Eye of the Guide


Tom Travis - July 02, 2012

"History is one of the least accepted of Fly Fishing's side attractions, and that has often puzzled me because the history of Fly Fishing encompasses all the other elements of the sport."

"The study of its history illuminates more than the past; it reveals how we came to think as we do today."
Paul Schullery, American Fly Fishing, A History, 1987

I happen to agree with Paul 's statement many times during my career when explaining a point or trying to make an angler understand a fly fishing technique I often revert to fly fishing history to explain a point or two ensure that the proper person is given credit for the method that was developed.

Generally when the talk turns to fly fishing history regardless of who is doing the speaking I often notice the glazed look in the eyes of the audience and at time I even notice a nodding head in the group which indicates that some are bored and have no interest in such discussions.

However not all of the group are bored, some have the light of learning burning brightly in their eyes and the hang on every point made by the speaker, contemplating the knowledge offered. These anglers are often among the best and most effective anglers of the group or will become so in the years to come as they are eager for knowledge and wish a full understanding of the sport called fly fishing.

I often tell my angling students; "To know where you are going as an angler you must understand where we have been as anglers." To understand a method is often best to understand how and where the method was developed and how it has been modified over the years to become what it is a present time.

In this article I hope to offer you the reader a brief look into the history of fly fishing, I hope when you come to the various historical sections that you neither fall asleep nor skip the section and move on to the method sections. Fly Fishing history can teach us a great deal and offer us new insights in the methods we use, the study of fly fishing history call also inspire us to create new methods, patterns or a new and better understanding of an old method.

For those who are serious about their fly fishing there is always something new to learn and always new challenges to overcome and sometimes the answers are found in the past.

Many of the great writers who appear within the pages fly fishing history wrote their volume to share the knowledge that they had obtained fully knowing that their work would be the stepping stones used by others to improve and expand on the knowledge that they had offered. It has been my privilege to know many of the great angling authors of our times and all freely shared their knowledge with me and encouraged me to seek even more knowledge and a better and more complete understanding of the sport of fly fishing, never once claiming that their work was the final word.

Therefore to the anglers who will read this discourse I will tell you that the information that I offer is not the final word but a series of stepping stones which will allow you to become better and more effective angler. I also hope that these word will inspire you to delve into the pages of fly fishing history to gain a more complete understand and so that you may someday offer your knowledge to others thus completing the never ending circle of knowledge.

Enjoy & Good Fishin'
Tom Travis, June 2012

"Undoubtedly, there are times when the wet fly ought to be used because it will provide the best chance of a fish or two. But I am certainly not suggesting that it is the only way to fish for trout."   Wet Fly Tying and Fishing 2009, Roger Fogg


Like much of fly fishing, the true origins of the soft hackle imitations are lost in the mists of time. However I will point out that the term "Soft Hackle" was far in the future of fly fishing and the earliest attempts at these patterns were simply called wet flies.

We who explore the paths of history are bound by the written record, therefore we will start the historical track of the soft hackles and the wet fly with Charles Cotton who published  Being Directions how to Angle for Trout or Grayling in a Clear Stream, in 1676 as a part of Izaak Walton's  The Compleat Angler. There were other fly fishing authors who came before Cotton but we are starting with Cotton because it was Charles Cotton who first made specific reference to the wet fly.

Now I find this to be a curious event, as everyone knows that dry fly fishing did not exist in 1676, is that not a fact, or is it? In his 2009 book entitled Wet Fly Tying and Fishing, Roger Fogg offered this comment;  "It is probably more accurate to suggest that the dry fly, or to put it more precisely, the "Floating Fly" preceded the wet fly." I happen to agree with this statement and I believe that there is plenty of evidence to back up this claim. Why would Cotton even mention or use the term wet fly, if all flies were being fished in a wet manner in the first place, therefore it can be inferred that most were fished on the surface rather than beneath it.

Furthermore, a study of his work fails to convince me that he was fishing solely wet or dry. But I do believe that it was Cotton who laid the foundations for wet fly fishing. Cotton's advice was based on his study of the insect and he realized the flies appearing on the surface had to have a subsurface or wet counterpart.

How this was missed by other authors that followed is not easily explained nor understood. The historian must pursue the subject with an open mind, to pursue history with a set fixed goals is dangerous as it causes one to discard any facts, ideas or theories which does not conform with the pre-set agenda.

By doing this you mislead the reader and many who come after you, this type of history has a far reaching affect on the true understanding of the Art and Science of Fly Fishing.

Because, we who study the history of fly fishing are bound by the written word, therefore it is very important that those that are researching and writing on this subject do so with an open mind, allowing the facts to speak for themselves and not the preconceived ideas of the author. Furthermore those of us who pursue the history of fly fishing must remember the times and culture of the times that a particular work was written and not use modern day values to asset those ancient volumes.

In 1681, James Chetham published The Angler's Vade Mecum, though he is often accused of plagiarizing all of Cotton's fly patterns and other written materials and is often discounted for these reasons. However, Chetham did contribute to the development of the art of the wet fly, with his section entitled Another Catalogue of Flies, this section was all original and all Chetham's.

He promoted the sparsely dubbed tapered fly bodies, which so many wet flies would have; he was also the first to mention the use of soft hackles from grouse and starling.

Thus the roots of soft hackles can be traced back to 1681 in the written word of fly fishing history. Chetham was also the first to be specific about fishing to individual trout, it may have been inferred since the very beginning, but he stated that you should fish for individual feeding trout. As Glenn Law points out in his 1995 publication entitled A Concise History of Fly Fishing,

"Cotton provided descriptions of 65 flies, and Chetham added an additional 20. South country flies were fatter and bigger that the slim northern flies, which had just a bit of hackle and a short body. Each style was considered worthless, even laughable, beyond its home region. The two schools of fly dressing were already set apart."

More changes would occur as anglers sought to categorize and separate patterns into neat little compartments. This need to control and organize has also impeded development and innovation.

Why do we have names like soft hackles, spiders, north-country flies and north- country spiders? Let us remember the times, when this was all occurring, travel was difficult and time consuming and even hazardous, communication between the different locales were very inefficient and unreliable. Thus, even the best known patterns of the day could be modified and/or renamed according to the desires of the local area.

Many methods, patterns and theories were passed on by word of mouth as the inventor may not have been able to write or lacked the desire to do so.

However that is not the case in today's world and I urge all authors regardless of where the works are being published to research their subject thoroughly before applying ink to paper or ,more correctly, to allow your fingers to dance over the keyboard, as we owe the reader our best and most accurate efforts.

There were a number of angling books published between 1681 and 1805; however in my opinion these volumes contain little of interest to the development of soft hackle patterns and the methods used to fish them.

With the exception of the works of Richard and Charles Bowlker who published the Art of Angling in 1747. This volume stood the test of time with the last edition being published in 1854. Several of their patterns could be seen as soft hackle types.

The soft hackle next appears in print in 1806 in a volume entitled the The Driffield Angler, authored by Alexander MacKintosh Scot, his volume contained several soft hackled wet flies. Remember, in those days there was more oral tradition than accounts of the written word, furthermore books that had local appeal seldom were as popular as those penned for a national audience. That is why the work of Scot caught the interest of only a few anglers, even today his work is little known outside the circle of the serious scholars and interested soft hackle anglers. This same fate was shared by John Swabrick, who published Wharfedale Flies in 1807, what makes this book so interesting is that it contain the first printed mention of the Yorkshire Bloa patterns.

Here again, this volume generated little interest and for the most part has escaped the interest of many who study the history of fly fishing.

In 1816 George C. Bainbridge published The Fly-Fisher's Guide, like many before and after, I am not certain whether some of his patterns were meant to be fished dry or wet or both, however his work contains a couple of soft hackle patterns, however he was writing for a national readership and therefore limited regional references to patterns and methods.

In 1818 W. Carroll published The Angler's Vade Mecum, and in this volume Carroll gave several soft hackle type patterns as well as some very good advice on fly tying. Next came the Angler's Guide published in 1823 by T. F. Salter, and in this volume he described a soft hackle which Sylvester Nemes published a picture of in his Two Centuries of Soft-Hackled Flies, 2004 on page 20.

As a side bar many of the books that I have studied are on my bookshelves or downloaded in PFD form from the Internet, and  all of the volumes mentioned in this section I have read and studied.

In 1836 John Turton published The Angler's Manual and listed several soft hackled type flies and listed them as killing patterns and he may have been the first to do so. Turton tied both winged and wingless soft hackles and was one of the angler/tyers who pushed and originated the style of the spiders or soft hackles, if you will.

Now I will digress for a moment and say that I have experiment with winged soft hackles and have found them to be very effective when tied to match specific hatches. Yet I fear that too many they would be classed as wet flies rather than soft hackles and I find this a curious and I wonder what closed minded governing body would make such a decision.

1836 seen the publication of Alfred Ronald's The Fly Fisher's Entomology, and even though this volume makes no direct references to soft hackles, I believe this work was read and studied by anglers who would have a direct contribution to the development of soft hackles.

Next is the classic work of William Blacker, in 1843 published The Art of Fly Making, and this work contained a couple of soft hackle patterns, where grouse hackle was featured.

In 1853, Michael Theakston published British Angling Flies, his was possibly one of the first attempts to categorize the fly types according to color and season, and a few soft hackles are listed, but most are winged and hackled fly patterns. However in 1854 John Jackson a Yorkshire angler published The Practical Fly-Fisher, and Jackson's patterns made full use of the feathers from Snipe, Woodcock, Waterhen and many other wild bird feathers, both Jackson and Theakston before him tend more towards soft hackle patterns with wings.

As the development of soft hackles progressed the wings were dropped, however that does not mean that flies with wing cannot be called soft hackles, I caution you not to be too rigid in your definitions or classification of patterns. Knowing the intent of the use of these patterns would be helpful, however Bainbridge, Blacker, Theakston and Jackson spent little time on the methods used with particular flies and more time in listing and/or tying the patterns.

Jackson's work was missed by many anglers of the day as it appeared the same year that the Crimea War began, this same fate would be encountered by other authors in the years ahead.

In 1857 William C. Stewart published The Practical Angler, this book was to impact the fly fishing world more than any other since 1496 and the publication of the "Treatyse". To some this volume would become the Bible for the wet fly angler, for others the ideas contained within the pages became an important part of their theories. One of the historical interesting points is that this book was published in Edinburgh, Scotland and was perhaps the first book from Scotland to reach a national audience,and not only did it reach a national audience it would travel far beyond the shore of the United Kingdom in the years to come. Another historical point of interests that has escaped the notice of many is that Stewart wrote his classic work at age twenty four. This once again proves that wisdom isn't just granted exclusively to those that are older and more experienced. It was a good thing that Stewart wrote his finding and thoughts at such a young age because he passed away on January 17th, 1872 at age 40.

Stewart didn't use a large number of fly patterns but he believed that correct presentation and acute observation were the keys to success. His most famous patterns are semi-palmered spiders (soft hackles), and these flies were designed to create the illusion of life or the movement created by the emerging or drowning insect. Stewart fished his patterns upstream to visible feeding fish and was well aware of the problems of approach and casting angles, furthermore he fished his imitations beneath the surface, awash in the film and on top of the film. Parts of his findings were to have a major impact on the development of the Dry Fly and Nymph fishing theories.

However, in my opinion, the fact that his patterns were fished, beneath the surface, awash in the film and on top of the film was ignored by others who had their own agenda or theories to pursue. Stewart cast his creations up-stream and up and across stream using short controlled and accurate casts. Also, Stewart gave a good explanation of the use of the three fly cast and how you were fishing three different feeding zones. This was also missed by many anglers of the day and is still little understood by anglers of today, in the methods section I will cover this subject in detail.

I would like to point out that Colonel Robert Venables was the first to offer a discourse on fishing flies upstream to trout in his 1662 volume entitled The Experienced Angler. As he didn't record any fly patterns this is the reason that many anglers and historians missed this important bit of information.

In 1863, H.C. Cutcliffe published Trout Fishing on Rapid Streams, because his patterns were more heavily hackled to provide the appropriate movement in the heavier water, some discount them as soft hackles, I don't as I am much more open minded and realize that to be effective in rough water the standard sparse patterns may have to be modified.

Moving forward to 1876 we find the publication of W.H. Aldam's A Quaint Treatise on Flees and the Art of Artyfichall Flee Making, historian have had an interesting discussion over the title and the origin of the manuscript. But that aside, the book include North Country flies which were tied by Mary Odgen-Smith and her father the famous James Odgen who was the best fly tier of his day. Beyond the strange title and the debate over the manuscript, the book holds a great many interesting tips on fly construction that may have come from the time of the oral tradition in Scotland.

In 1885 T.E Pritt published Yorkshire Trout Flies, in 1886 this book was republished as North-Country Flies, and it is the second title that is better known. This book is the Holy Grail to soft hackle anglers, and T.E. Pritt is almost granted Sainthood in the North Country and in the United States by those who fish the soft hackle patterns. However, in my opinion Pritt's biggest contribution was that through extensive research he brought together and codified the patterns of Bainbridge, Theakston, Jackson, and the patterns given to him by other anglers of the time. Pritt makes no claims as being the inventor of the patterns he presented. But he did present us with a volume that brings the north country wet fly tradition into sharp focus.

However, many anglers of the day missed the work of Pritt, due to the publication of Frederic M. Halfords' Floating Flies and How to Dress Them. For the next thirty years the dry fly and the birth of nymph fishing held the focus of most anglers.

For angler that embraces all forms of fly fishing and reads and fishes with an open mind, I hope that never again will such a dominate fly fishing personally arise that cause such division with fly fishing as did Halford. I fully acknowledge his contributions to the sport however the dogma that his method was the only method frankly did nothing to improve the total understanding of other effective methods of fly fishing.

In 1907 E. M. Tod published Wet Fly Fishing Treated Methodically, and even though Tod spend little time on soft hackled pattern it he who used the term "Soft Hackle" in print for the first time.

The next publication that deals with soft hackles doesn't appear until 1916 with the publication of Brook and River Trouting by H.H. Edmonds and N.N. Lee, and their book was based to a degree on the work of Pritt, however they offered an excellent list of patterns and tying instructions as well as information on how to fish the various patterns. This book also contains a wonderful section on the various feathers used in the construction of soft hackles, where to find them and how to handle them. However, this book was published during the horrors of World War One and most of the anglers were engaged in less than pleasurable pursuits.

In 1931 Colonel E. W. Harding published The FlyFisher and the Trout's Point of View, and even though he spent no time on soft hackled imitations his understanding and views on the trout's world gave understanding and knowledge to all who fish for trout regardless of the method.

The next contribution to soft hackles comes from the United States and the work of James E. Leisenring with the publication of The Art of Tying the Wet Fly in 1941, his experiment and research was conduct on the Brodheads in Pennsylvania. From the mid-1920 to 1940 Leisenring developed his patterns, which he called Flymphs and designing the methods to fish them. Flymphs are soft hackle flies that are designed to imitate the stage between the mature nymph and the hatching dun.

However, this publication was lost to most anglers due the entry of United States into World War Two. James E. Leisenring passed away in 1951 at age of 73, in 1971 the book was republished by Leisenring's protégé Vernon S. (Pete) Hidy as The Art of Tying the Wet Fly & Fishing the Flymph and though there were some who were interested like Ernest Schwiebert, Gary LaFontaine, Gary Borger, Carl Richards and Doug Swisher most anglers were unaware of the work of Leisenring. I personally believe that his Leisenring Lift fishing method is much more famous and well known than are his flymph fly patterns.

Soft hackle flies were only known and used by a relative few anglers in the United States until 1975 and the publication of The Soft-Hackled Fly by Sylvester Nemes, and in 1981 he followed with The Soft-Hackled Fly Addict and again in 1995 with Spinners and this was followed by Two Centuries of Soft Hackled Flies in 2004 and in 2006 The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles was published. This was a revised and updated version of the original 1975 volume.

Sylvester Nemes reintroduced a whole nation to the soft hackle flies and the methods used to fish them. Throughout his life he lionized the soft hackle patterns which he loved to fish. I know that Syl has both his supporter and detractors, but this I do know, without his constant work and promotion of soft hackle flies they would not be a popular today as they have become.

I knew Syl well and was introduced to him in 1982, when he was a guest of one my clients on a float trip. We saw each other often as his home was in Bozeman and mine was in Livingston, Montana, just a short distance apart. We compared notes on soft hackles used on the spring creek and had many interesting discussions over the years. He was a true gentleman who sincerely loved to fish his patterns and share his knowledge with others. Sylvester Nemes pasted away on February 3rd, 2011. Because of his efforts there is hardly a fly shop in trout country that doesn't carry soft hackles, spiders or soft hackle emergers.

In 1979 The Art of the Wet Fly was published by W.S. Roger Fogg and in this volume Roger covers all aspects of the wet fly, however he give ample coverage to the soft hackle flies and the works of Cutcliffe, Leisenring, Stewart, Jackson, Pritt and Edmonds & Lee. This is a book that I highly recommend.

In 1988 Roger Fogg published A Handbook of North Country Trout Flies, in which he thoroughly covers the traditional Flies of the North Country with section on the history and sections on the various types of spiders (soft hackles).This is an excellent work and strongly urge all with interest to obtain a copy of this excellent volume.

There have be others like Dave Hughes who have promoted and written about soft hackles and other wet flies, Dave published his book entitled Wet Flies in 1995. This book brings together the various methods of fishing the wet flies that has proven to be effective and have withstood the test of time.

In 2007 Allen McGee published Tying and Fishing Soft-Hackled Nymphs which embraces all types of soft hackled patterns including a few with beads on the hook and I am sure that these types of flies might cause the traditionalist to squirm a bit however I will point out that nothing stays the same and patterns and traditions have always changed down through the centuries.

The year 2009 was a good year for those who fish the soft hackle flies, during the year we saw the publication of North Country Flies by Mike Harding which is primarily a pattern book but it is also filled with little tidbits of information on the history and fishing methods. We also saw the publication of Roger Fogg's Wet-Fly Tying and Fishing, in my opinion this volume will become one the classics of fly fishing literature. In this volume Roger covers the history and the various styles of fishing the wet fly and the sections on soft hackle patterns is excellent, along with the tying instruction being well written and easy to follow.

Now I may have missed a book or two depending on one point of view and it is entirely possible that I have left out a volume or two that was published in the United Kingdom or in Europe but at times it is rather difficult to keep track of all the volumes published on the subject of fly fishing.

Therefore, at the time of this writing I am unaware of any publication on the subject of soft hackles which is new, therefore we will bring this section to a close and move on to the methods section of how to fish soft hackles. I will also state that any mistakes made in this section are my own and I will gladly stand for them.

This is part of a book that I am currently working on and thought that some of the anglers on FAOL might find this of interest. Because the title of this selection has to do with Spiders or Soft Hackle Flies if you prefer I decided to add some pages of my journal and regale you with an adventure on the Big Horn River which I shared with Neil Travis the Editor of FAOL.

In May 2012 the Editor of FAOL and I traveled to the Big Horn River for some fishing and the first day of the trip May 17th is best left in the pages of my journal as it was my first time on a trout stream since my return from a winter's worth of saltwater fishing in Florida.

If I were to relate the efforts of my fishing on the 17th of May I might be entitled "the clown attempts to fly fish on the Big Horn," seeing a how I broke off several including the very first fish of the day and miss more fish than I care to admit, but I will say that it may have set a new record for the number of trout missed on a single day by angler on the Big Horn River.

By the second day I seemed to have found my sea-legs and my timing, as thing went much better and by the end of the day I even remembered which end of the fly rod to pick up. The first day was a good day for the Editor of FAOL and it was his first day on the water since returning from his winter duties in AZ. Obviously he adapted better than I for he took several nice trout without missing more than what would be normal and his hook sets were not those of a tarpon or bass angler as mine were.

Through all my mishaps, he was very civilized about it and even agreed to have dinner with me in a public place!  Thank God the second day way better!

Notes: Soft Hackles on the Big Horn River                  May 18th, 2012

Weather: The day was overcast and the winds were light and out of the north. The temperature was only 52 and that would prove to be the warmest of the day. But time the day was done the temperature was a balmy 44 and the light rain that arrived in the afternoon had become a driving cold rain which pretty much ended every-bodies day.

We put in at After bay and slid down the river pausing to look for feeding fish and finding none. Yesterday we had both Midges and Baetis Spinners on the water and the fishing was constant from the moment we started. The water silent and calm with no insects and no fish visibly feeding on top or beneath the surface of the water.

We finally pulled in at a flat that is below the old coffer dam and on the other side of the river. We had fished at this spot the previous day during the Baetis hatch and I knew that we would have some protection from the North winds that were forecasted.

We waited and chatted and watched the nymph fisherman ply the waters, and after a while the anglers who were nymphing began to take trout on a regular basis. However we didn't desire to fish using those methods on this particular day and continued to wait for the hatch.

Finally around 1:30 P.M. the insect began to move and the trout on the flat began to feed, the first trout that I observed were in very shallow water and close to shore. I approached within 20 feet of the feeding fish and observed them for several minutes, I noticed that the trout were moving around a fair amount as they were feeding, this told me that the hatch was just beginning and the number of insect was still sparse I also noticed that the trout were feeding about twelve inches beneath the surface of the water.

I finally selected a BWO (baetis) hackle stacker dry size 16 and dropped a BWO Olive Spider (soft hackle) off 18 inches behind the dry. The hackle stacker was placed on 4X tippet and the dropper was on 5X. I greased the entire leader down to the dry fly. Due to the angle I knew that I would cast directly over the feeding trout in shallow water however the casts were short and I could observe the movements of the feeding fish so I felt that I could accomplish the presentation without spooking the feeding fish in such shallow water.

The day was dark with the lowering clouds of the approaching storm. I manage to take several of the trout in the shallows and with none to the casts being more than twenty feet and some being as short as twelve feet. By then I realized that the first day's mishaps were behind me and that I wasback in the groove so to speak. The hatch began to build and the numbers of the insects and the feeding trout began to swell, and I noticed that the trout were now feeding about six inches beneath the surface intercepting the baetis nymphs on their way to the surface.

I could have chosen a different pattern but my wise old grandfather once told me that if it isn't broke don't try to fix it, so I just cut the dropper back to twelve inches and continued to take trout.

I might mention that while all this was going on Neil was consistently taking trout on a dry fly and I knew from the look on his face that everything was right in his world. I would also mention that in any given situation there are several patterns which would be effective when properly presented. So the fact his dry fly and my spider was effective doesn't mean that other pattern would have worked as well.

As the trout moved closer to the surface film I shortened my dropper to a mere six inches and at times I could see my spider hanging just beneath the surface film. Throughout the entire hatch I fished that BWO Spider with success and, yes I missed a few but no more than normal, and I only broke off one trout that heading north when I lifted the rod. Now I could tell you that the trout in question was huge and the length of my arm, but I seriously doubt that was the case, more than likely it was just a strong 14 or 15 inch fish (brown trout) of the type that we had been catching all throughout the hatch.

Finally the rain began to fall harder than we would have liked and the hatch fade and the flat again became still and silent with little to show that for three hours that the water was alive with insects and feeding trout.

We finally moved down the river towards the 3-Mile boat access looking here and there for small groups of feeding fish but the weather was beginning to close in and the storm seem to be building so we decided to call it a day. It turned out to be a wise choice, we were able to trailer the boat and strip off the gear before the storm really cut lose. Others who had waited were hurrying in and the ramp became somewhat congested! 

We discussed the day and relieved the experience as we headed for home! Now I will share with you the pattern that I used during this experience along with a photo of the fly and a couple other notes.

This is a typical Soft Hackle where soft hen hackle is used

Olive-brown Soft Hackle

This is the BWO Spider I used on the Big Horn River


 BWO, Soft Hackle-Spider

Hook:  Dai-Riki #60         Sizes: 16-20 

Thread:  12/0 Dark Dun

Body:  BWO Turkey Wing Quill Fibers, Wrapped

Thorax: Dubbed, Hareline Polar Dub, Olive/Brown

Hackle:  Starling Back Feather or the dun feather from the neck of a Valley Quail
                Only two or three wrapped of hackle are used.

Note:    The body begins at the mid-point of the hook shank.

Enjoy & Good Fishin'

Tom Travis

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