Soft Touch

John enters the simultaneously ancient and modern world of soft hackle wets.

Lockdowns, curfews, limited social contact and travel restrictions meant lots of home time this year. And this in turn meant my TV and, in particular, the YouTube channel, had an absolute workout. The amount of flyfishing-related material on YouTube was both an eyeopener and a godsend. I surfed that channel so much through the pandemic.

My typical Saturday morning ritual was to make a coffee, tune into the YouTube, search for a flyfishing topic, and then leave the TV on and let it just scroll through film after film while I pottered about the house. And while I may have started watching for a particular reason – like learning how to tie a certain fly – YouTube is the proverbial digital rabbit hole, and you don’t know what will come up on the playlist. Consequently, I found myself in flyfishing ‘zones’ which I don’t normally consider, or know much about. One of these threads lead me into the realm of the soft hackle fly.

These sparse, elegant creations are the ultimate in simplicity and function. As the earliest flies, soft hackles have been around as long as flyfishing. Dame Juliana Berner’s 1496 book, Treatise of Fishing with an Angle, reportedly talks about them, and it is possible they are much older. Over half a millennia old and still about? What’s the big deal?

Beautiful illustrations of soft hackles in Alfred Ronalds’ ‘The Fly-fisher’s Entomology‘, published in 1836, remind us of the long history of these flies. Ronalds emigrated to Australia shortly after the book’s publication, and he died in 1860 – just a few short years before the introduction of trout here.

An internet search for soft hackle flies quickly finds many articles about the fly style, and what struck me is that in these writings, there are repeats of words like ‘deadly’, ‘effective’, ‘successful’, and ‘productive’. Moreover, several references can be paraphrased as, ‘There’s really no bad way to fish these flies.’

Food for thought

My YouTube watching showed there are many people with huge admiration for these flies, and how much they are still in use. Compared to the more ‘advanced’ flies of today, what is it about these soft hackled offerings and why do so many people still praise their virtues? To be around for so long, the flies must be doing something right and it seems that across the trout fishing world, soft hackles still hold an awesome reputation as fish-catchers.

How could something so old and so simple be so popular, and why aren’t these flimsy flies better known? I felt so naïve!

The flies are sparse and simple – some of them are practically only a turn of hackle tied on a hook – but the simplicity does not end there. Another aspect of soft hackles is the simple ways in which they can be fished. From my (limited) research, they can be swung, jerked, twitched or dead-drifted. The traditional technique is to swing them down and across in the current, but the word is that they are just so versatile, they can also be cast upstream on the dead drift to rising fish. They can be fished weighted and close to the bottom, swum through midwater, or left to waft and perform their magic nearer the surface. What the flies lack in bling and dressing, is made up for in their flexibility.

Too good to be true?

So my interest in the softs was established and I watched as many of the fly-tying and the ‘how to fish’ videos I could to learn about them. What I gathered from all this binge-watching was, while there are a couple of standout patterns, there’s a lot of room to make your own designs, and there’s not a lot of material needed to tie them. Simple again. No need to get down to how many segments in the body, or if the wing is the right shade of dun.

One theory is that soft hackles are especially good at mimicking caddis on their way to the surface, but they could also suggest a range of other trout food such as hatching mayfly or even drowned terrestrial insects. And that, I think, is their strength. They just look buggy and the soft hackle gives the fly ‘life’.

Covid lockdowns presented the perfect opportunity to tie up plenty of soft hackles.

So, with time on my hands, a fly vise and a wealth of promise from these old yet effective flies, I sat at the bench and tied up a few. I think the main feature in the tying is to have some type of soft hackle (partridge is very popular) and a dubbing ball (or some such bulb) to help keep the hackle sticking out from the body and assist the subtle movement of the fibres. Or maybe not. These flies are easy to tie once you work out the intricacies and issues with tying partridge or other soft hackle feathers. Partridge feathers can be a bit fiddly and do break easily, however that’s not really a big deal, as any tying issues can be overcome following the useful internet tips on prepping the feathers.

A word of warning here: I found tying soft hackles a bit addictive once I got the hang of it, and I may have gone a little overboard with numbers! Before I knew it, I had amassed a veritable squadron of these fragile-looking, slender and somewhat messy flies. This was quite a leap of faith, especially as I hadn’t used this type of fly before. But I now at least had some flies to try and I wanted to see what fishing with them was like. And of course, I was curious to see if they worked as well as their reputations suggested.

On the water

I hit the river, and started by casting across a riffle and swinging the flies like in the videos.

After some time with no fish, no hits, and the growing possibility that I had no idea, I started to doubt the simplicity aspect and realised that there is maybe just a bit more to using these flies.

There are subtleties in riffles and runs, with their changes in depth, faster and slower currents, seams, rocks, subsurface disturbances and weed beds: all are potential holding places for feeding trout. In the faster water, simply casting 90 degrees across the river soon creates a bow in the line and creates maximum drag which whips the flies around, so they scoot across the surface. Not ideal.

Scouting the river for good soft hackle-swinging spots: all water is not equal.

Casting more downstream, adding a mend or two and following the drift with the rod maintaining a straight line, allows for a slower, more controlled swing. This enables the fly to swing at a much slower pace and remain ‘in the zone’ for longer, as it tracks through the various areas of the riffle identified as potential trout locations.

It isn’t just chuck it and see. The flies can be ‘worked’, and it was absorbing swimming the flies through the river. Fishing downstream is a bit novel for me, but I found it interesting as you start to read the water very differently from when you are upstream fishing.

After a regroup and a little more thought, I started at the head of a riffle and slowly moved downstream, methodically covering water and potential lies. The line suddenly pulled back violently, and I had a fish on. There was no mistaking the take. The flies may be subtle but the eat is not!

So, the flies worked. While I didn’t catch a lot of fish, I did end up with a couple of trout in the net, plus the odd hit. I had grown my confidence in these fragile flies.

It works!

I continued to persist using them and on subsequent trips met with more success. I now have a great deal of respect for soft hackles and find myself using them more and more. I’m not saying they are the greatest thing on hooks, but they’re worth having in the arsenal.

Broader options

With growing assurance the flies work, I’ve now used them on some smaller streams as well as the Goulburn. While I haven’t caught massive numbers fish, the flies are getting the job done frequently enough that I’m satisfied with my fishing, and as I’m getting better at manipulating the drift and swing of the flies, my catch rate is increasing. I’ve discovered that the subtlety of the soft hackle in the water, is matched by the subtlety and nuances of the swing.

In the larger rivers, those long knee-deep riffles which gently shelve into deeper water have been the most productive for me. On the smaller streams, although the run at the head of the pool may get the nod as a hotspot, the fish seem happy to take the fly anywhere.

Very nice swinging water.

While working the flies through runs and riffles is engrossing, the method does not have the massive concentration demands of using other methods. It gives you a chance to look around. The eat is violent so there is no mistaking a take! Because you feel the hit, you can afford to periodically lift your gaze away from the water. You do not have to be poised to react, and focussed on every cast following that dry fly or indicator. You can take in the surrounds, scan the pools and runs for rises, watch the birds, or just have some mental R & R. It’s a slower, less intense method of flyfishing.

Now, I’m sure you could fish the softs with more resolve, but not everything has to be intense. When swinging the flies, I’m not worried about micro-drifts, or the line management issues associated with upstream nymphing or the dry fly. It’s pleasant fishing. It’s relaxing. I’m enjoying the simplicity.

Another aspect of this style of fishing, is that you can swing two flies for an each-way bet. Maybe a large fly swung with a small fly, or a dark colour with a bright colour, or weighted and non-weighted. Then you can modify your offerings once you hone in on what the fish prefer.

You can play around with weight and fly combinations.

So maybe the soft hackle reputation is a bit larger than life, but the flies are effective and I’m on the soft hackle bandwagon. And while I’m not going to become a soft hackle purist, I appreciate the value, ability and charm of these sparse, ancient flies. There is a something about them. There is also something that seems right about tradition and going back to the roots of flyfishing which appeals to me. I feel a bit more connected to the history and to those pioneers of the sport. It’s a respectful acknowledgement of those who came before us.

There’s something rewarding about catching trout on fly patterns which are basically hundreds of years old.

Is it human nature to be lured towards the newest and latest (and often advertised as the greatest) and ignore the past? Certainly in medicine, cars and a host of other things, I’m all in favour of progress. But in flyfishing and the actual fly especially? Maybe not.

The soft hackle rabbit hole I entered has made what is old is new again. It’s that straightforward.