Killer Classics to Carry in March: the Soft Hackle

If the Rhithrogena mayfly could speak, would it sound a bit like that classic younger sibling, Jan Brady? Instead of saying, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” after always hearing about how great her older sibling was, would the March Brown be whining, “Skwala, Skwala, Skwala!”?

I know, it’s a pretty dumb thought, but it’s one I’ve had. Hell, I’ve had lots of them – very few in a row, and long spaces between. But one thing I do think about, is how many trips during the skwala hatch have been saved by swinging a Soft Hackle through a March Brown hatch when every low-riding, down and dirty skwala pattern has hit the drying patch. 
This fly has nothing on it but fish-catching abilities.
For great examples of soft hackle flies visit the source of this picture:
Though the skwala stonefly does represent the first big chunk of hatching protein on the rivers in March, it can more accurately be called a “masking hatch”, due to the importance of the secondary hatches that also occur at the same time. In March, fish are seeing Blue Wing Olives, Baetis, midges, and of course the big skwalas, but perhaps most prominently they are seeing the first large mayflies in the March Brown. 
Yes, the hatches are important. But the nymphs moving in the early hours may be even more important, as they move to slow water to hatch. Anywhere a football field or two above or below a riffle is a target for a good swing of a Soft Hackle, as the nymphs travel a long way in their drift before hatching at the surface. 
Is the Soft Hackle a classic pattern? There might not be an older fly that is still fished anywhere. We’re talking Dame Juliana Berner 1496, Treatise of Fishing With an Angle old. Because it is so old and so distinguished, it has taken on many forms and names along the way. Whether you call it a Spider fly, a Soft Hackle or anything else, it will fish the same. Very, very well. There have been countless mentions of the Soft Hackle in the history of fishing literature, including whole books that update and chronicle the myriad pattern variations and successes of this otherwise humble and often overlooked fly. I’d suggest reading Sylvester Neme’s 1975 original The Soft-Hackled Fly and its 2006 update, The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles, as well as the free online book, Soft Hackles, Tight Lines by Neil Norman, available at if you interested in learning more. 
Like most classic flies, it is the simplicity of the Soft Hackle that accounts for it’s time-tested effectiveness. The simplest versions, such as the Partridge and Orange, are simply a combination of a thread body and a soft hackle feather. And that’s all it takes. I love the Partridge and Orange when slim mayflies are on the menu, but for March I always carry the slightly more elaborate pheasant tail version, with a body consisting of one of the buggiest materials on the planet, the quill of a natural pheasant tail. But the body matters much less than the wiggly, pulsing soft hackle legs, that as tempting as a pole dancer to a hungry trout. 
You might not appreciate the simple beauty of the Partridge and Orange,
but you sure as hell will when it is sticking out of a big trout face on the end of your line. Photo via
What makes the Soft Hackle such a great option in March? The answer is twofold: buggy materials suggestive of lots of hatches and nymphs, and the simple method in which we can fish it. Across and down on the swing. Across and down on the swing. Across and down on the swing. There is something uniquely satisfying in fishing flies on the swing, a classic approach that also helps us dial in our casts after a long winter of hoisting beer cans instead of five weights. When fishing the Soft Hackle, be ready for strikes anywhere along it’s path, especially as it ends it’s drift and crosses the current- here is a great place for a fish to eat, and combined with a steady raising of the rod as the fly leaves the water, the path of the fly imitates the path of the hatching March Brown naturals almost perfectly. 
When filling the flybox for a trip in March, I always include a selection of soft hackle flies in sizes 12-16, in a variety of dubbing combinations. Pheasant tail, hare’s ear, and simple thread winds all produce fish this time of year, and a soft hackle is great for beginners and rusty casters as well. When faced with a pod of fish taking flies in the shallows, the swing of a Soft Hackle might be all it takes to turn that an unsuccessful skwala day into the tight lines of a bang-up mayfly day. 

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