Fishing Soft-Hackles

Fishing Soft-Hackles

Direct lessons from Sylvester Nemes.

  • By: Dave Hughes
  • Photography by: Dave Hughes
Sylvester Nemes on the Yellowstone River

I first met sylvester nemes through his 1975 book, The Soft-Hackled Fly. It was a small book, tightly focused on its single subject: wet flies tied with bodies of silk thread, sparse hackles, rarely anything extra. Sylvester’s prose reflected his subject perfectly. It was spare, compact and didn’t stray from its subject. Which is to say, the book was beautifully written. Best to me: It was—and is, because it’s still in print under the title The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles—one of those rare books that enthused me to immediately sit down at the vise, tie a bunch of the flies described, and rush from there to a stream to fish them.

The flies, and the methods described, worked. Sometimes they worked wonders. One of my favorite days with them came on a gloomy fall float of Utah’s Green River, downstream from Flaming Gorge Dam. Few trout rose all day. My friends and I tried pestering them to attention with weighted nymphs tumbled along the bottom, which turned out to be ineffective—and because it produced few trout, was also very little fun.

We arrived at a broad riffle, parked the boat and hopped out to fish our usual heavy gear. On a whim, I traded the brutal stuff for a little bamboo rod and floating line, and tied on a size 12 Partridge-and-Orange soft-hackled wet fly I’d tied right out of Sylvester’s book. I began casting it at a 45-degree angle downstream, then mended continually to slow its drift while the fly swept down and around, a method, like the fly, right out of the book. Within an hour I’d hooked five trout and landed four of them. The largest, a portly rainbow, weighed more than three pounds.

Darkness descended, and we had to float away from that brief flurry of great soft-hackle fishing. Like all the best times—and, I’ll admit, most of the best of trout as well—that day has managed to enlarge itself in my memory.

That is the first lesson and the simplest of prescriptions from Sylvester’s excellent book: Explore a riffle by casting across the current at an angle determined by the speed of the current, farther downstream toward 30 degrees if it is fast; toward 60 degrees or even straight across it at 90 degrees if the current is slow; then mend as needed to slow the swim of the fly. Take a step downstream after fishing out each swing, cast again, and cover water until you find the trout.

I first fished with Sylvester and his war bride, Hazel, in the late 1980s on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. It was early May, just before runoff, and the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch was heavy. The landscape was a stark contrast of black on white: the dark cottonwood bottoms along the river etched against the white backdrop of snow still deep on the Absaroka Mountains above it.

Dozens of tiny caddis adults boated the currents, always in gentle flows, always five to 10 feet from the banks. Trout lined up in pods to poke their noses out and sip the frigid little insects before they were able to thaw and take flight. It seemed like the perfect dryfly situation, and that’s how I caught my first few trout. But it was difficult to sort out an imitation from all the naturals, so I missed more rises than I hit. Sylvester and Hazel kept themselves busy entertaining trout, and I finally got smart enough to reel up, warm my hands in my pockets, and watch them awhile. They were slipping Mother’s Day Caddis soft-hackles under the hatch, casting them short, fishing them on slow swings through the same pods of rising trout I was trying to solve on top.

Their results were so dramatically opposed to mine that I switched to the soft-hackle myself. It was a good second lesson: Fishing under a hatch with a wet fly imitative of the rising nymph, pupa or drowned adult is often more productive than fishing a dry fly.

A minor note, and another lesson, came on a float down Oregon’s Deschutes River with Sylvester and friend Michael Sarracione, of Portland. It was late May, on a beautiful, warm spring day, during the height of the salmonfly hatch. The giant stonefly adults were hanging off willows and grasses and alders, falling to the water, causing explosive rises by trout. Sylvester refused to fish anything but a soft-hackle. There is no soft-hackle imitation of the monstrous salmonfly adult. Michael and I honored Syl all day by fishing only soft-hackles ourselves, while at the same time trying mightily to persuade him to tie on the big bundle of fur and hair called a Sofa Pillow.

We all went fishless. Finally Michael and I snuck on those dries, cast them tight against the banks, caused a few of those detonations, brought some hefty Deschutes redside rainbows to hand. Syl watched us, then relented. He took one of our rods, cast a Sofa Pillow to an obvious holding lie, had it hammered. He caught the biggest fish of our day. Then he handed the rod back and said, “That’s enough of that!”

He spent the rest of the float watching us fish. For the rest of his life he told me he didn’t like the Deschutes River because its trout refused to take his soft-hackled wet flies. But I’ve caught untold trout on the same river with Syl’s soft-hackles. It’s just that it’s hopeless to fish them when trout are focused on salmonflies. And that’s the lesson: Don’t get so rooted in one method that you ignore all others, unless, like Syl, you’re willing to forgo some excellent opportunities to catch trout.

I always seemed to fish with Sylvester in May, wherever we were. I stayed with him and Hazel for a few days at their home in Bozeman, Montana in the early 1990s. Syl and I drove out one morning to fish the Madison River, at the lower end of Beartrap Canyon. The weather was rainy and rotten when we left the house, but Sylvester always wanted to go anyway.

“We’ll see the river, if nothing else,” he said. “And maybe something will happen.” That in itself—always go; something might happen—is an excellent lesson, and might be the main one I got out of the day. But there were others.

Rain had turned to snow by the time we reached the river. We sat drinking coffee, watching out through the windshield, not eager to wader-up and wade into that weather, thinking about a warm restaurant not far upstream in Ennis. But it wasn’t long before Syl noticed very dainty rises in soft water right in front of the gravel where we’d parked. We had to get our noses almost onto the surface before we were able to tell the trout were working midges. I didn’t even bother with a dry fly this time. I whined until Syl gave me a couple copies of his soft-hackle specific to the situation, Syl’s Midge, no more than a peacock herl body and turn of gray partridge hackle on a size 16 hook. It’s the first fly in Syl’s second book, Soft-Hackled Fly Imitations. We fished it upstream just like a dry fly, to those gently-rising trout, and surprised more than a few of them when they mistook it for a crippled midge. It was a lesson in fishing a wet fly just a few inches deep when trout only appear to be feeding on the surface.

When the midges tapered off, we drove upstream a bit to a boulder-garden run, got out, sat on the bank to watch the water. The snow had reverted to light rain, which made life a bit more pleasant. It’s no secret that small Blue-Wing Olive mayflies love to emerge into an overcast and drizzling sky. We were about to begin eating lunch when our plans were interrupted by the beginnings of what turned out to be a great BWO hatch.

We reverted to the earlier idea that it’s often wise to fish a tiny soft-hackle on the swing, under a hatch, the same as I’d seen Syl and Hazel do during the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch on the Yellowstone. His tie for the BWO had blue dun hackle-fiber tails, an olive floss body ribbed with yellow silk, and a couple of turns of blue dun hen hackle. Syl fished his strictly as a wet, on the swing. But I often gave mine a few flicking backcasts to dry it, then cast upstream to rising trout. It would usually float a few feet, and it must have looked a lot like an emerging BWO dun to those trout. I’ll have to confess I caught more trout on the soft-hackle fished dry than fished wet, which can be another lesson worth remembering.

We forgot about lunch, fished through it, and I thought I’d not ever be able to stop casting until those trout quit rising. But I was wrong.

The rain let up. The sun broke through, ignited the canyon, the sage and juniper hills, and the cliffs above the river. A flock of robins, quiet on the hillsides during the earlier heavy weather, got excited about the warmth of the sun and suddenly broke into song. The trout kept on rising, and Syl, 100 feet downstream from me, kept on catching them on his soft-hackle, fished on a gentle swing through the broken water.

I reeled up, quit fishing, watched Sylvester, heard him laughing down there, over the quiet voice of the river and the rollicking robins, whenever he hooked a nice trout and led it thrashing to his hand.

Sylvester passed away at 88, on February 3, while at home in Bozeman with Hazel. See obit, page 16