When my father did a lot of fly fishing in Pennsylvania in the 60’s and 70’s nymphing with strike indicators was yet to be discovered by fly fishermen and fishing with nymphs was probably not as effective as it is with modern tactics. Dry fly fishing was common but limitations were apparent in the simplicity and lack of diversity in surface patterns. Streamer fishing was also popular but not commonly practiced like it is today with more active presentations and lifelike materials. Fly fishing with soft hackles and wet flies was much more popular than it is now.
Anglers still caught plenty of trout and there was one method that they used to put a lot of the trout in the net and then into the creel. Soft hackle flies allowed fly rodders to cover a lot of water with flies that did a great job of mimicking emerging insects and their behaviors. Swinging multiple soft hackle wet flies across and downstream was more than likely the favored method of anglers prior to indicator nymphing.
Simply tied with pulsating partridge soft hackles and thread or dubbed hair bodies with a little flashy ribbing, these flies have been forgotten by a lot of modern fly fishermen but they can still hook plenty of trout during various aquatic insect emergences including mayflies, caddis and midge hatches. An active hatch is required for the best soft hackle fishing but sometimes prospecting lots of water with a couple of swinging wet flies can pound up otherwise stingy trout in much the same way streamers can. Fish downstream through riffles and pools and with each step make a new cast and swing, covering every square inch of fishy water.
Imitating Aquatic Insects
For imitating midge pupae, small soft hackles are deadly in sizes 18-22. I like Palm’s Biot Emerger in gray, olive and black or a tiny Peacock and Partidge. The soft hackles do a good job of looking like legs and wings of hatching and crippled midges. Try fishing them under an indicator with weight in tandem with a midge larvae like a Black Beauty or Disco Midge. Dead drift them through the first half of the drift and then let them slowly swing towards the surface. Also try fishing them unweighted a few inches under a dry fly when fish focus on adult midges.
To imitate mayflies, use the same tactics described above. Good flies include soft hackle hare’s ear’s in natural and olive in various sizes from #10 for Green Drakes to #18 for BWOs. For PMDs I tie a custom soft hackle wet fly with a pheasant tail body, a dubbed bright pink thorax and light grey CDC soft hackle. Swing it slowly through riffles during the July PMD hatch for aggressive strikes. Again, soft hackles fished under a dry fly are a great way to show trout a crippled dun that didn’t make it off the water.
Perhaps the best hatch to use two or three unweighted swinging soft hackles just like the old timers used to is the caddis hatch. Caddis pupae are very active and swim quickly towards to surface and trout chase them aggressively. Long partridge hackles imitate legs, antennae and wings of the caddis pupae. Depending on the species and body color of the caddis, flies like a Western Coachmen, Partridge and Green, Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail or Guide’s Choice in sizes #12-16 will draw violent hits. Upsize your tippet to 3X, cast slightly across and upstream then let your flies dead drift before swinging across and down. Let the flies drag directly downstream for a short time before lifting to recast.The swinging motion is what will attract the most fish.
These days, the trout in the rivers around Vail, Colorado rarely see soft hackled wet flies so they respond very well to these presentations. The same is true wherever trout are found because most modern day anglers spend the majority of their time focused on a plastic bubble bobbing in the current. Some newer soft hackle wet flies incorporate a bead head to help get flies down and avoid the need for strike indicators. A little Crystal Flash added to old patterns increase visibility and attract more looks from trout also.Those old timers in the canvas waders with wicker creels and bamboo rods knew a thing or two about catching trout so don’t be afraid to make an old fly fishing tactic a new weapon in your fish catching arsenal. To stock up on soft hackles, stop by and check out Vail’s largest fly inventory at the Vail Valley Anglers fly shop.
Brody Henderson, Senior Guide and Web Content Writer