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Fly Tying

Super Soft-hackle Stones

by Eric Pettine   |  August 3rd, 2011 9

Supersize hackles for spring and summer stones


Super Soft-hackle Stones breathe in the water, advertising “big food” to foraging trout.

Many believe it’s the archer, not the arrow, that matters most in successful fly fishing. But there are times when certain fly patterns in the quiver make a marked difference in my fishing success. Soft-hackles are just such flies.

Soft-hackle flies have a long history across the pond, dating back several centuries. On his home turf, author and fly tier Sylvester Nemes helped spark a resurgence in their popularity with his 1975 book The Soft-Hackled Fly (Second Edition: The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles: A Trout Fisherman’s Guide, Stackpole Books, 2006).

In the ensuing years, soft-hackle patterns have become effective producers on both small streams and big rivers; dead-drifted in the water surface film as smaller caddis and mayfly shuck-shedders; and swung subsurface to mimic the bottom-to-top climb of emerging insects.

Few tiers and fishers, however, have applied the soft-hackle concept to patterns such as stoneflies or larger caddis. Some of the original Irish nymphs I’ve studied have much longer hackles than contemporary patterns. They are also decent imitations of large terrestrials that accidentally fall into the water and drown, such as crickets, cicadas, and hoppers. The extra-long hackle gives movement and life to these imitations, which makes them more effective.

Continued after gallery…



In the Round

Charlie Brooks tied his Montana Stone—developed on the Yellowstone River—“in the round” to maintain an even silhouette in its tumbling journey along the bottom of a river. I found over the years that the round tie, with 360 degrees of fairly long hackle, looks more alive to the trout.

Some years ago, I started using stonefly patterns with longer soft hackles. They worked exceptionally well, especially in pocketwater.

As stonefly nymphs spend most of their lives in pocketwater and hard riffles, soft-hackles with a lot of movement often trigger strikes. These flies are also more likely to be noticed in fast water because they advertise “big food.”

Long soft hackles can be added to any stonefly or large caddis pattern. In my experience, you almost can’t make the hackle too long. I tie my Super Soft-hackle flies so that the hackle is at least as long as the body, or longer. When I can’t find hen back hackles long enough, I use schlappen in appropriate colors and shades. Whether the hackle is partridge, hen back, or schlappen, it doesn’t seem to matter to the trout.

When and Where

The Super Soft-hackle Stone is my secret weapon during a stonefly hatch, whether I’m guiding or fishing solo.

In Colorado and Wyoming, rivers often run too high and dirty for fishing a stonefly dry during runoff. However, the heavy water pushes trout to the edges of streams, where they are susceptible to nymphs. I fish the Super Soft-hackle Stone along the margins of a stream or river during spring runoff, as the water falls and just begins to clear.

I tie the Super Soft-hackle Stone with two biot tails, and use loosely dubbed Ice Dub for a buggy look. Dye the flat mono for one minute in brown Rit dye and hot water. Round mono also works fine.

As for hackle size, I was fishing in Ireland with a friend and he commented that, “you Yanks don’t use long enough hackle on your wet flies.” I think he’s probably right. We often go for esthetics in our patterns, sometimes sacrificing effectiveness. Go a little longer than you think you should, and you’ll be there.

Eric Pettine is a contract tier for Umpqua Feather Merchants, and has been fly fishing for more than 60 years. He guides for St. Peter’s Fly Shop in Fort Collins, Colorado.

  • Matt Lotridge

    I read this article and immediately sat at the bench and tied three wet fly patterns with the longest collars I could, mostly because I like to tie new flys. I have never taken advantage of the wet fly before, only the nymph patterns and streamers (which I use on a regular basis). Then, just tonight, I went down to my favorite and closest spot on my local river (about 10 minutes away) and decided to use the wet fly with a small nymph dropper. Now, this section of river is known to have fish that are commonly in the 8" to 10" range and on occasion some 16" rarely. After landing a few standard trout on my nymph pattern I accidentally got it snapped off on a limb and was left with only the wet fly on. I reeled in and cut off the dropper line and thought to myself "well fishings is over now". I couldn't have been more wrong. Only out of my stong desire to keep casting line, I threw the wet fly in a few times. As I was reeling in to call it a night something slammed my line and stared running. There was one other angler in a riffle downstream trying his luck with dries, and when he heard my reel spinning and the shout of joy I made he came over to see the commotion. I have never had a fish fight like that on this river and especially this spot, where bait fishermen constantly deplete the population. After I was sure the hook was set, I slowly real led in the most beautiful rainbow. My fellow fly fishermen helped me land it and we were both extremely amazed at the 20"+ trout that just took my fly that resembled a large wet feather. I shared my fly recipe with John, who I just met, as we released the trout for another day.

    Just wanted to share my story and so glad I read this article. Thanks for the great tying tips and keep them coming.


    Matt Lotridge

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    At the seminar I just attended they were talking about this too. Very interesting that you have a similar experience.

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  • Sayfu

    I've used this concept for several years now tying up bigger soft hackles…#8's 3xl and tying them to represent the Golden Stones and the big Salmon flies. The long rump hackle on a pheasant makes for a great motion feather. I use a decent sized metal bead at the head to help sink the bigger hook deeper before swinging up.

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