Tying Byron's Soft Hackle

By Byron Haugh

Byron's Soft Hackle Scanned by Mike Hogue.

Wanna know how? I made a 1" cardboard frame. Then I put the scanner lid on top of the frame, placed the fly on the scanner bed and hit scan. Not bad for a techie like me.

About 13 years ago, I had never heard of a soft - hackle fly. One of my fishing buddies came upon a nice shallow run which opened into a fairly large pool. He said, "Time to try one of Syl's spiders". I really had no idea what he was talking about. Further, I didn't understand what he was doing as he was now fishing downstream! Of course, I later questioned him about "Syl", the spider, and fishing downstream and received my first introduction to soft - hackle flies.

"Syl" is Sylvester Nemes. He is the modern day father of the soft - hackle fly. Syl has written three books on the soft - hackle. As he explains in his books, the soft - hackle is quite possibly the oldest artificial fly used. He traces references to the fly in the work done 500 years ago by Dame Juliana Berner in her treatise on fly fishing. When Nemes wrote his first book,The Soft - Hackled Fly in 1975, it is not clear that he knew exactly why the soft - hackle fly worked so well - was it an imitation of a hatching mayfly, a stillborn mayfly, or a stage of caddis fly? He didn't seem sure. He seemed to lean towards the caddis. He knew they worked!

In his second book, The Soft-Hackled Fly Addict, published in 1981, Nemes knew for sure why the soft - hackle works so well. It imitates the pupal stage of the caddis fly. I have used the soft hackle before and during a Pale Evening Dun hatch and have had good success. So, although most see the soft hackle as a caddis pupa immitation, it has also proven effective during some mayfly emergent situations.

As the title of Syl's second book indicates, fishing the soft - hackle fly can be addictive. I admit to my own addiction to the fly and the method of fishing it. However, I am not addicted to it at the exclusion of all other flies and methods of fishing them. But, when stream conditions are right and I want to catch a trout, I first try a soft - hackle.

Reinventing the Wheel

Nothing is really new in fly tying and yet, everything is new. By that I mean that the basic styles of fly design have not changed a great deal in the last 20-30 years. Yet, there has been an explosion of new flies. I believe that the majority of the new developments have been in the materials being used. The introduction of new materials such as antron and the new synthetic winging materials have led to new flies. The design of the fly may be the same as those tied years ago, but the new material has, in effect, created a plethora of new flies.

For example, perhaps the newest craze in fly tying is the "new" upside down fly. It makes a great deal of sense. After all, why would a selective trout attack a fly with a hook emerging from its underside? Well, Brian Clarke and JohnGoddard published a book titled The Trout and the Fly in 1980. In the book, they describe how to tie the USD (UpSide Down) Paradun. Granted, the "new" upside down fly is now tied on a specially designed hook which makes the effort less difficult and, it is claimed, more effective. The concept, however, is not new.

Every fly tier experiments with new materials or combinations of materials in search of that one great fly. And, sometimes such experimentation leads to a new standard fly pattern. More often than not, we stumble onto a pattern which was tied decades ago. A personal example relates to my "rediscovery" of the Griffith's Gnat.

As with all fly fishers, I came to know the fish catching powers of peacock hearl. There is something about peacock hearl which trout cannot seem to refuse. I had also noticed that the barred grizzly hackle also seems to be a favorite of the trout. One night I thought I would combine the two materials. On a size 16 hook, I tied in a grizzly hackle, wrapped a body of peacock hearl, and then palmered through it with the grizzly hackle. It looked awfully simple, but I was determined to put my new creation to the test.

The next weekend, I went to my favorite stretch of the stream where I had seen good sized browns feeding, but never feeding on my flies. I cast my new creation and managed a nice long drag-free float. Just before the fly reached the lowest edge of the pool, it was attacked by a really nice sized brown. I was ecstatic! I had designed a fly which would catch even the most finicky trout. The next time I was in the local fly shop, I told of catching the big brown. "What fly were you using?", I was asked.

With some pride I replied that I had caught him on a new fly I had developed. "Tell me about it", he said. When I finished describing the fly he said, "Oh, you mean the Griffith's Gnat" and proceeded to show me the fly in a fly pattern book. I swallowed my pride and rationalized that I had sort of reinvented the fly even though it had been a standard fly for decades.

How I Developed the Fly

Being enamored with the simple beauty and great fish catching attributes of the soft - hackle fly, I experimented with various colors and materials. Most soft - hackle flies are synonymous with sparseness. The traditional flies were nothing more than a body of floss and a wrap and a half of partridge hackle. My interest was in imitating the caddis pupa.

The caddis pupa has a defined segmented body and trailing legs. Antron was now available and had proven its worth in all sorts of flies - primarily due to the pioneering work of Gary LaFontaine and, most notably, his Emergent Sparkle Pupa fly pattern.

After a great deal of experimentation, I arrived at a soft - hackle fly which really did produce well for me on Iowa streams. I gave some to a friend from Des Moines and he also found it to be quite productive. He inquired as to the name of the fly. I said it had no name. He said, "O K, it's the Byron's Soft Hackle".

Since then, I have reread the book The Masters on the Nymph, edited by J. Michael Migel and Leonard M. Wright, Jr. This book, published in 1979, contains a chapter on "Soft - hackle Nymphs - the Flymphs" by V.S. Hidy. There, except for the antron-like body material I use, was a drawing of a fly just like my soft - hackle! So, whether it is a soft - hackle, a flymph, developed by V.S. Hidy, or myself, I'll continue to fish it, and, for the time being, will refer to it as Byron's Soft Hackle.

What Materials to Use to Make a Good Soft Hackle

All tiers recognize that we are attempting to create an imitation of a living insect. This is particularly true of the sub-surface stages of insects. The insects have a life of their own you know. They move, feed, and eventually trek to the surface. Materials and/or designs which impart life are going to be more effective than those which don't. This is the most important aspect of a soft - hackle fly. The sparsely hackled collar of the fly is hackled with foul feathers which are soft - just the antithesis of the dressing of a dry fly which needs stiff hackle to support it in the surface film of the water. (Note : Click on Understanding Soft Hackles in the materials section for pictures of feathers.)

Materials used as soft hackle come from a variety of birds such as coot, quail, grouse, and my favorite, the partridge. When hackled, and subject to water currents, the hackle fibers pulsate and move - much like the legs of the caddis pupa. (Picture of a partridge feather is shown below.)

Partridge feather scanned by Mike Hogue

Additionally, we need a segmented body - thus, we use a fine flat gold tinsel ribbing to add this effect. Lastly, we need a thorax to represent the insect's thorax (or chest). Coincidentally, the exaggerated thorax we dress keeps the soft hackle fibers from lying flat against the body in stream currents. This helps the "legs" pulsate and "swim" in the varying currents of the stream.

Using antron for the body and thorax gives the fly an added attraction to the fish. The antron material also tends to capture air bubbles. This is the backbone of LaFontaine's Emergent Sparkle Pupa. Now, we are only left with color selection. After observing the real insect and trying a variety of colors, I settled on a bright tan color.

So, that's the fly and the thinking behind it. Now, let's tie it. It is embarrassingly easy to tie.

The Pattern for Byron's Soft Hackle

Hook: 14-18 (Standard Dry Fly such as Tiemco 100)

Thread: 8/0 (Tan in Color)

Body: Antron Dubbing (Tan in Color)

Ribbing: Fine, flat gold tinsel

Hackle: Natural Partridge

Tail: None

How to Make the Dubbing

The dubbing used for this fly requires using either a pre-blended antron dubbing which can be found at most full-line fly shops or making your own which would be my recommendation. All it takes to make all the dubbing material you will ever need for all your flies is a $10 to $20 coffee bean grinder. If you don't have one, get one. It will assist you in mixing dubbing materials and in making your own. It is also indispensable for "fluffing" natural furs, mixing such furs, and combining them with an antron-like material.

After reading Gary LaFontaine's books, I scoured all the craft shops in town for the material he recommended for the Emergent Sparkle Pupa fly. I finally located a trademarked product called "Dazzelaire" at the local Ben Franklin store. It comes in a skein with enough material to last a lifetime for only a couple dollars.

The particular skein I selected contains about any color you might be interested in as the color changes every five or six inches along the entire strand of material - all in one skein.

Once you secure the material and select the color you want, cut the material in 1/4 to 1/2 inch lengths and then put them in your coffee grinder. Run the grinder 10 to 15 seconds and then check the results. It takes very little time to get the texture you want.

Having a well fluffed dubbing material makes dubbing much easier and especially allows for sparse dubbing which avoidsthe most frequent mistakein dubbing any fly - using too much dubbing material. Except for the fly's thorax area, you want the dubbing to just barely conceal your tying thread.

How to Dub The Fly

Secure the hook in your vice. Since the abdomen of the insect is approximately 60 percent of its full length, we will secure our ribbing material at this point on the hook shank. As the most productive size soft - hackle flies in Iowa are tied on either a size 14 or size 16 hook, you should select the finest (thinnest) flat gold tinsel you can find. After securing the tinsel, wrap back to a point slightly beyond the start of the bend of the hook. You will want to begin your dubbing just below this part of the hook, so you need to secure your tinsel back to this point of the hook shank.

With the tinsel hanging away to the rear of the hook, sparselydub your thread with the blended or fluffed Dazzelaire or the antron dubbing mixture you have purchased. For these sizes of flies, you will find that you need only dub about two and a half inches of thread. Remember, you can build up dubbing by wrapping over the previous dubbing if you have sparsely dubbed your thread. If you have heavily dubbed your tying thread, you cannot reduce the bulk to achieve a nice thin taper.

It's the opposite of getting a haircut. If the barber cuts too much off on his/her first attempt, you're out of luck. If the first pass conservatively cuts less, a second pass can be made.Now, wrap your dubbing forward to about the 60 percent point of the hook with just the slightest bit of a heavier taper as you approach this point. Once there, allow your bobbin to hang down and return to the ribbing material.

Take the gold tinsel in your tying hand and make two wraps, one over the other, just below the beginning of your dubbing. This forms a rear tag to the fly. Now, you want to make four evenly spaced wraps of the tinsel by the time you reach your tying thread which is at the 60 percent mark of the hook shank. Securely tie down the tinsel at this point of the hook shank and do not worry too much about thread build up at this point as you will be dubbing the thorax over this location anyway. It is important to be sure that you adequately secure the tinsel as the trout's teeth will test the ribbing.Clip away the excess tinsel with a wire cutter.

Now, dub your thread again. This time you can be just a little more generous with \the dubbing material. You will make three or four wraps of the dubbing to build up a nice thorax which should be about twice the width of the abdomen. With all the fingers of your left hand, gently stroke back the dubbed thorax and wrap a couple of tight wraps up against the base of the dubbed thorax while sweeping the thorax material back.Some of the dubbing fibers will sweep back towards the rear of the hook. This is good. The material will serve as the trailing shuck of the emerging insect.

Selecting the Right Size Hackle


Select a natural partridge feather of correct size for your fly. You want the hackle fibers to be long enough to extend just past the rear bend of the hook. Most of these flies are tied with hackle which is too long. If you err, err in favor of shorter fibers.

There are a couple of ways to hackle this fly. Some tiers tie the hackle in by the tip rather than the traditional method of tying the hackle in at the stem. I prefer to tie the hackle in at the stem. First, strip away the downy fibers from the stem.

Then, while holding the feather with the shiny, or convex, side of the feather facing you. Wrap tightly with a number of turns and trim off the excess stem. Now, wrap your thread securely to just back of the eye of the hook.

Carefully attach your hackle plier to the tip of the feather. Remember, soft hackle is soft. It is easy to break off the tip and thereby lose your grip of the feather. You should try to grasp the tip of the stem. Do not worry about having secured it too far down the feather as you are only going to wrap one and a half turns of the feather.

As you wrap the soft - hackle around the hook, gently "fluff" the fibers to separate them and allow them to space evenly around the hook shank. While still holding the hackle plier, tie down the hackle with a number of thread wraps. Again, at this point do not worry about thread build up. You are going to use a significant amount of thread to build a nice thread head to the fly anyway.

Now, clip off the excess part of the hackle feather and begin to form a slightly heavy head to the fly. Bring the head of the fly back against the hackle while gently holding the hackle swept back with your left hand. After all, this is one of the genus of wet flies and obviously, the hackle is to be slightly swept back against the thorax.Cement the head and you're done.


Email: Mike@eflytyer.com

For more Info Contact:

Mike Hogue / Badger Creek Fly Tying / 622 West Dryden Road, Freeville, NY 13068

Phone: 607-347-4946