Soft Hackle Fly for Spring Steelhead

Angler holding a large fish caught by using a soft hackle fly
Jim Kelso with a nice Spring steelhead caught swinging a soft hackle fly.

One of the things that drew me to fly-fishing for salmon and steelhead was simply the soft hackle flies. No soft hackle fly patterns are prettier than classic Atlantic salmon flies, and classic steelhead fly patterns from the Pacific Northwest are very similar, having evolved from the classic salmon patterns. Yet today, you will find very few steelhead anglers, with the exception of the contingent of Spey casters, who are using the traditional patterns for steelhead.

Soft Hackle Fly Patterns Are Much More Utilitarian

On the Lake Ontario tributaries, fly patterns are much more utilitarian, and highly effective—but not a lot to look at. Over the years I had the privilege of fishing a couple of times with an angler named Art Pond. Art’s visual handicap was severe enough to keep him from driving, but he still could fish. His flies looked like a child tied them because of his eye problems, but Art caught fish with them, proving that fancy flies are not always better.

Yet, I still enjoy the classic stuff and have finally found a way to find an excuse to tie classic steelhead fly patterns on the premise that there is a time on the Lake Ontario streams when they work well. In the spring, when the steelhead are starting to exhibit their spawning behavior, bigger patterns do catch fish and it is well worth having a box of them in your vest.

After reading an article on soft hackled patterns for steelhead based in part on the classic patterns, I tied an entire box of these flies. They are great to look at, so much so that I’ve been asked to photograph them on a trout fishing a couple of occasions. In spite of being pretty, they are also highly effective flies for spawning steelhead.

Box of Different Soft Hackle fly patterns
This box shows a nice selection of the author’s soft hackle fly patterns

Why Are Soft Hackle Fly Patterns So Good?

The advantage to soft-hackle fly patterns is that while they are great to look at, and certainly resemble classic steelhead fly patterns, they don’t take long to tie and it won’t break your heart if you lose one. I certainly would be severely depressed to break off a salmon that took a classic Jock Scott I had spent over an hour to tie!

Soft Hackle Materials

These patterns also use relatively simple materials, the fanciest of which is the Partridge Co. Synthetic Seal dubbing used to tie them, which is a little shiny and reflects light well. The hackle for these patterns is tied with a saltwater neck hackle that isn’t very stiff and is also a little webby—thus the name soft hackle.  If you are tying a simple Spey pattern, you strip the soft hackle wet from one side of the feather.  If it is a regular soft hackle pattern, you use the whole feather for tying.

The patterns also use tinsels for ribbing.  Fly tying tinsels for classic steelhead fly patterns are expensive, and they are typically a tin-foil type material that breaks easily. I like the modern tinsels for ribbing material on these flies because it holds wet flies up better and is more abrasion resistant. Some patterns also use tags made of floss or tinsel, and again the more modern materials hold up much better.

Tying Tips

  • The basic fly uses a salmon/steelhead hook (use chemically sharpened hooks as the old style hook like the standard Mustad 36890 is fairly dull).
  • Wind the thread 2/3rds of the way down the hook shank, then add in any tail or tag, the tinsel for the rib, and build up a body of the imitation seal dubbing.
  • Wind the rib forward and tie in a hackle at the head end of the fly (two if more than one color is needed).
  • A couple of turns of hackle are all you need.
  • Tie it off, trim, and build up a head in the front. Whip finish the head, add some glue and it’s done. You can nock off 6-8 or more in an hour!

For the Spey style soft hackle, the only difference is that the hackle is tied in by the tip just before the dubbing, and brought forward as the rib and tied off. The other difference is that you strip the feather on one side, only using one side of hackling from the feather.

Fishing the Soft Hackle

When it comes to fly fishing the soft hackle fly, I rig up with a seven-weight rod and use a double-tapered line (olive drab color). From there I use 8-10 feet of straight 10-pound test fluorocarbon tied to a small black swivel. Between the swivel and the fly, I use 4-6 pound test fluorocarbon leader for a tippet. If the water is low and clear, the 4-pound tippet is better. I use just enough split-shot above the swivel to keep the fly ticking along just up off the bottom. In really low water, the swivel is usually enough without any weight.

I fish the fly on a down-and-across presentation, mending the line as needed to keep the fly broadside to the fish so they see the whole profile. Since the steelhead is spawning, sometimes mayflies really slam it as they see it as an invader trying to steal eggs out of the nest. At other times, they grab it and you do not really feel the take, but feel the fly stop.

A lot of this fishing is done by sight, either with fish that are completely visible, or when you can occasionally spot fish digging in the gravel. The goal is to try and catch the males that are down below the nest without catching the spawning female, so you cast to get the fly down just behind any nesting fish you spot.

The Riddle of Color

One of the things that my friend Jim Kelso taught me about steelhead is that “just when you think you’ve got these things figured out, you find out that you don’t have them figured out!”  Color is a mystery to me. I’ve had some great days on steelhead under certain conditions, and then went back under the same conditions and the fly that they climbed all over the last time wouldn’t draw a strike! It makes no sense whatsoever to me.

The Smurf is a great example. I created the Smurf soft-hackle fly after reading about how rainbows are drawn to a smolt-blue or orange-colored fly. The first spring that I fished the fly was under a bright sun, and that fly was the only thing the steelhead wanted to hit. I’ve tried it on multiple occasions afterward and have not had the same fortune.

The bottom line is that in the spring, if you have fish that are visible, or if you know you are on a good run that they are going to use on the way upstream, keep changing colors until you get them to go. Last spring’s outing was a good example, I kept changing flies until I came up with the color that they were looking for—black in this case. Once I had the right color I had a lot of action right up until it was time to quit and head home.

Even if you find the right color, if they get finicky the next step is to use the same pattern in a little smaller size. This works at times and is always worth a try if the magic pattern suddenly starts getting refused.

Soft hackle fly patterns, in addition to being very effective in the spring, are a bridge to the classic patterns. I really enjoy fishing and tying these flies, and I hope you’ll give them a try and be successful as well!

The Smurf – A Basic Soft Hackle Fly

The Smurf, a blue soft hackle fly patten

  1. Hook: Mustad 80500BL – Size 4-8.
  2. Rib: Silver Tinsel.
  3. Body: Smolt Blue Partridge SLF Dubbing.
  4. Hackle: Smolt Blue Saddle Hackle.
  5. Thread: 6/0 Black Unithread.

You can vary this basic pattern any way you want. For example, two colors of hackle, two body colors, or adding tinsel tags.

Black Spey – Basic Simple Spey Style Soft Hackle

An example of a Black Spey soft hackle fly pattern.

  1. Hook: Mustad 80500BL – Size 4-8.
  2. Rib: Silver Tinsel.
  3. Body: Black Partridge SLF Dubbing.
  4. Hackle: Black Saddle Hackle (strip fibers off one side).
  5. Thread: 6/0 Black Unithread.

For the simple Spey, the body only takes up about ½ of the hook shank.

Original Article By Rob Streeter

About The Author

Rob Streeter enjoys fly fishing for many species, especially trout and salmon in the Lake Ontario tributaries. He is the outdoor columnist for the Albany Times Union and freelances for several publications. He is a member of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association and the Outdoor Writers’ Association of America. Get in touch with Rob at

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