Soft Hackle Flies: the bodies

Pearsall Silk for fly bodies

The Classic Soft Hackle Fly Body, Pearsall Silk

Pearsall Gossamer Silk is the perfect material for soft hackle fly bodies. It’s been around for hundreds of years. There is an established tradition to read about and fall back on. With the twenty-three or so colors you can match most body colors. In fact you can combine a soft hackle feather and a body of any of the silk colors and probably catch fish. If you want to match the hatch, you can do that also. These threads are amazing.

Gossamer silk is roughly a 6-0 thread that is easy to wrap. You can spin the spool to tighten the silk to make a more segmented look. Or you can unwind the thread to make it lay flat  and smooth. When wet, the silk will darken as I showed in an early post on this blog. When try a new color, be sure to try wetting the fly to be sure you like the results.

You can’t go wrong with Pearsall Gossamer Silk on your soft hackle flies. But that is far from the only body material you can use. I’ve already posted about a pheasant tail soft hackle, hare’s ear soft hackle, crystal flash baetis soft hackle, and even that is just a few of the possibilities. Go crazy. Use any body material you want. Try a biot or quill body. Peacock will always catch fish, so try a herl body soft hackle. Once you wrap a soft hackle feather around a fly, you will be a believer for life. It is amazing the life the feather brings to the fly.

Below are examples of soft hackle flies with a variety of bodies. Go tie some soft hackles and fish soft hackle flies!

Olive Biot Soft Hackle

Olive Biot Soft Hackle

Hare's Ear Soft Hackle

Hare’s Ear Soft Hackle

Caddis Green Soft Hackle

Caddis Green Soft Hackle

Partridge and Green Soft Hackle

Partridge and Green Soft Hackle

Tying Soft Hackle Flies

A Sampling of Hooks for Soft Hackled Flies

A Sampling of Hooks for Soft Hackled Flies

The first choice you have to make when you sit at your vice to tie a soft hackle fly is which hook to use. I have to confess that I am not OCD when it comes to hooks. I tend to use what I have at hand and don’t stress about it. If the fish don’t care about that barbed, curved piece of metal sticking out the back, I doubt if they will consider the shape of the bend or the thickness of the wire. But I believe there are times where those things may make a difference in how well a fly floats or sinks, or how well it stays in the film.

There are any number of hooks from which to choose. Every brand has their own version of a wet fly hook. The hooks pictured above just happen to be in my hook boxes at this time. Click on it to see it full sized and better compare the hooks.They are all size 14 to make the comparison fair.

All things considered, I like a Sproat bend on my soft hackles. I think that shape works the best on swinging flies. Do I have any tests or proof? No. Just one guys opinion. By the way, did you know the term “Sproat bend” comes from W. H. Sproat, the hook maker credited with developing the shape in the 1860’s?

While I write this, March of 2013, my preferred hook is the Daiichi 1530. I really like the heavy wire. Although the package says it is 2x strong and 1X short, when I put them together, they look the same length, but the 1530 appears to have a bigger gape. For use as an emerger or spinner, the 1550 is lighter and may stay in the film better. It is a very nice hook also.

I’ve caught a lot of fish on the Mustad 3906, but I’ve missed a number also. The gape of the hook seems small to me. The longer version, 3906b is also ok, but looks too long for your typical soft hackle fly. Better for a bead head version.

The Mustad 3399 is the classic wet fly hook used for traditional wet flies. It has a large gape and nice Sproat bend. I have a lot of confidence in it and use it on my winged wets. But it would be fine on soft hackles also.

TMC makes fine hooks. But for soft hackles, they are not my favorites. I don’t care for the round bend in their nymph/wet fly hooks. The 3769 looks too long for my taste. I pictured the TMC 100 for comparison sake. The light wire of the 100 makes it good for soft hackles you want to keep on the surface or in the film. But I would still prefer the standard wire Daiichi 1550 for that purpose.

I also included TMC 2488. This nice little hook is described as Straight Eye, 3X Wide, 2X Short, Curved Shank, Fine Wire hook. I’ve used it for a number of emerger patterns and really like it. Soft hackles on it are non-traditional, but they catch fish. You should try some and see if you like the look and if they catch fish for you too.

There are lots of other hooks to use and I believe all of them will catch fish. But I think staying with one or two hooks at first will improve your consistency and skill. After you are comfortable with soft hackle patterns, then branch out into other hooks and creating your own flies. There is no limit you your choices. Have a lot of fun at the vice.

Coming up next: The body material.


Tying Soft Hackle Flies

Partridge and orange soft hackle fly

The classic soft hackle fly. (Click to enlarge)


Over the next several posts, I will talk about soft hackle flies. These flies are the model of simplicity. Three ingredients: Hook, silk, feather. The tie is an easy one, hardly a need of a step by step guide, but I’ll walk you through it.

Tie on your silk behind the eye

Start your silk behind the eye.

Mount your hook in your vice and start your thread, either silk or floss. In these pictures I did not crimp the barb to illustrate the dimensions, but when tying for myself, I always do that before mounting the hook.

Tie in the hackle

Tie in your favorite soft hackle feather.

Tie in the feather by the butt. Wrap down to mid point between the point of the hook and the barb.

wrap the body with thread

Wrap the body with your thread

After wrapping back to the tie in spot, all that is left to do is take one or two turns of the hackle and tie off.

Partridge and orange soft hackle fly

The finished fly

And there you have it. The simple, but effective, classic soft hackle fly. 

In the next few posts, I’ll expand on this to discuss hooks, silks, feathers and construction options. There are countless options to modify this fly to catch your eye, and maybe make it more attractive to your local fish.


My Favorite Fly Box

I’m still shuffling gear around after washing my fly vest. When I told my wife I carried 10 fly boxes and 1200 plus flies, she just shook her head. She understands collections. But to help her see my reality, I explained that most of the time I fish the North Fork of the Coeur d’alene or St. Joe. When I go there, I put a lanyard around my neck and a single box in one shirt pocket and my camera in the other. And that is what I prefer to do. I only wear my vest when I am hiking up a trail or floating on my pontoon boat.

I got this Cabela fly box as a Christmas present from my brother-in-law around the turn of the century. One of the flaps sticks a little and the name is starting to wear off. But this is the perfect box if you are only going to take one with you. Inside, you have the foam on the left to hook big flies and streamers. On the right side are small compartments for the rest of your flies. I’m sure it is not a coincidence that it perfectly fits a shirt pocket. It measures 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches and has 16 compartments.

cabela fly box

My go to fly box.

picture of open Cabela box

Cabela box opened (click to enlarge)

This picture is from the end of the season pictures I took before washing the vest, so the compartments are a jumbled mess of semi-organized flies. As I restock it in the next month, it will start the season nice and neat.

Along the right hand column, I keep the top compartment for Baetis and PMD patterns. Then pheasant tail nymphs. Beneath that are hare’s ear, prince and copper John nymphs. In the bottom right corner I keep ant and beetle patterns. Along the bottom row are a couple compartments for soft hackles.

Along the top row are Adam’s traditional and parachute patterns. Through the rest of the box I keep CDC and Elk, a variety of caddis and emerger patterns, my Rusty Stim favorite, some Humpies and Royal Wulffs. I try to keep at lease three of all these patterns. More of the nymphs because it is easy to lose these flies.

With this box in my pocket, I feel pretty sure I could catch fish on most rivers in the country. I wouldn’t be able to match every hatch, but of course that is a dream that we all would like to have come true isn’t it?

Pine Siskins Arrive

winter pine siskin

A winter pine siskin (click to enlarge)

Last week a flock of pine siskins appeared. These cute little birds are manic fliers. They swoop around the bird feeder, practically climbing over each other. Some hang upside down. Others circle the feeder waiting for a spot to open up. A group of 15-20 cluster on the ground beneath the feeder, cleaning up the spilled goodies. Then all at once they fly off together. When they leave, the goldfinches, nuthatches and house finches come back to snack. I don’t know how long they will stay this year. Usually just for a few weeks at our house, but others stay in the area all year round.

Bead Head Biot Body Golden Stone Nymph

Bead Head Golden Stone Nymph

Bead Head Golden Stone Nymph

I’ve been using this fly for over 12 years. It stays in my fly box year around because it not only matches the Golden Stonefly nymph, it is a great searching nymph as well. Stoneflies take two years to mature, so the nymphs are always in the stream. And what trout wouldn’t want to snatch one up if offered a chance?

In my second year fishing, I visited the Wigwam River in British Columbia. This was before anyone was guiding on it. The road was a brutal, tire slashing gravel lane with few pull outs. I found a likely spot and hiked down to the river. I worked my way upstream having a peaceful and productive day. The scenery is filled with huge boulders, deep ravines and gin clear water. What more could you ask for?

I paused for a snack on a flat rock the size of a pickup. While I munched away, another fisherman worked his way down to me. He stopped to chat and I offered him an apple. He lived in the

Side view of bead hed biot golden stone

Side View BH Biot Golden Stone Nymph

Fernie valley and had fished all the local rivers for decades. I picked his brain about locations and techniques. He shared his knowledge freely. He could tell I was a beginner and needed all the help I could get. Of course we chatted about flies.

This took place before I started tying. Stoneflies were a new species to me, so when the topic came up, he opened his fly box and gave me this fly. He didn’t give me a name that I remember. But he told me it worked for him. Fortunately I didn’t lose the fly before I started tying, because I haven’t found it in any books or online sites.

It works for me and I hope it will work for you. Click the pictures for larger views and go here for the recipe and step by step instructions.

In My Fly Vest: The Fly Boxes

These are the boxes from my vest

These are the boxes from my vest (click to enlarge)


So after I emptied the pockets, sorted out the trash and ate the last of the energy bars, I looked through the remaining treasures. The first thing to catch my attention was the variety of fly boxes. Now I wasn’t surprised. Of course I knew each one was there and what they held. But when you lay things out, you see all the flies inside those boxes.

It really is mind blowing that I had nine fly boxes! (well, eight boxes and a Mustad hook carton) There are days that I only use four or five flies all day. But there I am packing over 1200 flies. What in the world am I thinking?

But I know you understand my affliction because you suffer from it too. The “I have to have the right fly” syndrome. It is a disease without a cure. The unattainable desire to never be without the correct fly to solve every imaginable fishing situation. Of course the unimaginable solution would be to develop the one perfect fly that would always catch fish in every circumstance. If I ever managed to create such a fly, I might quit fishing. It is the quest that drives the passion of fly fishing.

It is the wonder that we feel every time we are able to tempt a trout to rise to our dry fly or sip our soft hackle that takes us back to the tying bench and onto the stream. It is the circle of observation of nature, crafting of the fly, pursuit of the holding area, casting the line, setting the hook and releasing the fish that provides the momentum to keep us excited by an act we have repeated thousands of  times.

Yes, I carry over a thousand flies in my vest. I admit it and celebrate it. Because I am not restricted or bound by my flies. I have a memory of each one tied on my vise for a specific reason. Perhaps just because the picture of that fly caught this fisherman. Or maybe because I wondered what would happen if I tied an Adams with a shuck instead of a hackle tail. Or the memory of a swirling eddy on the Clark Fork River in the fall when fly after fly failed to take the slurping cutthroat as I spun idle circles in my pontoon boat. I tried bigger flies. I tried smaller flies. I tried brighter then darker flies. Then I remembered an olive biot nymph pattern a friend said he used whenever he was getting skunked. On that day, at that time, in that place…it worked for me, too.

It isn’t just the fly. But sometimes, sometimes it is.





Unpacking my Fly Vest

Unpacked Fly Vest

Unpacked Fly Vest

If step one was deciding to wash my vest, then step two is finally getting started. So I unzipped every pocket, unclipped every zinger, unfastened every Velcro fastener and laid the contents around the vest. It’s amazing the collection of stuff. Of course none of it is unexpected. I knew where everything was and why it was there. But after emptying the vest, I was amazed at how light it was! And how limp and lifeless it felt.

I didn’t bother to include the garbage I found. You know, the broken toothpicks, the energy bar wrapper, the stray piece of string, empty spools that I keep forgetting to throw away when I get home. It wouldn’t be a pretty picture with that trash in it.

Ten fly boxes might seem like overkill. It would to my wife or son. But if you are a fly fisher, you understand the insanity I suffer from. There are all the standard flies you just have to carry. Then there are the specialized boxes, streamers, nymphs, and so on. They start adding up. Then there is usually a container, either a round plastic fly shop type or as in this case a plastic hook container, that holds a few flies I tied especially for the last outing. Funny how rarely I use those flies.

Anyway, step one and two are done. Time to wash the vest and repack it.


Hike the Trail at Kelly Creek

The temperature is in the single digits this week. Frozen fog coats the bare branches of the trees out the window. I haven’t seen the sun in days.

So I am taking a break from my to-do list, and looking back at sunnier times. Scrolling through my folder of Kelly Creek pictures, I came across this one and decided to share it along with a little story. If you come to Kelly Creek via Superior, Montana you follow Moose Creek until you hit the road that winds along the creek. Instead of turning right to follow the river, if you turn left, there is a camping/parking area just before the bridge that leads you on to Cayuse Creek. That is also the trailhead to hike upstream along Kelly. If you are a back packer, you can follow it all the way to the junction with Cayuse and beyond.

Upstream from the bridge along Kelly Creek

Upstream along Kelly Creek (click to enlarge)

When I visit Kelly Creek, I always allow one day to fish the trail. The walk isn’t strenuous, the scenery is incredible and the fishing pressure decreases with each mile you hike. The water gets smaller as you go, but there is always nice fishable water. I’ve had some amazing days along that trail. This picture, taken 10/19/2010 is from the high point of the trail.

In the picture, you can see a small outcropping just above the riffle. Well about 10 years ago, I was hiking back down the trail at dusk. Like every other fly fisher I know, I watch the trail to see where I am going, but keep an eye on the water, because isn’t that what it’s all about?

It had been a long day with dozens of fish and hours of hiking and wading, but when I saw rising fish I stopped to watch. You can see in the photo that from the trail to the water is a steep drop. So it wasn’t an easy decision. I was tired and hungry, but there were rising fish. I gave in and skidded down to the river.

Stripping out some line, I made an awkward steeple cast to let my parachute Adams drift down riffle. Before the first strike, I heard a snort and the splash of a rock rolling into the water. Looking upstream fifteen feet to my left, a huge bull moose stared back at me.  Let me say that I didn’t waste much time reeling in my line and backing down stream. When I got far enough to feel safe, I scrambled up the bank to the trail and let my heart rate get back under a hundred and my breath down to normal.

Now every time I hike the trail, I pause at this spot and remember my adventure. It keeps me humble and reminds me we share these waters with each other and the native residents of the this wonderful country. You never know who or what you’ll see along the trail. Each trip is an adventure, but you want to make it home to share your tales.

Be safe.

Wash Your Fly Vest?!

As fly fishers, we spend hours tying flies, researching rods and reels, talking about streams, and debating nymphing versus dry fly fishing. But other than just before buying your vest, when did you last think about it at all? Once you have one, you take it for granted. Now, with the temperature in the teens, this is the right time to think about my great old vest.

I really like my vest. It is a Simms Guide Vest. I bought it in 2000 for about $90. Seemed pretty steep at the time, but I’ve never regretted it. After 13 years of solid use, it is still like new, as you can see in the picture (click to enlarge). Well, not quite like new. It’s been 6 years since I washed it, so it is a bit dirty, and if I am to be honest, it smells a little of the that wonderful bouquet of sweat, fish, campfires and sunscreen. What a wonderful aroma. The scent of memories of great fish, and great trips. So you might say it is better than new.

Well used and well stocked fly vest

Well used and well stocked fly vest

There is fear in washing a fly vest. Why do it? It won’t make it work better, hold more flies or catch more fish. It is possible washing it might make it lose it’s mystical ability to provide the right fly or indicator or spare tippet just when you need it. Even more dangerous, it might not feel as comfortable after washing. What if it shrinks, or is stiffer, or if the zippers aren’t as smooth or silky? These are real concerns, of course. But the last time I washed it (I think the only time) after a trip or two, I forgot I had done it.

Yes, I didn’t even think about washing it again until a couple years ago, when I began to notice the dirty corners and pockets. And when rummaging around in a pocket, I found an increasing collection of crumbs, feathers, and other such treasures. As a trusted and respected part of my fishing experience, I began to feel that the vest deserved a bath. But I didn’t want to rush into it. Like a ball player who won’t wash his socks for fear of snapping a hitting streak, or Michael Jordon who wore his UNC shorts under his Bull’s uniform for luck, it’s hard not to be a little superstitious.

But in the end, it comes down to respect. This is a great vest and deserves to be treated like a valued fishing partner. So I will empty all the pockets, sort through the junk and think back on how this got there and why I put that in the back pocket. I will remember the fish and streams we experienced together. Then after my wife does her thing, I will restock it, looking forward to many more years together.