“What are the best soft hackles (or wet flies) for fishing the Hendrickson hatch?” is one of those questions I get a lot this time of year. As always, the best flies are the ones in which you have the most confidence. I should also make this clarification: technically, with Hendricksons you’re fishing wet flies under the hatch. On the Farmington River, prime time for swinging Hendrickson wets is generally in the 11 am-to-3 pm window. Every day is different. Once you see duns on the water, and trout snapping at them, the wet fly game is all but over. But if you want to catch more trout, you should be swinging wets in this pre-hatch time frame. (Of course, you’re fishing a team of three wets. Here’s how to build a wet fly leader.) And so, in no particular order, these are some of my favorite Hendrickson wet fly and soft-hackled patterns.
Many thanks for the enthusiastic group of students who attended yesterday’s virtual fly tying class. We tackled the subject of winged and wingless wets (both how to tie and how to fish, although the focus was largely on the tying part). I appreciate your passion and energy, and I’ve received some excellent questions via email. Next tying class is TBD, both date and subject, although we discussed topics like streamers, proven local nymphs, and some saltwater/flatwings, too. Of course, I’d love to hear from you, since you’re the customer. Tie on, and dream about those sharp tugs that are coming this April.
“Smuts — I welcome smutting trout.” So writes J.C. Mottram in his book Thoughts on Angling. I don’t have the book, but I do have Syl Nemes’ second edition of The Soft Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles. In that book, Nemes devotes a chapter to Mottram and his collection of soft-hackled smuts. (“Smut” is a colloquial British term for a very tiny fly, such as a midge, and trout that are “smutting” are delicately feeding on those miniature bugs.)
There are six Smuts listed by Nemes. I’ve only tied one, the Number 1 (shame on me for not exploring further). I revisit it today because I happened to have Nemes’ book out, and this is a great time of year to fish midges. (Midges are a major, consistently available food source for trout in the winter.) I’ve mostly fished Smut Number 1 as a dry fly, but I’ve also used it subsurface. The wise winter nymph angler will no doubt want to include this tiny soft hackle as the top dropper in their nymph rig.
Nemes includes a photo of the Smut Number 1, and it bears only a faint resemblance to what I tie. His looks like the body is entirely constructed of working thread; mine uses the specified wool. (UNI makes a nice wool yarn thread on a spool.) His hackle is wound wingless wet style, covering the front third of the body; mine is wound at the head. I suspect the wingless wet style would be very appealing to trout. Worth the price of admission alone is the blank stare you’ll get from the angler who will inquire, as you hook trout after trout, what fly are you using? “Smut Number 1,” is your response. Soak in that moment. And here it is, J.C. Mottram’s Smut Number 1.
Hook: TMC 100 18-22
Thread: UNI Black 8/0
Abdomen: Black wool
Thorax: Black wool
Hackle: Long white
Don took a wet fly lesson with me in July, and while the bugs and trout weren’t very cooperative, we still had enough action to make things interesting. I always tell my students that if they keep on with this wet fly thing, good things will follow. Don has been in touch since then, asking questions, practicing and tying, and most importantly, spending time with a team of three on the water. That’s how you become a better wet fly angler.
In my report from that day, I stated that if Don learned wet flies, he would become a dangerous fish-catching machine. Although conditions have been challenging in the last couple months, Don has kept at it. Last week he scored this gorgeous brown on a Squirrel and Ginger. I think it’s a Survivor Strain broodstock — that looks like a left-eye elastomer and clipped adipose. Way to go, Don!
This time of year, with river flows down and hatches spotty, do not underestimate the power of the strategically fished terrestrial. Dries, for sure, from parachute ants to mongo Chernobyls to beetles to hoppers and crickets. But don’t neglect the submerged terrestrial like my Drowned Ant. Here’s a link to a tying video and my original writeup on the pattern.
To quote the Delta Tau Chi Deathmobile float from Animal House, “Eat me.” (And let’s not forget that it’s Flying Ant season! Look for them on damp, humid days.)
If you want to catch more fish, pay attention to the little things. You’ve heard that from me before — heck, I’ve got three presentations and written several articles on the subject — but it bears repeating. Here are a few lessons I hammered home to both clients and myself (we all have to pay attention to the little things) on some recent wet fly outings.
On the swing and especially the dangle, don’t set the hook. Let the fish set itself. When you feel the strike, ask yourself, “Are you still there?” The answer will always be yes, if you allow the fish to turn away and drive the hook point home.
Look for consistent, active feeders on emergers. You’ll know the bug/feeding stage from the rise form (slashy, splashy, showy) and that there are no duns visible on top of the water. Those are the fish that will rush to eat your wet flies. Just left of center in this photo is what I’m talking about.
Match the hatch! If you see size 16 creamy/sulphury mayflies coming off, and you don’t have anything like that on your leader, get some on. Now.
Give the fish a choice. Droppers are always the fastest way to find out what the fish want. Different sizes, colors, species, life stages. The fish will always tell you when you get it right.
The Hackled March Brown continues to be a consistent summer big fish producer. It’ll be my default point fly pattern through August.
Late afternoon into early summer evenings can be a highly productive time to fish wet flies, especially if you have a strong hatch and active feeders. Of course, it’s a good idea to fish a team of three (give the trout a choice) and match the hatch (you can match multiple hatches with a team of three wets). If you hit it right, you’ll be the angler that everyone wants to quiz in the parking lot.
Wets will often out-fish dries during the early and mid-stages of a hatch. But there comes a time when you should stop fishing wets and switch to dries. Some of the cues are visual: you begin to see trout taking insects off the top of the water, or the rises leave a bubble (indicating the fish has broken the surface while eating). Others are self-evident: you’ve been pounding up fish on wets for an hour, the feed is still in full swing, but you’re no longer getting hits. Learn to find this moment in time consistently, and you’ll be on your way to catching more fish. Keep a dry fly leader in a handy pocket so you can make the switch even faster.
I have not been fishing Stewart’s Dun Spider nearly enough this summer. This soft hackle has sulphurs written all over it. Change the silk to a light olive for Attenuata? Hmmm…
Sometimes grasshoppers forget that they can’t swim. These would-be Weissmullers end up in rivers — and trout readily eat them. While I love fishing high floating foam-bodied hoppers or big bushy Stimulators, not all hoppers get eaten moments after they take a dip. Some get stomped while they struggle in the film, and others become snacks after they drown and sink. That’s the meal ticket I’m punching with the wet fly Hopper Hammerdown, presented here by popular demand.
The Hopper Hammerdown is a soft-hackle. No, wait, it’s a winged wet. Ah, the heck with it — forget labels, and let’s just call it something that looks alive and good to eat. The inspiration for this pattern came from Dave Hall’s Golden Stone Hammerdown steelhead fly. The Hopper Hammerdown first appeared in the May/June 2014 American Angler (RIP) article “Match Game — Matching the Hatch with Wet Flies.” And here it is.
The Hopper Hammerdown drowned hopper
I’ve been getting a lot of wet fly questions, and I thought I’d share my answers with the group. I’m excited that so many of you are interested in this ancient and traditional art. So here we go:
Q: What size and length rod are you using on the Farmington? A: My dedicated wet fly stick is a 10-foot 5-weight Hardy Marksman II. I don’t hate it, I don’t love it. It’s got a good backbone for helping manage bigger trout in snotty currents, but I wish it were a bit softer in the flex. What’s important is that it’s a 10-footer, which I find useful for mending. Note: I still take the 7’9″ Tonka Queen out for an occasional wet fly jaunt, albeit in moderate/slow currents. That cane pole is a dream for mending.
The Queen in action. This rod gives me an ultra-fine level of line control.
Q: Do you use an indicator? A: My joke answer is “yes” — the splash of the take, the spray of water, and the jolt of the rod tip all indicate a strike. The real answer is no, not in the traditional sense. The vast majority of time, you need no visual aid to tell you the fish has taken the fly. An exception would be when you’re fishing upstream, drawing the line toward you as the rig moves downstream. I’m watching the tip of the line like a hawk for stalls, shudders, or stoppage that would indicate a delicate strike well below the surface.
Q: Do you use a floating line? A: Yes. (I’m a line control freak.)
Q: When you’re casting and mending, is it basically a dead drift, then the flies start swinging and rising? A: Kindof. Unless you introduce slack into the presentation, you’ll never really have a true dead drift. So even when I’m doing a quartering down or straight across cast and mend, the flies are moving downstream and across, albeit in a slower manner than they would with a traditional wet fly swing.
Q: You’ve said that in spring, you focus more on pool-type water, and faster water in the summer. I’m having trouble finding the right type and depth of water. Any advice? A: Generally speaking, the colder it is, the greater the chance that trout will be in deeper pool-type water. That doesn’t mean you won’t find trout in 1-foot deep riffles in December. The bottom line is: there is no substitute for experience on the water. Get out and explore. Keep a log. Where and when did you fish? Were you catching? Were others catching? What was the weather like? What was the water height? You can see where this is going. And finally, a wee plug for myself: take a lesson. I hear this a lot from clients: “I’ve driven past this spot a hundred times and never thought to fish it.”
Q: I fished wet flies and only had one bump. What was I doing wrong? A: (This person was out on the Farmington this week.) You’ve got a lot of elements working against you. For starters, I don’t like to fish wets in the Permanent TMA in any flow over 500cfs (it’s been 750cfs and higher). 250cfs-400cfs is the wheelhouse. Hatch windows also have a lot to do with the wet fly bite. For example, right now (Hendrickson and caddis hatches) you want to be swinging anywhere from 11am to 3pm-ish. You’re trying to entice the trout that are taking the emergers. And this cold, wet weather isn’t helping, either.
When you hit the emergence just right, the results can be magical.
Keep on swinging.
Or BHSHDH for short. The Bead Head Soft-Hackled Dark Hendrickson is simply a weighted riff on the classic Dark Hendrickson Winged Wet. Take the basic color scheme. Add a tungsten bead to give it some serious weight. Tie it on point, and the next time the the creek is up you’ll get your rig down fast with a few strategic mends. (Recipe by request, because at currentseams.com, we aim to please.)
Tying Notes: I hate to lose the lemon wood duck of the winged wet, so I usually tie this fly with that wonderfully variegated buggy feather in the tail. Having said that, the fly pictured uses hen. Muskrat is the traditional body fur; you could substitute any grey fur or dubbing blend. The feather I happened to choose for this fly has a mysterious dark center; it’s just a random occurrence. Sometimes I’ll use a black Sharpie to color the eye of the hook — it’s a quick visual code that tells me I used a tungsten bead.