Tying a North Country Soft Hackle by Joseph Lloyd
Posted: Dec 23 2015
Our weather has changed and there is no doubt that it has. This winter, so far, is a mixture of blustering winds that are strong enough to blow the neighbor’s trash cans down the street, balmy temperatures high enough to be considered spring, and consistent and daily rains that fill basements and roadways. These rains have blown out the rivers and streams I like to fish and the above average temps have made any sort of hunting particularly difficult so I have resorted to spending a few hours at the vice. And the time has been well spent.
Fly tying is a peculiar endeavor and requires a peculiar individual who would find exacting precision to be pleasing, not unlike the pointillist artist of the late 19th century who neurotically arranged small distinct dots in patterns to trick the eye into seeing a larger image. The art of the pointillist was exacting and time consuming but if one were to compound that difficulty with the complexity of matching the local entomology of a stream or river, the difficulties compound themselves logarithmically. The fly-tier must not only observe or understand the bugs that the fish diet consist of but he/she must be able to adequately mimic the size, shape, and movement-in-water. Neurotic obsession to form and function are not required when tying flies but those qualities certainly help. Yep, I am a nerd about it but when it comes down to it, tying flies is just an exercise in mindful observation and offers medicinal meditative qualities that sooth an overactive brain.
There are a lot of fly recipes out there these days that are based on incredibly realistic reproductions of the bug in question but if it doesn’t wriggle like it should in the water and doesn’t catch fish, then what is the true worth of the fly? Will fly tying become a 3-d printed fad? I’ve always done things the traditional way (i.e. the Hard Way) and with the minimal amount of equipment as it appeals to my history loving and obstinate nature so naturally I’ve become inclined to look up the older and more traditional fly patterns. There are authors (Sylvester Nemes) who have filled pages with their research and I wouldn’t be as presumptuous to indicate that my fledgling interest would be as exhaustingly informed or interesting but I’ve found some engaging things along the way. Nor would be I as assuming to think that I could write a treatise on the development of the fly in modern times—perhaps I’ll do it when I’m older and have the time to retire to a stream side hut and can sit for hours pondering the metaphysical disposition of time, water, and fly fishing.
Literature that contained information on fly fishing appeared mid 15th century England (apology to Japanese Tenkara enthusiasts here) and continued with notable works that were written in the following generations but it was the advent of social leisure time, new textile advancements, and availability to the to the masses in the late 19th century, that our beloved sport started to really take off. The English tradition of fishing via a dry fly only was venerable but the nature of the game changed with soft hackles. After all, it is said that 90% of a trout’s diet and eating habits were sub-surface, so why not present them with a natural looking sub-surface nymph, ermerger, or dun?
My fly tying desk has recently seen an explosion of marabou feathers, larger hook sizes, and crystal flash as I spent the months of September through October of 2015 in a frenzy of dialing in small stream patterns (streamers, wooly buggers, etc..) for smallmouth bass but as I look forward to 2016 and the potential fishing trips we’re going to take, my interest has gone back to seasonal patterns for the gentlemanly trout. And so my interest in the fishing of the soft hackle has grown considerably; my desk is now a mess of obscure traditional tying ephemera that include woodcock, fine wire hooks, and tufts of natural fur dubbing.
Tying these traditional patterns has given me a lesson in deciphering a particular vernacular; the vocabulary was new to me. For instance, did you know that the body of a bird could be broken into 8 parts (Neck, Back, rump, tail, throat, breast, flank, and belly) and that bird wing could be further dissected even further into a confusing array of descriptive terms?
“The wing is a little trickier; looking at the upper side of a wing (fig 1.1) we must first separate it into two sections, the primary section and the secondary section/ Starting with the secondary section we have the lowermost row of feathers known as secondaries, above which are three more rows of feathers known as the upper coverts. The lowermost layer of which are known as upper greater coverts, followed by upper lesser and finally upper marginal coverts right at the top. The opposite side of the wing (the primary section) works in much the same manner, with the lower most feathers being known as primaries followed by the three rows of coverts, the only difference here is that due to them being located upon the primary side they are known as primary greater and primary lesser coverts. –Ben Finks
Each attribute of the wing has its own feather type specific to a pattern, and while this may seem daunting to encounter as a fly tier, I have jumped in with both feet and even though I may not replicate each pattern down to a detail, it gives me a general overview of the anatomy of a traditional soft hackle. And, because of that, I think I have become a better tier.
Neil Norman, a professor at a small liberal arts college in East Tennessee, has amassed a vast collection of information and insight gleaned from 18th century British literature and has assembled it in a regularly updated online blog (http://softhacklepatternbook.blogspot.com ). His writing carries an appreciation for the history and background of the period wet flies but his tying skills are impressive and stand to inspire me to better my own. If you have a minute, you should check the link out.
Mr. Norman’s ties are clean, spare, and elegant in their simplicity and my ham-handedness is getting better but I decided to give a traditional north country soft hackle a go. I chose the Gray Dun; the fly is designed to be fished on the swing, or given a twitch to emulate natural swimming motion. During any hatch at any given time, there is food below the surface available to trout and if any wind is present, then casualties are going to be available as well—I think these circumstances (cripples, spinners, drowned emergers) will certainly increase the chances of a successful strike for the fly angler.
My recipe was as follows:
Size 14 soft hackle--gray dun
Hook: daichi size 14
Thread: 8/0 dark brown
Tail: deer hide
Body: gray dubbin (traditionally spun mole’s hair but I have no access to either a spinning device or a mole)
Thorax: woodcock wing undercovert
A couple of notes regarding this style of fly:
I have learned that you must leave an adequate amount of space between the start of the hackle and the eye. By moving the hackle an eye hook size space back from the hook, the fly can be finished neatly and not create any difficulty when on the river and trying to thread.
Also, it seems that the hackle is traditionally sparse and requires only a single wrap or a wrap-and-a half.
Peacock Hurl can be placed in front of the hackle or behind it for a bit of bugginess.
The traditional north country flies hold a particular attraction for me but I’m not sure if it is the traditional tie, method of fishing, or the historical background but as tie-flying as a whole becomes more inventive with modern techniques and materials, I’m struck by the effectiveness of something so simple from so long ago.
Who knows what the evolution of the fly and fly tier over the next 20 years might be? It wasn’t really that long ago that a fly fisherman committed to the time consuming process of braiding a silk line…