Warmwater Tips
Soft Hackles for Warm Water
By Jason Tinling


Fly fishing is an endeavor steeped in history. For many the history of the sport is as important or interesting as the present and future. And the history of angling with the fly has its roots in what are known as soft-hackle flies or soft-hackle nymphs. Dame Juliana's "The Treatise of Fishing with an Angle" contained a dozen of the "first" fly patterns. All were soft hackle style flies. Sylvester Nemes' series of books brought the soft hackle back into the repertoire of the modern fly angler. The effective warm water fly fisher should be certain to have a sampling of these simple patterns available in their fly box.

So what is it about soft hackles that make them so popular, and more importantly so effective? The beauty of the soft hackle fly, at least from a tier's perspective, is in its simplicity. A touch of dubbing, some thread and a small hackle can yield up an elegant and productive fly. Even the nomenclature of soft hackle flies yields to this simplicity. Partridge and Orange. Starling and Claret. Grouse and Green. Everything you need to know about tying these flies is contained in those names.

So where does the effectiveness of the soft hackle come from? The soft hackle fly has several traits that contribute to its fish catching ability. The first thing the soft hackle has going for it is movement. The pulse and flow of those trailing hackle fibers as the fly is retrieved breathe life into it. Mobility of components in a fly pattern is a critical strike trigger. From rubber legs on a Madam X to the flowing marabou tail of a Wooly Bugger, fish, especially warm water species, are drawn to component movement in a fly. The next plus to soft hackles is their impressionism.

I'm constantly in awe of those people who can tie the ultra-realistic flies. You know, the one's you'd swat if they were left lying on the dining room table. But unless the fish you're targeting is looking for that fly in that color, of that gender, you've bracketed yourself out of catching a fish. I'm for flies that cover a range of food. I have no desire to fish three flies to mimic one, when I could fish one fly and match three sources of forage. The primary imitation that is provided by a soft hackle is of an emergent insect. You're imitating a prime food source at what is easily its most vulnerable stage. A second forage can be imitated by fishing a soft hackle with short, quick strips. This retrieve keeps the hackle fibers compressed back along the body of the fly in a tear drop shape, and provides a strong impression of a small minnow.

Now if you take that same fly and grease it up with floatant, you've got a skater fly to imitate a variety of surface forage. I've even taken a soft hackle and greased the hackle only, fishing it like a seedpod in the film to foraging carp.

So what makes warm water soft hackles different from the ones decorating trout boxes? In truth, as little or as much as you'd like. Bring a handful of "classic" patterns with you to your favorite bluegill hole and give them a shot. For my own preferences, I like to tie my soft hackles a little bigger, usually in sizes 8 - 12. The larger soft hackle provides a "bigger meal' and also adds a little more bulk to the fly when imitating a minnow. I also tend to go with a little sparkle and color, whether it's a flash tail, or a bright chartreuse floss body. Again, I'm going for imitation, not replication, so if I can add a little attraction, make it easier for me to see the fly, and still keep the form and function of a standard soft hackle, I'm all for it.

One of the problems that I always had with soft hackles was weighting them. Unweighted, they sunk too slowly for my taste, taking too long to get down to fish holding deeper, often being picked off by smaller fish. Weighting with underwraps or metal beadheads resulted in a fly that sank too fast, losing that natural movement. The solution was found in my local craft store, in the form of small glass seed beads. They added just enough weight to sink the fly slowly as well as adding a small touch of added color. A little experimentation showed that panfish showed a preference for red, orange and yellow beads, while the local largemouth bass are partial to white and clear beads

I've tied effective soft hackles with Mylar bodies, with a dubbing loop of flash for the hackle. I've tied less effective variations with the hackle reversed, or with foam bodies. The point is to experiment and learn. Soft hackles, because of their history in thesport, have remained fairly static in construction. We've begun to see some mainstream experimentation with soft hackles, along the lines of Nick Yardley's Grouse and Flash. There remain a wide variety of materials and techniques that haven't been applied to this classic tying style, and it's about time to do just that. Know and appreciate your history, but don't be afraid to take it for a stroll along the edge now and then.



Jason Tinling, 30. Born and raised in San Diego CA, now residing in
Lancaster, PA. Dabbled in flyfishing since mid-teens, started seriously
fly fishing about 5 years ago. Enjoy FFing warmwater for the variety of
fish available, the availability of water, and because I live less than
half an hour from one of the nation's premiere smallmouth fisheries :-)

No clubs to be affiliated with, active on the FF@ and Warmwaterangler email
lists. Occasional contributor to Fly Angler's Online. Fishing
favorites, bluegill on the 4wt, carp and smallies on the 6 wt.

I keep flyfishing because there are few things that can compare with the
sound of the river running past, it's cool water lapping at your legs,
while the rod and reel in your hand flex and cry as an unknown fish heads
rapidly in the opposite direction.