Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

On one of the more popular internet fly fishing forums, someone posted the question: What are your 2021 Fly Fishing Goals? At the time, I really hadn’t thought about that and really didn’t have any particular species I wanted to target or place to fish in 2021. But there was something I’ve always thought about doing—building out fly boxes specifically provisioned for a particular water and a particular time of year. The goal being I’d being carrying one, maybe two boxes with flies that I know will produce on the given water, will in all probability be used on the day, in the season at hand instead of multiple boxes with flies, many inappropriate for a given water that I’ll never use. It was a challenge I gave myself and the first step was to build up a large stock of patterns during the Winter in anticipation of the first trips in March. As I thought about the patterns I needed to tie for each water, one thing became abundantly clear. Although I routinely fish about 15 different waters each season, traditional soft hackle patterns would show up in just about every box.

Whenever I encounter rising fish or waters where I know a hatch is imminent and can’t get anything else to work, I will tie on a soft hackle pattern and swing it though the areas where fish are rising or likely to be. More often than not, the soft hackle which rides just below the surface like an emerging insect will entice a strike. On the Big Hole late last season, hoppers had been working all morning until I arrived about midday at a complex pool formed at a 90 degree bend in the river. Two very deep holes were separated by shallow gravel bars as the water flowed hard against the downstream banks. A small wide tributary flowed in at the side of the first hole. Fish were rising everywhere at the edges of the gravel bars and mouth of the tributary on some obscure aquatic delight too small to see. Hoppers floated over them did nothing. A woolly bugger swung through the pods got a cold reception. Finally, I tied on a #14 traditional soft hackle and fish after fish, mostly 12-16” rainbows came to hand. As the hatch continued, the commotion of fish caught didn’t deter the others at all. Whatever they were feeding on, the soft hackle continued to seem convincing.

Back in 2014, I wrote Soft Hackle Essentials—Hooks and Materials. The traditional soft hackle is such a simple fly to tie, the patterns with a long pedigree like the Partridge and Orange or Starling and Purple are just the tip of the iceberg. Partridge (or any small soft hackle) and Anything will create a productive pattern. Although soft hackle feathers are used in a lot of nymph patterns, the classic soft hackle has a simple body, maybe a dubbed thorax and soft feather legs. Bodies can be created merely with thread, floss or silk, feather fibers, tinsel, etc. In my original article, goose quill fibers and pheasant tails fibers were a favorite body material. I still incorporate them into a lot of soft hackle flies. Hook choices are many, but most of mine now are tied on Firehole Stick 300 series barbless hooks.

But one of the fun things about fly tying and fly fishing for that matter is there are so many avenues open for innovation and experimentation. I probably needed at least 12 dozen soft hackles to provision all the fly boxes I anticipated needing in 2021. So as I embarked on the tying binge required by my 2021 goal, I started incorporating some new (or different) materials in my soft hackles.

I don’t know when it appeared on the market, but the Mini Barred Marabou Feathers by Montana Fly Company were enticing the first time I saw them. They make for some great tailing in buggers as well as some saltwater patterns applications. Wrapped marabou fibers have been used as body material on a variety of patterns, so I tried using several strands of Mini Barred Marabou to wrap a soft hackle body.  The result is a subtle, barred body with enticing micro fibers emerging from the hook shank.

Another material that is relatively new is Semperfli Perdigon Body. This fine, thin mylar tinsel makes a great soft hackle body in its own right, but excels when ribbed with a contrasting material. My favorite ribbing is a single strand of pheasant tail fiber. With the variety of colors available in the Perdigon Body and dyed pheasant tails, the variations for soft hackle bodies is extensive.

A final body material that I started using last year was moose body hair fibers. Two long hairs of contrasting colors are wrapped simultaneously forward to create a segmented body that is naturally tapered. Again because it is available in a wide variety of dyed colors, this material can create a lot of variation in your soft hackle bodies.

There’s is no doubt that partridge is the preferred soft hackle feather because of its detailed speckling that creates realistic looking legs in the water. But just about any soft hackle feather in the right size can be used to tie a traditional soft hackle pattern. Inexpensive hen necks, feathers from grouse, pheasants, or other birds are often incorporated into soft hackle patterns and are readily available in fly shops and online. Soft hackles are one of those simple flies, tied with simple materials that really produce on the water.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the tribute to this fly type. Personally I think of a “classic” soft hackle as a fatter-dubbed fly, like a “Grey Hackle Peacock” or other peacock-bodied wets coachman variations), March Brown soft-hackle wets, Catskill, Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear soft-hackle wet, etc. I tie them fat and “in the round” for the most part–had very good luck with fuller-bodied soft-hackled wets as opposed to the needle-thin body type, although admittedly I always fish them deeper rather than near the film.

    One can add the versatile wood duck feather (dyed and natural) to the list of excellent hackle, although the long barbs can require special handling. As you point out there’s no end of brown options, but partridge and ringneck pheasant skins have such a wide array of colors in each skin.

    I just did well yesterday on a tiny mountain stream full of little wild rainbows. I only bothered to use my go-to fly, which was one of these soft hackle wets. The thing I like best about these flies is that if you spoil the perfect dead drift, no big deal–fish don’t care. And once the drift is done you’ve got yourself a mini-streamer and they like that too.

    – Mike

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