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Soft Hackles

By Nick Teynor

The World’s Oldest, Most Versatile, and Underused Fly Family

Modern anglers have become very two-dimensional despite all of the gadgets, gizmos, new flies, and knowledge available to them these days. They are either focused only on fishing the surface of the water with dries, dredging the bottom with heavy nymphs, weights and giant bobbers, or fishing big fly-small fly dropper rigs both on top and below the surface of the water. What if I were to tell you that there was a mythical fly that you could fish on the top and bottom of the water column effectively, it has the ability to catch fish anywhere, anytime-with the added bonus that you can catch A LOT of fish with it. Would you believe that this fly has literally been around for hundreds, if not a thousand years?

Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the Soft Hackled Fly. This simple but deadly fly, and the various techniques used to fish them, have been passed down from angling generation to generation through the hard work and efforts of too many anglers and authors to mention here in passing. It is my wish and hope to contribute to part of this legacy by exposing you [the current fly-fishing public] to the “raw” essentials needed to try this awesome technique. So, let’s get started!

Why Fish a Soft Hackle?

There are many reasons to fish these flies, but I am going to stay focused on the essential, universal reasons that the soft hackled fly should be incorporated into your fly boxes:

1) The technique is simple, and does not require any special equipment. You do not need a special fly rod to fish soft hackles; your standard go-to trout rod will be more than sufficient to get out and fish these flies. The same leader and tippet set-up you use for basic dry fly or nymph fishing will work great when fishing a soft hackled fly in your local trout streams. You can fish a single soft hackle, or double down and fish a pair of flies to see what the fish prefer. If you want to get your flies down deeper, just add a small split shot to your leader above the leader/tippet knot. No strike indicators are needed or required, especially if you intend to fish your soft hackles on the swing.

2) Soft Hackles are a GREAT way to introduce new anglers to the sport. The soft hackled fly, when swung, is one of the most efficient and forgiving ways to introduce a new angler to fly fishing. There is no complicated rigging required, you can cover the water effectively and consistently, fish will more often than not hook themselves when you fish these flies on the swing, and if a bad cast is made an angler can mend out the cast and make it fishable. I especially like to use this technique when I am working with younger fly fishers because of aforementioned relative ease, forgiveness, and it allows me to work with them on their casting, mending, and overall fishing skills.

3) Swinging soft hackled flies for trout is A GREAT way to learn how to fish swung flies for steelhead, especially if you have NEVER fished for steelhead! The technique of swinging soft hackles for trout is IDENTICAL to how we swing flies for steelhead. We angle our cast downstream to make sure we have tension on the line to help feel a fish and set the hook, we make sure the fly is fishing/swinging as slow and controlled as we can so that the fly entices a fish to strike, and we fish a set/consistent length of line to make sure we don’t “overfish” the piece of water we are fishing, while covering a lot of water at the same time. At the end of the swing, we take one big step downstream and repeat the previous sequence. One of the few fishing mentors I had growing up told me that he loves swinging soft hackles for trout because the technique and tactics were so overlapping and similar to steelheading, that he feels like he is swinging for “mini-steelhead” every time he swings a soft hackle fly for trout. Getting your “swing” dialed in before steelhead season can be the difference between finding fish, or not finding anything. Why not get some practice in AND catch some trout in the process?

4) Swinging a soft hackle is one of the most relaxing, and addictive ways to fish a fly. When I am looking to get the most enjoyment out of my day of fishing, and I want to relax while still covering water, there is no better way to do that than fishing a soft hackle fly. Once you take care of the angle of the cast, speed of the fly, then it all about letting the fly swing and fish. This is one of the few fly-fishing techniques where you don’t have to be focused and worried about how your fly is fishing once you get your technique dialed in. You can look up, appreciate the awesome landscape and world around you, and then have everything come back into focus as a fish thumps your fly and starts cartwheeling down the stream. “The tug is the drug” is a phrase I overuse when describing why I am so addicted and dedicated to this style of fly-fishing, because it so simply and completely describes why the soft hackle flies are so fun to fish.

Soft Hackles

The more and more I fish soft-hackle flies, I have come to realize that you fish the fly more than the water you fish.

Soft Hackles: What Are They?

The definition of a soft hackle fly is quite simple: Soft Hackles are flies that are tied with very sparse bodies of silk, thread, wire, dubbing, or feather fibers, and have a collar of long fibered hackles from birds such as grouse, partridge, hen, starling, etc. We use these feathers because they wiggle and undulate easily in the current, respond to subtle line manipulation, and imitate something alive and struggling. Some would categorize soft hackles and nymphs in the same category of subsurface patterns, but a closer inspection of both styles reveals some very key differences. The modern nymph is designed to be a deep fished pattern; often tied with a very heavy bead head, or wired with lead/lead substitute to get down to a desired depth. Modern nymphs are also geared toward being fished on a dead drift, but are by no means limited or confined to a specific technique. You can swing a non-soft hackled nymph and still achieve success, but the hackled collar of the flies really makes a big difference when trying to goad a selective trout into eating your fly.

It is this hackle collar that adds a dimension of realism that gives these flies an edge over their modern counterparts, and a built in trigger that drives fish nuts! Trout respond to motion much like cats respond to a ball of yarn; too much motion and they {trout} may not be willing to expend the energy to hit the fly, too little and they lose interest. When twitched and fished just the right way however, trout will go after it every time. It is our job as anglers fishing soft hackles to dial in on that one motion that will result in an aggressive response.

What’s Different About Soft Hackles?

In a nut shell, a soft hackle can be treated and fished like any conventional dry fly or nymph, but it is through swinging these flies in a controlled manner across the current that they achieve their ultimate action and purpose. Soft Hackles first and foremost are great for covering water. By slowly swinging the fly across the current, we are covering much more water, and thereby showing more fish our fly/flies with every cast. There will be times where this technique will work to great effect, and there will be times when we will need to change up our technique, but learning and becoming effective with controlling the line as it swings across the current is extremely important.

As with many things in life, learning and perfecting the raw basics will make every endeavor that much easier, and the classic wet fly swing is the start of your soft hackle journey. Why present the fly downstream? Remember how I mentioned that we use long, upland game bird hackle on our flies? The reason is quite simple: Those long feather fibers will move with a lot of action with minimal manipulation from the angler. It is also a built in trigger mechanism that drives fish crazy, and it is what sets apart soft hackles from conventional nymphs.

The sparseness of the bodies and simplicity of them is also another positive feature, and it adds yet another degree of realism that we as anglers often overlook. Nymphs these days are filled with a lot of bells and whistles. Lots of flash, weight and all sorts of crazy materials designed to make the nymph more realistic. When was the last time a Baetis nymph looked as bulky as a linebacker? The simplicity of a skinny body for small flies such as Baetis mayflies, and midge larva and pupa, makes soft hackles a perfect option because the bodies are not thick, or built up. There is no need! The sparser the body, the better the fly will perform, and with small insects it is crucial to take this into account. This is yet another reason of why it is important to have a better understanding of the life cycle of the insects in our streams; it will allow you to select an effective fly the first time, rather than having to go through your entire arsenal until you find the right one. In short, if you know the bugs, you can spend more time catching fish than trying to find the right fly.

Another benefit of the soft hackle fly is that it can be used to imitate a variety of different insect species and stages of emerging insects just by changing up how you present the fly, and what kind of action you chose to try and tempt a trout to commit. Caddis flies typically emerge by actively swimming to the surface, so we must swing our flies more quickly in order to best imitate a caddis emergence. Mayflies typically float slowly to the surface when they emerge, so our presentation with a soft hackle must be swung slow if we want to really dial in on what the trout are feeding on and be most efficient.

What Kinds of Soft Hackles Are There?

There are two distinctive kinds of soft hackles: Spiders and Flymphs. Spider style soft hackles imitate any kind of active nymph, and are an effective attractor fly to fish when there is little (or no) bug activity. They have longer hackle collars than flymph soft hackles, and this ensures the fly will have maximum motion with little effort while swimming in the current. Spider style soft hackles can also be greased up and fished like a dry fly on the surface, and can often draw vicious strikes when fished this way because they imitate egg laying caddis/insects very effectively. A flymph is a cross between a dry, nymph, and soft hackle. Flymph soft hackles can be fished all three different ways! I have found flymphs to be extremely effective patterns when used to imitate mayfly nymphs and emergers, but flymphs can also imitate caddis and midges just as effectively. I personally like flymphs for their versatility, especially when it comes to imitating adult and emerging stages of insects. This is where they are most deadly and account for most of their success.

There are different styles of spiders and flymphs, but the common theme tying these two families of soft hackles together is how effective they are when presented in the right water, the right presentation (dead drift, swinging), and with the proper length of line.

The Basic Swing Technique

What are the essential keys necessary to swing up a fish on a soft hackle? While there are many variables that can define what and how you should present you soft hackle, these three rules are the foundation for consistent soft hackle success. They are:

• The faster the water-the more downstream your presentation must be in order to maintain a straight line swing and drift. The whole purpose of swinging the fly instead of fishing it on a dead drift is so that there is tension throughout the length of your presentation. If we have tension in the leader and fly line, we can feel every tick or bump that a fish makes when it intercepts the soft hackle. If we were to simply cast straight across the river without serious line manipulation, we would never have a straight line swing, and therefore we would not have many hook ups. The opposite can be said when fishing slower, more even currents. The more even the current, the more perpendicular our cast must be in order to cover as much water possible with every swing. We could cast in a more downstream direction and probably find fish-but we would not cover near as much water! Make it easy on yourself, and make sure you use the proper fishing “angles” to cover the water as efficiently as possible.

• You must fish soft hackle flies on as SLOW and CONTROLLED of a swing as you can. This allows fish to find the fly easier, and better imitate a nymph knocked off the bottom, or an emerging insect. Trust me when I say that chuck-it and hope is NOT an effective way to fish these flies.

• Use a SET length of line. If you are blind fishing, that is covering the water when there are no rising fish to fish to or consistent insect activity, you must cover the water with a consistent length of line. This is another way to ensure success with the soft hackle, because if you are thoroughly covering the water, you will present your fly to more fish. By limiting yourself to a set length of line, you won’t need to worry about not covering all of the potential trout water in front of you. Keep in mind the following two conditions you should follow for success:

• When fishing in fast water, such as pocket-water, you need to fish a short length of line to ensure the best drift. When fishing with this kind of water, I find myself fishing with nothing more than a foot or less of fly-line outside of the rod-tip. This allows me to have the best control over my line and fly, and allow me to detect strikes easier.

• The more even the current, or larger the body of water, you will want to increase the amount of line outside of your rod tip in order to cover the water thoroughly. However, especially for Utah waters such as the Provo or Weber, you don’t need any more than 30’ of line outside of your rod tip. Use your feet to cover the water and make sure that you are presenting the fly as consistently and efficiently as possible.

Knowledge is Power!

You can never learn enough about the bugs that we are trying to imitate, and understanding the life cycles of the various bugs will make you a deadly of a soft hackle angler. The more and more I fish soft-hackle flies, I have come to realize that you fish the fly more than the water you fish. That cryptic sentence just means that you need to focus on making your fly act like the natural insect you are wanting to imitate. What better way to learn how to fish your soft-hackles more effectively than watching and observing the very bugs that are being eaten? Simple entomology isn’t just a nice bonus, it is a requirement that will allow you to make educated inferences and possibly come up with your own new actions and motions to better represent hatch situations.

The more time you spend tightening up your knowledge about bugs, casting, and reading water-the better the soft hackle angler you will be. It is fact that the only real way to become efficient with any fishing technique is to practice it and apply it as much as you can. This is the beauty of soft hackles: They can be fished anywhere and anytime of the year! If you fish with confidence, you will find that soft hackles work. There is no scientific equation; no black magic incantation-it is simple, pure fishing technique that makes these flies so much fun.

Constant use of a soft hackle, along with dead drifting nymphs and fishing dry flies, will also make you better at reading water and help your presentation abilities. I hope that this little essay will further your fishing abilities, inspire you to fish these awesome flies, and give you the raw essentials to get out and experiment on your own. Soft hackled flies worked for our fly-fishing fore-fathers then, and they continue to produce fish now. With a track record of success spanning centuries, soft hackle flies are the most successful flies ever created. So do yourself a favor and grab some for your next fishing adventure!

about the author

Nick has been working, guiding, and teaching fly-fishing for Western Rivers Flyfisher in Salt Lake City for twelve years-and counting! He is a FFI Certified Casting Instructor, Sage Elite Pro, and RIO Regional Ambassador who loves his job, and introducing new anglers to this awesome sport. When not helping others get the most out of their fishing experiences, he is on the road chasing fish for himself. If you have any other questions about soft hackled flies, or where you can find out more about these awesome flies, e-mail him at: nteynor@gmail.com.  Photos taken by Nick and Peter Morse.
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