As a young fly fisherman, I often looked at soft hackles rather dubiously. They always looked too simple. So simple in fact, why would a fish eat that? I would tell myself, "No way. No way would a fish eat that." I ignorantly told myself the same thing over and over. "Fish want the flashy, techie, blingy flies." At least that's what my experience thus far had told me. Why? Because up to that point, that's all I had fished and that's what I mistakenly told myself. Boy, was I wrong!!!
I've learned to tie soft hackles, pretty much on my own until recently when my wife gifted me a book a few months ago titled, "The Soft Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles", by Sylvester Nemes. Considered the "patron saint" of the soft hackled fly here in the United States, Sid was introduced to them in his youth near Cleveland, Ohio and then later in the U.K. during WWII. His books are considered to be THE authority on tying and fishing soft hackled wet flies. Other names like Leisinring, Hidy, Hughes, and Stewart are also common names thrown around in circles of wet fly anglers and tyers. Each one deserves as much respect as the other and I look forward to continuing my wet fly education from them.
A trip to my local fly shop also had produced a little insight into tying these flies. Eddie Robinson, who I would consider one of the most knowledgeable tyers on the planet, opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at feathers. While in his shop one day, he put a loupe in front of me. When I looked at a partridge feather through the loupe, my whole perspective on feathers was forever changed and to him I'm very appreciative and grateful. I learned a very valuable lesson from him that day that will always be in the back of my mind while tying flies.
What makes a good soft hackle? There are many ways to go about tying a good soft hackled fly. I'd hate to complicate these simple flies by giving you parameters or criteria to follow. Many anglers and tyers before me would share the same idea that a sparse hackle fishes better. I would even be so bold as to say that they look better to the angler's eye, too! The addition of ribbing materials, thoraxes, tails, are all up to the tyer. A barebones, basic soft hackle consists of a hook, body and a hackle. That's it. That's all.
As fly tyers there has never been a better time than now w/regards to quality and availability of fine hackles. Whiting Farms is producing the best, quality hen capes and saddles and Dr. Tom Whiting literally has chickens, feathers, and their genetics down to a science.
Pictured are a few of my favorite soft hackle patterns and here is their simple recipe:
Hook: Heavy wire wet fly ( Stealth N, Partridge Spider L/3 AS, Daichii 1550 are all good choices)
Thread: Pearsall's Gossamer Silk
Hackle: Brahma Hen Saddle