The Magic of Soft Hackles

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

Soft hackles are the sharks of the fly box.

Like the shark, the soft hackle is one of the oldest of its ilk, and like those ancient predators, it has evolved very little from its inception. Like the shark, it is a deadly design that could not be improved upon. Take, for example, the Kebari flies used by tenkara anglers for hundreds of years. Basically Soft Hackles with a reverse hackle. So effective, that traditional tenkara anglers only fish one pattern. Many modern fly anglers overlook traditional Soft Hackle patterns that are as effective today as ever.

Photo by Daniel Galhardo

Photo by Daniel Galhardo

There are two primary reasons for the effectiveness of the soft hackle. For starters, it’s the ultimate impressionistic pattern. It looks like almost everything on the aquatic menu. A fish who is looking for something specific is very likely to see it in a soft hackle. The second reason is, there’s just no wrong way to fish one. If you struggle with getting a drag free drift, a soft hackle is a very forgiving pattern. As long as it is in the water, it will produce fish.

Fishing Soft Hackles

As I said, there is no wrong way to fish these flies, but there are some proven tactics you can employ. For starters, dead drifting the fly as a nymph is never a bad plan. The Soft Hackle is as effective in this role as any pattern. That said, the dead drift does not take advantage of some of the pattern’s unique properties.

Perhaps the most common and most productive presentation for a Soft Hackle is the swing. The hackle has a tendency to trap an air bubble making the fly a natural emerger pattern. There are tying techniques, which I will go into, that enhance this effect. When fished deep and swung to the surface, the glowing air bubble inside the hackle is more than any trout can resist. One of my favorite ways to rig this pattern is to drop it about sixteen inches behind a Wooly Bugger with some weight in front of the Bugger. Drift the team deep through a run then lift them to the surface or quarter them down and across and let then swing and hold on.

When fishing from a boat, it’s very effective to cast a Soft Hackle straight across the current and retrieve it slowly, about four inches at strip. A hand-twist retrieve works well. This is also effective when teamed with a Bugger. Even more fun, drop the Soft Hackle behind an Elk Haired Caddis and inch them back across the current. You’ll get some explosive takes on the dry. This team works very well with a drift and swing presentation as well. The Soft Hackle is always a good choice in a dry dropper team.

When rising fish refuse everything you offer, the Soft Hackle can often save the day. Treat it with some floatant and fish it in the film. As a floating nymph, it will entice the most selective of fish.

Read more (HERE)

Tying Soft Hackles

Much like fishing Soft Hackles, it’s hard to tie one wrong. At least in terms of color and material. There are many options but the anatomy of the Soft Hackle remains much the same. A body, a dubbing ball and a hackle. Some variations include a tail, a bead head or even dumbbell eyes, but in form as well as function they are very similar. There is no wrong choice for color. Black, brown and grey are classics but bright colors like chartreuse, red and orange can really turn fish on at times. My favorite is tied all in gold with an orange head.

The hackle is the defining characteristic of the pattern. It should be, obviously, a soft material. Game feathers like partridge are the common choice but hen works well as do mallard and guinea in larger sizes. These soft hackles allow the fly to sink and, when the fly is swung, they lay back over the body trapping the air bubble that makes the fly so deadly.

Traditionally, the dubbing ball was made from peacock. The iridescent nature of the peacock adds brightness which suggests an air bubble even when one is not present. Though I seldom use peacock for my dubbing balls I use materials with some inherent flash for the same reason. I also use a dubbing loop when tying the dubbing ball. The shaggier ball helps trap air. When the fly is swung, the result is a nicely tapered body that glows from within like the transparent shuck of an emerging insect.

There are endless choices for the body material. Pheasant tail is a great choice and available in many colors. Dubbed bodies work well, especially when ribbed with wire, and rabbit is one of my favorites. Thread bodies are easy and effective. The slim profile of a thread body and sparse hackle is very effective. Peacock bodies are a classic choice too and one of few exceptions to the use of a dubbing ball.

I encourage you to experiment with colors and materials and sizes. The only rules I will offer are these. Keep the proportions much the same as you would when tying nymphs. Choose hackle feathers with barbules about one and one half times the length of your hook gap and no longer than the shank. Don’t go crazy with the amount of hackle you use. Two turns is usually plenty. Sparse is better. Otherwise, have fun with it.

It’s easy to fall into the idea that you have to have the latest hot pattern to catch fish. As anglers, we are always looking for innovation. We always want a leg up on the fish as well as other anglers. Most of those hot new patterns catch fish, but don’t forget about the patterns that have proven themselves on streams around the world for hundreds of years.

Here are a few of my favorite variations.

The UV dubbing in this fly gives it a little something extra.

Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

This case caddis pattern catches fish everywhere.


This fly uses a tungsten bead to get deep.


I learned to tie this hairs ear pattern with bead chain eyes from John Gierach.


Attractor patterns like this can turn fish on.


This classic peacock body pattern is just a Coachman without the wing.


Pheasant tail and chartreuse ice wing fiber is one of my favorite combinations.



Soft Hackles catch fish from trout to tarpon. If I could only have one pattern in my box it would likely be a Soft Hackle. Tie some up and watch the magic happen.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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17 thoughts on “The Magic of Soft Hackles

  1. I don’t fish soft hackles as much as (maybe) I should, but when I do, I catch fish on them. I actually find myself fishing with soft hackled flies more often for carp, and even panfish. When it comes to trout, I tend to use soft hackles more on lake venues than in rivers and streams. This will typically be the fly that I use as my trailing fly on my rig, and it’s been good to me over the years. Though I don’t use them all the time, soft hackles are one of those flies I just don’t leave home without. One particular fly that I’ve used a lot as of late has been money for me when fishing for shoal bass. It’s nothing fancy, just a woolly bugger variant, but just behind the conehead it has a schlappen collar. Technically not a soft hackle, but the softer feathers at the collar make the fly. The movement of the schlappen is just killer and the shoalies can’t resist it. It’s been my go-to on the Flint this year. I really like that pattern with the beadchain eyes.

  2. I recently read Sylvester Nemes’ book “The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles” (2nd ed.). The book describes the history, evolution, and practical use of soft hackled flies with tying and fishing instruction. If your piece whets the appetite, Syl’s book is a hearty meal for your readers.

    As usual, I agree with everything you say. I have been adding soft hackles to my favorite flies for many years and fish them virtually every time I go for trout.

    One tip I have is that soft-hackles can be added to commercially purchased flies or prior ties of your own. It takes just a quick and very unobtrusive couple wraps. If you have some nymphs in your box that have gone out of favor, take them to the tying bench and dress them up. When I buy a box of flies at TU or NGTO auctions, I often put the soft hackle touch on the flies. Two of my favorite flies to dress up like this are the bead head prince and bead head hare’s ear.

  3. I love me some SH patterns and fish them all over. Trout just cannot help themselves. Had a blast this summer with bull Bluegills that would nail them like a linebacker on a QB. I love JV Hen Hackle in front of an ice dub body.

  4. Nowadays, people have forgotten the art of using soft hackles. When I was young, my dad used to take me out on fishing trips and using a soft hackle is one of the many things that he taught me about fishing. I just hope, people would try them too, as the legacy of it still will live.

  5. Pingback: Tippets: Magic of Soft Hackles, Native Amazon Fishing Toxins, Tips for Instagram | MidCurrent

  6. Great read! Thanks for demystifying the soft hackle. This will be something that I am going to add to my box. In terms of size, do you go with the match the hatch, or is this something that you can get away with a larger size??

  7. Well, the other day was out on the stream, and the fish were very picky. So, remembering this article, I pulled out the soft hackles, and man was it on. Could not keep them off the hackle. Thanks again for this article.

  8. Love fishing soft hackles here in Ireland, spiders. dabblers and lough flies are mostly made up with soft hackles.

    Teams of flies on the lake sometimes up to four patterns (if your brave enough) I prefer two myself. They do offer a great way to fish for trout and other species.

    One of my favorite patterns is the Kill Devil Spider.

  9. I have fished sold hackles for decades. Syl autographed all his books for me. I also started tying them on more of a nymph hook with great success great bugs!

  10. One day, a couple decades ago, on the Henry’s Fork, Windy, micro currents, weeds, several different hatches to match, etc…couldn’t get the rhythm of a drag free to coincide with the rise of my targeted Fish…after several hours of this, I changed tactics and tied on a Caddis Emerger Soft Hackle. First cast, as the line came tight and fly began its rise, a nice Rainbow rockets across 10’ from another lane and hammers my Fly, fish on! Super productive day as the Soft Hackle saves the day. A guide and his clients were having lunch nearby and he yells “ you using bait on that fly pole, Son!?” Soft Hackles are my searching pattern if I don’t see rising fish around.
    I was fortunate enough to have spent an entire day with Syl Nemes, tying and fishing his style of Soft Hackles back in ‘89, addicted since then

  11. Pingback: The Magic of Soft Hackles | MidCurrent

  12. I am envious … am a big fan of Syl’s … classy man and a true gentleman … he, Ray Bergman, Jim Adams, Bill Blades, Charlie Brooks, Hannah Belford,, April Volkey, Dave Hughes, Kelly Galloup, Craig Mathews, John Juracek, and Joe Brooks are my flyfishing heroes … how lucky I am to have these great guys (and 2 ladies) to look up to and consider great flyfishers and excellent role models who have done wonderful things for the sport of flyfishing and the hobby of fly tying … THANK YOU!

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