Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Very Necessary Definition and a Modus Operandi

The Necessity of Definition
As a style, soft-hackled flies have a longer lineage than any other type of pattern. Its dynamic historical scope complicates any attempt at a static definition. Flies that would be recognized as the close relatives of soft hackles today appear in angling literature as old as Juliana Berners’s A treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle (1496), which lists the twelve "flyes wyth whyche ye shall angle to ye trought and grayllyng," and featured dressings that clumped hackle on the top of the shank. Dressed without the convenience of modern fly tying tools, like a vice, these wings would undoubtedly have splayed loosely around the sides on the drift. Not until the twentieth century, more than four hundred years after Berners described flies tied with clumped bird hackles, did the soft-hackle style take on the name anglers know today. According to Sylvester Nemes, the English angler E. M. Tod was the first to dub the style the “soft hackle” in 1903, and only in the latter part of the twentieth century did the soft hackle begin regaining some of its former popularity, resuscitated by the likes of W. H. Lawrie and Sylvester Nemes. That the soft-hackle style could have existed so long with so little definitive explanation suggests a pattern type that was simply understood as such—“what is a soft hackle?” an angler might ask, and by this traditional logic, “why a soft hackle, of course!” would be the only answer necessary. Having become so familiar a style, the soft-hackled fly’s definition had been reduced to assumption. But the province of the soft-hackled fly time out of mind was the North Country and the swift streams of the Scottish angler. W. C. Stewart’s Scottish treatise, The Practical Angler (1857), terms the pattern "spider,  In common, historical usage it was merely the "hackle fly" or "hackles" to distinguish it from "winged flies," both of which North Country anglers listed among their dressing. Anglers had traditionally - but not universally - reserved Stewart's general "spider" for imitative midge dressings. Twenty years before Stewart, John Kirkbride referred to some his wingless wet flies as spiders in The Northern Angler (1837). If nothing else, terms like hackle, spider, and soft hackle highlight a crucial attribute of the style: the prominence of the hackle in relation to the rest of the pattern. 

Unlike the soft hackle, the names of most fly styles designate the position of the insects they imitate within the water column. The dry fly, emerger, or nymph denominates an imitative function in the pattern style, the maturity of the insects in relation to their distance from the water’s surface. Streamers are a bit different. Their name indicates that they undulate or stream out beyond the bend of the hook in imitation of a fish, crawfish, salamander, or even a larger nymph. Like the dry fly, emerger, and nymph, however, the streamer’s denomination suggests a specific, imitative functionality. Soft hackles, on the other hand, derive their name from a single part of the fly alone, the prominent, spider-like hackle. The name makes no reference to the style’s position in the water or its imitative qualities, which are indicative of the pattern’s versatility. T. E. Pritt's North-Country Flies (1886) is the standard primer for soft hackles, and he notes that "it is far more difficult to imitate a perfect insect and to afterwards impart to it a semblance of life in or on the water, than it is to produce something which is sufficiently near a resemblance of an imperfectly developed insect, struggling to attain the surface of the stream. Trout undoubtedly take a hackle fly for the insect just rising from the pupa in a half-drowned state; and the opening and closing of the fibres of the feathers give it an appearance of vitality, which even the most dexterous fly-fisher will fail to impart to the winged imitations." Since it can be fished just under the surface as an emerger or even near the stream’s bottom as a nymph, and anywhere in between (as well as on the surface, with a bit of finesse), the soft hackle cannot be confined to a name that limits its functionality to a specific position in the current or moment in the hatch.

In order to better define the novelty of his own pet style, the nymph, G. E. M. Skues contrasted nymph with the traditional soft-hackle. In his Nymph Fishing for Chalk Stream Trout, the soft hackle is not a nymph, but rather a fly “with long hackles . . . fished dragging downstream so that the hackles closely clasp the body.” The modern dean of the American soft hackle, Sylvester Nemes, defines the style in The Soft-Hackled Fly as “a class of wingless, subaqueous flies, the hackles of which come mostly from birds such as partridge, woodcock, grouse, snipe, and starling.” Each focuses on the material form of the soft-hackled fly and, fittingly, only the hackle itself. A more comprehensive sense of the soft hackle is evident in Vernon S. Hidy’s attempt to conflate the range of wet fly patterns his mentor James Leisenring tied to imitate the insects of Pennsylvania’s limestone streams. Hidy called it the “flymph,” which is “a wingless, artificial fly with a soft, translucent body of fur or wool which blends with the undercolor of the tying silk when wet, utilizing soft hackle fibers easily activated by the currents to give the effect of an insect alive in the water.” While it deemphasizes the soft hackle—the notion of a flymph presumes, after all, to redefine the nature of the soft-hackled fly—Hidy’s definition asserts a specific purpose and function for the material form that other definitions leave off.  

The best definition of a soft-hackled fly begins with the namesake hackle, as in Skues and Nemes, and develops a fly around it, like Hidy.

A Definition of the Soft-Hackled Fly
The soft-hackled fly is identified by the prominence of its hackle, which is selected for its ability to suggest the dominant patterns in coloration of the insect it imitates and for the characteristic softness of its fibers.  Softness in such fibers refers to three crucial attributes: a yielding pliability, greater width, and absorptive quality. Most commonly, soft hackles are taken from landbirds, but may also be taken from poultry, including hen and some cock hackles All other parts and attributes of the soft-hackled fly are subordinate to the qualities of the hackle itself. Since the hackle is always wound sparsely at the the head, soft-hackled fly bodies are correspondingly thin and also color coordinated to match the hackle in imitating a particular insect. Soft-hackled fly bodies aim for translucence and are generally muted in color. They may be divided into an abdomen and thorax, but also, more traditionally, a herl head, often peacock but occasionally magpie. The soft-hackled fly is sometimes ribbed and sometimes tipped or will have tails, but it will never have wings (even though historical treatments of the North Country soft hackle will often include winged and hackled patterns side-by-side).

A Rationale
Like the best artificial flies, a soft-hackled fly creates the effect of a unified, whole insect suggestively. In the soft-hackled fly, this effect results from the dominance of the soft hackle, which suggests the primary attributes of the insect to be imitated, whether they are the wings or the legs or even the body of the insect, when the soft hackle is pressed back against the body of the imitation by the pressure of a swift current. The remainder of the fly complements the hackle to suggest the lesser prominent attributes of the insect.

In its simplest and most utilitarian form, a soft hackle will always be comprised of at least two parts: the definitive, soft hackle itself and the thread that secures this hackle to the hook. A soft hackle in the Scottish or Yorkshire tradition, for instance, is little more than a silk thread body and a landbird hackle. The softness of these hackles results from fibers that are wider and much more pliable than those of dry flies. As a result, they are more absorptive than other types of feathers, rendering the fly easier to fish below the surface, matching the emergent forms of nymphal or pupal insects. The classic soft hackle was tied almost exclusively with hackles from landbirds since they were often softer and of a more varied coloration than poultry hackles. These landbird hackles popularly include the English or French partridge, starling, English red grouse, American grouse, woodcock, snipe, jackdaw, but in the American tradition can also include crow, mourning dove, bobwhite quail, and others. Yet poultry feathers, particularly from hens and the softer Indian rooster necks, also have a similar pliability and absorptive quality.  To better imitate aquatic insects and to enhance the qualities of pliability and absorption, these hackles are wound onto the hook sparsely. By this logic, a fly palmered with a soft poultry hackle might technically be considered a soft hackle, but no one would ever try to argue that a Woolly Worm or Woolly Bugger is a soft hackle. In most cases, a soft-hackled fly is hackled just behind the eye of the fly, at the forward terminus of the thorax, or at most in the front third of the hook shank. The placement of the soft hackle suggests the dominant attributes of the insect, usually its wings and legs or the overall effect of the insect’s combined attributes.

Since the name of the style establishes the dominant trait of the fly, all other parts must be secondary to that material trait, a soft hackle. Thus a soft-hackled fly will not have a wing of paired quill sections or other materials, as they would dominate the fly and overpower the hackle. In addition to its hackle, a soft-hackled fly will have a sparse body and tails, on occasion. As the parts of the soft-hackled fly complement the hackle itself, the body should be thin and less likely to distract from the hackle; soft hackle bodies should be relatively drab to coordinate with the hackle itself and should have a translucency that suggests the body of the insect.

The South Fork of the New River

The Modus Operandi
A blog dedicated to tying soft-hackled flies ought naturally to follow as simple a pattern as the simplicity of the patterns it catalogs. So will it be with this blog: each biweekly posting will provide a recipe for a particular soft-hackled fly and a corresponding picture. In some instances, postings will also include recipe variants and pictures, but the posts will include little to no commentary beyond acknowledgement of the pattern’s creator, whenever it is available. Principally, this blog will be an online pattern book, and my dressings true to the spirit of the original flies, even if they do not follow the recipe verbatim. For instance, I use regular tying threat, cotton embroidery thread, silk buttonhole twist, or the more traditional Pearsall's gossamer silk or marabou silk variably, to create different effects. Likewise, I substitute modern, legal equivalents like hen back or starling for the owl eyebrows and songbird coverets of older recipes.

For the sake of consistency, all soft-hackled flies pictured on this blog have been dressed on straight shank dry fly hooks in size 14. In tying for my fly box, however, I generally reserve this sort of hook for bodies tied with quill, feather or biot. A curved, wide-gap dry fly hook often works best, though not exclusively, for thread, silk, tubing, or dubbed body flies.

The patterns for the patterns depicted here come largely from the following texts:

Sylvester Nemes
     The Soft-Hackled Fly Addict (1981)
     The Soft-Hackled Fly (1975, and esp. 2nd ed. 2006)
     Two Centuries of Soft Hackles (2004)

Nemes’s texts, especially Two Centuries, have been invaluable in locating historical texts that list traditional soft hackle patterns and, in some cases, providing recipes from those texts.


     Leslie Magee - Fly Fishing: The North Country Tradition (1994)
     Dave Hughes - Wet Flies (1995), and the second edition (2015)
     Robert L. Smith - The North Country Fly: Yorkshire's Soft Hackle Tradition (2015)

·  Dame Julianna Berners—A treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle (1496)
·  Charles Cotton—The Compleat Angler (1676 fly fishing additions to Izaak Walton’s original text)
·  Richard (father) and Charles (son) Bowlker—The Universal Angler; or, The Art of Angling Improved (Nemes credits the book for staying in print from 1747-1824, but Richard Bowlker's first edition was published in 1758 and Charles Bowlker's in 1774 as The Art of Angling, and Compleat Fly-Fishing. )
·  John Turton—The Angler's Manual; or, the Fly-Fisher's Oracle (1836)
·  John Kirkbride—The Northern Angler (1837)
·  Michael Theakston—A List of Natural Flies that are taken by Trout, Grayling, & Smelt in the Streams of Ripon (1853)
·  John Jackson—The Practical Angler (1854), published posthumously
·  W. C. Stewart—The Practical Angler (1857)
·  T. E. Pritt
     Yorkshire Trout Flies (1885)
     reprinted as North-Country Flies (1886)
·  E. M. Tod—Wet-Fly Fishing Treated Methodically (1903)
·  Harfield H. Edmonds and Norman N. Lee—Brook and River Trouting (1916)
·  G. E. M. Skues
     Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream (1910)
     The Way of a Trout with the Fly (1921)
·  James Leisenring and Pete Hidy—The Art of Tying the Wet Fly & Fishing the Flymph (1941); generally referenced in this blog as James Leisenring’s book since he provided the dressings
·  Roger Woolley—Modern Trout Fly Dressing (1950)
·  Allen Mcgee—Tying and Fishing Soft-Hackled Nymphs (2007)

According to Nemes in Two Centuries of Soft Hackles (2004) and Ernest Schwiebert discussion of the development of nymphal imitation in Nymphs (1973), the following are also worth review for their treatment of soft-hackled flies:

·  John YoungerRiver Angling (1840)
·  William Blacker—The Art of Fly Making (1843)
·  David Webster—The Angler and the Loop Rod (1885)
·  John Waller Hills
     A History of Fly Fishing for Trout (1921)
     The River Keeper (1934)

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