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Swingin' Soft-Hackles

By Elena Moon - August 2nd, 2000

Traditional, skinny-bodied, elegant, emerging - words fit for a debutante at her ball - describes the similarly elegant soft-hackled fly. Unfortunately, unlike the elegant debutante, the soft-hackle's dating luck has slowed since the turn of the century. My first introduction to soft-hackles came at a young age. The technique was a favorite of Doc's - a family friend and guide - who often took me drift-boating down the McKenzie and Willamette. His metal fly boxes held fleets of the critters, all clipped in rows like soldiers resting in a Quonset hut. He would open one of the boxes and select a fly or two for the day. He'd tie on a couple of the wispy soft-hackles and instruct me to let 40 feet or so of line out. With a gentle but constant backstroke, the boat would slow. The line stretched out before the bow, causing the flies to sway just beneath the water's surface. Every few days we'd catch a fish - or so it seemed with my nine year-old patience level. I wanted to cast, to make line soar and fish leap. Doc probably wanted to make sure that this kid's flailings were kept a safe distance from his ears. The technique bored me to tears and only Doc's wonderful storytelling and encyclopedic knowledge of natural history kept me coming back for a technique that seemed only slightly more interesting than lake trolling.

When I was away from Doc's boat and tutelage, my dad and I would greedily tie on anything that floated in hopes of capturing a slice of dry fly heaven. Royal Wulffs, Elk Hair Caddis, Adams, Yellow Humpies, Trudes, and Coachmans - all were the staple of our small, pocket water adventures. Later, indicators with dangling Hare's Ears, Prince Nymphs and Woolly Buggers were added to the mix.

Over a decade passed until an accidental discovery motivated me to tie one of Doc's favorites on again. Josh, Shannon and I were on the lower Gallatin River during one of those magical, warm July evenings where constant insect activity, or at least the trout's recent memory of constant insect activity, kept them eager and actively feeding. We pulled the raft over just before a beautiful, deep nymphing hole.

Shannon and Josh worked the depths at the head of the riffle with a yarnie and weighted nymph. Every half dozen casts or so, luck would bless them with a gorgeous rainbow. I took position towards the bottom of the run where the hole gradually trailed off from a wave train to a shallow riffle. A well-floated Chuck's Trude met with success every few casts. Toward the end of one of my drifts, Shannon hooked into a lunker. I started to reel in the excess line to go see her fish. As I was reeling in the now submerged Trude, sinfully creating more drag than any dry fly should ever be subjected to, I felt a sharp, unmistakable tug. I had hooked into a fatty of my own. Before I realized what had happened, the fish broke off.

After admiring Shan's fish - one of the largest 'bows I'd seen come out of the Gallatin - I tried to replicate the drowning dry-fly-drag-maneuver. Against my better judgment, I quartered my cast downstream and swung a downward belly of line, breaking every rule about dry fly presentation that I'd ever learned. Then whamo! I hooked into another fish just as the line straightened out. I brought the fish in and released it. I tried the technique again and again, swinging and stripping the drowned Trude. Nearly every other cast hooked a fish. Granted, I wasn't exactly fishing a soft-hackle but it was the closest I'd come in a long while. The experience was enough to convince me to try the real thing again. Now, with the memory of Doc's voice echoing through my head, I regularly swing soft-hackles during the lovely hatches of summer.

The How-To, Technical Details

When fished traditionally, soft-hackles represent the emerging form of caddis and mayflies. There are several ways to present soft-hackles. Here are a couple of techniques:

  1. Tie on one or even several soft-hackles.
  2. First try the traditional method of casting down and across the stream.
  3. Create a gentle downstream belly in the line and allow the tension on the line to swing the fly through the current.
  4. Be ready for a strike anywhere along the path of the swing, but particularly as the line fully straightens. The tension in the line usually means that the fish hook themselves.
  5. Try casting upstream, creating a bit of slack so that the fly has time to sink.
  6. As the fly drifts downstream, mend upwards so that the fly can sink without any drag.
  7. As the fly approaches the down and across position, allow it to gently swing. The straightening of the line will cause the fly to rise from the depths towards the surface like an emerging insect.
Those are the basics. Try experimenting with different mends, bellies, depths and slack versus taut line. Keep in mind that a shallow belly in the line means the flies will not be ripped too quickly through the current. Swinging these suckers doesn't work all the time but give them a few cracks this summer and you might, as I was, be pleasantly surprised. Here's to brushing off some of the dust and rust of our beloved, neglected soft-hackles.

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