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.


Barr Emerger - BWO wet

The third and final installment of Baetis emergers, this post is about the legendary Barr emerger. John Barr has developed some great flies. Every one that I have tried has caught fish. But that is not to say they are all easy to tie. I’m sure he can whip them out by the dozens, but they have lots of steps with multiple materials.

Barr Emerger BWO

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This is fine during the winter doldrums when I am fighting the shack nasties, holed up in my man cave plodding along tying to fill my fly boxes. But if I need to replace some flies during the summer, I am always in a hurry. It is the night before a trip or even worse, early in the morning and I remembered I lost the last one on an acrobatic rainbow.
At those times, I just can’t make myself go through 15 steps for a size 18 fly. It just ain’t going to happen. (This from the same guy who walks 300 yards down a steep embankment to cast to a plunge pool because he has never tried it.) I am not saying my logic if for everyone. Just for me.
But I have had times when I’ve fooled fish with Barr’s Emerger that had turned up their snouts to a Krystal Flash emerger or a pheasant tail nymph. So I keep a few Barr patterns in my box for back up. I just don’t start with it.
So you be the judge. Tie some up. Fish it against the other flies and decide for yourself which fly works best for you. Then tinker with them to make them your own. That’s what it is all about. Step by step instructions are here.

Beautiful Baetis

They are the last hatch of the fall. The first hatch of spring. These tiny little bugs are kind enough to float for long stretches on the river, allowing trout to sip them down like a fine wine. Beginning with the flash of silver below the surface, followed by a porpoising dorsal fin, finishing up with the slurp of the adult, a Baetis hatch is a pleasure to watch.

3 Baetis patterns

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If you ask people their favorite fly for BWO hatches, you will undoubtably get lots of votes for tiny parachute Adams and pheasant tail nymphs. Most of the time these two flies will do the job. But these little bugs tend to show up on slow stretches of rivers. Even with tiny flies that are good imitations, you can get wonderfully, frustratingly finicky fish. Of course in slack water, even microscopic drag is enough to cause fish to ignore your offering and take the next natural to come by. So fine tippet and careful presentation is mandatory.

The first time I fished a Baetis hatch was on the upper section of Montana’s Rock Creek. Well above the crashing currents and huge boulders, the creek winds through meadows. Perfect for a beginning fisherman like me. I had started fishing just two years before. Every fish was a new experience. Every fly was new and exciting. A 40 year old babe in the woods, literally.

I had already experienced the joy of fishing a hatch with no clue what was going on. And fishing a hatch where it didn’t matter what I tied on, because they were just going to laugh at my fly. But at this place and time, I recognized the hatch and new what to use. And I even caught fish. It was quite a thrill.

These three flies are my favorites for Baetis hatches. I fish them behind a size 18 parachute Adams (where two-fly rigs are allowed). I usually start with the Kryastal Flash Baetis. If that doesn’t work, I think about the drift. I make certain that the fly approaches the fish with slack tippet. Often the hatch occurs in a pool with swirling currents.  But if I have gotten good drifts and still no takers, I switch to the simplified pheasant tail. And if still no takers, the Barr’s Emerger.

If you ask me why that order, I just happen to have a reason. Actually two reasons. The Krystal Flash pattern is tough. It will take a lot of fish before it must be retired. That saves me time during a hatch. The second reason is that the Barr emerger, although a great fly, is a slow fly to tie. A lot of steps to put it togeter. When tying small flies, the fewer steps the better!

In the next three posts I will feature these flies.

Ribbing Soft Hackle Flies

As I mentioned earlier, the basic soft hackle – silk thread and a partridge feather – is just the start when it comes to soft hackled flies. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Let me share three of my favorite ribbing options.

I use Pearsall’s silk for most of my bodies. To increase the appearance of segmentation of the abdomen, a ribbing can be added. Here are three choices: tightly twisted tying silk, contrasting silk, fine gold wire.

These are just three of many choices to rib these flies. You can also rib with krystal flash, colored wire, tinsel, holographic tinsel, or any other material that strikes your fancy. The effect may be subtle, like when using the silk of the body material. Or dramatic if you choose to use a peacock herl to rib with. I suspect that many of our choices are based on our preferences, not the fish. But that is ok too.

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.