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Fly Tying: Elk Hair Caddis

Elk Hair Caddis fly

Fountains of Youth – Classic trout flies that have withstood the test of time … flies that remain “forever young”

by Rusty Dunn

Think about your favorite dry fly. What makes it great? Maybe it’s a quick and easy tie with inexpensive materials? Or, maybe it’s durable and highly visible on the water? Floats like a cork? Imitates insects found everywhere? Indeed, these are traits of great flies. Perhaps the most important feature, how-ever, is a fly having universal appeal to trout. Only the rarest of flies combine all of these traits, and you will be wise to fill your fly box with them. Al Troth’s Elk Hair Caddis is one such fly. Mr. Troth merged key features of two ageless caddis imitations into a truly fine pattern, one that is a blend of simplicity, impressionism, and uncanny effectiveness.

Al Troth developed his Elk Hair Caddis in 1957 to imitate caddisflies of Pennsylvania’s Loyalsock Creek, where he was a local school teacher. He moved to Dillon, Montana in the early 1970s and established a well-known guiding and fly tying business. Troth’s Elk Hair Caddis pattern was first published in 1976 in Terry Hellekson’s book Popular Fly Patterns. It is arguably Al Troth’s most famous pattern, and very few modern flies are as widely known. Its wing of elk hair tied Trude style suggests fluttering wings of an emerging or adult caddis. Its hollow elk hair floats the fly even in rough water. And, its palmered body hackle imitates legs and allows the fly to be twitched or skittered across the surface.

Troth designed the original Elk Hair Caddis as a wet fly, but it was a dismal failure because it floated too well. Troth couldn’t sink the Elk Hair Caddis! He would jerk it underwater, but it popped right back to the surface because of the buoyant elk hair. Troth’s very first Elk Hair Caddis taught him a valuable lesson. He pulled the fly underwater, it rose like a cork to the surface, and a 20″ brown struck immediately. This “Aha! moment” educated Troth about the buoyancy of elk hair and the value of imparting movement to caddis imitations. The Elk Hair Caddis has been a premier dry fly ever since. It is ready-made for the little twitches and jerks that excite trout to caddis emergers.

Troth’s Elk Hair Caddis is related to two venerable caddis classics. G.E.M. Skues’ Little Red Sedge (1921) has a similar design, with a dubbed body, palmered hackle, and rib of fine gold wire. Wings of the Little Red Sedge, however, are tied of landrail feathers, which are neither buoyant nor available today. The Elk Hair Caddis is also similar to a Bucktail Caddis, which originated in the Pacific Northwest and was very popular beginning in the 1950s. A Bucktail Caddis has a body of wool, a palmered hackle, a tail and wing of bucktail, and a collar of dry fly hackle at the head. It eventually shed the tail (caddis adults have no tails), and the bucktail wing was replaced by more buoyant deer body hair. Al Troth married the body of a Little Red Sedge with the buoyant wing of a Bucktail Caddis. He additionally formed a prominent head by flaring and trimming the butt ends of the elk hair parallel to the downward slanting eye of the hook.

The resulting fly is a modern classic. Tied in varying sizes and colors, Troth’s Elk Hair Caddis imitates caddisflies of every variety, plus a substantial number of stoneflies, alderflies, and terrestrials. Omit the hackle, and the Elk Hair Caddis is virtually identical to an old English Hairwing Sedge. Add a tail of Antron and omit the hackle, and the result is Craig Mathews’ X-Caddis. What are the lessons from all this evolution and adaptation? You just can’t go wrong with a fly that sports a wing of elk or deer hair tied flat over the shank of a hook! Try one for yourself, and you’ll likely have your own “Aha! moment”. Copyright 2017, Rusty Dunn

Copyright 2016, Rusty Dunn

Elk Hair Caddis

Hook: Dry fly, down eye, size to match the natural.
Thread: 8/0, color to match the natural.
Body: Dry fly dubbing mixed with some sparkly Antron; color to match the natural.
Hackle: Dry fly hackle, light or dark to match the natural. Trim a “notch” in the hackle along the top to allow the wing to nestle among the hackle barbs.
Ribbing: Fine gold wire.
Wings: Elk hair, light or dark to match the natural; trim the butt ends parallel to the angle of the hook eye.

Elk Hair Caddis fly