Welcome to Intermediate Fly Tying

Part Twenty-four

Elk Hair Caddis

Intermediate Fly Tying:

Elk Hair Caddis

By Al Campbell

Nothing excites or disappoints a dry fly fisherman more than a caddis hatch. This is especially true if the fisherman is using an Elk Hair Caddis and the hatch isn't in the right stage for that fly. However, if the hatch is in the right stage, the Elk Hair Caddis is the most productive caddis imitation I've found.

So, what's the right stage of the hatch? Not the emergence for sure. During emergence, the fish are concentrating on the thousands of pupa that are making their way to the surface. The only top-water patterns that are great at this time are emerging patterns. We'll look at those types of flies in a couple of weeks.

After the caddis pupa reaches the water's surface, it quickly transforms into adulthood and flies away. It isn't like the mayfly which takes a long time to dry its wings. The caddis emerges quickly and flies off to spend the rest of the day or several days hanging around streamside brush, grass or willows. This is the best time to get a good look at an adult caddis.

Adult Caddis

As evening approaches, the caddis adults do their mating and start fluttering around the streamside brush in anticipation of the evening hours and the time to lay their eggs. If you walk or drive near a steam during this time, you'll see clouds of caddisflies fluttering above the willows and brush near the stream. As soon as the sun begins to set on that piece of water, they'll fly to the riffles and lay their eggs. Sometimes the cloud of egg laying adults is so thick, it looks like a fog.

So, where is the EHC most productive? During the time when the adult caddisflies are returning to the water to lay their eggs. That last hour or two of the day when caddisflies return to the water are pure dynamite for the EHC fisherman. That is, if he or she knows how and when to fish this fly.

"Upstream and dry" is the only way to fish a dry fly. Right? I've heard that rule too, but it "ain't exactly so" when it applies to certain flies. The EHC is one of those flies.

When caddisflies return to the water to lay their eggs, they usually do their duties while flying just barely over the water's surface. In moving water, egg laying activity usually occurs in the rapids or riffles of the stream. The adults usually fly upstream or across the current to lay their eggs. Some species land on the water and deposit their eggs before flying away, but they usually have their wings moving to keep their balance.

Last summer I was fishing on a favorite local stream, working my way along in the shadows of a slowly setting sun. I'd caught a couple dozen fish and was working toward the last riffle I was going to fish when a young fisherman came running down the path and ran ahead of me to get to the next pool before I could get there. I didn't bother to tell him I wasn't interested in the pool, but rather the riffles leading into the pool.

I had caught enough fish for the day, so I sat down on a log and watched the young fisherman flog the water for a few minutes; unsuccessfully, I might add. Finally I asked the young runner if he'd caught anything. His reply "Not one, and I've been fishing for about four hours. I can't figure out what to use."

"What you using?" I asked.

"Elk Hair Caddis, about a size 16." He replied. "That's supposed to be working, but it must not be working today. Have you caught any?"

Not wanting to rub it in too much, I replied "A few, none too big. I've been using a size 16 Elk Hair Caddis too. I'll bet you a six pack of your favorite beverage I can help you catch a fish in your next six casts or less. You game?"

"You're on." He snapped back. "I could use a cold drink right now. So, Mr. Flyfishing God, what's this big trick you're talking about?"

"All you have to do is walk up here to the fast water, cast to the far bank and let the fly drag through the riffles. If you haven't caught or at least hooked a fish within six casts, I'll buy when we get back to town." "By the way," I added, a little unhappy about his smart answer, "I'm not a flyfishing god, just a little more experienced and a lot more observant than you."

He cast upstream and let it drift back. I reminded him that the bet was for him to cast across the current and let the fly drag back to the near shore. He mumbled a few more words about me being an idiot, but if I wanted to handicap myself that way, he'd humor me for a cold one.

His fly hadn't skittered three inches when a trout pounced on it. He broke that one off by failing to play it properly. Another fly on, another fish on, another fish broke off. In fact, he hooked and lost six fish in six casts using my skittering method. I finally shared another fly (he lost all of his), and some heavier tippet so he could land at least one. By the time darkness forced us to quit, the young guy's attitude and comments had changed. Now he was asking why that method worked when it defied all he was told about dry fly fishing. I pointed out the way the caddis were flying, where they were flying, and where the fish were feeding on them. All I had told him to do was to fish the fly in the right spot and in the right manner to match the way the naturals were acting.

He was right, that cold drink was great after a hot day on the water. He seemed happy to buy it too. He had learned something, and I hope this little example has helped you learn where and how to fish this fly. If you do it right, this will become one of your all-time favorites. Let's tie up a few.

List of materials:

Mustad 94840
  • Hook: Standard dry fly; Mustad 94840, Tiemco 100, Eagle Claw L059, Daiichi 1180. Size 10-20 For a longer fly, try a hook that's one length longer than the standard.

  • Thread: 6/0 Gudebrod or equivalent, black or colored to match the body

  • Tail: None, or if desired, some folks tie a short tag of red or orange poly yarn or antron.

  • Body: Anglers Choice Llama dubbing, any other dubbing that is designed for dry flies. Color to match the body of the natural (usually brown, tan, olive or black).

  • Wing: Elk hair, tied to flare slightly.

  • Hackle: Brown, tan or cree saddle or neck hackle, wrapped "palmer style" over the body and ribbed down with fine gold wire.

  • Rib: Fine gold wire.

  • Tying steps:

  • 1. Start the thread and tie in a ribbing wire to the hook bend.

  • 2. Dub a body of Angler's Choice Llama dubbing. I suggest this dubbing because it is microscopically hollow and floats naturally. You can use any other dubbing you like in place of the Llama dubbing.

  • 3. Tie in a prepared hackle at the front of the body, curvature facing up or forward.

  • 4. Wrap the hackle back to the hook bend keeping the curvature of the hackle facing forward.

  • 5. Rib the hackle down to the hook with the ribbing wire. You used this same method in the woolly bugger and woolly worm.

  • 6. Tie the wire off and trim the hackle and wire close to the body of the fly.

  • 7. Select a clump of elk hair, remove the short hairs and fuzz, even the tips of the hair in a hair stacker and measure for length.

  • 8. Hold the hair firmly in place and secure with a few loose wraps of thread behind the hook eye. Add a couple of tighter wraps of thread while holding the hair in place to cause the hair to flare a little.

  • 9. Note the length of the wing and how it has flared out over the body.

  • 10. Trim short the hair that extends over the hook eye.

  • 11. Whip finish and thoroughly cement the head and hair where it is tied down.

    Palmering the hackle in the manner shown will result in a hackle that skitters easily over the water's surface without driving the fly under the water. Some tyers wrap the hackle from the back to the front of the body. This doesn't allow the fly to skitter properly and often drives the fly below the water's surface.

    A fellow native Montana tyer named Al Troth designed the Elk Hair Caddis. He tied the hackle and ribbed it down in the manner shown. He also fished it by skittering it across the surface of the water in riffles leading into and out of pools. I think he had the right idea. So do a lot of fish.

    See ya next week - Remember, I'm always happy to answer your questions, feel free to email me. ~ Al Campbell

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