an abused and squirming insect.

Partridge & Orange

Hook: Tiemco 3761, sizes 20 to 14.
Thread: Orange 6/0 (140 denier).
Abdomen: Tying thread.
Rib: Fine gold wire.
Thorax: Gray hare’s-ear dubbing.
Hackle: Gray partridge breast.

Tying the Partridge & Orange
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