If you find yourself stumped by picky trout with any regularity, it’s probably time for you to learn how to fish a soft hackle fly. These time-tested patterns are characterized by their wispy, “buggy”-looking collars of partridge, grouse, or starling paired with bodies of thread or sparse dubbing, they’re as old as fly fishing itself. Soft hackle flies are designed to imitate a number of insects at any given time, so employing them isn’t an exact science. They’re catch-all bugs, and they’ve earned their place firmly among fly-fishing’s bank of classic flies.
How to Fish a Soft Hackle Fly
Traditionally fished in the down-and-across presentation common to wet flies, the natural materials of a soft hackle fly impart dramatic and lifelike motion in river currents, resembling mayflies and caddisflies in various life stages. But this method is only a starting point. With a handful of soft hackles and a little creativity, an enterprising fly angler can successfully imitate the entire menu available in a trout stream, from microscopic midges to darting baitfish. For example, a soft hackle fly can be swung through a run to mimic an emerging insect rising in the water column, dead-drifted in a tandem nymph rig, weighted and stripped like a streamer, or greased up with a bit of floatant and fished in the surface film to fool selective rising fish—which is a great tactic if you’re struggling to accurately cast tiny flies to educated fish.
The greatest attribute of the soft hackle fly, however, is how forgiving it can be when your approach doesn’t go as planned. Execute a late mend and ruin your drag-free drift? No problem. Just let the fly swing through the tail of the run and watch a fish hammer it. Deliver a sloppy cast with too much slack to swing? Let the soft hackle sink lazily in the water column, resembling a drowned grasshopper. This is the true genius of the soft hackle: no matter how you fish them, you’re almost always fishing them well. In a sense, learning how to fish a soft hackle fly is mostly a matter of simply tying one onto your leader. All that said, the utility of the soft hackled fly is still somehow often overlooked. These six classic soft hackle fly patterns belong in every fly angler’s box.
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