February 25th, 2008

Caddis Addict - The Confessions of a Caddis Junkie
By Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

Some people are addicted to booze; some people are addicted to tobacco, sex, fast cars, and fast women, but I confess that I am addicted to fly fishing for trout with caddis imitations.

You know what caddis flies are? They are those moth–like insects that hatch in great numbers throughout the season, and cause trout to go absolutely crazy. For a caddis addict such as myself they cause me to go slightly crazy as well.

During my early years of fly-fishing caddis flies were not very important. The Au Sable River in Michigan had a few caddis fly hatches, but they were mostly overshadowed by the more prominent mayfly hatches. There was a small black Chimarrha caddis that hatched early in the year, but it usually happened when a real good hatch of small sulfur mayflies was in progress. Throughout the season there were a few other caddis flies, but in my memory they were just a few bugs mixed in with some good numbers of mayflies. Then I moved to Montana, and everything changed.

My first exposure to real caddis fly fishing came soon after I moved to Montana during the early days of what passes for spring in the Rocky Mountains. I heard about a hatch of caddis called the Mother's Day hatch that attracted some attention by some locals on the Madison River in an area called the Bear Trap. It was a slightly warm day with a weak sun shining through a high overcast when I first approached the river. The river flowed along without the slightest sign of any bugs of any kind. Perhaps, I thought, this is just a snipe hunt, and I am the sucker that's holding the flashlight and the burlap sack. Wandering upstream I began to notice an occasional insect fluttering over the water, but hardly enough activity to stimulate any kind of feeding activity by trout in water that was barely above freezing. Then, almost without warning, all hell broke loose as a trickle of bugs turned into a blizzard, and the previously tranquil water became a boiling mass of trout splashing and slashing at the emerging flies. More than trout became hooked that day!

Since those days so many years ago I have chased caddis fly hatches from the Yellowstone River in Montana to Henry's Fork in Idaho, from slick spring creeks to the flat water of high mountain lakes. Rarely have I been disappointed.

Caddis Blanket Hatch

Caddis flies are simple bugs. Some of the larva, or worms as anglers call them, build cases to protect themselves, and others just crawl around in the buff. When they have finished their juvenile stage they spin a cocoon like a moth, and a few weeks later they emerge underwater, swim to the surface and fly away. When the hatches are heavy streamside vegetation is covered with scurrying caddis flies, and the air just over the surface of the stream is often obscured by the fluttering bugs. All this activity is too much for the resident trout, and a feeding frenzy often ensues.

Caddis fly imitations are equally simple, and if you are a basically lazy fly tyer like I am then caddis fly patterns are just what the doctor ordered. The basic adult caddis imitation consists of a body, down wing, and hackle. There are no complicated split tails, hackle point wings, complex dubbing mixtures, or any of the other tying techniques that turn one's hair another shade of gray. The colors are mostly drab mixtures of brown, tan, or olive; some deer hair will usually suffice for a suitable wing, and you don't need to invest a small fortune in premium hackle since caddis flies don't float very well. Under most situations if your imitation is slightly awash in the surface film it looks just like the real thing.

What I find so addictive about caddis fly fishing is the results. I have so many pleasant memories that are tied to caddis fly hatches that it is difficult to separate out just one or two that are notable.

There was a high mountain lake where big cutthroats cruised through the depths like dark gray torpedoes ignoring our best offerings until one warm early summer day when I spotted a large tan colored bug running along the surface of the water like a sprinter competing in the 100 yard dash. Suddenly I though someone had tossed a huge rock into the water as the racing bug disappeared in a tremendous splash. One of the torpedoes had struck, and I sat in my float tube with my jaw hanging down in disbelief. More tan colored bugs began making the same race and more explosive rises intercepted most of the frantic racers, but I managed to catch one of them before it was devoured, and discovered it was a large caddis fly. Fully a size 10 I had nothing like it in my fly box, but that night I remedied that, and the following day I was back armed with some appropriate imitations. The secret was simple; by sitting just off shore in my float tube I would cast the fly just out to the edge of the weed bed, and as soon as it hit the water I stripped the fly back along the surface of the water as quickly as I could without pulling the fly underwater. The fly had not traveled but a few feet before it disappeared in a minor explosion, and I snapped the fly off on the strike. Once I got the hang of just letting the line slip through my fingers on the strike and letting the trout hook itself my hooking ratio improved markedly. The formerly uncatchable torpedoes became almost easy targets.

Then there was the night on a famous trout stream known for its difficult trout. I had fished most of the late afternoon with only limited success to mostly small fish. I seriously contemplated calling it a day about an hour before sunset, but I decided to stay to see if there might be a spinner fall. In the fading light of that early summer evening I began to notice a few caddis flies fluttering along the bank where the grass hung down over the water. By leaning down close to the water I could see an occasional bulge in the slick water right along the bank. Tying on a caddis imitation I bounced the fly off the grass and let it settle on the surface within inches of the bank. A short float and the fly disappeared in a small bulge, and as I tightened a sizable brown trout cart wheeled out of the shallow water and raced upstream throwing a rooster tail of water and weeds in his wake. Until it was too dark to see where I was casting I hooked one large trout right after another in a stretch of water where just a few hours earlier I would have sworn there wasn't a trout over 10 inches long.

In a few weeks the Mother's Day caddis will begin hatching on the big rivers in Montana, and although I may not be there this year in person I'm certain that I will be there in spirit. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

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