For the Birds
A traditional gray partridge skin is the most commonly used source of soft hackle. One major reason for the partridge’s popularity is that the feathers have very few Velcro-like fibers that prevent the hackles from splaying when wound around hooks. Partridge skins also have several types, sizes, and colors of feathers that are perfectly suited for tying a wide variety of flies. Use the grayish blue and black breast and back feathers to tie many of the traditional patterns, and select the tiny feathers from the back of the head and neck for making the smallest flies. Covert feathers, found on the shoulder and leading edge of the wing, are a beautiful combination of reddish brown and tan with tiny black specks. Use these to tie most sizes of flies and darker patterns, although their short stems make wrapping them a little more difficult.
Other upland game birds, such as the many species of grouse, also make fine sources for soft hackles. Blue grouse, which I collect while hunting Montana’s mountain ridges, might even supplant the gray partridge as my favorite source of feathers. Their dusky gray back, breast, and wing feathers are the perfect complement almost any color of pattern, but they are particularly well suited to matching the color of emerging mayflies and caddisflies. Hen ringnecked pheasants, with their tan and cream mottling, are also a definite winner, as are the brightly iridescent feathers of other pheasant species. European starling is a traditional but often overlooked source of feathers; these small, dark, iridescent feathers are perfect for hackling tiny midge patterns.
Hare’s-Ear Soft Hackle
Hook: Tiemco 3761, sizes 18 to 14.
Thread: Dark gray 6/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Gray partridge covert fi bers.
Body: Gray hare’s-ear dubbing.
Rib: Fine gold wire.
Hackle: Gray partridge breast.
Tying the Hare’s-Ear Soft Hackle
Standard hen or India hen saddles, which are available in dyed colors to match almost any application, are another prime source of soft hackles. The length of the stems makes these feathers a breeze to use, but they do have a couple drawbacks. First, their large size means that hen saddle feathers are best suited for making size 16 and larger flies, although a skilled tier can fashion smaller patterns using the extreme tips of the smallest hackles. A second disadvantage of hen saddle feathers is that they often have delicate stems and shorter fibers, so more break at the vise and they are less durable on the water.
Selecting a properly sized feather is the first step. Most patterns have hackle that is slightly longer than the length of the hook measured from the eye to the bend. Use a hook as a gauge to select the appropriate hackle. Also be aware that the fibers on a feather are not of uniform length; they get longer the farther you get from the tip. The perfect feather has a section of fairly uniform and appropriately sized fibers along the stem for a distance that is only slightly shorter than the hook shank. Once you locate the right feather, pinch it near the base and pull it straight away from the skin. Removing the entire stem is important because the thicker butt end is easier to hold and less likely to break with hackle pliers. Strip away the excess fluffy fibers from the base of the feather, leaving only the tip and fibers that will make the collar on the fly. Brushing the fibers back when wrapping the hackle makes securing the tip to the hook much easier.
BWO Palm Emerger
Hook: Tiemco 200R, size 20.
Thread: Olive 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Gray hen saddle hackle.
Abdomen: Olive goose biot.
Thorax: Olive dubbing.
Hackle: Gray hen saddle hackle.
Tying the BWO Palm Emerger
While tying soft hackles is very simple, three key points will shorten the learning curve. First, to reduce bulk and create a trim body, use thin diameter thread and a minimum number of precise wraps. Second, to prevent tying an elongated head, tie on and wrap the feather immediately behind the hook eye, and then wrap the thread backwards to position the fibers and start the head. And third, use hackle pliers that have at least one rubber jaw to reduce slippage and breaking the stem while wrapping the hackle.
Before discovering soft hackles, I spent numerous frustratingly unproductive days on the water during banner mayfly and caddisfly emergences. Learning to tie and fish this exceptionally versatile and deadly style of fly has salvaged many otherwise fruitless days and made me a more complete fisherman. Soft hackles are easy and quick to tie, and since they are the ultimate in buggy impressionism, trout have a hard time passing on them. Before your next trip to the river, take time to twist up a handful of softies.
Andrew Puls is a gem of a young writer and photographer, and we are thrilled that he is part of the Fly Tyer family. Andrew is a trained fisheries biologist who lives in Montana.