Soft Hackles – the Go to Fly!
Written by:Kenny Klimes
Most fly fishermen will tell you that nothing is more exciting than seeing a rise, targeting the fish and then catching it with a dry fly. I would agree with that! But then I would bet the majority of those rises the trout are not feeding on adult dry flies but on those aquatic insects stuck in the film layer or emerging just below the surface. If you ever observed the hatching of an aquatic insect (mayfly, caddis, or midge) they don’t hang around on the surface very long. Most of the time they’re up and out of there. It seems when they come back to lay their eggs they hang out on the surface a little longer. So, what’s my point? When the hatch starts, I believe the majority of the rises are for those insects stuck in the film layer or emerging. So, my go to fly is usually the soft hackle.
The soft hackle fly (wet fly or flymph) comes in all shapes and sizes, imitating mayfly, caddis, and midge emergers and cripples. And they are a blast to fish with strikes that sometimes rip the rod out of your hands to subtle strikes that need the most savvy of hook sets. In my many years of teaching fly fishing on the water I have found that beginners have difficulty fishing with soft hackles. They feel the strike and in their excitement, lose the trout with their hook set. Most beginners have the tendency to set the hook too fast and too hard usually ripping the hook out of the trout’s soft mouth.
There are several techniques that I use when fishing soft hackles that bring me much success. First, I use the standard wet fly swing. If I am fishing to a rise I try to cast the fly line so that the end of the swing will drift near or in front of the rise. With that said, I watch about 9 feet behind my WF fly line (my leader being about 9 feet) for any type of rise or burble in the water. Knowing that my soft hackle isn’t very deep the trout has to break the water surface to get to my fly. I take small strips of my fly line to make sure my line is taut. Depending on how the trout strikes the soft hackle, i.e. was it a hard strike or light subtle strike, I will set the hook two different ways.
First, if the trout strikes hard, I will literally release my fly line from my left hand. I saw this technique in a video by Gary Borger (famous fly fisher guy). When the trout hits the fly hard it usually will turn away and head back down in a hurry. With the trout going away from you and you pulling the fly line hard in the opposite direction will, most times, pull the hook from the trout’s mouth. So if you release the fly line, the line going through the guides will be sufficient enough to set the hook as the trout heads away from you. Give yourself a second or two, grab your fly line and raise your rod tip. Fish on! Try it – it works.
Now if the hit is subtle – “soft hit” i.e. you see the rise 9 feet from your fly line and you “think” the trout is on your fly (a very soft tug), I wait another second and then slowly lift my rod straight up. If the trout hasn’t hit my fly yet usually it will on the lift, thinking that this insect is rising to hatch. Mr. trout doesn’t want that soft hackle fly to get away. A slow lift will help your hook ups during those subtle hits tremendously. Or as printed in a recent fly fishing article I read by Dave Hughes, “When the first cast entered an area where I’d seen trout working. I felt a soft tug, waited a moment, then felt the solid pull that indicated a trout had turned on the fly, taken it solidly, hooked itself. You’ve felt that tug, managed to restrain yourself, waited until the fish was on.”
When fishing soft hackles also remember to do your best to imitate the hatching insects and that size matters. I usually find going smaller in size always is better than larger. So try these two “hook up” techniques next time the rises start and I am sure you will increase your catch using soft hackles. They are fun to fish and easy to tie. Hey, if you think the trout are hitting the dry flies but they ignore your offers and let them just drift by, then hit them with a soft hackle! As Dave Hughes says in his article, “If you’re not careful you can mistake all the violence for the killings of caddisflies (mayflies and midges) afloat on the water. Most of the murder takes place subsurface.”