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.