Thursday, October 25, 2012


James Leisenring 1878-1951
Genesis Of A Soft-Hackle Addict

     I started young. The first teacher was my grandfather, who presented me with one of his old bamboo flyrods when I was four, graduating me from the doughball-baited handline I was swinging for bluegills off the family dock on Lake Quinsigamond. Regular hard usage on the lake, ponds & brooks near our family home in Massachusetts & by the time I was eight that rod was destroyed. No purist then, pink garden hackle was my bait of choice on the brooks & I liked nothing better than catching & lip-hooking a live frog, lobbing it among the lily pads & skittering it for pickerel or bass. At the start I was a bait fisher & I’m thankful for that. Gathering & fishing live baits imparted valuable lessons on the natural world, making lasting impressions on my approach to fishing & my ideas about presentation. Though they are made of fur & feathers now, I’m still fishing baits, still a shameless bait fisher at core.

     On my eighth birthday Gramps presented me with a new 8-foot Heddon Pal 6wt glass flyrod, a handful of poppers &, perhaps most affecting of all, a fly-tying kit containing instructions & everything I needed to get going – & my fishing routine expanded considerably with those gifts. The live baits increasingly set aside.

     When I was ten my family moved to Glendora, California, a foothill town at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. To a New England kid used to haunting nearby ponds, woods & brooks, Southern Cali seemed like a dry, alien planet. Fortunately we lived an easy distance from the San Gabriel River where I became a regular, armed with the Heddon Pal (which was living up to its name) & a handful of scruffy flies.

     When I was twelve, more years ago than I care to say, I scrounged & saved enough pop bottles to refund for the cash needed to purchase my first book on flyfishing: ‘The Art of Tying the Wet Fly & Fishing the Flymph’ by James Leisenring & Vernon ‘Pete’ Hidy. At the time, I was still at the fanciful stage, I was an avid fly tier, my soft young mind a sponge, yet my fly selection was, for the most part, a gaudy collection of winged wet flies. I'd never seen anything like the wingless 'flymphs' pictured in the book, but, funny thing, as soon as I laid eyes on them, a light went on. There was something about those flies. They made perfect sense to me. Leisenring's soft-hackle patterns built with natural materials, & his ideas about building movement, obfuscation & subtle color-blending into wetflies meant to simulate particular insects, seemed the tools of an angler who had a deep connection to the natural stream. An angler who knew secrets. I wore that little book out re-reading & absorbing the truths it contained. By the end of the first reading I was onstream with a selection of drab nymphs constructed in the simple ‘in-the-round’ tying style espoused by ‘Big Jim from Allentown’ – the consummate trout bum pictured in his frayed fishing attire. 

     Looking back now, I offer a belated apology to the bright little trout of the San Gabriel, having pierced them mercilessly with those flies inspired by Leisenring’s small book. That book was where my reading began & where my approach to fly design is founded. I blame it on James Leisenring.

     Later on, standing in the same stream as Leisenring, I discovered Charles Brooks, whose work ‘Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout’ expanded & elaborated greatly on Leisenring’s approach to imitation & with some effective departures as well. Prior to reading Brooks I was somewhat of a natural material Nazi, strictly adhering to Leisenring’s preference for natural materials. And it is true that the motion and subtlety of coloration natural materials impart are an integral element in the best soft-hackle patterns. Yet Brooks worked from a wider palette, accepting the fact that not all aquatic insect parts are fuzzy & blurry. He understood that some body parts, say, for example, the abdomens of stonefly nymphs, present a more plastique or hard outline, prominent features that trout might cue on. Charles Brooks was liberating, & as I tied & fished the patterns he presented in ‘Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout’ I found he was also true to his word.

      A lot of water has passed since James Leisenring & Charles Brooks fished & wrote, & other writers since have done much to advance the soft-hackle style. We stand on their shoulders. Every tyer has something new to add based on their own unique vision & experience. The variety of hooks & materials available now affords us an even broader palette to create from. Some might argue that the term ‘soft-hackle fly’ should only be applied to old designs like the Partridge & Yellow & other classics (some, ancient), yet I would maintain that the patterns of Leisenring & Brooks & those writers who came after have already expanded the definition considerably. 

     My purpose here is to explore how the major elements that make soft-hackle designs such effective baits – natural materials, motion & obfuscation – might be incorporated into fresh designs serving to simulate specific forage, & also more effective attractor patterns, streamers & even dry flies. And that gives us a lot of room to create. ~
Flatwing Sculpin - tied by Steven bird

Flyfish the Upper Columbia/NE Washington with Steven Bird:  

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