Supersize hackles for spring and summer stones
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.
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.