Welcome to Just Old Flies

Welcome to 'just old flies,' a section of methods and flies that used-to-be. These flies were tied with the only materials available. Long before the advent of 'modern' tying materials, they were created and improved upon at a far slower pace than todays modern counterparts; limited by materials available and the tiers imagination.

Once long gone, there existed a 'fraternity' of anglers who felt an obligation to use only the 'standard' patterns of the day. We hope to bring a bit of nostalgia to these pages and to you. And sometimes what you find here will not always be about fishing. Perhaps you will enjoy them. Perhaps you will fish the flies. Perhaps?

Part One hundred seventy-eight

Partridge and Orange

Soft-Hackled Flies

By John W.P. Mooney

With a classic Partridge-and-Orange adorning the top of this column, it's probably appropriate to take a look at soft-hackled wet flies and their use over the years.

Soft-hackled wet flies, like their stiff-hackled cousins, the Variants, are a type of fly, not a pattern. And they're a very old type. It is said -- with some justification -- that they may date back to the "donne flye" of Dame Juliana Berners in A Treatise on Fyshing With an Angle, written in 1496. Certainly they were in common use in Scotland in the early 19th century, and probably before.

Soft-hackles have been a basic fly on Scottish streams for two centuries or more for several reasons: They're easy to tie, they're inexpensive, and they work. Also, they're ideally suited to the swift-flowing streams of the Highlands.

Probably no fly is easier to tie than a soft-hackle. Wind a hook with tying thread or floss; add a couple of twists of partridge, grouse, woodcock or starling hackle; and you're done. No tricky wings to set in place -- not even a tail.

Certainly they appealed to the legendary Scotch frugality. Except for the hooks, there was just about no cost at all. Leftover thread from the family sewing basket made up the body; the hackles came from game birds shot for the pot.

Probably Scotland's leading practitioner of the art of the soft-hackled fly in the early-to-mid 19th century was W.C. Stewart, who published "The Practical Angler" in 1857. Stewart devoted almost 70 pages of his book to his three famous soft-hackled "spiders" -- the Black Spider, the Red Spider and the Dun Spider. In each case, he named the fly by the color of its hackle -- not its body (and indeed, for the Dun Hackle, he listed no body at all).

Stewart's Black Spider consisted of nothing more than brown tying silk on the shank of the hook and a purplish-black starling feather palmered slightly toward the bend. The Red Spider called for a slim body of primrose yellow tying silk and the reddish feather from the wing of a land rail. Stewart's recipe for the Dun Spider calls only for a dun feather from a dotterel. (James E. Leisenring, the famous wet-fly fisher of the Brodheads, apparently couldn't accept the idea a hackle-only fly; in his 1941 classic, The Art of Tying the Wet Fly, he specified a body of primrose tying silk.)

Perhaps the most diligent proponent of soft-hackles in recent years -- at least in the United States -- has been Sylvester Nemes, in his book, The Soft-Hackled Fly. In England, where they still call the flies "spider wets," Malcolm Greenhalgh has also sung their praises in print.

Whatever you call it, though, the fly has lasted through the centuries for one simple reason: It works. The key is the soft hackle. Like marabou, the soft feathers of gamebirds and songbirds move seductively with the currents, whispering "I'm alive! I'm alive!" And trout, smallmouth bass, panfish and probably a host of other species heed that siren call.

One year, just for fun, I fished soft-hackles exclusively for an entire trout season and saw no noticeable difference between my take that season and my catch during seasons when I frantically ran through a whole vest full of fly boxes trying to "match the hatch."

Soft-hackles can be fished upstream or down. Stewart fished his upstream; Nemes tends to favor a downstream approach. I do both.

Probably no fly -- with the possible exception of the Muddler Minnow -- is more versatile. Soft-hackles can be tied on dry-fly hooks and fished just below the surface; they can be tied on wet-fly hooks and fished deeper, or they can be beadheaded and fished near the bottom with a "Leisenring Lift." If you fish them across-and-down, you can retrieve them with little jerks to imitate miniature minnows. You can grease the leader to within an inch or so of the fly and fish it as a spinner during a spinner fall. Or you can grease the fly itself and fish it as a dead or dying dun caught in the surface film.

My personal favorite for summer evenings (or mornings) here in New England is the Partridge-and-Yellow. Close behind is the Partridge-and-Orange. Here's the tie for the P&Y. Just modify the color of the floss to change the pattern.

As tied by John W.P.Mooney

    Thread:  Yellow.

    Body:  Yellow floss.

    Hackle:  About 2-1/2 turns of gray or brown English partridge feather.

For the Partridge-and-Orange, I prefer a reddish-brown grouse or woodcock feather; for the Partridge-and-Green, a gray English partridge feather. ~ John W.P.Mooney

Credit: The photo is from www.flytyingworld.com and was taken by Ed Gallop of a fly tied by Ed Thomas.

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