In the modern age of fly fishing, the art of fishing wet flies or soft hackles has fallen by the wayside in popularity. It seems streamer fishing, indicator fishing, and dry-fly fishing takes precedence for most anglers on the water today. While these techniques are absolutely effective, you may be missing out on some hidden action if you dismiss the soft hackle fly. Soft hackles are some of the oldest flies in the history of fly fishing, and have caught trout effectively since the very beginning of fly fishing, so why not continue the tradition of success and give a wet fly a swing?

What is a soft hackle?

Soft hackle flies definitely stand out in the fly bins of today's fly shops. While most nymphs, streamers, and dries that are most popular these days have half a dozen materials used to tie them, soft hackles often utilize only two materials and are much simpler in construction.

  • The most defining feature of a soft hackle wet fly is the long sweeping hackle fibers that encompass the area of the hook directly behind the eye. It looks like a veil of barbules from a single feather that surrounds the hook shank.
  • The body of the wet fly is often just one material with a wire rib to reinforce it.

Some good patterns to try are:

  • Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail
  • Partridge and Orange
  • Soft Hackle Hares Ear
  • Sparkle Soft Hackle
  • Flymph

What do they represent?

Soft-hackled wet flies are effective because they are extremely impressionistic. The sweeping hackle fibers impart a lot of motion in the fly. Most dries and nymphs are static; they do not have a ton of material that suggests motion. Wet flies, on the other hand, are aided in motion by the hackle fibers. Fish key into certain aspects of a bug's life cycle and this motion in a wet fly matches the stage of any emerging insect because they are shedding their nymphal skin.

  • Soft hackles are especially great for caddis emergences. Caddis will shoot out of the water using trapped air. Trout will often prefer to eat the emerging caddis as that is the point in the bug's lifecycle where they are especially vulnerable and easier to eat while they are struggling to shed their skin in the surface film of the water.
  • The most common use for a wet fly is to represent an emerger. Fished just under the surface and on the swing, a wet fly is a great match for an emerger.

How do I fish a soft hackle?

The most common and effective way to fish a wet fly is on the swing. Since they most often represent an emerger, the motion of the swing and the construction of the fly makes for a combination that is hard for any fish that is selectively eating emergers to pass up.

  • Position yourself within 30 to 50 feet upstream of feeding fish or a likely holding area. Make your distance measuring casts off to one side or the other. This way you avoid casting directly on top of the fish and spooking them. Measure just a few feet of extra line in the cast; you'll be presenting the fly just beyond the trout's feeding lane. Change the direction on the final delivery cast to place the fly on the water 2 to 3 feet beyond the fish, and 2 to 3 feet upstream from it.
  • Now that your cast has landed, lift the rod tip slightly to straighten the line and give the fly the slightest tug with your line. Until you do this, the wet flies may be stuck on the surface tension and not sink. When you tug the line, the fly will dive underwater and take few bubbles of air under with it. If you fail to give this slight tug, the fly may remain on top and cut a wake right in front of the trout and likely spook the fish.
  • Once the swing has begun, drop the rod point again, but not enough to make the line go entirely slack. You want the line to draw the fly in an arc right across the bow of the rising trout. 
  • When done just right, the water will boil right up under your fly and you'll feel a pull. Resist yanking on the rod to set the hook, the trout will set the hook on the take and since you are on a tight line, the fish should just be hooked I the corner of the mouth. Continue the arc of the rod towards the bank to aid in setting the hook.
  • If the fish fails to take, let the fly swing well away before lifting it to cast again. On the next casts, vary the dropping point of the fly. The fish may be backing down from its lie when it eats a natural emerger, so that the rises you see are a few feet below where the fish is actually eating the bug. It's usually best to make your first casts 5 feet or so upstream in the first place, working the swing lower with each cast.

When you come across some tricky trout that seem to be refusing your dry flies, or even your emerging dry fly patterns, then it's time to open the book of fly fishing history and go back to a technique that's worked for fly fisherman since the beginning. While the wet fly swing is the most common way to fish them, don't be afraid to try a wet fly pattern on your indicator rig. Soft hackles are also over looked as nymphing patterns and can be just as effective under an indicator and fished deep.