Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Art of Tying & Fishing Soft-Hackle Flies ~ Chapter 1

A Brief Genesis of Fly Hooks  

In the beginning was the hook. As a starting point for this humble treatise of soft-hackle styles & method, perhaps a brief historical synopsis of the hook is close enough to serve. Because I’m fairly certain that’s where it started. Keep in mind our Neolithic ancestors, free from regular jobs & needing to eat, had few things better to do than think up clever ways to catch meat. At whatever vague point in the distant past somebody crafted a fishhook small enough, I suspect it swiftly followed that some canny fisher-gatherer, having observed large Neolithic trout eating bugs from the surface of the local river, started playing around with dressing a hook to create a fake bug.

The earliest hooks were simple gorges, a straight section of wood or bone sharpened on both ends. Curved hooks made of wood, bone, shell, thorns and cactus spines followed the gorge, early on. Evidence suggests that hooks, like a lot of things that simply make sense, developed simultaneously wherever Neolithic humans found fish.

Hooks carved from snail shells dating from around 23000 B.C. were discovered on Okinawa.

The ancient Polynesians made long sea journeys, supplying themselves with fresh fish caught on feathered lures rigged on shell or bone hooks, trolled behind their voyaging catamarans – much like modern tuna feathers.

Though there’s no description of the hook in his journals, Northwest fur trader & cartographer David Thompson described natives catching a breakfast of small trout using a lure made from a tiny piece of softened buckskin – a chamois fly – tied to a line braided from three long horse tail hairs.    

I carved a #10 hook from a juniper crotch (as the Norwegians once did), & though fat, it was plenty small enough to tie a fly on; & I can see that a smaller, more effective version might be carved from shell or bone fairly easily – leading me to suspect that the concept of a feathered lure predates metallurgy.

The earliest metal hooks probably followed with the advent of copper smelting at the dawn of the Bronze Age. Copper fishhooks were known to the Americas prior to European incursion. The first bronze hooks we know of were found in Egypt, dating from 3000 B.C.  

Here’s a theory on the origin of steel fishhooks:

War, & the tools of warfare, have always served to further advance the technologies of humanity. And though the art & science of catching fish inspires a powerful impetus to advancement, I suspect it may have been the development of chainmail armor, traced back to 500 B.C. Persia, that provided the first iron fishhooks. Admittedly, I’ve found no evidence to support my theory, but I offer it here as it strikes me as practical enough to consider. In the production of chainmail, a length of metal wire is bent into a U-shape. When enough of these are made to form the protective halberk, they are linked together, the U pinched closed to a ring. The early metal fishhooks were simply a bent piece of wire sharpened on one end. So where is our Dark Ages angling ancestor going to procure these? My bet would be it was a visit the local armor smith – who probably had a good sideline going selling fishhooks, or wire for making fishhooks. And I wouldn’t disallow the possibility that, once the process of making wire was developed, the fishhook may have immediately followed as an obvious product, predating chainmail armor &, possibly, leading to its development. If the wire smith happened to be a fisher, it certainly may have. Whatever the case it is interesting, considering that evidence suggests the iron hook appeared at about the same time as chainmail armor.

Steel hooks were not yet in commercial production in 1486 England, when the angling Abbess, Dame Juliana Bernars, published her essay, Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle, in The Bake (Book) of St. Albans, one of the earliest books in print. Hooks featuring eyes for attaching line were still centuries away when Dame Juliana fished. As was necessary for most anglers of her time, she crafted her own tackle, & gives detailed instruction for the making in her ‘Treatyse’, yet I’ve little doubt she didn’t maintain at least a nodding acquaintance with the local armorer.

Dame Juliana describes twelve flies in her essay. Civilizations have risen & fallen since the time of her writing, yet versions of her twelve flies are still in use, including the Donne Fly, which some believe to be the ancestor of the popular Partridge & Orange. So we know that some of the flies still in use in our time date back to England’s medieval period. Stream insects are still the same. And our ancestors were every bit as canny as us.    

The manufacture of barbed commercial hooks arose in Norway & the British Iles. The manufacturing towns of Limerick, Aberdeen & Carlisle lent their names to hook styles we know today. Initially, these were ‘blind’ (eye-less) hooks, available in sizes #2 to #14. If you wanted to tie smaller than #14, you simply tied smaller on the #14 hook – still a useful concept when fishing water holding large trout feeding on wee flies.

The old hooks were permanently lashed to braided horsehair leaders &, beginning about 1715, short ‘snoods’ (snells) of drawn silkworm gut. The fly is tied over the snooded, or snelled, hook. The snood (about 6” long) is attached to the leader with a loop-to-loop connection. The silkworm’s silk producing gland can be stretched to about a maximum of 30”, & at that length fairly weak, so the main length of leader was usually made of braided silk thread. Spain, with a climate suitable for silkworm raising, became the major source of drawn silkworm gut (& interestingly, we see a warming of trade relations between Spain & Britain during that era).      

The advent of eyed hooks didn’t come about until the 1830’s, when a die set developed for stamping eyes in sewing needles was applied to hook making. Perhaps to illustrate how set in our ways anglers become, the revolutionary eyed hook was slow to be generally accepted, purists, particularly Americans, insisting on using the old eyeless, snelled hooks well into the mid 1900’s.

In the early 1960’s, having already gone over to using eyed hooks & nylon leader, my grandfather gave me a small, sheepskin wallet containing a few of his old wetflies, eye-less & snooded to short gut snells, probably dating to the early 1930’s or late 1920’s. I remember there was a McGinty, a Silver Doctor, a Red Ibis & a Parmachene Belle. He didn’t see them as having particular value. To him they were just old out-dated gear, so he gave them to me to “use up” during my early excursions to the local brook. To me they were gold. But not gold to be saved. Gold to be spent. If you dunked the wallet before fishing, the wool held water to moisten & relax the stiff gut snells. Caught my first brookie on the McGinty. That was a favorite while it lasted. And the Silver Doctor killed the first rainbow.        

Tying the Turl Knot
 The earliest eyed hooks were straight-eye types, & these weren’t particularly well-received by anglers still in the habit of snelling. Turned-eye hooks, up & down, didn’t arrive on the scene until about 1879. Snelled hooks tracked well, the fly remaining aligned on a horizontal plane while fished. Flies tied on hooks with turned eyes tend to tip or roll (in some cases, screw) when fastened to the tippet by the eye & fished under tension, as in swinging or stripping. Also, when fastened by the eye, turned-eye hooks may hinge from the horizontal posture, as the tippet, with use, has the propensity to align on plane with the hook eye. As hooks with turned eyes eventually became available in a wide range of styles & sizes, they gained popularity, & the propensity to roll or hinge was overcome with the use of a turl knot, the tippet passed through the hook eye then fastened around the head behind the eye (possibly the reason for the long, conical heads we see on Leisenring’s ties, making room for a turl knot). Gut snells were in use until the advent of nylon, & the turl was seen as a logical way to achieve the positive tracking of the eyeless snood. This is not possible with a straight-eye hook, as the eye needs to be turned up or down so that the tippet may pass through the eye parallel with the hook shank, unobstructed. The turl knot was popular into the 1960’s, then began to fade from general usage as new anglers came to favor knots that are quicker & easier to tie &, I suspect, the original reason for using the turl knot began to fade in the collective memory. As the use of snells began to fade with the advent of nylon, the old straight-eye hook started to gain popularity with anglers wanting to duplicate the positive tracking attribute of the old snells, with the ease of being able to fasten the tippet to the hook eye.

I favor straight-eye hooks for most of my tying; up-eye hooks for sizes smaller than #16. This was also the preference of Jim Leisenring, Pete Hidy & Sylvester Nemes, among other great anglers whom I respect. And good results have served to ground my own preference.  

In building baits ‘form follows function’ is an abiding principle, though, taking the whole affair into consideration, form & function do coalesce when considering a hook design. We want a hook that will track well, stick & penetrate the fish’s jaw, & hold the fish throughout the battle, yet also possess a shape suggestive & appropriate to the bait we seek to imitate.

Flinty old Yankee that I am, price is also a criteria. Don’t usually buy a 10 or 25-pack of expensive hooks if I can find the same configuration in Mustad 100-packs at the same price. Guiding & supplying flies to clients requires tying a lot of flies that will live a very short life, so I generally tie on utilitarian hooks. 

The initiated have their favorites.
The hooks featured here are meant to represent the basic styles from the spectrum available, providing a reference or starting point. Because my home water hosts some large & volatile wild trout, most of my own hook choices possess mini barbs that back out doing little harm, yet aid in bringing these great trout to net so that coup may be counted. When I fish water inhabited by a lot of small fish, or where it’s required, I simply crush the barb down – & this saves me from having to buy & keep track of different hooks for duplicating the same patterns.  

                                             Modern Wetfly Hooks

                                                       Daiichi 1150
Though short-shanked with a wide gap & the overall shape lending itself to simulating the characteristic C-shape of caddis larvae, I don’t classify the 1150 as a ‘caddis’ style hook, exactly. In configuration it is, more precisely, an ‘octopus’ style hook, the same style popular with salmon/steelhead/trout bait fishers, & for good reason. The ‘octopus’ style is a faithful hooker & holder. When fishing precincts where large trout on wee flies is the game, this is a good choice for wingless patterns, #12-#18, as the short shank allows a standard #16 on a #14 hook, affording a larger working end for maximum iron to hold larger, heavier fish. The short shank of a #18 works fine for tying midges down to #22, while still allowing sensible iron for holding larger trout. The 1150 keels nicely, & the needle-sharp offset hook point makes it a consistent getter when fished on the swing. But for the tiny barb, the configuration is similar to barbless designs sold as ‘soft-hackle’ hooks.

                                                     Mustad 3366-BR
A sproat style all-purpose hook, heavy wire, with a straight eye, 1x long shank & wide hook gap. The 3366-BR is an old design with a classic configuration for soft-hackle & winged wets. This style is popular with North Country traditionalists who claim it tracks like the eyeless, snelled hooks of old, considering it preferable to modern down-eye styles for tying Tummel & Clyde style wets & North Country spiders. Its spacious, straight eye is easy to thread in failing light & good for rigging to dropper loops. A straight eye & wide gap ensure the hook keels smartly. In shape, it is identical to the Partridge Z2 & Alec Jackson ‘Traditional’ soft-hackle hooks, at about 1/10th the cost. Mustad hooks aren't heat-treated as brittle hard as some English & Japanese brands tend to be, so the barb can be crimped without fracturing the hook point, & when crimped, the generous barb maintains a good, fish-holding hump. These are sized smaller than standard wetfly, a #10 equal to a standard #12. If I could have only one hook for tying soft-hackles & winged wets, this would be my choice. The Mustad 3366-BR is a good-looking, reliable hook at a bargain price. If you want to give your flies an old-timey look without reverting to snelled, eye-less hooks, this one is a good choice.

 Mustad R50-94840
The sproat, down-eye hook style many prefer for soft-hackle & wet flies. Though billed as a dryfly hook, it is heavy-wired by modern dryfly standards, the configuration identical to the Tiemco 2487 & Gaelic Supreme Jim Bashline wetfly hooks (at a fraction of the cost). If you like the down-eye style, the Mustad R50-94840 is a good one for the money.

                                                     Mustad 3906B
An older style wetfly sproat with a longer hook shank than the Mustad R50-94840. Good for winged wets, stoneflies & patterns requiring a bit more body length. Also good for wee flies meant to be swung in fast water, tied short on the hook shank with a lot of hook extended behind the fly body for weight. Some tie North Country spiders & Clyde style wets on these, the heavier iron fishing them deeper in the water column.

                                                       Mustad 94842
This is the up-eye sproat style James Leisenring, Pete Hidy & Sylvester Nemes favored for soft-hackle flies. Having a smaller hook to shank ratio, it is a good choice for wee flies fished in the slow clear precincts of discerning, educated trout.

                                                       Tiemco 200R
An elegant hook, similar to Spey designs. The dropped, York bend of the 3x long 200R creates a deep keel to keep the fly tracking upright while swinging. Good, fished on a loop knot. I use this hook for larger patterns, #2 to #10. This design features a fairly small hook gap for its size, so for tying smaller than #10 I prefer designs with a wider hook gap. I’ve found the 200RBL (barbless version) a less than satisfactory hooker, as the combination of long shank & short bend makes it easy for fish to shake. Yet that doesn’t seem to be a problem with the mini-barbed 200R. I like this one for tying low-water ‘spiders’, hair-wing wetflies, stonefly, dragon & damselfly nymphs, Carey Specials & leeches.

                                                         Daiichi 1120
A down-eye caddis-style hook. Some like these for tying North Country spiders; though, as a hook for soft-hackle & wet flies, my only practical use for this design is in tying heavily weighted dropper nymphs meant to sink wee soft-hackles to the lower water column. If any weight is added to the curved shank it keels over & fishes point up, a desired posture in a weighted depthcharge, making it less apt to snag obstructions on the stream bottom. For this purpose I use #8-#10, heavily weighted on the shank & dressed as a latex worm or nondescript-brown soft-hackle nymph.

Which style hooks the best? The one sporting a well-honed point.

~Steven Bird 2017


  1. Well, let me be the 1st. then to congratulate you on the fine wordage of chapter 1 - congrats ! A "History Lesson" of Hugely Big Proportions ! You may have recreated the fervor of - Creationists vs. Evolutionist here - dating "manly ancestors" (as noted here) 23,000 years ! I jest of course,
    . . . or should we be cautious . . . who knows what could transpire in the coming "T-years" ? A Pandora's Box of thoughts just overflowed my brain . . . oh my gosh ! ! ! Let me get off here before I . . . Aspirin, I need a Max Dose right now, gotta go !

  2. Ive only just perused your blog, but expect to spend some time with it.
    Insightful and wide ranging, its the sort of thing I like.
    Ive shared it with my group, too.
    Aint the internet great?!

    1. Thanks for reading, D.

      Yes, agree, de nets can be great.