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Rarely do I hear fly anglers rave about soft hackle flies.

That is partially due to the lack of fishermen that use them and I bet it has to with the lack of attractiveness in these flies. “Wait, are you telling me people don’t fish these just because they look plain and boring?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

And it’s true! Flies have to look good enough to not only catch fish but to catch fishermen. With many soft hackle wet flies being dull in color and no shiny golden bead, it can be hard to tie one on over our go-to fly. But what did your mom always tell you? “Never judge a fly by its cover.” Yes, she really did say that.

Although they look ugly, soft-hackled wet flies are like that boring guy in the office that is secretly a badass and fights crime at night. We all know who that is.

Soft hackles are amazing for two reasons. One, they allow you to cover a lot of water and two, imitate the tricky behavior of emerging insects. I was actually told multiple times to hold tight onto my rod because if I didn’t it would be ripped out of my hands. That goes to show how aggressively fish attack soft hackles.

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Let It Swing

Soft hackles are simple to fish. The whole idea is to cast your line downstream to the side and let the flies swing across the stream and down.

Letting your line swing across the stream allows you to cover more water. Although insects do not swing across currents, fish don’t seem to care. As your flies swing across the currents, you follow the line with your rod until your line completes its swing. That’s it! That is it in its basic form. Next, comes the techniques that make it work.


Letting your line swing across the stream allows you to cover more water.

The 45° Angle

Swinging soft hackle wet flies has 1 rule. (The way I was taught.) That rule is to always keep your rod at about a 45° angle.

The purpose of this angle is to give your rod the ability to flex and bend as the fish takes. Essentially, the fish will set the hook on itself because the rod will apply backward pressure. When fish take your fly you won’t have to set the hook. No need for bulky indicators or sighters. Fishing soft hackles and wet flies is all feel. And trust me, you will feel them slam your fly.


The angle is critical. A 45° angle perfectly bows your line onto the surface to ensure maximum hookups. Have your rod tip too low and you’ll rip the fly right out of their mouth. Too high and you’ll miss every strike.

Notice the bow? That’s the key to a solid hookup. I remember when I first learned how to swing soft hackles. I kept asking, “how will I know when a fish takes” and my friends keep replying with “you’ll know.” They were right. The first trout to take one of the flies on my wet fly rig exploded out of the water and fought like a mad dog.

One of the many reasons as to why fish tackle soft hackles so hard has to do with what they imitate. As I wrote earlier, soft hackles imitate emerging insects. Insects like caddis and mayflies. Don’t forget, some mayflies and caddis can swim quite fast as they make their way to the top to emerge. Many larvae swimming to the surface are quickly chased down and eaten. Most times, the trout explode to the top and create a vicious splash in the process.

Because wet flies are constantly moving and remain close to the surface, trout take them for these swimming larvae and are hit hard.

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Let It Rise

“Okay, so you let the fly swing and then what?” You wait. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Let the fly complete its swing. The line will straighten out and in the process, your fly will do something extraordinary.

Your fly will rise to the surface like a swimming larva. BOOM. *hand motion* That’s the sound of the anti-vegan-trout-that-only-dines-on-caddis hitting your fly.

This is why fly fishing soft hackles is so effective and in many circumstances, it is the only way of fishing that nets you fish.

I was fishing the famous march brown hatch on Penns Creek this past April. Penns Creek is notorious for picky trout. We got there just in time for the March Browns. They were coming off by the thousands. But, the only thing that consistently worked was swinging soft hackles.

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Crippled March Brown Emerger – Penns Creek 2017

Trout were gorging themselves on the emerging march brown nymphs. As the nymphs would swim up to the surface they were getting sacked and this would cause a huge splash. I figured all I had to do was toss a fly out there and it would be no problem. Easy. Fishing in a bucket. I found out quickly that that wasn’t the case. I tried nymphs, I tried drifting parachutes and catskill-style dry flies, I tried CDC emergers, I tried everything and still nothing. Things changed when I switched to a 3 fly rig of soft hackles.

I swung the flies across the seams and riffles, and WHAM! I managed to hook into a couple decent sized trout. Soft hackles were the real MVP that took me from a 1 fish day into a 4 fish day. If my reaction times were quicker I would have landed several more.


Letting your line swing across the stream allows you to cover more water. Although insects do not swing across currents, fish don’t seem to care. As your flies swing across the currents, you follow the line with your rod until your line completes its swing. That’s it! That is it in its basic form. Next, comes the techniques that make it work.


Setting Up The Rig

More flies = higher chance of catching a fish

A simple equation I learned back in calculus during high school. Generally, you will want to set up a wet fly rig with 3 flies on it but, depending on your state or local fishing regulations, you may be forced to only fish 1 or 2 flies. The easiest way to set up a rig is to use tippet rings. But, you can easily drop sections of tippet from your fly.

These are just two methods you can use if you choose not to use tippet rings. The first way to avoid using a tippet ring is to drop one off the eye of the fly.

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Improved Clinch Knot off the eye improves hookups.
Method 1: Improved Clinch Knot off the eye improves hookups.

I prefer tying additional tippet off the eye because it gives the fish more access to the fly. Tying in from the eye pushes your fly perpendicularly to your line and keeps the bend open to strikes. The second way is to tie tippet off the bend of the hook.

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Improved Clinch Knot from bend of the hook.
Method 2: Improved Clinch Knot from the bend of the hook.

Notice how little of the hook is exposed. Try imagining how cumbersome it would be to hook a trout with the two sections of tippet blocking the fish’s mouth. For this exact reason, I prefer to tie all additional tippet from the eye. If you’re using a fresh, new leader you’ll want to snip 3 feet up to where the line gets thicker and it’s roughly a 3x. (Thicker if you’re fishing for dinosaurs.) Save the excess to use as tippet.

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Tie the Improved Clinch Knot while the ring is still on the snap swivel.

Next, use a simple Improved Clinch Knot to secure the tippet ring on the end of the trimmed leader. The tippet ring will be the bedrock of each fly you build into the rig. Each tippet ring will have a dropper fly and the next 12-16 inch section of tippet tied to it.

Dropper Flies

You’ll want to tie on a 12-16 inch piece of tippet onto the ring.

This is shorter than the usual 20-inch section people recommend but for a good reason. A shorter section will prevent your rig from getting caught in multiple micro-currents (They put drag on your flies and make your presentation less natural.) Take a thicker section of tippet and tie this onto the same tippet ring. So say you are using a 5x tippet for the rig, use a 2-3x size tippet for this section. You’ll need about 6-8 inches of tippet.

This 6-8 inch section of thicker tippet is what you will tie your 1st dropper fly onto. Use the following adaptation of a Clinch Knot to attach your first fly. This knot allows your fly to move freely within the loop. It helps create a more natural presentation.

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Use a loop to give your flies freedom of movement.

How to Tie the Non-Slip Loop Knot.

The Non-Slip Look Knot is a simple little knot for giving wet flies and streamers freedom of movement. Using one allows the flies to have a more natural presentation in the water as it swings across the current. As it swings the fly can slide and twist along the loop to imitate the exact action drifting insects would have in that same current.

You can choose to end your rig here as a 2 fly rig by tying your second fly to the remaining section of tippet or you can continue to build it into a 3 fly rig.

Use a 3 Fly Rig

The 3 fly rig is just an extra tippet ring and another section of tippet.

Repeat the same process you did to add the first tippet ring and dropper fly. Now, I’m assuming you’ve added the 2nd tippet ring and 2nd dropper fly. Adding the 3rd fly is easy. That remaining section of tippet you have hanging off the tippet ring is what you’ll use to tie your final fly on. Use whatever knot you like.

Fly fishermen call this fly the ‘point fly.’

You can make your point fly weighted to get your rig down or keep it light and keep your rig near the surface. It’s up to you.


More Articles On Soft Hackle Flies & Nymphing

Our 10 Favorite Soft Hackle Flies For Swinging And Nymphing Rigs

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