A Soft-Hackle Summer

As published in the Dubuque Fly Fishers Dec. 2011 Newsletter

I have played around with tying and fishing soft-hackle flies over the past few years, but never seriously, and never with much luck.  I’ve also tried two-fly rigs once in a while, but with no luck (or skill).  Until this year, that is.

It all started with the trip that my wife and I took to Boone, North Carolina last summer.  She had signed up to take a watercolor painting class for the first week in June, and my plan was to try a little trout fishing in the local mountain streams.  I did a bit of research over the winter to find out about the area’s fishing and tied up a couple of boxes of flies in preparation for the trip.  I also decided it would be a good idea to hire a guide to help me get a good feel for the local waters.  I contacted Trophy Waters in Boone, and arranged for a day of guided fishing.

My guide, Conner, picked me up at the motel early on Tuesday morning, and we drove about 40 minutes to the far side of Beech Mountain.  We wound our way up a steep gravel road that went past a mix of hillbilly shacks and beautiful summer homes.  Beech Creek, our destination, is a small, rocky, tree-lined creek that cascaded down the mountain side.  Conner rigged up both my rods, one with a dry and a dropper, the other with a double nymph.  The dropper and one of the nymphs was always a soft-hackle fly, which he promised was the “hot” fly for him all season.  We then hiked about three-quarters of a mile back down the road, where we entered the water.  Conner coached me in casting the double-fly combinations as I fished, and really got me comfortable with them for the first time.  As we worked our way back upstream, Conner would point, I would cast, and the action was steady.  A little over two hours later, we reached the spot where the truck was parked, and decided that we really needed to break for lunch.  Conner pulled out a roll-up table, folding chairs, and a cooler full of food and drinks.  Refreshed and reenergized, we went back to the business of chasing trout.  By the time we finished the day, we had released somewhere near forty wild trout, including rainbows, browns, and brookies.  Over half of those fish were taken on a soft-hackle pattern.  To say the least, it was the best day of fly fishing that I ever had.

Conner’s lessons, and his confidence in soft-hackle flies, stuck with me when we got back home.  During the rest of this season on the Iowa and Wisconsin streams, I have fished a two-fly rig, usually with a soft-hackle as part of that combination.  It turned the whole summer into my most successful season yet.

Because I didn’t have very many soft-hackle flies in my boxes when I got home, I decided I had better tie some up.  I went through my fly tying books, picked out a few patterns, and tied up some of each.  I started out with a pheasant tail, a partridge and green, and a hare’s ear.  They worked well, but I wasn’t quite satisfied with the results I was getting. 

So I started playing around at the vise, and eventually came up with a pattern that has really delivered for me.  I started with a pheasant tail pattern, made a few modifications, and added a tail of krystal flash to give it a little spark.  It has become my “start with” fly, and it hasn’t failed to catch trout for me.  To test it out some more, I gave some of them to my fly fishing friend from Marion, and asked him to give them a try.  Not knowing what I should call the fly, Doug suggested “CJ’s Soft-Hackle Marvel.”  I think he liked them, too.

If you haven’t tried fishing a soft-hackle, give it a shot.  Tie one on as a dropper under a dry fly, or as the second fly on a nymph rig.  Run about 15 to 18 inches of tippet between the two flies, and let them drift with the stream current.  If you are using a nymph rig, put a strike indicator on above the lead fly.  When your dry fly or indicator disappears, set your hook.

If you like to tie your own flies, check out Andrew Puls’ article Soft-Hackle Basics in the Autumn 2011 issue of Fly Tyer.  He goes over the finer points of tying and fishing soft-hackle patterns.  Also included in the article are three of his favorite patterns, the Partridge and Orange, the Hare’s-Ear Soft Hackle, and the Palm Emerger.

Here’s hoping that you have as much fun with soft-hackles as I have this past season.  Tight lines.


Winter Fly Fishing for Trout

                It’s that time of year.  The temperatures have dropped, the snow is falling.  It’s time to hang up the fly rod for the season and just stick to the fly tying bench until the spring thaw.  Right?  Not necessarily.  As long as there is open trout water, there is trout fishing.  The conditions have just changes, so our tactics will have to change, too.

The fish are going to be slower as the water temperatures get colder – it’sIMG_1714 their way of conserving strength and energy.  You need to follow their lead.  Let the flies dead drift – the fish are not going to chase them for a meal.  Also plan on going deeper – fish a weighted fly, or put some weight on your leader.  Don’t be afraid to use the high-stick method – keep most of your fly line off the water. Sleep in.  The fish may not get active until around mid-day.  You should do the same.  Give the water a chance to warm up a little, then the trout, and the insects, will become more active. There is a lot of disagreement over tippet size for winter fishing.  Some favor lighter tippet, others opt for heavier.  Match you tippet to the flies you are using.  A little heavier tippet will turn over better if you are casting a heavier nymph rig, but with smaller flies, you’ll need the lighter tippet.  For me, it’s a matter of what I feel comfortable with. I have a few favorite flies for this time of year, and there are a few new patterns I’ve come across that I plan to try this winter.  Most of what I’ll use are nymphs, but once in a while, a small dry will be the ticket. In my box this winter, you will find: John Barr’s Pure Midge Larvae, size 16 – 20IMG_0176 This fly just works for me.  I tie it with a red, green, or tan body with a black head, or all black.  Drift it behind a larger nymph. Bead-eyed ScIMG_0160ud, size 14 – 16 I carry this one in olive, gray, and rainbow colors.  Those big, buggy eyes seem to do the trick. Disco Midge, size 16 – 18IMG_0155 I like this one in red or green the most, but have also used it in black.  I am thinking about trying it in blue this year.  I’ll do some with a poly wing, and some without. Parachute BlIMG_0143ue-Wing Olive, size 16 – 20 I’ve just always preferred parachute dry flies.  The BWO can be productive on the right winter days. Griffith’s Gnat, size 18 – 22 This fly imitates clusters of midges on the surface.  In fact, add a wing of white CDC to it, and it’s called the Cluster Midge.  Either way, it works. Some new patterns I’m going to try include: English Pheasant Tail Nymph, sizes 18 – 20 This is a slimmer version than the American PTN.  It’s supposed to be a better imitation for the BWO and for small brown stoneflies. Zebra Midge, size 16 – 18 Tied in black or red with a silver tungsten bead, this bad boy will get down into the deep holes where the fish are hopefully stacked up. ICSI (I Can See It) Midge, size 22 With a gray body and an orange parachute post, this as a floating midge pupa pattern that should be easy to spot on the surface. Finally, just a reminder to help you stay comfortable while you fish on these cold days.  Dress in layers.  Star with a good wicking layer next to your body that will move the perspiration away from you.  There are lots of new technical materials in different weights that will keep you warm and dry in almost any temperature.  Follow that with something warm, but breathable.  Wool is always a good choice, but again there are a variety of new materials that can really get the job done.  Finally, the outer layer should be wind and water resistant.  Keep some snacks in your pocket or your pack – it will help keep your energy up and will also help maintain your body warmth.  Also have something to drink.  You will be surprised how much perspiration you give off by being active on a cold day.  And for safety’s sake, fish with a buddy.  Better safe than sorry in this weather. So get out there and enjoy the challenge.  Keep your feet warm and dry, and your lines tight. CJ

Looking Forward to Spring

Winter is fading, and Spring will soon be upon us.  Although I enjoy fly fishing in the winter, often being the only one on the stream, I do look forward to the arrival of spring.  It’s nice to shed a layer or two of clothing, and not have to constantly deal with ice in the line guides.  Spring also brings the opening of trout season in Wisconsin and Minnesota, giving anglers around here more choices of waters to fish.

During the winter months, I usually focus on midge patterns, tiny mayfly nymphs, or streamers.  It’s nice to be able to vary my choice of flies a little more.

I will continue to use midge flies – they tend to be a constant around here.  IMG_0143But when March rolls around, I will also be watching for Tiny Blue Winged Olives to begin to hatch.  My favorite version is a Parachute BWO in a size 20 trailed by an equally  tiny emerger or nymph.  Little Black Caddis will also show up on some streams in late March and into early April.  I’ll usually fish these in a size 18 to 20.  Early Black Stones will also begin to hatch.  I try to keep some of these in my flybox in a variety of sizes from 10s to 16s.

In addition to the usual flies that I carry in my boxes, I’m looking forward to trying some new patterns this season.  One is the Smoke Jumper Emerger, IMG_1543which is tied in sizes 16 to 22.  It can be tied using a variety of materials and colors, and should be a great imitation for a variety of small flies.

Another one is the Marabare, a new variation on the traditional Hare’s-Ear.  I found this one in a magazine article written by its designer, Vince Wilcox.  Tied with a tungsten bead head, it should be a great fly for those deeper pools on some of our local streams.

So here is to  Mother Nature, who has been fairly kind to us this past winter.  I hope she will be equally generous this spring.