A Case for Soft Hackle

These days, fly anglers have a wealth of flies at their disposal, but with such a focus on innovation, it’s easy to forget about traditional methods. The humble Soft Hackle is a prime example of this angling amnesia.

by Ryan Sparks

On a frosty fall morning, a friend and I waded into Montana’s Gallatin River. Our plan was to split up and fish the remnants of the spruce-moth hatch, but as the sun burned the thin film of frost from the bank, we realized our efforts would be better spent imitating the caddis fluttering across the river. While my friend hiked upstream, I tied on an X-Caddis, adding a soft hackle on a long dropper. I immediately began to pick up fish on the soft hackle with my dry seeing little action. As the hatch intensified into a blizzard, it was odd to see only an occasional fish rise to the surface, but as I continued to catch trout on the soft hackle, it became apparent they were focused on ascending caddis. After numerous fish, and with our agreed meet-up time approaching, I headed back towards the truck. When I got back, I found my friend already sitting on the tailgate. I asked how he had done, and he shrugged his shoulders, obviously frustrated, and told me he only managed two. 

“They wouldn’t take a dry. I tried five different patterns, but they must be eating something else.” 

“Ya, like soft hackles,” I said, smiling. 

These days, fly anglers have a wealth of flies at their disposal, but with such a focus on innovation, it’s easy to forget about traditional methods. The humble Soft Hackle is a prime example of this angling amnesia. Soft hackles have been catching fish for over five hundred years, but the more “latest and greatest” flies that come along, the more anglers forget or overlook the past. Yet, if a true measure of a fly’s effectiveness is how it endures the test of time, soft hackles have proved their worth. For that reason, they should be a mainstay in any angler’s fly box.  

 A Soft Hackle for Every Situation 

Many anglers don’t fish soft hackles as often as they should because they pigeonhole them as a tactic of the classic down-and-across angler. However, soft hackles are versatile, and can be incorporated into almost any style of fishing. They imitate emerging insects, nymphs, and even drowned terrestrials. They work well behind streamers, below dry flies, in tandem on the swing with a nymph or another soft hackle, dead drifted under an indicator, fished in the surface film, or used in any manner of tight line nymphing. When you begin to vary your approach with soft hackles, you quickly realize their main advantage is versatility. 

 As mentioned in the story above, one of my favourite ways to fish a soft hackle is under or behind a dry fly. Doing so allows you to imitate multiple stages of an insect’s lifecycle. No matter what naturals I encounter, I usually prefer a soft hackle dropper over a standard bead head nymph because of the soft hackle’s undulating action. Soft Hackles’ impressionistic nature can imitate anything in the stream, and the way they breathe in the water gives them a lifelike action that few flies can compete with. In the situation above, I used a Holy Grail Caddis Emerger behind my dry. The Holy Grail Caddis is one of my favourite patterns to fish below a dry because the weight of the fly allows it to sink quickly, but not so much that the dry struggles to stay afloat. Even better, the hackle on the fly has a tendency to trap air, forming a bubble very similar to that of naturally emerging insects. This pairing is very successful before and during a hatch. Varying the size and colour of the fly allows an angler to imitate a diverse number of naturals beyond just caddis.  

Altering the dry and dropper to match naturals is an obvious strategy, but even if the chance of taking a fish on top is slim, a dry fly looks more natural to a trout than an indicator, especially on heavily pressured streams. For this reason, on water that sees a good amount of pressure, I often opt for a dry dropper rig over a manufactured indicator because the dry lands softly, is sensitive to strikes, and rides high in the water if the size of the dry and the soft hackle are balanced. One way to ensure this balance and to speed up rigging is to carry a small fly box with pre-made dry-dropper rigs. Carrying a variety of dropper lengths is useful because the length of the dropper will depend on the speed of the current and how deep you intend to fish. In slow water, match the dropper length to the depth of the water. In faster current, the length of the dropper may need to extend up to twice the water depth.   

Similar to the dry dropper system, but rarely used by most anglers, is fishing an unweighted soft hackle in the surface film. This tactic is especially useful when targeting the first few inches under the surface such as during spinnerfalls, major insect emergences, and when imitating drowned adults or terrestrials. Many anglers mistake the boils and swirls of fish feeding in the surface film for rising fish, and while the trout are rising to the top of the water column, they aren’t actually feeding on the surface. There are two main approaches in this scenario. The first employs a dry fly with an unweighted soft hackle attached to the bend of the hook on a 12- to 16-inch dropper. The unweighted soft hackle allows use of a smaller dry, which is often a more accurate representation of the natural. Try using a parachute style fly for the dry as it sits lower in the water and will appeal more to selective trout. The second tactic, and the most beneficial when trout are feeding exclusively in the surface film, is to use a lightly weighted soft hackle trailed by an unweighted one.  

When fishing two flies, I tie off the bend of the hook as much as possible, but when trying to keep two soft hackles in the surface film I prefer to tie off the eye of the lead fly. Rigging the flies this way gives them a narrower angle of separation. The lightly weighted soft hackle breaks the tension of the surface film, and the current quickly sweeps the rear soft hackle into the surface film and holds it there. Sometimes the eye of the lead fly is too small to accommodate another knot. In this case, I use a 2.25 mm tippet ring, separating the flies by varying the length of the tippet.  

An adaptable pattern for this approach is King’s CDC Soft Hackle. Being unweighted, it’s well-suited for fishing the surface film. Moreover, the CDC soft hackle is buoyant, traps air bubbles, and creates a life-like appearance because its tiny barbules flutter in the current. By simply altering the size and colour, the fly can imitate mayflies, caddis, midges, scuds, and even stoneflies. The fly’s CDC collar is also a reminder that soft hackle flies are not limited to partridge feathers. From a Canada goose to a crow, all birds have usable soft hackle feathers, some with unique properties like CDC that lend themselves to specific applications. When fishing non-CDC soft hackles in the surface film, adding a bit of floatant aids in buoyancy, but don’t be tempted to add floatant to CDC; it will only matt the barbules of the feather and cause the fly to sink. After a fish or two, dry the fly with an absorbent cloth or your shirtsleeve. Powdered desiccant also works well.  

A pink King’s CDC Soft Hackle is one of my top flies to dead drift under an indicator, especially in winter tailwaters. In fact, fishing soft hackles with an indicator is a great year-round strategy. For this approach, I favour a weighted soft hackle as my lead fly, with an unweighted trailer. The weight helps get the flies into the feeding zone and keeps tension on the indicator for detecting strikes. The rig is useful when presenting flies to trout at a distance. No matter how skilled a wader you are, there will always be situations where a fishy run on the other side of the river is inaccessible, and fast uneven current makes any other technique difficult if not impossible. Yet, using an indicator as an anchor, or hinge point, makes it possible to fish across multiple currents. Making a large aerial mend helps the flies sink quickly and allows you to focus on detecting strikes rather than continually mending your line.  

When indicators aren’t necessary, soft hackles are a great option for any style of tight-line nymphing. Much like soft hackles, tight-line nymphing has a long history and is one of the oldest methods of fishing. It only makes sense the two work so well together. The concept of tight-line nymphing is straightforward— you initially use slack to sink your flies, and then retake the slack to control the speed and depth of the drift and to detect takes. However, in practice it’s a much more complicated system due to the many variables you must consider. Think about all the intricacies of a stream: depth, current speed, current direction, structure, cover, bottom composition. With tight-line nymphing, you have to consider all these factors in order to attain the desired drift. Throw in the fact that trout could be feeding anywhere in the water column and you begin to see how much skill is involved.  Numerous books have been written on the subject, but in essence you want to maintain enough tension on the line to detect a strike without (or only slightly) affecting the natural drift of the flies. Heavy flies make this easier because they sink quickly and give you more feel throughout the drift.  

One of my favourite soft hackles for tight -ine nymphing is the Lion’s Mane. Like many other successful patterns, you can alter the size and colour to imitate a specific natural more accurately. However, I consider this fly to be more of an attractor than a specific imitation and focus on presentation rather than fret over what the fly is supposed to imitate. The key features of the fly are its tungsten bead, which maximizes the fly’s weight in the smallest package, and the orange hot spot at the collar that draws attention to the fly. The lion’s mane excels in everything from fast moving pocket water to slow, deep runs.  

A major difference between fishing soft hackles under an indicator and tight-line nymphing, is the distribution of weight throughout the rig. With an indicator, most anglers prefer to have their top fly, or the one closest to the indicator, be the heaviest. Conversely, with tight line nymphing, I prefer a “drop-shot” system, having my weight on the bottom as an anchor for better contact and increased feel through the drift. I also attach the lighter fly with a 4- to 6-inch dropper-loop, rather than tying off the bend of the hook. Under tension, this gives both flies a more natural drift. The advantage of having weight on the bottom of the rig is that you know exactly where your flies are in the water column versus adding weight above your flies and having to guess how far they are sinking. Additionally, using split shot or a specific drop-shot weight avoids the fly loss common to other styles of tight line nymphing because it keeps your hooks away from the bottom.  

The best tight line nymph anglers get their rig down as quickly as possible with the smallest amount of weight possible, and almost all of them use a tuck cast to accomplish this. The tuck cast allows more control over the sink rate, and perhaps more importantly, allows the flies to be presented from a distance when trout are skittish. All that’s required to make a tuck cast is to stop the rod tip at a higher position than during a normal cast. Stopping the rod tip high allows the flies to “tuck” under the rod tip and sink under the slack. The deeper you want the flies to sink, the higher you should stop the rod. In shallow riffles, stopping the rod at a lower position will give the flies a narrower angle of entry into the water and prevent them from snagging on the bottom. Shifting the angle of the cast lets you manipulate the depth of the flies without constantly changing weight. Once you have made the cast you can either elevate the rod tip or move the rod downstream to guide the drift. For more control, use the longest rod you can get away with.  

Another unique way to fish a soft hackle is behind a streamer. Many anglers use streamers to target large aggressive fish, but on days when trout follow, but won’t commit to a streamer, a soft hackle trailer is a good choice. Often, fish will charge the large streamer, and turn at the last instant, taking the soft hackle. These territorial fish are chasing the streamer away from their hold, but being creatures of opportunity, can’t turn down an easy meal. Large and flashy soft hackles work well because they grab the trout’s attention. My favorite is Pauline’s Prince Albert. In smaller sizes, the fly is great on its own, but in sizes 8 or 10, it’s not unusual for it to out-fish the streamer it’s paired with. Simply attach the soft hackle about 12 inches behind the streamer with a clinch knot tied off the bend of the hook. The combination works well fished on its own or under an indicator. Fishing the rig with an indicator allows the flies to be dead drifted and twitched, but whether stripped or dead drifted the combination is deadly. 

The strategies listed above are all examples of how versatile soft hackles are, but there is a reason why anglers so often fish them with a down-and-across swing. During a heavy hatch, when trout are moving up and down through the water column, swinging soft hackles can be the best way to catch fish because they so realistically imitate emerging insects. Typically, anglers target shallow riffles with a swing, but adding weight to the system opens up the possibility of fishing deeper runs, undercut banks, and even pools.  

Rigging up soft hackles for swinging is quick and uncomplicated. By themselves or in any combination, a sinking line, sinking leader, or split shot will all get the flies down. Use a weighted soft hackle as your lead fly and tie a smaller soft hackle off the bend of the hook 16- to 24-inches behind. To present the fly, cast 30- to 45-degrees downstream and make an upstream mend to sink the flies. Allow the current to sweep the flies downstream, all the while keeping the rod slightly raised off the water with a bit of slack line. The slack acts as a shock absorber during a strike, which cuts down of breakoffs, especially when using light tippet. If a strike occurs, don’t make a powerful hookset, just lift the rod and keep tension on the fish. At the end of the swing, when the flies are directly downstream, let them sit for a few seconds before retrieving and casting again. It’s amazing how often a strike occurs right as you are about to retrieve the flies.  

While casting down and across is a reliable approach, don’t be afraid to cast upstream. Doing so merges a dead drift and a swing into one presentation. This combination is particularly effective when fish are taking both lively and inert presentations. It’s also one of the quickest ways to find out which presentation trout prefer. Once you discover a pattern, switch to a tactic that suits what the fish are interested in.  

In Montana’s Yellowstone River, I have found that swinging small soft hackle stoneflies produces nice trout early in the spring prior to runoff. On sunny days, as stoneflies migrate towards streamside banks, trout become aware of their movement and begin keying on nymphs moving across or against the current. Swinging a soft hackle stonefly pattern, such as a Swallow Stone so that it swings into the bank is one of my favourite ways to fish during these times. It is a useful tool for mimicking dislodged stoneflies, struggling to swim towards the bank. I especially like to fish it into undercut banks where I have encountered large brown trout in the past. 

A Soft Hackle System  

Overlooked, ignored, and now on the cusp of renewal, the soft hackle reminds us that our angling traditions are traditions for a reason. Soft hackles are versatile; you can fish them as a search pattern or as a highly specialized imitation. Yet, anglers should see that soft hackles are merely a tool, not a wonder fly that catches everything at all times. Too often, anglers obsess over fly patterns. If soft hackles have anything to teach, it’s that action and presentation are far more important than colour and style. It’s a simple lesson from a simple fly, although an important one. When we see soft hackles (and all flies for that matter) as tools rather than magic flies, we begin to focus on the aspects of fishing that really make a difference. Soft hackles, like all other flies, shouldn’t be reduced to a single technique. The importance of keeping an open mind and applying a wide range of tactics to meet ever-changing conditions is the essence of fly fishing. Soft hackles are successful for the same reason that accomplished anglers are successful—they are versatile.