Catch the fish other anglers can’t with these impressionistic patterns.
[by Steve Culton]
I REMEMBER BEING SO DISAPPOINTED by the flies in the saltwater bins. I’d just started fly fishing for striped bass. Coming from a trout background, I’d cut my teeth on traditional flies like Hare’s-Ear Nymphs and Usuals – patterns that at best gave an approximation of what a bug might look like.
But the striper flies before me left little to the imagination. With their ultrarealistic 3-D eyes and opaque bodies, they looked like stuffed-animal baitfish. Many felt heavy and would likely be a challenge to cast. All of them seemed as if they were trying way too hard to impress the fish – just as you might stumble over words while trying to meet a beautiful woman, when all you really need to do is say hello.
Then I discovered the traditional New England school of striper flies. These were patterns that made the case for less is more. Bucktails so sparse you could read a newspaper through them, flatwings that swam like baitfish (even when at rest), and soft hackles. Oh, those magical creations that breathed and pulsed and undulated like no jointed bits of plastic ever could.
Those were the flies I was looking for. Once I started tying and fishing them, I made a wondrous discovery: Stripers loved them just as much as I did.
The Soft Hackle Energy
Like their sweetwater cousins, saltwater soft hackles tend toward impressionism. Their goal is not to carbon-copy the bait, but simply to represent it in size, color profile, and movement. In a fly box, a soft hackle may look very little like something that’s alive and good to eat. But once a soft hackle is introduced to water, a remarkable transformation occurs. “It’s a completely different way of looking at fly design,” says Ken Abrames, the father of the modern saltwater flatwing. “Water becomes an essential part of the material list.”
It was Ken who first turned me on to soft-hackled flies (I feature three of his best patterns in this article). I asked him about his typically sparse designs. “When a fish comes up to your fly, and turns away, it means that he was going to eat it until he saw something that he didn’t like. So instead of adding things to my flies that he might like, I started taking things out,” Abrames said.
You may also notice that eyes are conspicuously absent from these patterns. You could endlessly debate whether or not eyes are a feeding trigger. But the true test of a fly is whether the fish eat it, and soft-hackled flies are indeed striper-approved. For those familiar with the modern striper fly, this sparse, no-eyes-necessary philosophy in baitfish pattern construction can be a difficult concept to embrace. But as more and more anglers discover its seductive powers, the soft hackle is becoming a saltwater fly box staple.
Presenting Soft Hackles
Most anglers fish for striped bass by casting, and then stripping the fly in. This is a highly effective method for catching aggressive fish. But the more you fish for stripers, the more situations you’ll encounter where they will ignore a stripped fly. The bass may be feeding on station, like trout, waiting for the baitfish to come to them. They may not be feeding on baitfish at all, but rather on tiny shrimps, crab larvae, or isopods. Or, they may not be in attack mode. These are the stripers that not everyone can catch. But they can be caught. Sometimes the answer is as simple as a subtle fly and an eloquent presentation.
Meyer Breslau stated, “Beer that is not drunk has missed its vocation.” The same may be said of soft hackles that are not dead-drifted, swung, or dangled. Soft hackles are presentation flies. Yes, you can cast and strip them. But if you limit yourself to that presentation, you’re missing out on a whole lot of fly fishing magic. Soft hackles look alive even on a dead drift. They shine with a floating line, which allows you to mend and let the current work for you, as with presentations like the greased line swing. Fishing soft hackles with traditional methods is a beautiful, meditative way to fool difficult bass. It’s almost like you’re trout fishing for stripers.