Whiskey Creek Fly Fishing

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Soft Hackle Materials

October 25th, 2008 · 7 Comments

Lets start with the hackles, where these fly patterns get their name. Most soft hackles are tied with game bird skins, like partridge, pheasant, quail, or starling. The individual fibers of these feathers are much more flexible and “bendy” than rooster hackles. This allows the soft hackles to move while being fish.  Many believe the secret to soft hackle success is this movement, which suggests life.

You may see packages of loose soft hackles in the fly shop. Avoid these.  These packages are the left overs after the best feathers have been used. The package may seem to be a bargin, but in the long run Its better to purchase the full skin, you get the best feathers and the skin itself stores the feathers sorted by size and color.

These packages are useful for providing legs on nymphs, and the very casual soft hackle tier.

Buy the skin.

Partridge is my favorite, each skin has tons of feathers, which are also useful for caddis dry fly wings (spent partridge pattern, for example).

Starling is another popular bird for creating soft hackles. The starling feathers are small, dark, and iridescent.  Very useful for tying down to size 20.

From the bottom, Hen backs are available and these are relatively inexpensive. They are available in a few colors and useful to tie larger sizes of soft hackle patterns (size 14 and larger, from my experience)

The top-most wing is a coot substitute. Several of the classic patterns call for coot feathers.

The wing in the middle is snipe substitute. The purple and snipe is a classic pattern.

Its not legal to sell coot and snipe skins, so the fly shops sell substitutes, bird parts that are similar, but legal.

Quail (on the left), and Ruffled Grouse are two other birds that are used. Pheasant call also be used.

These can be used instead of partridge, if you don’t have a partridge skin.


I like to always check my local fly shop first before ordering online. Its usually the same price. You can touch and feel the material. Compare several skins and choose the one that looks best to you, look at coloration and for tears and flaws in the skin (many of these are hunted, so shotguns and dogs are part of the processing).

Your local fly shop is an outstanding resource for tying materials, information, and supporters for fly fishing in your area. Give them business if you can.

My local fly shop, though, doesn’t stock many soft hackle materials, so I also shop online.  Most of the online fly tying merchants carry the most popular materials (hen backs, partridge, and maybe starling skins). Here are a few web sites that specialize in soft hackles these materials:

If you have a favorite supplier, please leave a comment. I’ll update this list (and give them a little business).

Tags: Fly Tying

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chris Moran // Oct 25, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  • 2 winonaflyfactory // Oct 25, 2008 at 8:12 pm

    with the soft hackle, do sizes matter the same with standard hackle? can they be trimmed down without loosing the effect? I was finding that the pheasant I have was hard to find a hackle tip that had shorter, size 16-18 fibers? am I just looking in the wrong spot on the pheasant?

  • 3 WhiskeyCreek // Oct 26, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    Hi WFF,

    Check out my latest post. Your questions inspired me to get the bird out. There are size 20 feathers, maybe even smaller, above the ring.

    Also, some of the books I referenced show some techniques for downsizing hackles. I don’t use those techniques, I don’t tie much below size 20 and find those hackles on the wings, or with smaller birds like starling.
    The one technique I remember is to tie the hackle in first, mid shank or so. Tie in so the barbs are facing the hook eye. Then after competing the body and thorax, bend the hackle barbs backwards and secure with the thread head. This reduces the hackle length by half a hook shank.

  • 4 Soft Hackles (Whiskey Creek Primer) « SwittersB’s Weblog // Nov 9, 2008 at 11:35 am

    […] http://wcflies.com/blog/2008/10/soft-hackle-materials/ […]

  • 5 John LeJeune // Nov 18, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Stone River Outfitters in New Hampshire is a very well stocked fly shop that is also on the web.

  • 6 Wet Flies & A Beginner’s Retreat (Stop Thinking So Much) « SwittersB & Fly Fishing // Jun 22, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    […] you many hassels of figuring out hatches and dredging the bottom. Tie or buy a simple assortment of wet flies….or ‘flymphs’/soft hackles and cast them precisely, swing them, retrieve them, jerk them back in fits and starts and you will […]

  • 7 junior // Jun 24, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Hello, I liked much of his blog, congratulations. It especially helped me a lot because I am starting my first soft hackle now.
    I put a link to your blog on my blog.

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