Feathers and Silk

I really like to tie up a fly that catches fish. Hard to beat that feeling. But I enjoy the beauty and textures of the fur, feathers and threads used to make those creations. Is fly tying an art, craft or a means to an end? It doesn’t matter. Fly tying is a great way to watch a football game, listen to music or just relax in your man cave.

As I sat down to replenish my soft hackles, I couldn’t help pausing to grab a photo of my Pearsall’s silk spools. I hope your time at the vice is as enjoyable as mine.

Pearsall's silk and feathers

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Partridge and Orange Soft Hackle

Ok, I admit it. I love fishing dry flies. For me, the strike is the big thrill in fly fishing. It’s better than landing or releasing a fish. The harder the strike, the greater the thrill. But if fish are being fussy, or I am not having luck during a hatch, I almost always open my box looking for a soft hackle. I am a soft hackle junkie.

Partridge and Orange Soft Hackle

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The Partridge and Orange is the one I tie on most often. It works any time of the day. Even during mayfly hatches and spinner falls, caddis hatches and caddis egg laying times. It just works. That is why it is still the most popular soft hackle after hundreds of years of use.  T.E. Pritt, in his 1895 book, “Yorkshire Trout Flies” called it an “excellent killer”. Very high praise indeed. But he didn’t invent the fly. It was an old standard even then. Sylvester Nemes, in his books on soft hackled flies, attributed the earliest reference to the fly in “A Treatise of Fishing with an Angle” by Dame Juliana Berners in 1496. Over 500 years!

Tying Notes:

This is the recipe for the basic fly. In my next post, I will cover a few of the hundreds of variations and options you can choose to vary your fly. But even with just the basic fly you must choose which hook to use, what material for the body and what color partridge for the hackle. Choosing the hook is more for the fisherman than the fish. Wet fly, dry fly, nymph, all will work. The heavier the hook, the easier it will be to sink the fly if you are trying to get it sub-surface. If you are casting to rising fish, you might prefer a dry fly hook to keep it on the surface.

As indicated in the recipe, I use Pearsall’s Silk for my bodies. You will see below why that is my choice. Finally, you need to pick the feather for the hackle. Both light and dark partridge are used. If you are matching a specific hatch one color might be preferred.  There is no wrong answer. Both work very well. Why not tie a few of each. You are only talking about a couple minutes and maybe 15 cents for your costs. Tie a dozen and blow a dollar or two.

Why Soft Hackle Flies work so well:

The pictures below show why I love Pearsall’s Silk. On the left is a picture of a Partridge and orange soft hackle right off the vice. On the right, the same fly has been dipped into a glass of water. You can click on the images to see a larger picture.  The simple act of wetting the fly makes a dramatic difference in the look of the fly. As fly tiers we often forget this change. We fuss over tiny details and exact length of fibers, forgetting that once the fly is wet, what the fish sees is something much different. Also remember the effects of drifting on the surface or the actions of your retrieve. Everything we do will affect the way that fish see our imitation.  It will be very different from our creation while it sits in our vise or fly box.

Partridge and orange soft hackle fly

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Partridge and orange soft hackle after wetting.

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Look at how much more lifelike the wet fly appears. The silk is nearly translucent.

How many bugs have this dark amber body color? Millions and millions every hatch and spinner fall. This fly simply looks like food.

That is why the fly will continue to work, and why fly guys still tie and cast it after 500 years. What an endure legacy this fly hold.

Next time I will look at some of the many options in tying this wonderful pattern.

Beadhead Soft Hackle Hare's Ear

Such a long name for a simple, effective fly. This little beauty just looks like a bug and is eagerly taken by fish everywhere. Arising from the long heritage of the hare’s ear nymph, it has the added traits of the copper bead and dark partridge hackle. The bead helps it get down to the fish and the partridge makes it come to life. It works great as either a dropper fly or on a traditional nymphing rig.

Beadhead Soft Hackle Hare's Ear

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The toughest thing about this fly is it’s name. What should you call it? Hare’s ear soft hackle bead head, bead head hare’s ear soft hackle, soft hackle hare’s ear bead head, or soft hackle bead head hare’s ear? It doesn’t matter. The fly will catch fish whatever name you choose.

Tying notes:

I fish a size 14 most of the time. If you like more weight, you could tie it with a tungsten bead or add some wraps of lead. I usually add 3 or 4 turns of lead to slip into the bead to anchor it in place. That also provides a solid foundation to mount the partridge collar.

This is a quick fly to tie. While it has several ingredients, they aren’t hard steps. I think this fly fishes better when it isn’t tied too pretty. You want it to be shaggy. If the body looks too smooth, take out your dubbing brush, bodkin, Velcro, or whatever you like and scruff it up!

If you fish a standard hare’s ear nymph, give this soft hackle version a try. It has worked so well for me that I haven’t fished the traditional version in several years.

The Rusty Stim, my favorite fly

It is only right that I choose this fly for my first pattern.  In the summer of 2000 a helpful fisherman on the St Mary’s River in Alberta, Canada gave me one to try. He told me it didn’t know the name or who first tied it, but that it worked great, eh. When I asked if that was elk hair, like in a Stimulator, he said: “Well maybe it should be, but I always use deer.” As a novice tier, I asked him why he used deer. “Because I have lots deer hair.”

Rusty Stim

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For a practical tier, that is reason enough.

By the end of the day, the fly was chewed and tattered, but still catching fish. I carefully tucked it away in my fly box to use as a pattern to tie from. I have used it ever since. I can’t begin to count the number of fish I’ve caught with it. Hundreds for sure. Maybe even thousands.

This fly excels in cutthroat water. Whether prospecting or sight fishing, trout just can’t resist it. In fast water they strike it with abandon. In slow, deep pools on the St. Joe River, it will bring the big boys up to the surface. In the spring it looks like a stonefly. In the summer, I guess it could be taken for a hopper. In the fall, it looks like an October Caddis. It just looks like fishy.

On rivers like the Clark Fork, it makes a great point fly. While riding low in the water, the deer hair wing floats all day long and will support any nymph dropper you want to use.

I needed a name for the fly. Unable to come up with anything better, I call it a Rusty Stim. It shares some of the stimulator traits: hair tail and wing, tapering head and hackle. Of course the change to deer and the wire ribbing instead of hackle over the abdomen diverge from it.

Tying Notes: Tying it is similar to a stimulator pattern. Using the fine wire rib instead of hackle enables the fly to ride low in the water like  stoneflies and hoppers. My favorite dubbing is a mix of Aussum Possum burnt orange and Hairline Dubbin rust. I usually apply the hackle sparsely.  Most of the flotation comes from the wing, so the hackle is for suggesting legs, not to support the fly.

I usually only tie this in a size 10. I’ve tried larger for October caddis and stoneflies, but didn’t notice any better strike rate, so I’ve gone to only the one size. Makes life easier.

Whether on the Joe, Kelly Creek, or anywhere trout hide out, you can count on the Rusty Stim to come through for you.

Page One

Starting this blog is like facing a new river. Especially if the river is large, it’s easy to be intimidated by all that water. You wonder where to begin, where to cast, where to wade, what fly to tie on. But if you are lucky, and if the river is a good stretch of water, you will catch some fish. Exploring her seams and eddies, learning the holding lies, experiencing the change of the seasons, the different hatches:  these can  fill a lifetime with memories.

If you are very lucky, you can form a bond with the river. The water becomes part of you. Every pool and seam hold memories of fish caught and missed. You rember seeing an otter playing by that outcrop of basalt.  In the spring you return to find the huge old cotton wood tree where you caught that 21 inch cutthroat was finally undercut so far it has fallen across the river.

Even after years of friendship with a river, there is still a lot to learn together. This is fishing after all. Yesterday’s can’t-miss fly is a loser today.  A stretch of beautiful water seems to be devoid of fish this year. That is the challenge, the frustration and the passion of fly fishing.

In this blog, I hope to explore my love of fly fishing and fly tying, mixing in a sprinkling of photography and other assorted  topics as the spirit moves me. Drop by from time to time. We can share these things together.

As you wander through this site, remember all the pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them. And please leave comments and suggestions. I want this journal to be easy to explore and user-friendly.

St Joe River in September

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