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Soft Hackle Solutions


Pearl Soft Hackle

(Designed by Dan Cahill)



Hook:           Daiichi 1170, 1530, 1550 #10-#16

Thread:        MFC 8/0 or UTC 70, White

Body:           Pearlescent Mylar or Crystal Flash

Under Body: White Tying Thread

Thorax:         Ice Dub, Color to Compliment Body or Peacock Herl

Hackle:         Partridge



Dan Cahill and I share a number of fly fishing and tying passions.  Pursuing nomadic cutthroat amongst the myriad of tributaries, riffles, runs and backwaters of the eastern Fraser Valley is one.  Memories of crisp late winter days spent searching for the soft swirl of a foraging cutthroat signifying a player or two may be available.  Dan and I also share an affliction for soft hackles.  We have shared numerous discussions swapping thoughts and ideas on soft hackle use and construction.  We both agree, soft hackles are an under utilized weapon within the fly fishers arsenal and lethal on a variety of waters.  When faced with the frustration of pods of rising stillwater trout creeping a soft hackle through the surface film can be magic.  On rivers and streams soft hackles swung and twitched on a swing often out perform dry flies when the “hatch” is on.  Few trout can resist a soft hackle rising up through the water column at the end of a swing.  Unable to resist fleeing quarry soft hackles draw an instinctive aggressive response.


Soft hackles offer a broad appeal with an inherent ability to suggest a wide range of prey.  With animated flowing hackles and often scruffy looks, soft hackles appeal to the most basic of predatory instincts.  For the hatch matcher soft hackles make ideal emergers.  Soft hackles do a wonderful job representing ascending caddis pupa along with egg laying females diving beneath the surface to deposit their eggs on aquatic vegetation and debris.  Many aquatic insects are unable to emerge succumbing to the rigors of emergence and provide another soft hackle opportunity.  On stillwaters smaller soft hackles are great scud imposters while larger versions such as the Carey Special suggest dragon nymphs, sedge pupa and leeches. 


Soft hackle materials are readily available, inexpensive and offer a range of imitation options.  Ideal soft hackle feathers are supple, webby and move at the slightest suggestion.  Some of the most popular feathers include partridge, grouse, guinea fowl, mallard and both pheasant sexes.  Partridge is probably the most well known soft hackle material as its mottled markings provides a realistic appearance but it has become somewhat of a commodity as they do not take to domestication and stress easily.  Some tiers find partridge and other smaller hackle fibers challenging to work with.  Domestic hen saddles are an excellent partridge substitute and are available in a rainbow of colors.


Successful soft hackle patterns feature feather fibers that flow back over the body and tail, if present.  Soft hackle feathers should be tied in place wet fly style so that the convex, shiny or most prominently marked side of the feather faces forward.  Fly tiers have a couple of options when it comes to tying in soft hackle feathers.  Once the body or thorax of the fly is complete most tie in the soft hackle feather in by the tip and then wind it around the shank. 


The draw back of tip tied soft hackles is durability as heavy handed tiers often become frustrated by pulling out the hackle as it is wound.  A number of years ago I had the good fortune to watch noted author Dave Hughes tie soft hackles.  Dave removed the flue from the base of the feather and then tied it in place by the exposed stem.  With the feather in place Dave completed the balance of the pattern.  Finally the hackle feather was wound about the shank to finish the fly.  Tied in this manner is near impossible to pull the feather out.  This method also results in less thread bulk neater heads and is ideal for bead head soft hackles too.  Avoid the temptation to over soft hackles, keep in mind aquatic insects only have 6 legs.  Sparse soft hackles breathe easier offering more appeal.  Stripping the fibers off the shank side of the feather is another method of reducing bulk.  Zigzagging the tying thread through the hackle prior to completing the fly also adds additional durability.


There are a few tricks to winding soft hackles to ensure the feather flows back properly.  When using hackle pliers to assist with the winding of the feather avoid the temptation to attach the pliers right away.  Instead place a half turn in the feather to position it properly so that the convex side of the feather faces forward.  Once in place attach the hackle pliers to the feather on the underside of the shank and continue winding forward.  Although the body or thorax of a soft hackle is designed to keep the individual fibers away from each other there are times when the fibers radiate all over the place.  A strategic pinch at the head of the fly trains the fibers to flow back over the pattern.


Some soft hackle feathers and hook sizes work against each other in trying to create a balanced fly.  Although individual preferences and proportions vary most soft hackle fibers should extend to the rear of the body.  There are exceptions however, when presenting soft hackles in swifter flows for example Dan chooses longer hackles feeling the current better animates the pattern.  Long fibered feathers such as pheasant rump or guinea hackle can make standard soft hackle proportions challenging.  The paint brush technique tames this problem.  Prior to forming the body or thorax strip a clump of fibers from the host feather and tie them in place at least shank length at the eye of the hook so the tips protrude forward.  Using a combination of thread pressure and finger manipulation massage and coax the fibers about the shank, once distributed place additional thread wraps to secure the fibers and finish the balance of the pattern.  As a final step sweep the hackle fibers back over the fly and tie them in place with tying thread.  The end result is a neat even pattern that will have your buddies wondering where you found micro pheasant or guinea!


Tying Instructions



1)  Cover the hook shank with tying thread.  Tie in the pearlescent Mylar along the top of the shank flat side facing up.  Build up a smooth level thread underbody.



2) Wind the pearlescent Mylar forward over the white thread underbody using close touching turns.  There should be no visible gaps in the Mylar. Tie of the Mylar at approximately the 3/4 mark on the hook shank.  A thin coating of head cement or brushable Fisherman's glue provides additional durability.



3) Select a suitable partridge feather for the hackle.  The indvidual barbules of the hackle should be no longer than the shank of the hook.  Strip away the soft flue at the base of the feather to prepare it for tie in.



4) Tie in the prepared partridge hackle just back from the eye of the hook with the convex side of the feather facing forward, wet fly style.  The convex side of the feather is also the most prominently marked side as well.



5)  Form a small ball shaped thorax using a single strand of peacock herl or dubbing.  The finished thorax should occupy no more than the front 1/4 of the fly.



6)  Using your hand place a half turn rotation to postion the partridge feather.  Ensure that the convex side of the feather faces forward.  Once the partridge feather is properly positioned attach a pair of hackle pliers to aid winding the hackle.



7) Wind the hackle directly in front of the dubbing ball 2-3 times as the partridge feather permits.  Tie off the excess partridge feather and trim the excess.  Using the thumb and forefinger sweep the hackles back and secure them in place with tying thread.  Form a small neat head, whip finish and apply head cement.  Gently pinch the partridge fibers along the body to create a smooth flowing look.

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