This video includes traditional North Country spiders and a couple soft hackles of my own design. It’s going to be part of my upgraded presentation, “Wet Flies 101.”
Some subsurface bugs for next month. The four with the wood duck wing are classic Dark Hendrickson wets. Clockwise, we have pairs of tungsten beadheads on a scud hook with the traditional tail, hackle, and body; black bead with Delaware River Club Spectrumized Hendrickson dubbing and a brown partridge hackle; and black bead with the traditional muskrat body and brown partridge hackle. I’ll fish the winged wets as the middle dropper and the beadheads on point. I can almost feel the frantic tugging right now.
If you want to learn how to tie and fish wet flies, soft hackles, and fuzzy nymphs for trout, you can start by reading The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles by Sylvester Nemes and Wet Flies: Tying and Fishing Soft-Hackles, Winged and Wingless Wets, and Fuzzy Nymphs by Dave Hughes. That’s what I did a long time ago, and I’m a better angler for it.
Too many fly fishing how-to books read like the dictionary — or worse, a quantum physics monograph. Not the case here. Both Hughes and Nemes write with a conversational style, perfectly weaving anecdotes with critical know-how.
The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles is a combination of two of Nemes’ earlier works. It’s a pattern book for sure, but there’s also plenty of relevant storytelling. It’s loaded with peals of wisdom (“If you have never tied flies before, I urge you to start immediately. The practice is exhilarating.”) and hidden gems like using North Country spiders for steelhead. The purchase price alone is worth being able to tell someone that you’re catching all those trout on a size 20 Smut No. 1.
Hughes’ Wet Flies is likewise a pattern book, with multiple step-by-step photos and clear instructions. But it also covers history, wet fly types, and how to fish them. It’s a user-friendly read that exudes confidence in the patterns and the methods. My only complaint is that it’s a more western US-centric view of the subject. But wherever you live, you’ll find Wet Flies relevant (“Trout aren’t interested in neatness”). Note that there is now a second edition of Wet Flies, with new photos and patterns. I haven’t read it; I trust that it’s pretty darned good, too.
I don’t usually share patterns in the development stage, but the energy of these flies and the promise of spring has me feeling reckless. I’ve been prototyping some Hendrickson spiders, playing around with different colored threads and silks, hackles, and tailing materials. The one constant is the body fur, a moderate dusting of muskrat over the waxed thread or silk. These will get a test run this spring, and I’ll let you know what I — and the trout — think.
A nod to the tradition of North Country spiders and legacy American patterns like the Dark Hendrickson winged wet.
Since we’re in fly-tying mode, I wanted to share this. It’s written by Robert Smith, a new friend and fellow aficionado of the soft-hackled fly.
“As some of you will may know, I am a descendant of a famous North Country angler/author. And this simple quirk of fate has in many respects dictated my views in regards to tying the patterns. (Best not mention number of hackle wraps!)
But for the most part, it is the beauty of the materials we use in dressing spiders that has always driven me. I revel in using hackles from antique and obscure sources from the likes of Fieldfare, Owl and Wren. Each hackle has its own individual quality, both from a tying point of view and an aesthetic point of view. As you change individual hackles, the individual barb count changes, and as a result your tying technique changes to compliment these barb counts. (One of the reason why I don’t prescribe to the two turns of hackle mantra!) On some of the denser hackles I strip on side off, on others I wrap with a full hackle. Stripping one side of the hackle allows me more control of the barb count and also produces a neater fly, providing you strip the leading edge of course!
The subtle colouration and shading found in many of the birds we use in dressing spiders is to me at times breath-taking. Simple things such as a Magpie tail or Starling skin, shimmer and radiate an amazing spectrum of colours. Others such as the brown speckle of a Partridge hackle, just seems born to compliment orange silk and bright gold wire! Last year, a friend sent me a Lapwing that he picked up from the field. I was stunned at the beauty of the plumage when I opened the Tupperware box, so much so, that even now utilising its hackles within a simple fly has become a reverential act. The bird and plumage was beautiful, and to my mind, it is only right that the fly I fashion matches this. For me, there is something spiritual about using a fly constructed in some part, from materials obtained from the very landscape that surrounds me.
Though dubbings are often rather overlooked when discussing spiders, I love using old standards such as Fox ear and yes Water-rat. Though modern synthetics have their place, and we have to give Davy Wotton a big thank you in regards to the quality of modern synthetic dubbings. Nothing beats natural dubbings. Years ago after buying a collection of tying materials, I came across an old dried small tin of Crawshaw’s Red Spinner dye, the same used in the dressing of Edmonds & Lee’s March Brown. I’m not afraid to admit that I had tears rolling down my face, as mixed up enough to dye a rabbit skin so I could follow the original tying recipe. And even more so when the fly landed a 12” brownie from the same pool illustrated in their book.
Though the techniques involved in dressing spiders is somewhat simple compared to the complexity of other fly types. They are nevertheless, in many ways harder to master. Simply put, when dressing spiders, you have nowhere to hide! Each wrap of silk has to be deliberate and precise, because a poorly placed wrap of silk has a habit of becoming obvious on a finished fly. The hackle fibres that slant backwards because the first binding wrap of silk is crouching in and collapsing the desired umbrella spread. Peacock herl heads that show tying silk in front. All these things are easy to avoid, but surprisingly often go un-noticed until we hold up the finished fly.
Unlike other fly types, tradition dictates that I can’t even hide my deficiencies under a bulky fur coat of dubbing. Because I’ve taken the words of Pritt, Edmonds & Lee, Leisenring and Hidy to heart, and cover my silks with only a sparse misting of dubbing.
To sum up, there is a quiet confidence exhibited in a well tied spider or soft-hackled fly. They don’t need to scream out with the use of modern materials or convoluted tying techniques. They simply need to be dressed neatly and proportionally, and with a sympathetic understanding of the materials involved.”
One of Robert’s lovely ties, the Black Snipe, No. 62 from Pritt’s book.
Surely any aficionado of the soft-hackled fly knows the value of the partridge. Although James Leisenring committed the act of understatement when he said, “The English or Hungarian partridge provides the flytier with some valuable gray and brown speckled feathers.” Some? There are enough glorious feathers on a full partridge skin to keep you in soft hackles for decades. I know, because I just bought my second skin. I still have the first one, purchased a decade ago, and it still has many seasons of flies left in it.
Forget the packaged bags of partridge feathers. Then listen to Dave Hughes, who said, “I cannot urge you strongly enough to purchase an entire skin, wings and all.” This one came from UpCountry Sportfishing. I like to buy hackle in person so I can eyeball the skin. And of course, it’s a good idea to support your local fly shop.
I use feathers from all over the skin — for saltwater flies, too — but the hackles I value most are the silver-grey and brownish feathers that line the neck, shoulders, and back. These are the feathers that are used in the North-Country spiders and dozens of other traditional patterns. The closer you go to the neck of the bird, the smaller the feathers. Look for a skin that is densely packed with these smaller feathers.
A hook, a partridge feather, and some thread. Simple, buggy spiders like these have been fooling fish for centuries.
It’s cold in Pulaski, but even on the most miserable days there seems to be a midge hatch. I’ve decided that small flies in natural colors are underutilized on the Salmon River. And so, buoyed by last week’s success with the Snipe and Purple, I took to the tying bench.
Here are four classic soft hackles adapted for steelhead: Pheasant Tail, Leisenring’s Black Gnat, Starling and Herl, and a midge-like rendering of Leisenring’s Iron Blue Nymph. Three of them use the Orvis 1641, a 1x short, 2x strong wet fly hook. They’re a size 12, so they’ll effectively fish as a 14. The other hook is a size 12 Daiichi 1120, likewise 1x short/2x strong. Some of the original patterns called for tinsel; I substituted small diameter wire.
Now all we need is a hatch and some feeders.
Steelhead soft hackles, clockwise from upper left: Pheasant Tail, Black Gnat, Starling and Herl, Iron Blue Midge.