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Trout Unlimited
Top Trout Flies Course

Lesson 8 – The Elk Hair Caddis

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The Elk Hair Caddis

One of the Top 10 Trout Flies Ever Created

You have to be a really productive pattern to make it as a single imitation pattern, and like the san juan worm only imitates annelids, the elk hair caddis only imitates Caddis. There are some variations that help it imitate a more generic bug on the water, but the elk hair caddis is meant to imitate caddis and do it with perfection. There’s some secret mojo to this fly that helps it keep its position in the top trout flies. It’s been around for quite sometime and is well known to anglers, but with some tips and deeper knowledge of this fly, you can put even more fish to net than ever before.

 

The Details

Al Troth is the inventory of the Elk Hair Caddis and back in the day, it was quite the innovation. Overtime, using elk hair and creating so much buoyancy became a standard in my dry fly patterns and popularity of the elk hair caddis and elk hair patterns grew immensely. The Elk Hair Caddis is named after its chief ingredient, preserved elk hair. Elk hair is hollow inside so when it hits the water, it doesn’t take water in and the air inside makes it float. Deer, elk, moose and similar animals often have hollow hair as it helps keep them insulated in cold weather. Wrapping hackle around the body and using small wire to secure it in place makes for a leggy looking, high floating, well portioned caddis imitation that has lasted for decades as one of the top producing caddis patterns. Let’s look at the seasonality, size and color ranges to expect for each season.

Graphs – Seasonality, Size and Color

Elk-Hair-Caddis-Seasonal-Fly-Chart

The Secret to Why This Fly is So Productive

The elk hair caddis has some secrets to its design that make it so productive. As mentioned earlier and foremost, the elk hair is hollow. This helps it compact when cinched down with thread and also makes it very buoyant. In addition to the properties of the elk hair caddis, its a perfectly colored wing to imitate the wings of an adult caddis. Caddis have tented wings that go back along the top of their bodies and the elk hair when tied above the hook rides on the waters surface, while the body of the fly sits on or just below the water. This makes for a great insect profile for trout to get excited about.

Another key to its success is less common knowledge and apparent. When I first saw the elk hair caddis, I didn’t think it was that great of a imitation to a real caddis. They are much thinner and their wings are not widened out like the elk hair often lays on the hook. It just seemed like it was too wide in compared to the pictures I saw of caddis on leaves and in pictures. Then I got lucky enough one day to start seeing a bunch of caddis on the water. Their wings were not neatly behind them but splayed out to the sides as they struggled to get off the water and fly away. Caddis are excellent flyers and can hop around on the water with ease, but they are erratic in their flight patterns and a bit sloppy when it comes to their landings. If you spend a little time observing caddis on the water, you’ll quickly see an elk hair caddis is an excellent imitation for the naturals on the water. The widened wing case is perfect for imitating caddis.

The last secret to the elk hair caddis’ success is it’s versatility in how it is presented. While a dead drifted caddis will take 90% of the credit for catching fish, you can skate, twitch, hop and dive the caddis and get some good results. Where caddis are prevelant, which is most rivers, you will quickly find that caddis have quite a large array of behaviors on and around the water, and learning to match those behaviors can pull quite a few fish out of hiding that would have otherwise been passed over with a dead drifted presentation.

Let’s take a look at the basic entomology of caddis next and how it fits in with an EHC.

 

The Entomology Knowledge on This Fly

Since the Elk Hair Caddis only imitates caddis there isn’t a big need on this section to discuss the varying categories of insects. Most of us as anglers don’t imitate specific species of caddis as all that changes is the color, but all are roughly the same size and hatch near the same periods. However, there are a few species that are worth noting.

Caddis – All Kinds

Sizes: #10 – #18 | Colors: Tan, Yellow, Orange, Black, Olive | Seasons: Mid Spring to Mid Fall

In short, caddis come in about 5 fishable colors and 5 sizes. So you only need about 50 flies, if you want 2 of each color and size combination. That’s not too bad vs mayflies or even stoneflies given the size and species variations are much greater. Even though you have Grannom, Sedge, Black, and October caddis species across the US, the adults all look the same and are close to the same sizes. All you really need to know is to have these colors and sizes and then once you see caddis hatching or in trees, check their undersides for the right colors, as all the wings except October and black caddis have tan wings. Their undersides need to be matched on color and then match the size or go one size smaller and you should be able to fish with confidence that you have the right fly color and size for the caddis you want to imitate.

 

Grannom Caddis

Sizes: #10 #18 | Colors: Brown, Tan | Seasons: Early Spring to Mid Summer

The nymphs are the cased caddis you see so much of in the rivers. They don’t use rocks to make their casing, but instead mix their silk in with leaves and twigs to make angular casings. It looks more structured than with rocks and is indicative of grannom caddis. The adults are a standard shape and found in brown and tan.

 

Black Caddis

Sizes: #10 #18 | Colors: Black, Brown | Seasons: Late Spring to Summer

Black caddis are very easy to identify cause they are one of the only small black bugs you’ll see during summer.  They are the reason you need 4-6 black caddis patterns in your box and you’ll know em when you see em.  If you are fishing big, well known rivers, check the hatch charts and you’ll know if you need them for when you’ll be out there.

 

October Caddis

Sizes: #8 #16 | Colors: Orange, Black/Orange | Seasons: Late Summer to Late Fall

These caddis get large because they spend the whole summer growing and hatch in fall.  They fly slow and are what I refer to as the laziest of the Caddis due to the way they fly and how long they take to hatch.  An orange rubberleg stimulator can also work for these, but black wing, orange body caddis is a great imitation or just an orange bodied caddis with tan elk hair is good too.

Beyond those species, all other caddis are pretty much the same as anglers are concerned and fishing the right color and size for the river you are on during the right season just takes a little observation to figure out.  Keep in mind the seasonal chart provided above is a guideline, and finding the caddis on the rivers when you’re fishing is the best way to know what is hatching and what should be used.

Identify the Signals the River Provides to Learn When to Fish It

There are few key signals that the river and trout will do when it’s caddis season.  Let’s review these signs now so you can be aware of them and know when you should be tying an elk hair caddis:

  1. When fish are found in the shallow riffles, they are often eating caddis nymphs and emergers waiting for the hatch.  Caddis like fast running water as nymphs and as they emerge, they drop into the current into the slow pool and pop off the river.  The fish beat the caddis to the punch and munch them in the riffles.  If you see fish in the riffles or spook them out as you walk by with consistency, this is often a sign caddis are hatching or will be hatching soon
  2. Splashy rises or fish soaring out of the water eating bugs is a sign that trout are feeding on caddis.  When you see this happen, it’s often the early to mid morning or mid evening to evening.  These are prime caddis dry fly hours and trout get pretty active on caddis during these times.
  3. If you are having to clean caddis out of your teeth, you may want to throw a caddis.  I mention this one in jest, because there are some very prolific hatches of caddis that can make you squirm with how many are crawling all over you.  Once you realize they’re just cute little moths that are relatively clean for insects and that this is going to be some killer dry fly fishing, you feel pretty good about it, but this point is just to say there can be some super strong caddis hatches and to watch for them and fish them as they are incredibly fun.
  4.  When the weather gets warm and cloudy but there isn’t a lot of wind, I’ve found these to be the best times for caddis hatching.  As they are coming out, the fish will key in on emergers, then to the dry fly forms.  A CDC caddis emerger and elk hair caddis in tandem is great during these times.

With these tips in hand keep in mind, as with all of our top trout flies, there is really no bad time to throw a caddis and during the mid spring to late fall, is prime caddis season.  They aren’t winter bugs or early spring.  Only when the water warms up will you start seeing them.  But from when you start seeing them to first snow or cold snap depending on where you are is the season for caddis.

Presentation Tips on the Fly

Let’s go over a few key tips I’ve found work well when fishing an elk hair caddis beyond just as a single dry fly.

Fish it in Tandem with an Emerger

I went back and forth on whether an elk hair caddis or a CDC caddis emerger should have made the top ten list on this course. I went with the elk hair caddis because it is better known and works in a variety of situations. That said, the CDC caddis emerger works as a super effective pattern behind an elk hair caddis. Fish it as a Dry Dropper style set up, putting the CDC emerger behind the elk hair caddis 18 – 36 inches. Fish will eat it as often as the elk hair caddis when fished together and both fish super well together.

Great as a Dry Dropper as Well

Though I like fishing an emerger behind an elk hair caddis, it’s super buoyant and is a great dry in a dropper set up. A copper john, pheasant tail or WD-40 is a great option below the EHC. Try it out and see what fishes best for you. I like to drop it 18-36 inches below the dry. I don’t use anything larger than a size #12 when fishing the dropper with a beadhead or it pulls the dry underwater too often.

I mentioned earlier there are a lot of ways to present the elk hair caddis and we want to go over those now. All of these techniques should be used when a dead drift doesn’t work. I rarely find these work better than a good dead drift, but when a dead drift isn’t working or you are fishing to a trout you can see and he won’t move, a little movement sometimes does the trick.

Skate the Caddis

Skating a caddis is like swinging a streamer or a wet fly. You cast to the opposite bank and then slowly lift your rod tip up and if needed a little upstream as well. This makes the caddis swing and skate on the surface and imitates a female caddis about to lay her eggs. I don’t often get trout to launch like a rocket into the air for my dries, but when they do it’s often with this method. Very exciting fishing. I find great success with this during an evening hatch, when it gets too dark to see your fly. Instead you just swing it and you’ll feel the fish eat. When the fish eats lower the rod tip a few inches and let the fish get it in its mouth, then you can pull forward and set the hook on the trout. If you don’t do this, you’ll get a lot of strikes, but few fish to net.

Wiggle the Caddis

I also call this the nervous caddis. The idea is to wiggle your rod tip ever so slightly that it makes the caddis skitter and hop and dance on the waters surface. Caddis flip and flop around on the water often and this is pretty normal to see it. This can get the fish keyed in on your pattern if they aren’t rising, but looking up. Usually after a hatch has just ended, this is a god technique.

Hop the Caddis

I’ve used this several times and only a few times with success, but it is a lot of fun. The idea is to make the fly hop on the water several times like it is trying to fly away but fails. In order to do this, you’ll make small circular motions with your rod tip enough to make the line follow these motions down to the fly, the fly will then follow the line and loop and circle around on itself hopping on the water. This is like the previous technique where it isn’t a presentation you’ll use often, but you’ll be glad you have it when it does work.

Dive the Caddis

Some caddis species dive to deposit their eggs, to imitate this, add a small split shot to the front of the fly about 6 inches in front. Enough split shot to make it sink, but not too much to where it just tanks to the bottom. A slow dive is best. Then cast it downstream and every few seconds after it has sunk, pick your rod up a few inches to make the fly rise back to the surface. Rinse and repeat this motion and it imitates a diving caddis. Though there are specific patterns that focus on imitating diving caddis, you can do it with an Elk Hair Caddis as well.

Hit the fish on the Head

This presentation defies modern logic, but I’ve had some really good luck fishing to selective fish this way. There are some rivers where the fish get a lot of pressure and learn to not spook when anglers come near them or when a fly is presented. Pretty much they’ve had to adapt and keep eating while being fished to because if they ran off for 15 minutes every time an angler was in the water, they’d starve. When fishing to these college-educated trout, I have found that casting way in front of them and getting a good dead drift doesn’t always cut it. Instead, landing it 1 inch or so right in front of them can cause a reaction strike and induce the take. This works best with an Elk hair caddis, though whatever is hatching at the time matched to your fly is good too. The trout sees it hit the water and instinctively thinks food, but since it has half a second to look before it misses, it just turns and starts to commit. Many times the trout will follow through and you’ll get a hook up.

 

Common Variations and Ways to Modify the Pattern for Success

There are really only a few editions to add or modify on an elk hair caddis. Out of everything on this list, it is the pattern with the least amount of variations next to the san juan worm. See our list below however of common additions and modifications you can make:

  1. Underwing Additions:  the most common is to put CDC under the elk hair, or foam to make it more buoyant or to help it have a more generic look to it and overall buggy appearance.
  2. Wire or No Wire:  If you leave the tag end of your thread long and at the end of your fly as you first start your thread, you can use that as a wire wrap making the EHC lighter and higher floating.  Leave enough for 5 – 8 wraps of the thread or even double it over and make the wraps for added durability.
  3. Hi Vis Wing:  Adding some hi-vis material like a synthetic McFlylon is a good technique to help the fly be more visible.  In thick hatches this helps it stand out and know when a fish eats it.
  4. Wing Material: You can use deer hair, elk hair, moose hair and caribou hair.  It all works, just looks and is slightly different in texture.  All are close to the same, pick the one that imitates the bugs in your area best or what is most accessible or affordable
  5. Flash it Up:  you can add peacock herl to the body or krystal flash or tinsel to the body of the fly to make it flash a bit more and add some attractor like qualities to the Elk Hair Caddis

Beyond that, there aren’t really any major variations aside from the CDC Elk Hair Caddis.  It says a lot about a pattern when no variations have been invented in nearly 75 years.  This is because it works good as is without many changes needed and deserves a place in your box.  We hope you feel more confident in the Elk Hair Caddis, now let’s dive into the last two lessons and learn about 2 flies that are incredibly utility players.

Image Gallery of Variations and Colors of the Fly

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Read Introduction Here

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Lesson 1
Lesson 6
Lesson 2
Lesson 7
Lesson 3
Lesson 8
Lesson 4
Lesson 9
Lesson 5
Lesson 10

Read Conclusion Here