By Zach Lazzari | Photo by Ryan McSparran
I accidentally starting swinging soft hackles again. It’s a deadly technique that is most often associated with old school fly fishing but the soft hackle has recently been reintroduced as a favorite tactic in my approach to trout fishing. I haven’t really been adamant about swinging soft hackles for trout since high school when I would swing up stocked trout under the Mayberry Bridge on the Truckee River in Reno, Nevada. Shortly thereafter, I took up the dead drift mentality and eventually incorporated high sticking into the nymphing routine.
I was fishing Montana’s Big Hole river in late August and approached a run with a beautiful seam on the far side. It was just out of reach for effective high sticking and I had no desire to stack mends over a bobber. I tied on a large prince nymph I had tied with a heavy saddle hackle on the head. It’s a unique pattern that is almost a hybrid nymph-streamer and it works well on trout just about everywhere. I added a split shot a few inches above the fly then did a cast across the river followed by a big mend upriver. I swung through the seam and managed to catch four nice browns while feeling several others short strike and tap the fly. The grab feels infinitely better than any bobber hookset as you maintain contact with the fly at all times.
I have since made a few adjustments to create a versatile high stick - swing style approach that is picking up fish across the state of Montana. It’s especially effective in caddis heavy rivers but is working on big and small rivers consistently. Any river with big runs or heavy pocket water is a great candidate for this approach.
You can use any preferred tippet but I run at least 3x to the first fly. I run this off a 2x straight diameter leader with about 10-12 feet between the line and the fly. The first fly is typically a larger stonefly or something really buggy that will fish nicely on a dead drift or a swing. It’s the meat fly in most cases although I did size it down on a recent tailwater trip where sight fishing was an intermittent option. I will add and remove split shot above the first fly as needed throughout the day. The second fly is the true soft hackle. The traditional Partridge and Orange pattern has been great. A hare’s ear soft hackle has also been producing really well. Especially with a little flash ribbing.
The presentation varies according to water type but in most cases I cast up and across and high stick until the line passes my position. At this point, I make a mend and swing the water downstream of my position. It’s easy to alternate between the high stick and a swing presentation with this rig and you can do either exclusively if a single presentation is proving more effective. While this isn’t a true, traditional soft hackle presentation, it works really well and allows for easy adjustments to the presentation without changing the rigging.
For fishing soft hackles on the swing, we’d recommend checking out our M-Series rods. The 10’ 3” 4-weight and 6-weight are awesome options that provide great reach and power. Moreover, the delicacy and deep flex in these rods is perfect for swinging flies, where you’ll feel every bump and strike!
Zach Lazzari is a fly fishing guide and an outdoor writer based in Montana. Zach has fished and guided in Alaska, Colorado and Patagonia. Zach is also the blogger behind The Busted Oarlock. Ryan McSparran is an outdoor writer, and a fly fishing and hunting professional based in Colorado.