Fly Tying: Sylvester Nemes On Soft Hackles

One of our favorite books on soft hackle flies (also known as “flymphs,” “winged wets,” and a variety other names) is in its second edition and shows little signs of aging. The Soft-Hackled Fly, the 1975 original, helped create a resurgence in what many fly fishers had dismissed as an arcane method of tying and presenting flies. Prior to this book, soft-hackles had lost favor to the more “scientific” imitations of dry flies and nymphs. Now few trout shops don’t offer at least a few “spiders,” “wingless wets” or “soft-hackle emergers.” Nemes’s revised 2006 book, The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles: A Trout Fisherman’s Guide (Stackpole, 221 pages) is an enriched version of the earlier book with more photos and more patterns — he even tackles tiny midges and tricos — but the same unforced writing style that makes the book a pleasure to read.
Nemes, predictably, is a purist. (He once responded to someone who asked “Do you ever tie your flies as beadheads?” with “”Why don’t you just get a spinning rod?”) But he demonstrates that all the careful attention to color, materials, and tying techniques that are so important to dry flies and nymphs matter just as much in what looks to be the very simple construction of soft hackles. Soft-hackles, you might say, are only as simple as you want them to be.
Jack Gartside began tying soft-hackles as a teenager in the 1950s after reading a Ray Bergman article in Outdoor Life magazine titled “Basic Wet Flies for Trout Fishing.” He then did the thing that most of us do, which is to tie and fish ever-more-complicated imitations. But he later became attached again to impressionistic flies and even began including soft-hackle concepts in his saltwater patterns.
You can see a great selection of soft-hackle patterns on Hans Weilenmann’s Flytier’s site. For more on the history of soft-hackles, check out Flymph.com. And for more on the techniques used to effectively fish soft-hackles and other wet flies, read John Likakis’s “Swinging Wet Flies” on MidCurrent.
The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles: A Trout Fisherman’s Guide on Amazon.

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  • http://wcflies.com/blog/ John Ruberto

    Using soft hackles has been a great way to get my kids into fly fishing. I feel much less compelled to “help” them with casting, which reduces frustration, and they catch fish. The simplicity of the presentation matches the simplicity of the fly.
    Grandpa always said, you can’t catch fish if your fly isn’t in the water. Stop all that false casting. At the river last week, the soft hackle swing had the fly in the strike zone for about 20 seconds each cast. Same area, a dry fly had about 5 seconds of dead drift per cast.
    Soft hackles are a favorite. I put a tying tutorial on my blog: http://wcflies.com/blog/2009/03/soft-hackle-wrap-up/

  • Brian Ramsey

    I personally fish soft-hackles extensively all over the place, but there’s a misconception, especially with Americans, is that you just “swing” the flies. It’s a fact, that the method just mentioned is the very least productive of all the soft-hackle techniques. The most effective, and is practiced by the best European anglers, is up-and across, dead drift, but still in contact with the flies; not with a bobber or a down-and-across “swing”. Fishing soft-hackles up-and-across actually allows the fly to “Fish”…it allows the fibers (hackles) to “induce” a strike, rather than in a “swinging” method that constantly pulls all the fiberous hackles back during presentation…seriously!
    After spending time with one of the best, Davy Wotton, on how to really fish traditional wets and soft-hackles in the highly effective, very old, traditonal methods; I concer that we Americans have a lot to learn about soft-hackles, including myself.
    If anyone get’s a chance to buy a Davy Wotton “Wet Fly Ways,” DVD, do so. It’ll be the best trout fly fishing investment you do and it’ll save you from American dogma on how to fish one of the deadliest trout patterns that are really, hundreds of years old. Davy Wotton is one of those rare anglers that really brings a new hatchet to your armory.
    It’s alot of work fishing soft-hackles correctly, but it’s very, very deadly. In the traditonal way, anglers use 10-13ft (Shorter lengths if in tight quarters), 3-4wt rods, and it’s a short line affair.
    I know Sylvester Nemes very well, on a personal level, but bless his heart, even he doesn’t fish them in the traditonal european manner. He fishes them like a dry fly in most situations. And yes, he catches fish, even at age 87!
    Oh, and the “Liesering Lift”; it really isn’t a swing, it’s more of a “Induced Take” method, allowing the fibers of the fly to “Fish”, it’s not a total “swing” method. There’s more to it than that. It’s the reason why it’ so darn effective.
    Please don’t think I’m an expert on this either, because I’m not, but there’s so much that we don’t know about soft-hackle presentation. It really is an untapped resource in this country. Sylvester just got the sleep out of our eyes.