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?

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.





An Easy Profile Plate for Fly Tying

Fly Tying Back Plate

Putting a back plate behind your vise will help your tying and ease the strain on your eyes.

Years ago I wanted a profile plate. Having a uniform color behind your fly makes it easy on the eyes to see errant barbules and fibers. And it hides the clutter of your tying desk.

I didn’t really like the commercial ones I saw. I’m just not a fan of having more things hanging on my vise. Plus they aren’t as flexible. So I scrounged through my scrap wood and found a piece of Cherry. It had served nicely as a sanding block and clamp pad. It was 6″ X 1 1/2″ X 3/4″. A well used piece, it had a few dings and dents and saw marks. But this was just for a test run. I made a single saw cut about an inch from the end at around 60 degrees. I touched it up with a little sand paper and stain.

To use it, just drop in a piece of mat board in your favorite color and it is set to go. I picked up a variety pack of colored papers. In front of the mat board, you can slip a sheet of colored paper to change your background. I use a neutral gray to photography my flies and step by step tutorials for this site. Many people like blue and green. I find white is too harsh and fatiguing for your eyes. You can see here how I tested a bunch of colors when I started this blog. It only takes a couple seconds if you have a pack of papers cut to the size you like.

My test piece worked so well that I’ve never gotten around to making the final model. After ten or more years, I am used to the nicks and marks. Just like it’s user, it isn’t perfect or beautiful.

Back Plate for Fly Tying

Tying Desk

Back Plate with Color Choises

Back Plate with Color Choises

Back Plate with Gray Card

Back Plate with Gray Card

Back Plate Side View

Back Plate Side View

Left Side View

left side view

Back Plate side view

Right Side View

October Caddis and Hoppers of Kelly Creek

I was looking through my pictures from Kelly Creek and came across these two photos. They aren’t particularly good shots, but I was going to sit down at the bench tonight and wanted to refresh my memory about the size of the hoppers I had seen there in the past.

Grasshopper from Kelly Creek

Kelly Creek Hopper


This little fellow was sitting on a tarp in front of my trailer door. I took the picture 9/31/11. The small squares are 10 to an inch, so he is about 3/4 inches long. The color is pretty accurate, so you can see he is a bright yellow-green shade.

October Caddis is the dessert of the bug season. After midges, March Browns, Mother’s Day Caddis, stone flies, the spring and summer series of mayflies and all the rest, the final course before winter is the October Caddis. And these mountain cutthroat are eager for a snack.

October caddis found at Kelly Creek Idaho

October caddis found at Kelly Creek Idaho


I scooped this guy out of the water for a quick picture on 10/19/2010. You can see that although we think of them as orange, they really are more yellow. No matter what color, they are tasty. I use my Rusty Stim pattern all the time at Kelly. Even though it is a rusty orange color, the fish let me know they like it. Maybe I’ll tie some up in a yellow to try this fall. That is the joy of tying your own flies. Tie some up and try them. The fish will be your judge and jury.

Bead Head Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle, a tasty little fly

Bead Head Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail Nymph

Bead Head Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail Nymph


I use two nymph more than all the rest combined. The bead head soft hackle hare’s ear and the bead head soft hackle pheasant tail (BHSHPT). And the reason I use these is that they work day in and day out. They both look buggy and like something a trout would eat. So they take them readily. I rarely fish a nymphing rig, so I am usually fishing these as a dropper. The hare’s ear works best for larger nymphs and caddis. The BHSHPT is more of a May Fly pattern.

On the Clark Fork River near St Regis, the BHSHPT will out fish any nymph I’ve tried. I’m sure there are times like around stone fly emergence that other patterns may work better, but for a dropper fly, I’ll take this pattern over any other fly.

It helps that this is a simple pattern to tie. You can crank out a season’s supply during one ball game (unless there are too many great plays to divert your attention). That there are no hard to find materials and no gadgets needed is another big plus. I only tie it in two sizes, 14 and 16. You could go larger or smaller, but I haven’t found the need. That also simplifies the tying.

recipe for bead head soft hackle pheasant tail nymph

Recipe for Bead head soft hackle pheasant tail nymph


For the hackle, you could use partridge or any other soft hackle material you have around. I usually use either quail or starling – which is the feather in the pictures and the instruction pages. Although they aren’t as tough as partridge, I love the softness of the feathers and the life they mimic. When you watch them in the water, they look great.

beadhead soft hackle pheasant tail nymph when wet

When wet, this just looks buggy!

Speaking of in the water, look at the picture on the right to see what this looks like when wet. Doesn’t that look like trout chow? That could be a midge, mayfly or any little bug in the water. There is nothing about it to spook wary fish.

For the fine copper wire, look here to see where I get mine.

In this picture and the in the step by step photos, I am using bronzed peacock herl. I won this it a raffle years ago and still have years of feathers left. I love the sheen and the coloring of it. But regular peacock will work just as well.

As always, feel free to change it up any way you choose. You are the one tying it.

Copper Wire for Fly Tying

Well used Christmas lights

A source for a lifetime of copper wire


You are thinking that these look like Christmas lights, right? You are correct. If you are like me, every couple years a strand or two get tossed out. Doesn’t work, wrong colors, Wife’s tastes have moved on- – whatever the reason. Well, I love this wire for copper ribbing. It is free, easier to use than a spool, nice and small for ribbing those tiny nymphs, and copper is a great color on flies. You can use it instead of gold wire on Hare’s Ears or other patterns.

So this is what I do. When I need copper wire, I dig out this jumble of lights that I have stashed in a bottom drawer of my tying boxes. Then I trim off about 6 pieces of wire around 6 inches long. I grab a pair of electrical pliers and strip both ends. I throw one on top of my bench and the others in a drawer. I’m good for a few months. Couldn’t be easier. And I love the wire. Fine diameter that wraps super. Below you can see the trimmed and stripped sections. Try this next Christmas!


Trimmed Wire

A length of wire trimmed from the string of lights


Stripped wire

Wire ready to use