Eye of the Guide


Tom Travis - Apr 22, 2013

Over the past couple of years I have written fairly extensively about the effectiveness of Soft Hackle imitations and I written about the **history of Soft Hackles and now I wish to impart my thoughts and experiences on fishing Soft Hackles are surface flies.

I am not the first to fish soft hackles on the surface of the water as a matter of fact I believe that fish have been taken on floating soft hackled imitations since they first appeared on the scene of fly fishing.

What started me down this path happened summer before last while fishing on Soda Butte Creek in Yellowstone National Park. I was using a soft hackle flymph style of fly as a dry fly and was doing very well when I was approached by a pair of anglers fishing below me, asking what I was using as they had seen me take several trout and they had been unable to break the code and hook up.

I replied that I was using a soft hackle flymph style of fly but I was fishing it on the surface of the water, they immediately told me that a fly of that type would be considered a wet fly, I showed them how I was using it and they could see that the fly was floating on the surface and they even seen me miss a take! But they still would accept that any soft hackle was anything more than a wet fly.

That incident got me thinking about how we as anglers define our fly fishing terms and some are rather rigid in their personal interruption of the various fly styles. This lead me to more serious experiments with fishing soft hackle imitations as dry flies and it also lead me to travel back through the pages of history looking for others who had also fished this fly style on the surface of the water.

As I have stated many times we are bound by the written word and therefore we can go back in history and find many instances where soft hackled type flies we were fished on the surface. However to do this we must approach these texts of the ancient anglers with an open minded and not accept the dictates and interruptions of others who have written their own version of history while ignoring the facts.

James Chetham published The Angler's Vade Mecum in 1681 and he was the first to mention the use of partridge, grouse and starling feathers for hackling and he also used thinly dubbed bodies of fur. Flies constructed in this manner would have floated on the surface for a while and if properly dried between the cast would have continued to float on the surface of the water.   

As you browse through the pages of history and look at the materials used to construct the soft hackle patterns it is easy to see how some of the soft hackles could have been used on the surface of the water and this is especially true as we move into the 19th century and the development of the single handed fly rods, reels and improved fly lines and the fact that false casting between presentations were used to dry the imitation.

Next if we examine the work of William C. Stewart who published The Practical Angler in 1857. Stewart discussed fishing his imitations upstream to visibly rising trout using his soft hackled imitations. This work was studied and parts were incorporated into the dictates which Frederic M. Halford would codify into the art of dry fly fishing. However, I believe that Halford and many other historians ignored the fact that Stewart fished his imitations on the surface of the water, awash in the surface film and beneath the surface of the water. In 2009 Roger Fogg published Wet Fly Tying and Fishing and in this volume he discusses Stewart's patterns and how they were fished as I have stated and he included an excellent illustration of the imitations on the surface, in the film and under the surface.

Unfortunately many methods, patterns and theories were passed on by word of mouth as the inventor many have been able to write or lacked the desire to do so.

Or may have lacked the ability to articulate what was being done and furthermore the fly fishing during those ancient times was very regional and the spread of information was very fragmented unlike today with the advent of the internet, cell phones and the speed of information age.

Down through the pages of history many anglers have soft hackled type imitations on the surface of the water but for the purposed of this article we will skip ahead to the work of Sylvester Nemes and his various volumes on the use of soft hackles which began in 1975 ended 2006, Syl passed away in 2011 and he spent a lifetime using, experimenting and writing about soft hackles. 

Among his patterns is one called the Mother's Day Caddis which can be fished both on top of the water, flush in the film or beneath the surface. Which is also true of many of his patterns in Spinners which was published 1995. Over the years Syl and I had many discussions on fishing soft hackles on the surface of the water.

Personally I have never been limited by convention or the supposed rules of fishing or fly tying, back in late 1980's and through the 1990's I ran a fly shop in Livingston, Montana and I developed several booklets for the fly tying classes I was teaching. Among the patterns that I developed was an emerging caddis pattern with a soft hackle collar, I have listed the pattern recipe below, this pattern prove to be very effective and at the time I developed it I wasn't really thinking about soft hackles as dry flies.

** Fly Fishing History------A Note, July 2nd, 2012 By Tom Travis, Eye of the Guide-Archives.

Yellowstone Caddis Emerger (Black & Olive)

Because I had used materials which float or shed water and could be treated to float this pattern was fished on the surface and in the film. The first thing that I noticed was the movement of the soft hackle fibers that were in the film and how their movement helped to give the imitation the illusion of life which I believe is very important to the success of any imitation.

Since those days and because of the writings of Syl Nemes and the discussions we had and the simple fact that I progressed as an angler I began to experiment more and more with soft hackle patterns which can be used on the surface of the water.  

Some of my next experiments were conducted with traditional style soft hackles, therefore I had to change the material I was using in the construction of the bodies as I had found the silk and floss bodied soft up water to fast and I had to change the hook that I used for the traditional patterns. The resulting style worked style and could be fished on the surface of the water and awash in the film.  

Some of my favorite recipes are listed below, and as you can see the materials and the hook style used will allow this pattern to be fished on the surface of the water with nothing more than false casting.

Of course the imitations have to be thoroughly dried and fluffed after catching a trout, after drying I used Frog Fanny to fluff the imitation. With these imitations I experimented using them as emergers, during the hatch and during the spinner falls. These patterns are also must simpler than my first attempt at using soft hackles with surface flies.

Partridge & Orange Surface Soft Hackle

Partridge & Yellow Surface Soft Hackle

Partridge & Green Surface Soft Hackle

Partridge & Olive Surface Soft Hackle

Pale Morning Dun Surface Soft Hackle

GreeNDrake Surface Soft Hackle

Now I will discusses some of my favorite Flymph style patterns that I use on the surface of the water. Flymphs were the invention of James E. Leisenring who published The Art of Tying the Wet Fly in 1941 due to the Second World War many anglers missed this volume. 

However the book was republished in 1971 by Vernon S. (Pete) Hidy as The Art of Tying the Wet Fly & Fishing the Flymph, Pete Hidy was Leisenring's protégé and due to his work the Flymphs that were designed by Leisenring were not lost to the mist of time.

It is unfortunate that more anglers are not familiar with the Flymphs and their effectiveness, however most angling authors have given little thought or time to flymphs and thus I meet many anglers who are not even aware of these imitations. There is no doubt that Leisenring's original flymphs were designed to be wet emergers that were fished in the upper third of the water column and the Leisenring Lift was designed to imitate an emerging insect rising to the surface.

I use a series of wet flymphs which I have developed to match the hatches that I encounter here in Montana. Then I decided that if I could use soft hackles on the surface that I might be able to have equal success with flymph imitations fished on the surface. I designed some pro-types imitating Pale Morning Duns and immediately went out to DePuy's Spring Creek to test them; the first thing I noticed was the movement of the soft hackle and philo plume (after-shaft) feathers that I used in the collar. The movement of those fibers in the surface film gave the imitation the appearance of a PMD Nymph struggling to emerge in the surface film.  Once I had the basic design or modification in place I tied several different color variations to match the hatches in my areas. I fished these patterns with good success long before I showed them to clients and when I had clients use them they also enjoyed good success.

Now are these patterns which are modified variations of standard patterns going to be the new hot secret pattern, probably not, however they are going add another option for anglers who work over visible feeding trout. Also by using these patterns the angler may be showing the trout something they are willing to eat but also something that the trout have not seen before or at least very often and sometimes that all it takes to be successful.

Now I find it easy to see these pattern styles on the surface of the water however I realize that some will have trouble spotting these imitations on the surface of the water. 

Then simply fish the imitations as a dropper about 24 inches behind something that you can see. Now I will list the recipes of some of my favorite dry flymph patterns.

Pale Morning Dun Surface Flymph

Lite Baetis Surface Flymph

BWO Surface Flymph

Trico Surface Flymph*

Callibaetis Surface Flymph

Green Drake Surface Flymph***

*Trico Notes, this year [2012] on the Big Horn River this pattern was deadly during both the dun emergence and the spinner falls. I also had excellent results with this pattern on Hebgan Lake and on the Missouri River below Holter Dam.

***Green Drake Notes, this pattern has been an exceptional producer of trout everywhere that I have used it.

I hope you try some of these patterns or create some of your own dry soft hackles or flymphs and give them a try. Using established pattern styles in a different manner will sometime make the different when working over difficult trout.

Do not allow others to set the rules as to what is or is not a dry fly.  I suspect that certain times during the history of fly fishing that the definition of patterns keep anglers from truly understanding all the uses that could be applied to a particular pattern.  Remember to fully understand the thoughts of the ancient anglers you must read their words with an open mind and no preconceived ideas.

Enjoy & Good Fishin'

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