Author Topic: Fishing Soft Hackled Spiders - An Article by John Beaven  (Read 2533 times)

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Todd Oishi

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Fishing Soft Hackled Spiders - An Article by John Beaven
« on: October 09, 2012, 10:53:20 AM »

Fishing Soft Hackled Spiders
John Beaven

As a follow up to tying soft hackled flies, I said I would give you a bit of a write-up on how I fish these flies. You will soon recognize this article has no original stuff. Everything here I was shown by somebody else or I read about in a book or a magazine. But this is what works for me. Hopefully it will add a fish or two to your tally.

The methods described are all very simple – no more complicated to describe than, say Czech Nymphing. But like Czech nymphing, or any angling method, you must practice if you want to catch fish consistently!

Use a long rod for easier line handling – you need to constantly mend line with this method. On larger rivers the benefit of length is obvious but even on small streams a long rod allows you to present the flies in small pockets and along the banks with very little line out of the end of the rod.

The rod should also be “soft” for better short range casting. Also a soft rod makes it much easier to hang on to small fish when using barbless hooks. This is especially important for competition angling.

For better line handling I use a double taper line. It’s not that the tapers are longer or better than weight forward lines (although they may be), but the part of the line you hold with your hand is thicker and easier to control in a double taper. You can more easily “feather” the cast, to control the length of the cast for instance. I also prefer dull colours like olive or grey but I have no convincing evidence this is necessary. I clean and dress the line before every session in a competition so the line lifts off the water easily with minimal disturbance and spray.

For several years I used a soft 9’ 3wt and it was excellent. More recently I’m using a slightly firmer 10’ 4wt which mends line a little better and is more versatile. In a pinch I can fish spiders, nymphs, small lures and dries without changing rod. This is handy in a competition.
Having said that, for most of my angling life I only had one rod and I still caught my share of fish. If you have a 3 - 6 wt, at least 8 ½ feet long, you’re ready to go.

Down and across:
This is what most people think of when fishing spiders. It works best in riffled water when fish are looking up a bit but not necessarily feeding on the surface – just occasional rises. It doesn’t matter what the depth of the water is but the fish should be looking for food in the top couple of feet. You can easily fish pocket runs and riffles with water that is less than six inches deep. In heavily fished rivers there are lots of trout in the shallow runs which are usually ignored by anglers because they are difficult to fish.

If allowed, set up a leader with three flies about three feet apart on droppers. If multiple flies aren’t allowed, like in BC, you can use one fly and still do well.

Start with 7 1/2’ leader tapered to 3X. Cut off half the tippet. The tippet on a 7 1/2’ commercial leader is usually 18” With a triple surgeons knot; tie on about 6 feet of 3X fluorocarbon tippet leaving a dropper from the leader tippet. Put another dropper half way down the piece you added. I usually fish 3X tippet with this method even in clear water. I have never found any reason to go finer than 5X even on heavily fished spring creeks. The thicker the tippet the less you will tangle with multiple flies.

Dropper length is a personal thing. If you keep them short, say 4 inches, they stand away from the leader better but when they do twist the fly may get too close to the leader. I like about eight inches, which will certainly twist around the leader a bit, but the fly usually stays far enough away for good hooking.

The basic method is to cast across and slightly down stream and just far enough to cover the likely lies with your flies. Keep the rod and line in a straight line and let the flies swing round until they are directly below you. You then take a step downstream and do the same thing until you have covered all the water. This method will catch plenty of fish if the water speed is about right and is fairly constant across the width of the river. However, to maximize your catch you need to do a lot more to control the speed of the flies and to concentrate on the most productive bits of water – especially in a competition. Use the knowledge you already have to identify the most likely areas where fish will lie and give these extra attention.

If the pool you want to fish has faster water down the middle, stand right there and work your way down the pool casting towards the banks on both sides. If wading will spook the fish, fish from the banks. Naturally you want to concentrate on the banks, seams, and around boulders for trout and the faster broken water for grayling. OK, back to our pool with the current down the middle.

Start with a very short reach cast, landing the flies slightly beyond and upstream of the area you want to fish. With the rod still pointing diagonally upstream (from the reach cast) drag the line and flies towards you until they are directly above the area you want to fish. Now lower the rod tip to allow the flies to drift directly down stream, but hold them back slightly so they drift a bit slower than the bubbles on the surface. This will keep you in contact with the flies and most fish will hook themselves. Keep the rod tip up about 30 deg. above horizontal so there is a little sag in the line. Fish take a fly underwater by sucking in water (with the fly) and expelling the water through the gills. If you keep the line tight the fly won’t go deep into its mouth and you will get more “plucks” and fewer fish. This was a tip from Oliver Edwards and certainly works. You won’t be able to see the flies but it makes sense to watch for any sign of a take.

Once the flies have finished the downstream drift stage “lead” them across the current until they are directly below you. You want them moving across the current, but not too fast. To slow down the flies mend the line upstream to remove the belly in the line. To speed up the flies mend the line downstream to create a belly. With this method you are constantly mending line. Remember to keep the rod tip up! Now do the same on the other side of the river.

From here on you can fish a lot of water without even moving. Simply make progressively longer casts and you can cover all the good water below you within easy casting range before moving downstream. As the cast gets longer you will need to make a more aggressive reach cast or a regular cast, followed immediately by an upstream mend. Also, as the casts get longer the dead drift stage will become shorter and the swinging stage longer. This is often OK but if it’s not (say the fish are taking mostly in the narrow seams close to you) keep the casts short and move downstream more often.

If the water closer to the banks is a bit too slow, simply make a small downstream mend to put a belly in the line and speed up the flies. Keeping the flies moving at the right speed is a primary skill with this method and needs a bit of practice. A clean line helps a lot. I try to keep my casts down to no more than 30 feet (of line) or so.

Keep a loop of line in the left hand to help maintain control of the fish immediately after it’s hooked. Use flies tied on heavy hooks for this method and it often pays to have a weighted fly on the point.

This method was devised for mayflies but will work just as well for hatching midges and caddis.
I believe there are four reasons why this method can be so productive:
1.   You cover a lot of water with each cast.
2.   Fish are rarely fussy on the actual pattern or color of spiders.
3.   The fish see the fly before they see the leader.
4.   Fish hook themselves, even when you aren’t paying attention!

Dead drift method:
I use this method mainly for rising fish, or fish that are seen feeding very close to the surface. I feel the best way to catch these fish is to drift the flies naturally. I often prefer a spider to a dry fly because the fish are less selective to flies that are sunk or trapped in the surface film. This is certainly true for soft hackles as they have no real profile and must look to fish like all sorts of small drowned insects.

This method does not cover the water nearly as quickly as down and across but if you can see the feeding fish that’s not a problem.

The rod and leader setup are the same but if the water has a smooth surface I prefer a finer fluorocarbon tippet of 5x . I usually stick with three flies. Now just fish as though you were dry-fly fishing with three flies. The one problem with this method is that you can’t see the flies and takes are usually subtle so concentration is needed. I sometimes put a small dry fly on the point to help me keep track of where the flies are. Again proper mending of the line is vital. If the fish are spooky I keep my leader degreased near the flies, so it sinks slightly. You need to do this often. I use a Fuller’s earth paste and stick a lump on my rod just above the handle so it’s handy all day.

Use spiders tied on light hooks. Don’t hesitate to put a little Gink on some of the fibres to keep the flies in the surface film if that’s where the fish are feeding. You don’t have to stick with the soft hackles either. In my “soft hackle box” I have a small selection of sparkle pupae, unweighted nymphs, and traditional wet flies, just in case. If you want to fish a single fly just remove the other flies and leave the droppers on.

I used to spend a lot of time fishing on New Zealand’s South Island for brown trout, which are notoriously difficult to catch. When fishing dry flies I often tied a soft hackle fly on a 12 inch dropper tied to the bend of the dry fly hook. Even though the fish would be taking duns the soft hackle often out fished the dry, and sometimes by a wide margin!

NOTE: John Beaven's article “Tying Soft Hackle Flies” can be viewed on the following page of the Innovative Fly Fisher Forum:
« Last Edit: October 09, 2012, 11:16:30 AM by Todd Oishi »
For me, the quality of a trout is not measured in inches or pounds, but rather by the journey and circumstances that allowed our paths to cross...

Matthew Mikes

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Re: Fishing Soft Hackled Spiders - An Article by John Beaven
« Reply #1 on: October 09, 2012, 07:34:40 PM »
Thank you for posting this.  I will have to read and re-read this article.  I learned a lot on the first read but it also reminded me of my method of casting while searching for steelhead.  There is so much to learn about line control and how to maintain the depth and speed of your fly.  Very good information. I'll be reading his other article on soft hackle flies very soon.

Aaron Laing

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Re: Fishing Soft Hackled Spiders - An Article by John Beaven
« Reply #2 on: October 11, 2012, 11:41:18 AM »
This is an excellent and practical introduction to fishing soft-hackle flies. I've been fishing soft-hackles almost from the moment I started fly tying. These simple and elegant patterns can be used to fish for both selective and non-selective trout simply by varying size and colour.

One small point about John's article is that he doesn't cover upstream presentations for soft hackles (and indeed for wet flies in general). It certainly isn't a new style and has been used in the "north country" of the UK for literally hundreds of years. In certain water conditions it can be deadly--particularly with multiple droppers. Essentially it involves quick upstream casts and pulling the flies at, or slightly faster than, the current speed. Flies are kept on or in the water for a relatively short period (as little as three seconds) before being picked up and recast (usually with a simple roll). Casts are fanned out and the water covered before advancing upstream and repeating.

I find this method works best in faster broken water where the quick multiple casts required are less likely to spook fish and ideally when a hatch is happening or likely to happen. It's a great way to cover skinny water very quickly in a competition setting. As with John's comments about fly choice, it's not limited to use with wets and appropriately weighted nymphs or traditional dry flies can also be used.

It's not something for use in all occasions, but definitely worth trying (and a fun way to fish as well).

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Chris Puchniak

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Re: Fishing Soft Hackled Spiders - An Article by John Beaven
« Reply #3 on: October 16, 2012, 01:20:03 PM »
That's an excellent right up by John (with some good competitionreferences there) - and a good addition by Aaron.
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