by Tony Orman
Once in the US at a Federation of Fly Fishers’ Conclave,in Eugene, Oregon, I met trout fishing author Sylvester Nemes. Sylvester was the “guru” on soft hackled flies.
Soft hackled flies, a form of “wee wet flies” is probably the oldest form of fly fishing for trout. It was the premier fly fishing methods in New Zealand with the early English pioneer settlers. And it’s just as good today, yet forgotten. Very few shops, except some in Southland and Otago stock the “wee wet flies.”
I bought Sylvester’s wonderful soft hackle fly book which he autographed.
It ‘s puzzling that more fly fishermen have not taken advantage of one of the most effective fly designs ever created. They are so easy to tie, perhaps a floss body, a simple dubbed thorax, and a soft-hackle collar. The “Partridge and “any colour” body is one of the most often used.
But then nymphs have become the main style of fly fishing and as one or two friends have pointed out, perhaps I’m responsible for the submergence of the old fashioned wet flies and the soft hackle in particular by writing my book “Trout With Nymph” in 1974.
Yet at times the soft hackled fly can out-fish the most realistic nymph patterns. oft-hackled patterns are not “realistic” but are impressionistic imitations. The strong point to soft hackled flies is that the impressionistic soft-hackle pattern, can match the nymph, pupa, emerger, and adult portions of the insects life cycle.
A main attribute of the soft-hackle is the “life” of the hackle. The father of nymph fishing Britisher G.E.M Skues, spoke of the soft-hackle’s seductive movement as “kick.” “
Sylvester Nemes. In his first book, The Soft-Hackled Fly, described the kick factor as:- “The soft partridge or snipe or starling feathers with their tapered barbs, mould themselves against the body with the tips sloping back toward the tail of the fly. There is a natural lump or thorax created at the front of the fly, by reason of the tapering of the barbs, the thicker part being closer to the stem of the feather. As the fly floats downstream, these barbs close in and out, squirm against the body of the fly and react in a lifelike way to every little kind of pressure.”
So tie up a few soft hackled flies in sizes 14 and 16.
Fish them in the evenings right on dusk.
If you want to know the technique see if you can get a copy from either the library or a second hand book shop of “Trout and Salmon Sport Anthology” that I wrote for the NZ Federation of Freshwater Anglers, back in 1980. Jim Ring’s excellent article “A Forgotten Art” gives you the low down on the technique.
Partridge and Orange Soft Hackle wet fly
The great English trout fisher, Barry Dunkley from Wellington/motueka taught me to use a soft red/brown hen hackle to finish a rabbit/hare fur/mix dubbing body on size 12/14liongish shank hook. His theory was the soft hackle created”gill” movement in the various stream currents. A kind of finger strumming effect of movement. A strictly attractor pattern of live suggestion, not meant to be a copy. Green seal’s fur chopped to dubbing size, [instead of the grey reddish rabbit /hare fur], makes a decent stone fly. To these 2, add a small clip section of goose wing, tied in halfway along shank, drawn forward & wrapped off at the head, before the soft brown hen hackle, makes a superb wing sack fake. It looks so good you’ll want to eat it yourself!!
I shouldn’t be revealing this with current low numbers of fish in our rivers, it is so effective.
Another Dunkley tip was, to use the thinnest leader tippet possible,[to sink fast], Also carry a solution of his “super sink”[dish washing liquid mixed with water to scrub the tippet clean of any line grease or general handling film for rapid sink, especially if swapping between greased line dry fly and sinking nymph.If a fish is spotted ,”plop” the soft hackle phony one yard to the side to attract attention.The soft hackle will do the rest, even see the white inside of mouth open & close on the fake,before the line indicator jerks for the strike.
Actually, Barry mixed that dishwashing liquid with talcum powder or flour to form a thick paste in an old plastic film snap cap container, easy to flip off cap, pinch a blob of paste between thumb & index finger & scrub the leader tippet in stream water,this way & that, to squeaky clean.When you fumble the cap, watching it float awayyou can put the container away safe in knowing the thick paste won’t run all over your lunch bag!!
See? A perfect solution!!
Dunkley’s windy NZ, tip for casting zip.
Make up your own tapered leader by blood knotting 10–8 inch lengths of monofil “Amnesia” 12 lb/10lb/8 lb 6lb/18 inches of 4lb tippet. If you get coils in leader from being reeled up. Keep a small tab of rubber to pull stretch leader through it. The Friction & stretch static electricity will pull out kinks & soften mono.
Usually soft hackled flies are fished ‘across and down’ but soft hackles are just as effective cast upstream and fished back down through the riffles.
Soft hackle fibres add movement, a suggestion of life to a fly. Pheasant tails, quill type flies, and even hares ears etc have less life than soft hackled flies.
Yes, soft hackles have been forgotten.
Captain Hamilton in New Zealand, was an English immigrant in the late 19th Century, who wrote Trout Fishing and Sport in Maoriland in 1904 and fished the Manawatu around Dannevirke. He used five flies, which incorporated only “three colours of feathers and dubbing.” His number five fly was a spider pattern – a hare’s ear dubbing body “put together with yellow silk and a brown partridge hackle”. He rated it his best of the five.