Fly Tying,    reverse hackle flies

Reverse-Hackled Dry Flies: Killers, Or Just Plain Backwards? (A TU Guest Post)

Posted by Tom Chandler 11/30/2010

Intro: This post supplied to the Underground by the Underground's Director of Odd Fly Tying Techniques and Irish Genetics, Sully...

The Reverse-Hackled Dry Fly Is a Fixture in the UK; Will it Ever Stick Around in the USA?

The Beacon-Beige

"Every beginner invents the reverse-tied fly and then drops it."
-- C.F. Walker

Lee Wulff, no beginner, certainly felt that he'd invented the reverse-hackled dry fly when he wrote "Shift Your Dry Flies Into Reverse" for the 1979 Edition of Sports Afield Fishing Secrets [Ed: Sully probably still owns a copy of this issue]. One of fly fishing's true innovators listed three merits of the design:

  • The weight of the hook is concentrated near the bend. Turn the fly around, put the load where the flotation is and you have a fly that's better balanced for floating.

  • The bend of the hook, at the tail of a conventional dry fly, has a very distinctive shape. Just as the vertical silhouette of a man becomes a danger signal to a deer, the hanging bend camouflaged, and typical of all dry flies, can be readily recognized and will turn a smart trout away. Hiding the bend of the hook in the hackles makes that solid, unmoving circle of metal a lot harder to distinguish. It makes the backward dry fly look a lot more like a natural insect.

  • The tail can be split, half going on either side of the eye of the hook, which makes an even more natural tail for most insects than a single tail unit.

The three decades since that article have seen a lot of changes occur in the art of fly tying.

The split tails Lee advocated then are now common on many traditionally hackled and no-hackle patterns, and we've become fixated on imitating emergers and adults with infirmities; insects that sit in the film rather than ride on top of the meniscus.

And sadly, unless their dry fly is holding up a beadhead, many of today's production oriented anglers see the dry fly as an anachronism. Many people are born body counters. Some would-be heroes won't take to the water without at least a scale or tape measure - a camera crew is even better.

But there is a strong contingent of fly fishermen that quietly thrive on figuring out various hatches, difficult fish and complicated situations. Reverse-tied flies can provide a very useful angle in that endlessly intriguing pursuit.

For Special Occasions

The reverse-tied fly is, in fact, one of those rare designs that can be tried with hope when "nothing else works".
--Datus Proper

Rear-hackle designs aren't mainstays. They are something to pull out of the box during blanket hatches- especially when the trout are lazily grabbing duns like bored guests casually picking at cocktail shrimp.

Generally, there are two objections to the rear-hackle design. One of them is valid.

First and foremost - they offend our sensibilities. When Lee Wulff himself originated the eponymous Royal he crafted everyone's ideal dry fly. You'll never see a reversed-hackle fly etched on a shot glass.

With a straight face some people will tell you that the design inhibits hook sets. These are people who are immune to empirical evidence.

Transatlantic Olives

My experience with reverse ties has been as imitations of Blue-winged Olives (BWOs). Our beloved BWOs, the bugs we usually call "Baetis", are actually comprised of several mayfly genera including Baetis (those pesky entomologists are always reshuffling classifications).

The genus Dipthor is the current taxonomic residence of what we used to know as Baetis parvus and B. hageni. I've read that the tiny, much-reviled Pseudocloen are now lumped into the Baetis genus. If so we're pseudos for still calling them Pseudos.

Great Britain's insect biota is much narrower than ours. Their paucity of species combined with centuries of chronicled angling has led to conformity of nomenclature we'll never see in America.

Say some plummy fellow tells you that he recently fished Blue Winged Olives on the Test. Provided you understood him correctly, he definitely encountered a hatch of Ephemerella ignita, an insect much closer to our Pale Morning Duns than our Baetis.

British Baetis (and Centroptilum) species are collectively known as Olives. The three flies described below are all reverse-hackle renditions of flies the Brits have developed to imitate Olives. They have interesting pedigrees and have all proven to fish well in the American West.

Greenwell's Glory

Any fly pattern that has retained popularity for over 150 years has something special going for it.

Greenwell's Glory fixings

The Greenwell's Glory was first devised and fished in May 1854 by Canon William Greenwell. Back in the day the good Canon fished a wet version but a Greenwell's Glory has long been THE favored dry imitation for the Olives on the other side of the pond.

The pattern is so strongly entrenched there that the hackles we call Badger are known as Greenwell's in England. Our Furnace hackles? Dark Greenwell's!

Like so many really effective patterns the Greenwell's Glory is supremely simple.

The working thread also forms the body of the fly and is noteworthy. The traditional thread is Pearsall's "Gossamer" silk (126 denier, about 6/0). The color is Primrose, a pale yellow.

The thread traditionally was rubbed with cobbler's wax to turn it an olivine hue. In practice the application of floatant or even exposure to water darkens the thread satisfactorily.


As classy and effective as the traditional silk thread is, don't feel you're wedded to it. UTC Ultra Thread in Watery Olive makes a wonderful substitute and is available as fine as 70 denier.

The rest of the fly is straightforward. Golden pheasant tippets form the tail, ribbing is fine gold wire and, naturally, Greenwell's hackle.

Body segmentation is an effective addition to any BWO imitation. Wire or thread ribbing, biot bodies, stripped quill, overlapping different-colored stripped hackle stems, or even tricks with thread can all achieve segmentation.

Beacon Beige

Here in the States the default BWO pattern is a Parachute Adams and it is a great choice (the Beacon Beige is basically the British cousin of our Adams).

The Beacon-Beige

Tied with mixed brown and grizzly hackle and tail and a peacock quill body, yellow thread is occasionally specified. And yes, - it is a simple matter to turn this one around.

My favorite bodies on the reversed Beacon Beige are the dun-dyed porcupine quills sold as "Quills II".

The only downside of this proven pattern is spotting it on the water. After a particular squinty day on the Missouri I tied some with a fluorescent orange CDC puff behind the hackles and I almost always put a flag on them now.

This is also a particularly good fly on which to use your TMC 900BL or other black hooks.

Leckford Professor (Cow's Arse)

Unlike the earlier two flies the Leckford Professor has always been tied reversed and tailless. Ernest Mott was a river keeper (like Frank Sawer, who devised the Pheasant Tail nymph). Like the PT nymph, Mott's Leckford Professor doesn't look too much like a natural insect to our eyes but the trout emphatically disagree.

The Leckford-Professor (Cow's Arse to the vulgar among you)

One notable author wrote that it was the only fly he ever needed on the English chalk streams.

The key features of the fly are a longer white hackle behind a gape-sized brown hackle. Some descriptions of this pattern feature a hare's ear body with a gold tinsel rib. The pattern I copied from a magazine article had a pale gray dubbed body with fine silver wire rib and I've never seen the need to deviate. Roll "˜em as you see fit. I even glommed on to a white Whiting neck to tie just two killing patterns: The Leckford Professor and tiny Renegades.

Ignore these odd-looking pattern to your detriment; they offer a different twist on the standard dry, and may float better in the process.

[Ed: For a different twist on the reverse hackle (reverse parachutes), see this entry in the excellent Fly Fishing in South Wales blog]


Tom Chandler

As the author of the decade leading fly fishing blog Trout Underground, Tom believes that fishing is not about measuring the experience but instead of about having fun. As a staunch environmentalist, he brings to the Yobi Community thought leadership on environmental and access issues facing us today.

I researched the Leckford Professor style of tying a few years ago and was intrigued by its style. I also heard of its colloquial name (Cow's Arse) and have a possible explanation for it: when a cow gets up from the ground, it does so on hind legs first! I tied up several variations, passed them round friends to 'water test' for me and waited for results. As the article above suggests, the hackles ... more are masking the hook and I was prepared to accept that hooking of fish might be difficult. My suspicions were partly correct; the fly certainly attracted attention and fish were hooked, but not all netted. However, there were some notable successes. One pattern (Black hackle + black body, size 10) caught a 3lb Rainbow trout from a stillwater and another pattern (Ginger hackle + tan body, sizes 12 and 14) caught both Rainbows and Grayling in running water. I named my variations of the patterns RUED flies (rear up eye down) and wrote about them in the UK Flydresser magazine (Winter 2009) (Flydresser is the FlyDresser's Guild magazine). Try some of these patterns. They are relatively easy to tie and look very attractive on the water. I would be happy to share dressings of the successful patterns with others. John
The reversed dry fly is slightly superior in presentation over the standard collar-hackled dry fly. The Reversed Parachute emerger which you refer to was designed by me in the 1970's to ensure the tippet falls through the surface and gives a clean presentation on alighting on the water . It can be built to represent any crippled insect or any terrestrial stuck in the film. Take a look at ... more for examples of this design. It has yet to be beaten as a search fly on small streams, an imitation of a hatching midge on lake or river. The history of the design has been widely broadcast and the presentation has been remarkably successful in US, Europe and Australasia in its field tests. regards, Roy Christie
Actually the Reverse fly was invented by a chimney sweep named Chauncey L. Flattery, in 1851. Chauncey had been invited to visit his uncle's beat on the Itchen, and was unaware that gentlemen only fished the upstream dry fly, and never down. So, after being badgered all day by the streamkeeper, who called him a "common lout", Chauncey returned the following morning with the reversed variant of his ... more favorite dry, which made the streamkeeper look upstream for the knave that fished his dries downstream.
Reversed flies may not be new, but they're still interesting. I suppose alot of whether they are effective or not depends on your particular trout and trout water. I'm trying to overcome that "sinking feeling" when skating a caddis on our freestone streams...and I've actually had an idea worth putting to hook...but admittedly I haven't tried it out on the water yet. It's called the "EZ SK8R" and if ... more it's ok to do so, I'd love some feedback on it: I didn't reverse 'em - I turned 'em upside down! ;) Very nice post, btw. I learn something new every day!
I keep a few reverse tied flies around but I can't remember the last time I used one...I resolve to try a few this spring....

Discover Your Own Authentic Fly Fishing Experience

With top destinations, guided trips, outfitters and guides, and river reports, you have everything you need.