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Adventures in Fly Tying... May 2007

Partridge and Yellow Soft Hackle
Fly and Text by Joe Cornwall
Video Production by Jim Stuard

Sylvester Nemes published The Soft Hackled Fly (Stackpole Books, ISBN 0-8117-1670-8) back in 1975.  Prior to reading it I'd fished soft hackle flies regularly, but I had no idea about the history and versatility of the pattern. For me this was the "down-and-across" wet fly that I used while fishing back down to my car.  My idea of a soft hackle was really a sparse wooly worm (still a great pattern and one we'll explore in a future Adventures In Fly Tying column). Nemes opened my eyes to a completely different interpretation of this important pattern.   Nemes has since gone on to publish three more books about soft hackle flies specifically and one about fishing soft hackles for Atlantic salmon in Scotland.  The lexicon has been further expanded by works from Allen McGee (see the review of Tying & Fishing Soft Hackle Nymphs), Dave Hughes and many others.  And prior to Nemes' influential work there is a veritable cornucopia of books describing hackle flies, sometimes known as North Country Spiders.  I am so enamored of this style of fly that I carry a small C&F Designs fly box with nearly 30 dozen assorted soft hackles.  They are that effective!  I'd rather leave home without my fly rod that arrive on the river without my soft hackle box - if I'm fishing for trout.  Yes, this fly is that good.  Tie a bunch and see for yourself!

Materials for the Partridge and Yellow

Hook – Mustad 94840 or 94842, size 10 to 20

Thread – .Pearsall's Silk Thread in primrose yellow (green and orange are also excellent, and proven, colors)

Body - Tying thread
Thorax – Sparsely dubbed mole fur (optional)

Hackle – Light gray speckled hackle from a Hungarian partridge shoulder

Windows Media Video  QuickTime Video 




The soft hackle fly is a very delicate thing.  It is sparse, almost painfully so.  It's hard to believe that such an elegant and simple pattern could be so effective.  In fact, this style of tying has been taking fish for nearly half a millennium!  If there is one thing you should take from this article it's this: less is more!. 

One of the most important materials in a soft hackle fly is the body material - the thread.  While you can certainly use ordinary fly tying thread, silk thread possesses unique properties that work to make the fly more effective.  When wet, silk will get much darker in color and it picks up a lovely, and very life-like, translucency.  Don't skimp!  Get Pearsall's Silk if you can.  If you can't, a good  and inexpensive second choice is high quality silk sewing thread.  Select a color a shade or two lighter than the natural to account for the change in color when wet.  The  Partridge and Yellow shown here typically calls for a primrose yellow.  If you are using other silk threads try to fine one that is cream with a yellowish cast. 


In a fly with just two or three materials I guess it's fair to say they are all important!  A partridge and yellow needs to be tied with partridge.  You can use the shoulder feathers of many game birds to make soft hackles - quail, pheasant, grouse, hen, waterfowl and starling are all called for in various patterns.  By far the most useful and important plume is the one that comes from a Hungarian partridge. Buy a whole pelt - for about $30 you'll get a prime skin which will tie enough flies to last a lifetime!  For the Partridge and Yellow I like the softer gray feathers.  For the Partridge and Green I use the darker, speckled brown feathers  Use these suggestions as a starting point.

If you decide to tie a thorax-style soft hackle, use a fine, soft fur.  Mole fur is the classic material for this kind of fly and it makes a great dubbing for dries and small buggers, too!  You can buy mole skins in a variety of dyed and natural colors and they are typically very inexpensive.  Ones skin in a dark brown will last for many hundreds of flies.  I'm not sure who the first person to skin a mole was, but I'm sure he or she got a few strange looks.  It's kind of like skinning a field mouse.  Thankfully, whoever it was was just nuts enough not to care!  That almost perfectly describes a fly tying nut, by the way.
Start the thread right behind the eye and make smooth, touching wraps back along the shank to a spot directly above the hook's point.  Don't tie back to the bend.  Soft hackles look best with slim, compact bodies.
Here the body is complete.  Note how sparse this is.  If you want to get a slightly different effect you can under-wrap the hook shank with white tying thread. This will keep the silk thread a lighter shade when in the water and the color of the silk will be a bit more intense.  I often use this technique withthe thicker Pearsall's Marabou, which is a fine, roped silk floss.  On size 10 and 8 soft hackles (yes, I tie and fish them that large and so should you) I can get an ideal body with one layer of silk over a white thread base.  Experiment to see what the fish in your area (and you) like best.
Select a shoulder feather with barbs that are about as long as the entire hook.  The hackle should flow to the hook's bend.  Soft hackle flies are notable for long  sparse hackles.  This sparseness and length is what creates the subtle motion that imitates life so effectively.  Tie the hackle in by the prepared tip, with the concave side facing up.  When you wrap it you will wrap so that the convex side faces forward, allowing the fibers to flow elegantly in a veil around the body of the fly.  
Apply a very little bit of soft fly tying wax to your thread.  Only wax an inch or so of thread.  Remember, the wax will effect the color of the silk when wet.
Clip some fur from the mole skin and "touch dub" a tiny, tiny amount to the thread. You don't want to tightly spin the dubbing, you want a nearly transparent thorax that creates a darker area and holds the hackles out in faster water.  Don't use the dubbing to create bulk, use it to create form.
Here you see how small and sparse the dubbed thorax should be.  Make one or one-and-one-half turns of hackle in front of the dubbed thorax.  Never take more than two turns of hackle or you'll spoil the lifelike motion of the fly in the water  Again, less is more in this pattern.
Here I've taken a turn of hackle and I'm tying it off with three tight wraps of silk.  Clip the hackle stem carefully and prune out any errant fibers so you have a nice, flowing skirt of partridge hackles.  You're imitating six legs, keep it sparse! 
Build a small, neat thread head.  When you are read to finish the head you can use just a little bit of tying wax.  Don't use lacquer or cement if you're tying with silk, as that will discolor the head and might wick into the body destroying the delicate translucency the materials provide. 
A neat whip finish completes the fly.  You can tie soft hackles with a minimum of materials and in a plethora of colors to imitate any caddis fly, may fly, or midge found on your local flows.  Soft hackles are also excellent flies for smallmouth bass when they are keyed in on caddis pupa during the post spawn period of late May and June.  Soft hackles are also very, very effective on picky late-season bluegills! And, just for grins, try tossing a size 10 thorax soft hackle in front of a tailing carp!!!

Until next time, tight lines and cooperative fish…

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