Book of the Month November 2019

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Soft Hackle Flies

More than once I have been asked if our Library contains any information on soft-hackled flies. We now have, thanks to donations, two volumes which deal with soft-hackle flies as their primary subject. Both were written by Sylvester Nemes. The Soft Hackled Fly, A Trout Fisherman’s Guide, was published in 1975, while The Soft-Hackled Fly Addict was issued in 1981. While perhaps a bit dated, they are still very relevant because of the timeless simplicity of this method.

Of the two, I found I prefer the earlier work. The recurring theme in Nemes’s first book is the simplicity surrounding the use of soft hackled flies and he quickly extols this virtue. This from the preface: “Because the soft-hackled fly is nymph-like, the book may help show practiced and would-be nymph fishermen a new way to fish their favorite patterns, or to try the soft-hackled flies instead. The instructions here eliminate the need for the average fly fisherman to be an entomologist. He need not know the difference between a stonefly nymph and a small mayfly nymph. He can forget emergence dates, fly sex, and maturity or immaturity. He can travel from one stream to another, east or west, and enjoy the sport as it was meant to be enjoyed in the beginning…without cult, ritual, and mystery.”

The author describes his development as a soft-hackled fly fisherman through autobiographical progression. A progression in which he and many of his friends discover and reaffirm that effectiveness through vivid fishing experiences. As his experiences and development parallel those of many of us, the reading is even more enjoyable as it sometimes triggers the reader’s recall. Throughout the book the author gives descriptions and examples of why he believes the soft-hackled fly is so effective yet so easy to use. Characteristics such has how the sparse soft hackles move back along the body and pulsate as the fly moves through the water, and how a swinging, downstream retrieve will activate the hackles, seem to be repeated throughout. No delicate, dainty presentations needed here (though you may need to mend to get the fly down)!

The second portion of the book provides a comprehensive history of the soft-hackled fly development. It notes that the first fly of Dame Julianna’s twelve original patterns, the Donne Fly, was apparently hackled with soft partridge. Nemes makes reference to other fly-fishing writers in support of his argument regarding simplicity and effectiveness. In terms of presentation, he cites Jock Scott’s Greased Line Fishing for Salmon, which influenced his soft-hackled presentation with the downstream swing. Also mending, as described by Scott, is put forth as a necessary means of getting the fly through lengthy drifts and down to waiting fish. He cites Schweibert in discussing the similarities between nymph and soft hackle presentation. Skues is quoted regarding the behavior of lighter, softer hackle compared to the more traditional, stiffer hackle in traditional dry and wet flies.

Nicely done black and white photos illustrating tying steps, especially the spider-tied hackles, are provided. Dubbing of thoraxes, required on many traditional soft-hackled patterns, is also illustrated with photos.

There is one color plate showing these attractive flies arranged tantalizingly on a bare wood background, like an old hippie poster from the 60’s. The plate nicely illustrates the color variety of traditional soft-hackle patterns. Also, three color photos are shown which demonstrate the way the pulsing soft-hackles appear in moving water.

Comparison of plastic and silk lines is especially interesting. Remember, this is 1975, and advanced, modern lines were coming on the market. The comparisons are amusing in hind-sight. He actually prefers the old silk lines!

The author’s second, slightly more recent work, The Soft-Hackled Fly Addict, was not as enjoyable for me. It is less autobiographical. I found the few pen and ink illustrations showing tying steps to be a bit difficult to follow. It otherwise adheres to the same general premise regarding the simple efficiency of fishing soft hackles. Of particular note is his very casual, almost flippant use of the term “addict”, as in the title as well as frequently throughout. For example, the description of one set of color plates reads “The 15th color page is of the 20 soft hackles currently used by the author and other addicts”. He justifies his casual use of the term in the Forward. I found this frequency to be a bit distracting. Maybe that’s just me…(?)

One nice touch in the “Addict” volume is the use of very old color plates taken from the works by T.E Pritt, Harfield H. Edmonds, and Norman N. Lee, all early advocates of soft-hackled flies. The illustrated patterns, with hand-written, rather quaint captions, are all shown with gut snells affixed, which was traditional for wet patterns even some time after the advent of eyed hooks. Only the last plate is of recent ties, showing the classic soft-hackled ties nicely arranged.

I found The Soft Hackled Fly to be a very entertaining and informative read. Even more so because many of the experiences Nemes describes in his development as a soft-hackled fly specialist parallel my own. I would bet many of you would find that as well. The simplicity of the fishing methods employed, the beauty and ease of tying these flies, and the author’s own enthusiasm all contribute to the reader’s enjoyment. Check it out and see if you don’t agree… Both volumes are available in your SFF Library.

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