Soft Hackle Essentials—Hooks and Materials

soft hackle essentials partridge and pheasant soft hackle

Partridge & Pheasant Soft Hackle

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT
The traditional soft hackle fly has been with us for a long time. Sylvester Nemes in his Two Centuries of Soft-Hackled Flies (2004) chronicles the history of this venerable pattern back to the year 1747. Even today, in the 21st century, the soft-hackle is a killer pattern that can be effective anywhere trout feed on aquatic insects. Unfortunately, many fly shops don’t carry them and even online retailers don’t offer the variety one would like to see. Additionally, it’s hard to justify paying $2 for a fly on a cheap hook that can be tied in less than a minute or so on a good one. Trout anglers should always have a good selection of soft hackles at the ready anytime they fish in insect rich waters (they are actually very effective for bluegill and other shallow water sunfish).
Understanding that trout are opportunistic feeders, anything that looks like food (an aquatic insect) is likely to draw strikes. The traditional soft hackle fly with its partridge or grouse feather hackle simulating legs and a short, segmented body looks like an aquatic insect. They can be fished in the surface film as an emerger, dead drifted deep or swung to simulate an insect rising up through the water column. They are exceptionally effective as trailers on small bugger and streamer patterns. Put a soft hackle anywhere near feeding fish and you are likely to get a strike. Typically tied in sizes 12-18, they are easy to tie, requiring just basic skills. Their constructions requires little else than forming a body, occasionally a tail, dubbing a tiny thorax and making one or two winds of hackle. I tie up hundreds every season for my own fishing and to give to friends and people I meet along the river. Here’s my list of essential soft hackle materials.
soft hackle essentials 2Far and away, my favorite soft hackle fly hook is the TMC 206BL. Occasionally I’ll tie soft-hackles on TMC 2487BL hooks or Dai-Riki #125 because somehow I got a good bargain on them. I think using barbless hooks on soft hackles, especially when swinging them improves hookups when fish attack the moving fly. Apart from a favorite hook, having high quality partridge or grouse feathers in the right sizes is essential. Small (sizes 18-14) flies require small feathers, those that are found mainly on the neck and head of the bird. Two dollar packages of partridge feathers rarely have sufficient small hackles to warrant the expense. Acquiring #1 grade, full partridge skins is the most effective way to ensure you have a good supply of high quality small feathers. High quality is essential, as soft hackle flies will take a beating on the river and a high quality feather is less likely to break while tying small flies. Other than a partridge skin, a quality starling skin is useful if you are tying the Starling and purple pattern.
Hooks and feathers, that leaves body materials. Over the centuries, soft hackled flies have been given all sorts of names. The Partridge and Orange is probably the most recognized traditional soft hackled fly. But in reality, they are essentially Partridge and anything flies. My go to list of body materials are these.

  • Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk in orange, olive and purple-one spool of this silk will tie many 100s of flies because it acts as both thread and body material. Silk bodies become somewhat translucent and buggy when wet. If you don’t use the silk for the body, most can be tied with 8/0 olive thread.
  • Goose quills in olive, natural pheasant tail feathers, turkey quills and peacock herl—these will cover the range of segmented bodies in olive, light to dark brown and the iridescence of peacock herl. A few strands of feather wound four or five turns around the hook make great looking segmented bodies.
  • When I choose to dub a small thorax, I use rabbit fur in hare’s ear (light tan) or in olive. Lightly dubbed thoraxes provide a better base for one or two turns of hackle.
Bug Luggage with 168 soft hackles

Bug Luggage with 168 soft hackles

One might think I’ve missed listing beads, but I don’t use them. They kill the action of the fly in the water, aren’t really necessary to get flies in front of fish, force the use of longer hooks and most of all are an unnecessary expense.
The traditional soft hackle is a simple pattern to tie. It is also an easy and effective pattern to fish. Having a good selection of them in your fly box in olives, browns, and peacock, not to forget the venerable orange and purple versions, will provide the opportunity to catch more trout. But you have to fish them, because once you do, you’ll be tying more of them.

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