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.