Soft hackle – by Mike Connor

The vast majority of soft hackle flies depicted here are tied in the sizes 14 or 16, with quite a few in size 18 if the feathers are obtainable in this size. If in doubt, go one size smaller. Many of the older experts were of the opinion that the small flies were much more effective, but also complained constantly that feathers in these sizes were often difficult or impossible to obtain.

Variations in the dressing of these types of flies are legion. Many authors and dressers over the years have evolved various methods of hackling, dubbing etc, for various purposes. Some of these methods, as opposed to the specific patterns, have become more or less standardised in some places, often for the wrong reasons, and this is rather unfortunate. Some of these flies must be dressed in certain ways with certain materials if they are to be effective as they were originally designed to be, but this does not mean that all such flies should be dressed in this manner, quite the contrary. 

Dogmatic assertions that a soft hackled fly should have a hackle one and a half times the body length for instance is fairly nonsensical when used in conjunction with the equally standardised dogma that the bodies should be less than one third of the hook shank in length, this would mean that a hackle on a size eighteen hook would have to be only a few millimetres in length, and this is patent nonsense, as well as being more or less unobtainable anyway as far as game bird or similar hackles are concerned. 

One of the reasons for some North country flies having long hackles is the simple fact that these hackles are not available in smaller sizes! There are other reasons as well of course. Many of these flies have been in use for hundreds of years because they work extremely well, and although appearing very simple are in fact pinnacles of achievement and development which may hardly be bettered as imitations when tied with the correct materials and in the correct way. 

“Umbrella” hackled flies, where the hackle is tied in to spread it evenly around the hook, which are fairly popular nowadays, are often quoted as being the perfect way of hackling soft hackles. This is simply not so. This method is excellent for many wet flies, and is known to work well, but for many upstream wet flies it is far better to give the hackle the correct “set” meaning to fix the hackles in such a way that the fibres are more or less evenly distributed above and below the hook in anything from almost flat to the body up to an almost vertical plane, thus more efficiently suggesting wings and legs, and making the fly more stable and a better imitation for dead drift operation, either up or downstream. 

There are no natural flies whose legs and wings radiate from the body concentrically over 360°, unless you take hairy caterpillars into account!, and flies tied in such a way can not possibly be good imitations of naturals usually, unless other criteria are taken into account, such as mobility, special technique of use, semblance of life, trigger behaviour, etc. Dry flies are tied like this to help them float, not to make them better imitations. There is no sensible reason to do this on wet flies usually, unless specific actions or movements are required, as in woolly buggers and similar flies. 

Quite a few authors and dressers advocate the use of herl, fur, or wool thoraces on many upstream flies, although few of the original patterns had these additions, maintaining that they then fish better as the hackle is held upright and away from the hook shank and gives a greater semblance of life to the imitation, or a better profile, or because it just “looks better.” Some others maintain that a small drop of varnish (head cement) on the finishing knot should be allowed to seep into the hackle roots thus stiffening the hackle somewhat and helping to maintain it in the desired position. Some avoid the whip finish because they say it makes the head too big, especially on flies with herl or wool or fur heads, some use a single half hitch with varnish, some use no varnish and so on. 

None of these ideas are carved in stone! The whole point is, before dressing a fly, you should know what you want to imitate with it and under what conditions, and these considerations should be reflected in the dressing. Upstream wet fly fishing with the correct imitations and techniques is by no means “chuck and chance it” as is often implied, quite the contrary. When practised correctly it is a deadly and precise method of catching large numbers of fish in a very satisfying and pleasurable way. 

Vehement assertions that hackles “must” be tied in by the tip, or one side of the hackle “must” be stripped, are also rather ridiculous. These flies are deceptively simple, deceptively because the possible variations in dressing styles and designs, and combinations of them are more or less infinite, and all were originally invented for specific purposes. 

Some hackles have to be tied in by the tip because it is more or less impossible to tie them in by the stalk, and still achieve the required effect, this is dictated by the material in this case, other hackles may be better tied in by the stalk or other variations used, depending on the material used and the effect or property which one is seeking to obtain. Many feathers have well defined tapers, meaning the fibres at the tip are usually shorter than the fibres at the butt, it is usually more natural looking to tie such feathers in by the tip and wind in such a way that the shorter fibres are at the rear of the hackle towards the hook bend, but you do not have to do this, if you want to try it the other way go ahead! 

Natural insects which fall into the water, or live in it all the time, all behave and appear differently, depending on the insects themselves, their size, coloration, degree of robustness, delicacy, swimming ability or the lack of it, etc. These flies were designed and tied to imitate a multitude of such creatures in all manner of forms and circumstances. 

Really good wet flies have to be good imitations, because the fish see them directly and closely. There is no one “perfect” soft hackle form or set of dimensions for all situations, and it is arrant nonsense to even suggest such a thing. Many patterns may be used “universally” as they imitate so many creatures that they will be taken for something or other at practically any time on any water. In fact many people only use two or three flies in total. Stewart of “The Practical Angler” fame, only used three general spider type patterns usually and had three winged patterns in reserve should his spiders fail him or be required for certain types of water, which apparently hardly ever occurred according to his writings. 

One or two styles of dressing are shown below with comments on the situations and conditions for which they were originally designed. A point I have made before on various occasions but worthy of repetition here, is the fact that years ago “style” meant the variations in fly patterns making them suitable for different conditions, and the way in which they were dressed in order to achieve this. 

“Style” has now come to mean the little idiosyncrasies which many dressers build into their flies to make them stand out from others. This is not the same thing at all. The first reason is an eminently sensible and practical consideration for making the flies more accurate imitations, and thus more attractive to the fish, which is the object of the whole exercise, and the second is to make the flies more attractive to people and boost ones own ego with a “personal stamp” on ones work, which, while it may be profitable or fun or interesting, has nothing whatever to do with the behaviour or appearance of insects or the predilections of trout. 

People often ask me why I do not use the “traditional” down-eyed hooks for my north-country-style wet flies. In fact I have been told on occasion by one or two experts that my flies “don’t look right ” or are “tied on the wrong hooks,” or “you will never win a prize with flies like that” and similar encouraging remarks.

Well the reasons are as follows. For hundreds of years these flies were tied on hooks without any eyes at all, directly to horsehair or gut and similar materials, eyed hooks being a relatively recent invention, so there is no real tradition of up or down eyed as such. 

I prefer straight eyed hooks for several positive and specific reasons as well, the head of the fly may be finished very small and very close to the eye, much closer than with up or down eyed hooks, and this allows very fine small finishing knots important on flies with herl or fur heads. 

The appearance of bulk engendered by up or down eyed hooks is avoided, the tendency of the offset hook eye to pull the fly out of line on the cast (leader) is obviated, and the flies thus fish more naturally. This reduces hinging and breaks at the knot as well. The appearance of the finished fly more closely resembles the real thing in my opinion when tied on these hooks, but this is purely my personal opinion. 

When being “worked,” or in heavy water, the offset eye can cause the fly to generate too much turbulence, and can actually act as a sort of miniature diving plane, causing the fly to hang and behave in a very unnatural manner. With straight eyed hooks this simply does not occur. 

Drennan Carbon Specimen hooks with straight eyes which I mentioned in a previous article are the best hooks I have found for this purpose to date, and I have tried lots, even making some myself. I also use them for dry flies as they are fine wire and extremely good quality. They are also cheaper than most purpose made trout hooks, as they are made for coarse fishing! It is an unfortunate fact nowadays that if something is made specifically for “fly” fishing it invariably costs more than a similar product just as good or better, but originally made for some other purpose. 

So onto styles. The Greenwells Glory has been chosen as the pattern, the same materials have been used in all the flies shown in the style section below, apart from the addition of a small fur thorax on some to obtain special effects, the only other differences are in style. 

Traditionally and in many modern books the materials for patterns are often given in the order in which they are tied in, this means that the materials list should be adjusted to reflect the style of fly being tied! If the Wings are tied in first then they should be first in the list, if the wings are tied in last, then they should be last on the list and so on. A pattern recipe written properly should tell you something about the style and dressing operations, and not just be a list of materials. I have simply given a list of materials for all the flies here listed, as the dressing and style is discussed specifically in the text anyway. 

Greenwells Glory

The materials are: 

HOOK. – This fly may be used to represent nearly all the olives, and a host of other creatures as well, and may be tied in practically any suitable size. For upstream olive imitations I would suggest 16, 14 and 12. I prefer relatively short shanked straight eyed hooks without exception for these flies for the reasons already outlined above. 

WINGS. – Hen Blackbird or dyed Starling. Light or dark undyed Starling may also be used if desired. This fly is also often winged with grey Duck quill slips, especially commercial ties, but these are rather coarse for this purpose in my opinion. 

BODY. – Well waxed primrose yellow silk, which should turn a translucent green olive colour when waxed, there are a number of suitable waxes available, pure Beeswax works although a little difficult to use, Gehrkes Fly dressing wax is also very good, and dubbing is easier with this than with pure Beeswax. “Cobblers” wax is often mentioned in old dressings, but as this comes in all shades and colours from white to black it is sometimes difficult to know what is meant by this. 

It is fairly obvious however that very dark or highly coloured wax would change the body colour too much, and there would be little point to this. The ideal wax should darken the body somewhat and give the translucence mentioned. 

The body of this fly is ribbed with four turns of fine gold wire or tinsel. (wire is better, lasts longer!) I do not suppose that trout count the turns of ribbing, and it is presumably immaterial whether one uses four or five turns, however the turns should be even and correctly spaced to represent the segmentation on the body of the naturals, and to give a conservative amount of “flash” to the body, which also aids in faking the insects natural translucence. 

LEGS. – Dark Furnace hen hackle. Greenwell for lighter flies. In many patterns of this fly Cochybonddu Hen hackle is specified, this is more or less impossible to obtain, in fact many authors and dressers maintain that this colour does not exist as hen hackle. This is not true, I have some natural Cochybonddu Hen hackle, but it is extremely rare. For some patterns “Henny cock” is specified this is cock hackle with a lot of web and very soft in texture, and is more or less useless for normal dry flies, but may be used on lots of wet flies. 

THORAX. ( where appropriate ) – Mixed dark Hares Ear fur. Or somewhat lighter when a light coloured wing is used. This may be varied of course to suit the insects on your water. It is essential to blend the fur properly to gain the maximum effectiveness, using single colour substitutes whether natural or artificial makes a poor fly.

At least three shades should be blended together to obtain the end shade desired, the more the better. In this case a fairly dark shade is obtained by putting more dark fur in the mix. The actual colour which results is not nearly as critical as the fact that it is made up of different colours. Other furs may be blended in if desired to obtain specific results. 

Many old time dressers had “secret” dubbing mixtures which were handed down for generations. Most of these were simple blends of various furs, usually two or three, sometimes more. The “Rythmical Table” which may be found in another article here on this site, describes some of these blends if you would like to try them. 

Avoid dyed furs if you can, they are simply not as good as natural blends of fur. For some blends you have no choice, when for instance crimson or bright green or purple is called for, but if possible stick to natural colours as much as you can. Small amounts of synthetics such as antron etc mixed in to give a bit of sparkle, or imitate air covered wing cases, etc seem OK, but don’t overdo it, and try the originals first before you start modifying! 

HEAD. – Either the waxed yellow silk, or a black or dark brown varnished head. I like black or brown varnished heads on some of these flies. Many of the naturals have very dark shiny heads. 

The first fly is a “standard” downstream winged wet fly with the wings set down. 

These sort of “Standards” have mainly been propagated by professional fly-dressers and many books over the years, for various reasons, this does not necessarily mean they are the best, or even useful at all in some cases! Some commercial flies I have seen especially of this pattern are absolute abominations, the bodies formed of olive floss and not waxed at all, the tying thread is often black, the thing is then about as translucent as an elephant painted black, and about as delicate. 

Set down means that the natural curve of the quill feather wing slips is towards the hook shank, and the wing slips are placed front to front with the shiny side of the feather outside, cancelling out the natural curve of the feather. The wings slant almost parallel to the hook shank, aided by a bed of silk at least the same height as the body windings. The slant of the wings may be controlled by position and height of the wing bed when tying in, and may be varied somewhat if desired. 

This winging style has become a sort of standard for many winged wet flies, and these flies are also often hopelessly overdressed, meaning far too much material is used. The imitation value is nowhere near as good as many other styles, although better when kept sparse and neat. The whole fly has a streamlined appearance, the hackle is also tied in so that it slants back at about forty five degrees to the hook shank and usually long enough to reach the hook point and even cover it slightly, although this is again purely a matter of taste, and dependent of course on the size of hook and length of shank. 

This fly when dressed correctly will have a good “entry” when cast, meaning it will not cause too much disturbance when it lands on the water, and will sink fairly well, and will cause little disturbance when held in the current, or indeed when “worked,” and will maintain its shape fairly well even in turbulent water. The hackle is hen. The wings are tied in last and then the head formed over the roots. The fly really depends on being moved by the current or worked to resemble a living creature, this is unnatural for a dead winged fly imitation, and is basically not particularly well suited to upstream or dead drift fishing, although it may occasionally work for this purpose. In larger sizes it is a good fry imitation. 

Fly number two is the same as the first one with two important differences, the wings are set up, and the hackle is not swept back to the same degree. Set up means that the wing slips are tied in with the natural curve of the feather curving away from the hook shank. The wings are set at an angle of about 45 degrees, and stand well proud of the body, this angle may be varied. This fly may also be used for downstream fishing, but heavy currents or “working” the fly will cause the wings and hackle to be compressed towards the body of the fly and force it out of shape. The imitation value is not particularly high, again especially when overdressed, and many people think these flies are taken as small fish or active nymph imitations rather than as imitations of winged insects. 

The wings are tied in last and then the head formed over the cut roots. This fly also mostly depends on being worked to resemble something alive, and is also not very suitable for upstream or dead drift fishing although it is somewhat better than the first example. The hackle is hen fairly short and sparse, with the majority of the hackle beneath the hook. A beard hackle (bunch of hackle fibres) may also be used. 

Fly number three is the same as fly number two but the wings are much more slender, and the slips are tied in to curve up and out away from the body of the fly, shiny side in. The hackle is only slightly brushed back when tying in, and the body is kept short and thin. The wings are tied in before the hackle! and the hackle covers the wing roots. The whole appearance is delicate and the fly is a fairly accurate imitation of a living creature. As such it may be used as an upstream or dead drift fly with some success. The Hen hackle is fairly short sparse and mobile.

Fly number four is dressed completely differently. The upright wings are tied in first bunched and split, the body is then formed, and the hackle applied last. The appearance is neat and delicate with a high imitation value. The hackle is hen. This fly is excellent for upstream or dead drift work. It will also work as a downstream fly. 

Fly number five is a spider variation without extra wings, with a small fur thorax, and due to the very long hackle and the method of dressing is an excellent nymph imitation for downstream fishing or working.

It will function as an upstream fly but is basically designed to be worked, as the long backward slanted radially applied hackle when pressed back by the current forms a translucent very realistic and mobile nymph body shrouding the hook and actual body giving a good impression of a nymph, or emerger, and the hackle tips come together behind the hook giving the impression of moving tails when the fly is worked. 

These flies have a high imitation value especially for agile swimming nymphs, small fish etc. The hackle is not too sparse, and very long hen, it should project beyond the hook in order to achieve the mobile tail effect mentioned. 

Number six is still another variation for upstream work and dead drift fishing. The hackle is set in a vertical plane, or even slightly forward, (known as dressing with a “kick”), and the small dub of fur behind the hackle holds the hackle more or less in this position as well as the thread finishing process. The hackle is set hard up against the fur ball. A similar effect may be achieved by using several turns of thread behind the hackle after tying in, and thus forcing the hackle forward. This fly will also work fairly well as a downstream worked pattern, but the hackle will of course be pressed back by the current in this case, and the fly look more like a nymph than a winged insect, but not as much like a nymph as the previous fly. Also, dead or dying winged insects which this type of fly is usually (but not always!) designed to represent do not normally swim, certainly not against the current, and imitations thereof that do so are usually ignored by all but young or “stupid” stock fish. 

Number seven is the “standard” soft hackle with an “umbrella” type hackle splayed evenly around the hook, and swept back at an angle, it is sparse and even, with hackle fibres about one and a half to twice the length of the body, which is about two thirds the length of the hook shank. This fly may be used downstream, or worked, and may also be used as an upstream and dead drift fly, although not quite as good as some of the other models for this purpose it will take its share of fish. The hackle is again hen. 

Number eight is tied with cock hackle wound so as to be vertical and concentric to the hook shank as in a dry fly, the shiny side of the hackle to the back. It may be used in very fast water without the hackle collapsing around the body, and is effective mainly because of the semblance of life engendered by the hackle barbs flickering under pressure in the current. It may be used as an upstream or dead drift fly, but will not be quite so effective except in very rough water, as the stiff hackle barbs will not then move much, and one may experience lots of refusals from fish which turn away at the last split second.

The hackle is kept fairly sparse, but somewhat bushier than a normal wet fly. These flies are sometimes fairly hard to sink as well, and the cast and fly must be degreased thoroughly or this will be a problem.

Number nine is a combination of cock hackle and hen hackle, the short cock hackle supports the hen hackle and prevents it collapsing when worked or in fast water, this fly may also be used upstream but is again not usually quite as successful for this purpose as a mobile single hen or other soft hackled fly. The amount of hackle and the angle of application may be varied to suit water conditions as desired. The same technique may also be used for supporting other soft hackles of course.

Number ten is a variation with a thorax of fur and a very short hen hackle, it may be used upstream or down to represent various nymphs, caddis, buzzers etc, a tail may be added, as in the photo if desired, as the hackle fibres themselves are not long enough to imitate the tails. Short Pheasant tail fibres are good for this, or a small short bunch of coarse hen hackle barbs the same colour as the hackle usually, as they imitate the hairy tails on many nymphs very well indeed. These flies may be used up or downstream and dead drift, as they are fairly good imitations, although somewhat lacking in “life” because of the short hackles. 

Number eleven is a North-country-style spider with the hackle set above and below the hook, and “bent” to shape by curving the fibres over the thumbnail. This style is a fairly good upstream fly, but will lose its shape immediately when used downstream or worked. It is purely for dead drift work. The hackles are “set” above and below the hook to represent the wings and legs. This technique was very popular in North country flies. Many dressers being of the opinion that it was a much better imitaion of the naturals when dressed in this way.

Number twelve is a style not very popular nowadays, it is a reverse dressed fly. The hackle is at the bend of the hook. A theory was advanced by several people that this fly looked more natural under certain circumstances when fished upstream, as it was then “facing in the right direction”, the bend and barb are better concealed, and the tippet looked more like a tail helping to disguise the imitation even more. 

I do not think much of the “facing in the right direction” theory for wet flies, although it would be true for floating duns fished upstream, the naturals of which invariably face upstream, but I will agree that the other two ideas seem reasonable. 

Any of the above flies may be dressed in this manner. The weight distribution is also a consideration with this style, if using heavy hooks the sink rate and attitude may be bettered when the flies are tied “reverse”, the hackle being at the bend prevents the fly from being “tail heavy” as it would be if dressed normally on a heavy hook.

I have tried dry flies dressed in this manner as well, but they tend to be bad hookers for fairly obvious reasons, although quite a few anglers swear by them. The stiff hackle keeping the point covered and only hooking up when the fish closes its mouth thus compressing the hackle and the strike occurs at precisely this moment, in all other cases the point is masked by the hackle and the fish is not hooked. This is not a serious consideration with soft sparsely hackled flies.

Number thirteen is a semi-palmer or “buzz” hackled fly. This is the style favoured by Stewart for his famous spiders, and it works exceedingly well for upstream flies, especially ones with very mobile soft hackles like Starling. It may be used with other hackles as well though. 

This particular Greenwell Spider style is one of my favourites, and I have caught a lot of fish with it. The well waxed silk is taken down to where the body should start, the gold wire is tied in and left hanging, the silk is taken back up almost to the eye of the hook, where the hen hackle is tied in, this is palmered half way down the body, and then ribbed with the gold wire. The head is finished as normal after tying the gold wire down. 

There are countless other variations which alter the appearance, properties, or imitation value of these flies, but these are the main ones. 

Bunched and rolled wings may also be used either single or split, or even completely different or artificial materials like Antron etc. An extremely interesting new idea for soft hackles is the use of CDC as wings, thoraces etc. I am experimenting actively with this technique, and it looks very promising indeed.

Combinations and variations of each method are also legion depending on what the inventor wishes to achieve. Hackle and wing angles, body lengths etc may all be varied at will. Bear in mind we have only discussed one fly, using the same materials for the different styles, and the possible variations of wet imitations for various purposes and conditions! 

Substituting materials extends the possibilities even further into the realm of unknown infinity. Before you substitute materials or modify patterns you should be clear what you wish to achieve by so doing. Adding or modifying things just to make them look different in the box is usually a complete waste of time as far as practical fishing is concerned and even fairly minor changes may render a successful fly useless. You may of course get lucky and find a variation which is even more killing than the original, but this is rare. 

Adding bead heads, and using synthetic materials is also often praised as a considerable improvement, this however should be done sparingly if at all, as the original patterns are extremely killing in their own right when tied correctly with the original materials. 

Bead heads and other weights on these flies makes them generally less suitable for normal upstream fishing, although they may still be used dead drift downstream or worked. What they then represent is however a matter for conjecture.

A dead or dying winged olive dun or emerger that sinks like a stone and then proceeds to drag upstream on the bottom at a rate of knots which it could not even attain in the air when in full possession of its full health and faculties is a very unlikely event indeed, and is more likely to scare the living daylights out of most fish, rather than tempt them to swallow it! 

However there are occasions when even this extreme style catches fish. But in my opinion this style of fishing although surprisingly successful sometimes, really is “chuck and chance it” and not very satisfying in the long run. 

Practically all the original soft hackle flies were designed to be fished in or just below the surface film, with weight this will of course not work as originally intended, although the results may well nevertheless catch fish. Indeed in some circumstances it may be advantageous to add a little weight, especially for Grayling fishing or in deep water for Trout which are not rising to anything at all. 

Upstream fishing with weighted flies is very difficult indeed however, as one has problems detecting takes, and in relatively shallow water one gets hung up constantly. Where the water is very clear and not too deep and sight fishing is possible this method can however be very deadly indeed. Similar methods were used on the English chalk-streams, and popularised by people like Frank Sawyer who used this technique almost exclusively, along with a very small selection of specifically designed heavily weighted flies. The Pheasant tail nymph being one of them.

 He cast upstream with extreme accuracy to fish which he could see, and used an “induced take” method, similar to the “leisenring lift”, lifting the fly as it came level with the fish, this invariably provoked the fish to take immediately more or less as a matter of reflex. His flies were designed with this specific purpose in mind, and apart from the general nymphal outline depended on this technique for their effectiveness. Sawyers original flies had no appendages of any sort whatsoever. I wonder what he would think about all the people nowadays using his flies and variations of them which he never intended, for scouring the bottom downstream on a tight line? 

Many flies, including the Greenwells Glory discussed above may be used to imitate quite large numbers of various insects and other creatures under variable conditions, other patterns, as is mainly the case with many of the North country soft hackles, were originally designed to imitate a specific insect under certain conditions when dressed and used in a particular way. They are often not particularly successful when one deviates from this plan, although they will still often catch fish, the results are nowhere near as good as when the flies are dressed and used correctly though. 

The brown spider, also known as Stewarts favourite brown spider, is an absolutely killing fly which for some unknown reason is no longer as popular as it once was. 

Stewart praises this fly in the highest possible terms in his book “The Practical Angler” (essential reading for anybody wishing to fish the upstream wet fly, or any other wet fly for that matter!), and obviously caught prodigious numbers of fish on it.  

This particular style of dressing is also extremely useful when applied to other patterns, such as the Greenwell´s Glory covered in the last article.

For this fly we use waxed light brown silk, before attaching this at the shoulder as before, cut off a two-inch piece and put this on one side. Having then attached your thread, run it down to just above the hook point, and there tie in the piece of thread you previously cut off, leaving it hanging at the end of the body, run the tying silk back up the body to the shoulder and let it hang.  

Select a Starling hackle from the neck or breast of a cock starling, the longish pointed feathers with the blue or green metallic sheen are the best for this, strip the fluff from the butt of the feather, and tie this feather in by the butt! 

Now carefully palmer this hackle down the body as far as you can go, and let it hang, using the piece of silk you left hanging from the tail, rib the hackle with it in the opposite direction back up to the shoulder, tie this in and whip finish. 

The fly should appear as shown. 

Starling feathers are very delicate so a little practice is required in attaining and maintaining the correct tension on the hackle pliers, persevere, it is worth the trouble, and if you can tie with these feathers you can then tie with any. 

If the feather breaks, then unwind and start again with another feather, there are ways of rescuing broken feathers etc, but I see no good reason for doing so, as this is bad practice, results in poorly tied flies, and is only of much use to a professional dresser where every second counts if he wants to make money. 

For us this is not a consideration I would hope, a starling skin costs so little, and there are so many feathers on it! 

There are other methods of achieving the palmered effect, one which is sometimes used is to twist the hackle around the silk before tying it in, and the feather is tied in by the tip at the rear end of the fly, and palmered up the body. This method works, but requires much practice, and is not quite so easy to do neatly. Skues used a similar method, and described it in his book, “Silk fur and feather”.

Before I forget to mention it, I do not use varnish or head cement on many of my soft hackle flies, if this stuff seeps into the hackle, especially a light collar hackle, as it is prone to do, the flies may be rendered almost useless, as the unique mobility of these feathers is one of the main reasons for their success, and hackle which has become stiff with dried varnish no longer has this property. In some cases however varnish may be useful, and on a few flies I lkie dark shiny heads anyway. One just needs to be very careful when applying the varnish to these flies, Regarding the actual robustness, a good whip finish is more than sufficient for these flies. 

A very killing variation of the brown spider, is to use natural bright chestnut cock pheasant centre tail fibres for the body, instead of the plain brown silk. The resulting fly is absolutely deadly, but suffers considerably at the not so tender mercies of the trouts teeth. I have tried ribbing the fly with fine wire, and twisting the fibres into a rope before winding, but this reduces its catching capabilities for some reason, so I no longer do so.

Personally I think a fly that has got me a couple of good fish has more than earned the right to slowly disintegrate, so am not too worried about this. I have in fact continued to fish this fly even after it has practically fallen apart and only a few shreds of body and hackle were left, and got fish after fish on it! 

I have not as yet had the courage to dress a fly like this with only two broken strands of hackle and a badly frayed body right from the start. Perhaps I will one day, just to satisfy my curiosity! 

Fish these flies as you would a dry fly at first, upstream and with as delicate and drag free a presentation as possible, even better is fishing them to rising fish. We will discuss various possible manipulations, which may be useful for fishing these flies as active emergers, of which they are an excellent imitation, in a later article.

If you try to match the hatch and fish these flies correctly I think you will be more than pleasantly surprised at the results, this is just as interesting and exciting as dry fly fishing, and indeed really differs but little from it in its simplest form. 

A glance at any older pattern book will give you plenty of ideas for this type of fly, and a little reserach will tell you what you need to mathc the hatch on your home waters. One point here, for these flies it is often more or less essential to use the correct feathers. 

The modern practice of using hen feathers for just about everything, is convenient I must admit, especially for professional dressers, but the flies tied using the feathers as originally designed, which were often the result of many years of thought and experiment on the part of their inventors are invariably more successful. 

Just to give you an inkling of some of the variations possible, here is a small selection of upstream wet flies picked at random from two of my boxes.

The boxes shown are the ideal receptacles for these flies incidentally, as the delicate hackles are not crushed or otherwise damaged by being forced under clips or stuck into foam pads and the like. 

Furthermore, armed with two such boxes of wet flies you will catch trout and many other fish almost anywhere you care to try, and I am all for saving weight! These two boxes will easily hold sixteen dozen Yorkshire wet flies by the way, and that ought to be enough for anybody for a days fishing! Aggressive trees and bushes notwithstanding!

Make sure you have a pair of tweezers with you though, there is nothing worse than seeing two nights work floating downstream into oblivion because your cold or otherwise recalcitrant fingers have refused to do what your brain told them to! Or perhaps there is, when you drop the box! So use a lanyard to attach the box to your person, and, while you are about it, tie the tweezers on too! 

Tight lines!~ Mike Connor

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