Stuff That Works

“Did you know those things are like… way old?” the shop kid said of the soft hackled flies I’d asked for. “I hear they still work though.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that too,” I said. Had I not already felt so unfashionable in the hip, resort-town fly shop I might have mentioned the old Guy Clark song his comment brought to mind.

I got an ol’ blue shirt and it suits me just fine
I like the way it feels so I wear it all the time
I got an old guitar, won’t ever stay in tune
I like the way it sounds in a dark and empty room

The sales guy was right, of course, on both counts. Sylvester Nemes argues in his seminal 1975 work “The Soft Hackled Fly: A Trout Fisherman’s Guide” that soft hackles are, in fact, the oldest artificial flies. He dates one pattern — it probably looked a lot like what we know today as a partridge and orange — to 1496.

And yeah… they work. Often when nothing else will. That precise circumstance had brought me to the shop in the first place, where I couldn’t get that song out of my head.

I got an ol’ pair of boots and they fit just right
Well I can work all day and I can dance all night
I got an ol’ used car and it runs just like a top
I get the feelin’ it aint ever gonna stop

Dead-drifted cross-current passed cut-banks, swung through the riffles, dragged over a surface film, or even gently jigged mid-column in undifferentiated straights, soft hackles have a nifty habit of evoking come-to-mama strikes from fish you hadn’t even suspected of being around.

A friend and better angler than myself (I realize that doesn’t narrow the field) once pointed out that they’re also a great pattern for kids. Soft hackles are pretty forgiving of less than perfect drifts and imprecise placements. In fact, line management mistakes are sometimes rewarded with eats. And, as often as not, fish hook themselves when taking a soft hackle, no trout set required.

I was considering these factors, and all the shiny new toys on display, while the clerk searched the backroom and Mr. Clark sang the soundtrack in my brain.

I got a pretty good friend who’s seen me at my worst
He can’t tell if I’m a blessing or a curse
But he always shows up when chips are down
That’s the kind of stuff I like to be around

What struck me about the fly selection commentary though was the use of “still”. “I hear they still work, ” he’d said, as though the alternative, that effectiveness fades with age, was a given.

It’s a forgivable assumption, I had to admit. There aren’t many 500-year-old technologies still in use. No one writes with quills anymore. Dead reckoning still works, technically, but it’s fallen decided out of favor with the transoceanic set. And, at some point, we all have to accept the fact that human performance bears a non-negotiable expiration date.

Obsolescence, it seems, is inescapable.

I was busy freighting that thought with way too much gravity when the guy in the sideburns and flat-brimmed trucker’s cap returned from the storeroom with a handful of March Brown Spiders and Tup’s Indispensibles. I took one glance at the dusty old flies, smiled and mumbled a quick prayer …

Thank God nobody’s told the trout!

Stuff that works, stuff that holds up
The kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall
Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel
The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall

11 Comments on “Stuff That Works

  1. Great post and one of my all time favorite songs! Gonna go put the cd on now! What’s a cd?:)

  2. My favorite types of flies to use. A soft hackle will likely be the first fly I’ll tie on in the morning (and often the type of fly I’ll finish a day with).

    • Sounds like a recipe for success to me. Thanks for reading David, and for weighing in.

  3. Seems to be a bit of resurgence of the soft hackles going around. Easy to tie, easy to fish and like you say, they continue to work.

    • Good Point Tobin. I thought about working in the easy to tie element but it didn’t really fit. And as many of the best patterns call for partridge, I get the extra satisfaction of collecting the materials myself (with a little help from the dog).

  4. Reminds me it’s more about how it moves and where it is instead of how “fashionable” the fly is. Matthew, your article really applies very broadly across society as well. There is a lot of wisdom here.

    I’ve always said “give me a cheap fly that I am not afraid to lose and I will show you more fish”

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