Third Thursday Flies

10. Partridge and Orange
March Brown Spider

with Skip Morris

Third Thursday Fly 10, Partridge and OrangePartridge and Orange
(Photo © Carol Ann Morris)

Third Thursday Fly 10, March Brown SpiderMarch Brown Spider
(Photo © Carol Ann Morris)

Trout flies come as nymphs, dry flies, emergers, and streamers, and these categories each comprise unimagineable numbers of patterns. The fly patterns within each category run a wild range. Compare the Fur Ant with the Chernobyl Ant, both dry flies, and what you'll see is a small, simple impression of a real wingless ant and, alongside it (if it's not the plain original but one of the newer distortions of the Chernobyl), a gaudy, leggy monstrosity composed of markings and mostly bright colors. Same goes for nymphs and streamers and emergers: variations in these flies more than abound. Not so, however, when it comes to soft-hackled flies; they pretty much conform: a slim to rarely stout body or abdomen, a supple cone of overlong fibers in front. (Yes, there may be a rib, the body may be of dubbing or floss or such, there may even be a tail, but from just a little distance the small diversity and powerful resemblance among soft-hackle patterns are plain.)

     And there really aren't all that many soft-hackle patterns anyway. Or at least not in my considerable home fly-fishing library. That's probably because we fly fishers don't need many. If we have a bland-colored one, a green-bodied one, a yellow-bodied one, and an orange-bodied one, we're well positioned to cover nearly everything we need a soft-hackled fly to match. That is, we're well positioned so long as we have these flies through an effective range of hook size (like the range in the dressing that follows this essay).

     Personally, I've fished the March Brown Spider far more often than any other soft-hackle—its loose blend of colors and glinting self suggest so many mayflies, caddis, and such that trout take it for a lot. But when the insect that needs soft-hackle matching is orange of body, the Partridge and Orange is just right—and it's a rung or two above the March Brown Spider in elegance.

      The Spider is rough thing, its shaggy fur body a blend of somber hues (though the gold rib is a pleasing touch). The body of the Partridge and Orange is an abdomen of satiny orange floss, tapering lightly to a short, stout thorax of that same dubbing that makes up the whole body of the March Brown. Somehow, though, the sharp lines and glowing color of the slim floss part of the Partridge and Orange contrast with the woolly thorax in a handsome way. Or maybe that's only to my own eye—who can say definitively what flies outshine others?

     There are today two standard hackle choices for these flies (for most soft-hackled flies). Which you choose will depend on your willingness to tackle fly-tying challenges and your pickiness as a fly fisher and tier—based on my experience, trout could not care less which hackle they see.

     The traditional hackle for the Partridge and Orange is in that name: partridge. Same for the Spider. Specifically, partridge flank: those small, lightly curved feathers of the fine wavy barring from the neck and head of the bird's cured skin you purchase from your fly shop.

     A common hackle now for a soft-hackle fly is "hen back," (or "hen saddle") yes, from the back of a female chicken. Any fly shop carries such skins.

     The partridge is just a tad firmer of fiber than the hen, crisply speckled, carrying a quiet beauty. But a partridge hackle is a succession, from tip down, of ever-longer fibers—no stretch of fibers of equal length, none—and its stem, running down from its tip, thickens fast. Making a neat hackle-collar from a partridge hackle is far from impossible, but it's tricky.

     The hen, on the other hand, is pretty easy: slim stem, a comfortably long stretch of fibers of one length, the exact qualities that help the tier make this feather into a neat collar. Not a lovely effect, particularly, but like the partridge, a natural one.

     Almost everyone fishes soft-hackles by swinging them across stream. I did, but no longer do. I now fish them upstream, allowing the currents to play with their spidery fibers, to make these supple fibers undulate, sway. Wet-fly/soft-hackle master Davy Wotton convinced me to do so by phone, by email, and through his DVD "Wet Fly Ways." Glad he did: a soft-hackled fly presented upstream can be a ferocious trout catcher.


HOOK: Traditionally a standard-length wet-fly hook, but I use a heavy wire nymph hook (so, 1X long). Sizes: 10 to 16 (maybe 18).

THREAD: Orange 8/0 or 6/0.

ABDOMEN: Orange floss.

THORAX: Hare's Mask or squirrel in hare's mask color.

HACKLE: Natural-brown) partridge.


HOOK: Traditionally a standard-length wet-fly hook, but I use a heavy wire nymph hook (so, 1X long). Sizes: 10 to 16 (maybe 18).

THREAD: Orange 8/0 or 6/0. (I don't know why the orange instead of logical tan or brown, except that it spruces up the fly to my eye. To a trout's eye? Seems unlikely.)

RIB: Oval gold tinsel.

BODY: Hare's mask or squirrel in hare's mask color.

HACKLE: Natural-brown partridge.

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