There are a handful of ways to apply hackle when tying a soft-hackle fly, that evidenced in the many tutorials anybody with the brass & a Go-Pro might post online. Some do it horribly & some do it right. But is there a ‘right’ & proper way? Well, my dad, a master tool & die maker, used to say: “There’s always more than one way to do something, but usually only one best way.”
Choose a hackle. Generally, the hackle barbs on a finished fly will be slightly longer than the body. Longer, or shorter, as desired. Gauge the hackle length by holding the center stem against the hook eye, the hackle barbs aligned parallel with the hook shank.
Prepare the hackle by stripping the stem up to the point you are into good, usable barbs of the length wanted. Tear away a few extra barbs from the side of the hackle that lays against the hook shank, creating a 'flat' to help seat the hackle properly when beginning to wind it.
Start the thread about five turns behind the hook eye & wind back toward the bend until about a third of the shank is covered, now wind forward all the way to the hook eye (I stay about a thread turn behind the hook eye). This provides a bedding for the hackle stem as well as some build-up through the thorax area.
Place the hackle on the top of the hook shank, concave side up. Hold the hackle stem in place while applying a couple loose turns of thread, tightening while winding the thread back over the stem to about the center of the thread base. If the hackle pulls over to the side of the hook shank a bit, that’s okay, as long as the concave side remains facing outward.
Trim away the thread tag & remaining hackle stem.
Proceed winding the tying thread back to the hook bend. Tie in the ribbing, apply dubbing to the tying thread & wind the dubbed body forward almost to the hook eye, then wind the thread back to about the center of the thorax. We want some build-up under the hackle, but not the clumpy amount of build-up we’d get if we wound the ribbing all the way to the hook eye, hence I generally end the ribbing at the center of the thorax area.
Cinch down & trim the ribbing, then spiral the tying thread back to the base of the thorax.
Dub forward over the thorax to provide profile & a bit of mass to keep the hackle flared. The ribbing under the thorax dubbing will provide enticing inner flash when the fly is wet.
After dubbing the thorax, leave the tying thread positioned far enough behind the hook eye to provide a gap for the wound hackle, which will be wound back to the thread's position.
Pull the hackle back perpendicular to the hook shank & apply two full turns of hackle, winding back to the tying thread position. Holding the hackle tip at the top of the hook shank, apply a turn of thread over the end, then wind the thread forward two turns over (through) the hackle to the hook eye.
Trim away the hackle tip (or may be left to create a wing). Square away the hackle with your fingers.
Gather & pull back the hackle & apply thread turns & whip-finish. Using this method there is little to no build-up in front of the hackle, so the head may be as small as you like. The hackle stem will be hidden; & do not wind the tying thread back over the hackle base intending to cover the stem, pinning the hackle to the body (unless you want something that looks like a diving caddis with a big head).
The hackle collar should have as much flare as lay-back. We cinched & locked the collar in place when we wound the tying thread forward over the hackle (it won’t unwind) & also, in essence, spring-loaded the hackle barbs. The water current will move them back against the body, but they will want to return to position, producing lifelike obfuscation & motion.
I’ve probably tried every hackling method there is for wetflies, but this basic method is the best I’ve tried, giving the best result, & also the quickest & easiest. Hope it serves to help anyone who may be wondering. Stay tuned. The next couple posts will outline hackling methods for flymphs & tiny soft-hackles.