The Road to Wingless Wets - Soft Hackles, Spiders, and Flymphs. - Global FlyFisher

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The Road to Wingless Wets


Published May 28th 2006

Soft Hackles, Spiders, and Flymphs.

By Mark Libertone

In 1972, after return from a stint in the U.S. Army, I went to a little tackle store in Syracuse, NY that sold fly-fishing and tying supplies. Little did I know that visit would, essentially, change my entire outlook about fly-fishing. My concentration had always been on dry flies and the upstream, dead drift dogma, but that suddenly changed.

On a shelf in the shop was a little book that was propped open. It was Leisenring and Hidy's The Art of Tying The Wet-Fly and Fishing The Flymph. It was reasonably priced, so, I bought it. Inside, I found a treasure of patterns and some fishing instructions and I suddenly switched gears and began fishing these great little flies.

In years to come my education in fly-fishing increased, and the more I learned, the more I realized that these flies were, in essence, the epitome of fly-fishing. My artistic training and somewhat frugal nature told me these flies are simple, efficient, and fishable. I was catching fish regularly using them, plus they were working better than any dry fly I had used to that point. After reading Nemes' books, I also learned they were historically significant.

I was, and am happy to be considered, a soft-hackled fly addict. To this day, while I have improved greatly as a dry fly fisherman and fish dry flies, I still rely upon the wingless wets as my flies of choice. I also recognize that more and more fly fishermen are coming around to the same conclusion.

One really nice thing I find about these flies is they can and do represent many insect forms like caddis as adults-larva and pupa, mayfly nymphs, hatching sub-imagoes, and mayfly adults. I have also come to rely on this fly form to help me reproduce flies which I could not find adequate imitations for. Some of these will appear in my selection. The fly patterns I've chosen are somewhat of a cross-section of types. There are many, many great soft-hackle patterns and the list grows larger everyday. For someone just beginning, I think the following patterns would be a good starting point.

There are a couple points I feel I need to touch upon regarding these flies. First, traditional soft-hackles were tied quite sparse. The reason for this being that many of these patterns were fished upstream like a dry fly. I feel this links them to the early dry fly development in England. Next, in my opinion, Leisenring was the "Gordon" of the wet-fly, here in America. Leisenring's flies, dubbed "Flymphs" by his student and friend Vern "Pete" Hidy, were more adapted to American water. The hackling is somewhat heavier than the soft-hackles, however Leisenring's flies also incorporated the fine blending of feather, thread and dubbing to create overall impressionistic representations of natural insects which makes them very effective. This is especially true of the spun, dubbed bodies which are a bit fuller than soft-hackles. The flymphs were originally designed to fish from the bottom to the surface like an emerging fly.

All these flies use soft-hackles from different birds. Leisenring also used hen for the hackle. This to me is the key factor of these wingless wets. The soft hackle encourages movement in the fly, even when fished as a dry. Leisenring, however, often tied his flies with varying stiffness of the hackles. The Bachelor of The Braodheads, as he was called, used stiffer hackles for faster water. I should also mention that, traditionally, soft-hackles were tied with slightly oversized hackles. This often, coupled with their sparse hackling, gives them a rather gawky looking appearance. This does not deter from their fish catching power. Leisenring's flymphs were tied with the hackle of a more traditional wet-fly length.

Another point worth mentioning is the usage of hooks. Wingless wets can and are tied on all manor of hooks from those used for emergers to standard wet fly hooks. Also, hook weight can be varied. I find, like a lot of other fly anglers, that these flies can be applied on standard dry fly hooks for lighter applications, like fishing them as dries or on a greased leader just under the surface.

Many of the traditional soft-hackles were made from Pearsall's silks of England. They are still available today. Many modern dressers of the soft-hackles use nylon flosses and threads. I find these a good substitute. The problem with flosses, however, is they fray very easily and they sometime slip down the shank. To prevent this from happening, I, like many other tiers, rib the bodies with fine gold wire.

For creating my own soft-hackle and flymph patterns, I try to combine materials that give an overall representation of the fly I'm trying to imitate. This is very much in keeping with Leisenring's idea of using materials in a melding fashion. I also believe that adding tinsels or light reflective materials can improve the fly's effectiveness to some degree.

I feel this selection with tying instructions would start any would-be wingless wet-fly fisherman on the road to success. If I've peaked your interest and you would like to find more patterns to tie and try, I suggest an online search for Soft-Hackles, Flymphs, North Country Spiders or Flies. It's amazing how much information is out there.

The Black Gnat

Hook: standard wet-fly 12-18
Thread: Red or Claret
Hackle: Iridescent Starling
Body: two or three herls taken from the dark, black-brown V-shaped section on the top of a turkey tail.
Rib: (optional) Fine green wire.

Note: Leisenring's original pattern did not include the ribbing. I added this myself to strengthen the body.

This is one of, in my opinion, Leisenring's most effective flies. I always carry some with me, and before leaving the water, always give it a shot. It's paid off many times.

Leisenring Spider

Hook: standard wet-fly 12-16
Thread: Primrose Yellow (Light Yellow)
Hackle: Brown Partridge
Body: Hare's Ear Dubbing
Rib: Fine Gold Wire

This pattern came from Vern Hidy and is a very effective flymph tied much like Leisenring would have done. It possesses that buggy, natural look that the fish like.

Partridge and Orange

Hook: standard wet-fly 12 down
Thread: Pearsall's Gossamer in orange (Orange Uni-Thread works as well)
Hackle: Gray or Brown Partridge
Body: Pearsall's Marabou Floss in Orange (Orange Uni-Floss)
Thorax: (optional) Hare's Ear Dubbing
Rib: Fine Gold Wire

This is probably the most widely known and used soft hackle. I included it to show how the traditional soft hackles are tied with larger hackle. I find it effective everywhere I fish tied in one size or another. It should be included in every beginning soft-hackle collection, not only because it's a classic pattern, but because it catches trout

Light Snipe and Yellow

Hook: standard wet-fly 12-20
Thread: Yellow
Hackle: Light Snipe from the under covert
Body: Yellow button hole twist (or yellow floss)
Rib: Fine Gold Wire

NOTE: Medium light gray starling or soft hen can be used as a substitute for the snipe hackle.

This is a traditional soft-hackle and is usually tied very sparse with longer hackle. Leisenring was fond of botton-hole-twist. It is silk thread that was used to sew around the outside of buttonholes. It is quite difficult to find, nowadays, but reasonable substitutes can be found. I often use regular embroidery floss (cotton) or silk embroidery flosses as a substitute.

Little Olive Dun

Hook: standard wet-fly 14-20
Thread: Gray
Hackle: Gray Snipe, Starling, or hen
Body: Olive embroidery floss to match the natural
Thorax: Gray dubbing

This is my own pattern and it resembles many of the traditional soft-hackles in that it has a little thorax. Many of these flies had a dubbed thorax to hold the hackle fibers out. I believe this helped when fishing the fly as a dry fly, but it does add some realism to the fly as well.

Lil' Dorothy

Hook: standard wet-fly 14-16
Thread: Yellow
Hackle: Pale Ginger Hen
Body: Cotton embroidery floss in a pale orange color, #722, one strand from a three strand twist
Thorax: Light Cahill Hareline dubbing, tied fuzzy

This is another of my own patterns and is tied in a style that combines the traditional soft-hackle with flymph attributes. I tied it to represent Ephemerella dorothea that hatches on my home river at the end of May and has a distinctive orange cast to the cream colored body. Again, the combination of the cream thorax and pale orange abdomen work to create the correct appearance. I know it works when the dorotheas are hatching., and I've fished it at other times in other places, and this fly has taken trout. I also know it works well for Sulphurs that have a distinct orange cast, too.

User comments
From: David · Davidbaird2·at·icloud.com  Link
Submitted September 6th 2014

Some lovely flies, you could also do a google search on clyde style flies. The clyde is the river I fish in Scotland, and it's clyde style spiders are renowned for there sparseness.


From: Mark Libertone · mklibertone·at·yahoo.com  Link
Submitted December 17th 2012

Roy-Glad you enjoyed it.

Mark


From: Roy Ramdeen · deepsky01·at·gmail.com  Link
Submitted December 17th 2012

Mark thanks much for publishing this article, just finished reading Leisenring's book. What great information shared. These Flymphs and Spiders are simple and very effective.

Cheers Roy


From: Mark Libertone · mklibertone·at·yahoo.com  Link
Submitted March 7th 2011

For sure, Mark. Creating a dubbing brush as Leisenring and Hidy did, surely makes for a very strong body. Leisenring did not fool around when it came to fly construction. He was very exact and fussy regarding such things.


From: mark dyba · dybam·at·oct.net  Link
Submitted March 6th 2011

Many years ago I met Hyde and while we were talking about flies and fishing he gave me one of Leisering spinning blocks. I still have it and in fact used it this afternoon to spin seal fur for a fly body. One thing I can say for sure,after spinning the body in the Leisering block, the body of spun fur is not comming appart.
Mark


From: Rick · rick.welch·at·att.net  Link
Submitted September 10th 2010

Hi Mark,
Flies look great ! I used to subscribe to a british Trout Magazine and everything was about fishing wet flies. I really had an interest in the wets that were displayed in the magazine - I wondered at the time why these types of flies were not used here in the USA. Years have gone by since I first read about the flies and my wife and I were going to the White River in Arkansas for vacation this year. I had read your article "Wet Flies - Rediscoved " before we went to Arkansas and new I wanted to try it there.I learned about a guide there that specialized in wet fly fishing. I went out with him for a day and absolutely loved this style of fishing ( 3 flies). When I got home I started tying my own wet flies and think I'm hooked forever !! Even started using them for panfish and bass !! By the way the guide was Davy Wotton !!!


From: Mark Libertone · mklibertone·at·yahoo.com  Link
Submitted January 19th 2010

Thanks. I hope they are as successful for you as they have been for me.

Mark


From: Western Fly flipper  Link
Submitted January 12th 2010

One of my most enjoyable days ever was spent casting soft hackles from a small island with a quartering breeze. The wind bobbed the flies hanging below an indicator. I kept the line tight and the hookups were violent. Beautiful sunny day with my wife's father and uncle. Both gentlemen now deceased, I used Nemes patterns and the yellow with fur thorax as I remember almost never finished a drift. When the conditions are right, this is one of the best style flies to use. Yours look fabulous. I will add them to the soft hackle box.... thanks


From: colin norton · colin_norton420·at·yahoo.com  Link
Submitted June 1st 2009

Cant wait to learn how to fly fish from the best in town!!


From: David A. Swart · davidaswart·at·gmail.com  Link
Submitted April 6th 2009

Like the article allways liked using soft hackles,try tying with a wire body like a copper john with a peacock or hares ear thorax works great,the one pattern I use a lot is tyed as follows TMC 200R,brown thread 6/0,mylar tinsel back,hares ear (light) body,copper wire rib,hares ear or peacock thorax (dark brown),molted brown hackle two or three turns and thread head simple use on a dead drift or swing during a caddis hatch a hold on works for me.


From: Doug Duvall · dduvall83·at·gmail.com  Link
Submitted October 1st 2008

Mark,
I was looking over your web-site again recently and i'm glad to see that you have added more pages to your site i.e. Flies I, II, III, etc. The guys are right. After seeing your work, it makes the rest of us want to sit down at the vise and have at it! Flymphs are the best of all the soft-hackled tribe. Please keep the patterns and the articles coming. The histories of all the fly patterns are, to me, quite interesting. Can't get enough of that!
Yours from the quiet waters,
Doug Duvall


From: Jan Johansen · jany·at·blueyonder.co.uk  Link
Submitted March 13th 2008

Love tying spiders fantastic flies if tied properly, yours are cool and look great hope to see more soon


From: Doug Duvall · dduvall83·at·gmail.com  Link
Submitted January 23rd 2008

Great article and patterns too! No one can deny the sheer magic these flies generate when applied to your favorite body of water, moving or still. I've checked out your web-site as you directed and it's amazing!! Please keep up the good work Mark. We will be looking for future articles and please add some patterns to your web-site soon! They are fantastic!
Doug


From: Ken  Link
Submitted December 28th 2007

In Tennessee (where i live) soft hackles are getting pretty popular, and i've been successful with them. Every time i'm at my vise, i end up tying some. thanks for the patterns.


From: doug buxton · bucky1027·at·sbcglobal.net  Link
Submitted August 12th 2007

I have been flyfishing for about three years and most of that time I have fished dry flies, Just this year I started fishing wet flies and I have enjoyed it tremendously and have had some good luck. I hope other unseasoned flyfisherman like myself give it a try.


From: Francisco Pablo D'Aloia · radalesfly·at·ciudad.com  Link
Submitted May 27th 2007

Excellente article and very nice patterns. I live in Patagonia (Argentina) and I am a Fly Fishing Guide. I am another "Soft Hackle Addict" and always recommend to my clients, to fish with a Soft Hackle.
I had been reading the books of James Leisering and Sylvester Nemes; both books are, actually, wonderfull.
Thanks much,
Pablo


From: Bill  Link
Submitted March 30th 2007

Very nice flies. I find soft hackles and flymphs to be among the most successful and pleasant-to-fish patterns that work nearly every time I use them.


From: Bob Miller · flyfish14·at·aol.com  Link
Submitted January 19th 2007

I have the same book and still study it. I have been tying for more than 60 years and have never read clearer how to instructions. Well done Mark


From: gabriel epprecht · bacongag·at·hotmail.com  Link
Submitted January 4th 2007

i just started learning how to fly fish this year, and i have been looking very hard for instructions for new flies that i could use, so i think it would add to this very interesting artical if there were a set of simple instructions attached.
thank you very much.


From: Mark Libertone · mklibertone·at·yahoo.com  Link
Submitted October 25th 2006

Thanks all for your encouragement. I'm glad you've enjoyed this article. If you'd like further info on some rather simple techniques to fish these flies, do a web search for Flymphs, Softhackles and Spiders. Hopefully, my site will come up. You can e-mail me from there, and there is a bunch of other effective wingless wet fly recipes on my site.

Thanks again,
Mark


From: Stephen Johnson · ssjmfg·at·orionesi.com  Link
Submitted October 24th 2006

Excellent article. This will save me a lot of time trying to explain to people why I fish wets! Also, nicely tied flies. Thanks.
Steve


From: Korrie Broos · korrie·at·caneworld.co.za  Link
Submitted October 23rd 2006

Wet flies are the most effective way of fishing. Upstream I cast them and let them sink and then let the leader deliberately drag it thru the water colum. Deadly, because they are so sparse the fish can't see the real drag, it looks like a struggling hatching insect. Dress them with a bit of fly floatant and fish them as a dry fly, looks like a trapped hatching insect in the surface film. fish wet flies across and down. every possible way you want, retrieve upstream, Leisering lift you name the way, it will catch. You will be surprised, it is probaly the most effective flies you have


From: Dan Boucher · danbou·at·comcast.net  Link
Submitted October 22nd 2006

I just dug out a Starling skin that I bought many years ago. Your article is the most helpful info I've found on the Net. A Partridge and Orange is occasionally devastating on the Farmington River in CT. Thank you for this info.
Dan


From: Brian Waller · wallerbrian·at·btinternet.com  Link
Submitted October 7th 2006

Very useful and a reminder of the value of Wet Flies- which I used in Yorkshire, England rivers as a young man . There we tied them very sparsely - no dubbing , just the silk body plus hackle . I too would appreciate some ideas about how best to use them - up, down or sideways in the stream.
Thanks for this site
Brian


From: Simon Wang · tienchieh.wang·at·gmail.com  Link
Submitted September 13th 2006

Thank you so much for this little article. It arouse my attention to wet flies. It'd make this article much more valuable if you can add a little section to describe how to rig and fish them effectively.
Again, Thanks,
Simon


From: Robin Rhyne · rrhyne56·at·gmail.com  Link
Submitted May 29th 2006

those are simple, elegant patterns. Makes me want to get out the vise right now!

thank you



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