Elk_Hair_CaddisGuest Blogger: Mike Vorhis, Fly Fisher & Author, FreeFlight Publishing
Over the years I’ve made a lot of mistakes on the stream–missed strikes, poor leader or tippet choices, stepping without looking…saw one fly box try to make a downstream bid for freedom….

So it’s no wonder that I might hold a soft spot in my heart for one particular fly that has been very forgiving.  It’s a dry, and the first one I tend to think of when I consider fishing on top.  No, it’s not of the classic British Isles mayfly fascination, nor is it fair and refined, nor does it carry a blue-blooded Catskill-esque name.  I’m talking about the rugged little dry fly born of the North Woods, the dry fly for the Common man.

It’s the Elk Hair Caddis. Here are four good reasons why I call it “forgiving”:

1.  It floats like a cork–well, a cork that will still go under after five or ten feet of drift.  (Let’s face it, no dry fly stays on top forever.) Still, I think you could be swept downstream and a boxful of these guys might save you. Anyway, you can toss the Elk Hair Caddis into a lot different kinds of water, and whack it down harder than Ray Bergman would have, and it’ll still float. For hours of fishing and in and out of numerous trout mouths, if properly dressed.

2.  Your drift can be pitiful, with the leader dragging the fly across currents and even upstream. Whereas a trout will laugh at all your ancestors if you let a mayfly imitation do that, they love to see an Elk Hair Caddis “skitter” around like a bug gone mad. I think I’ve caught as many on this fly over the years with a truly abominable drift as I have with a perfect one.

3.  When you pick up your line at the end of a drift, you don’t have to worry if you’re less than clean about it; if the Elk Hair Caddis was properly treated with silicone or Gink or what have you, it’ll skitter along the surface back toward you as you pick it up. Trout who seize the moment are treated to an auto-hook-set because you’re already in motion; trout who don’t hit in that instant will sit there damning themselves for missing the chance, and vowing to nail it if it ever dares to skitter away from them again.

4.  Yes, it floats well, but again any dry fly can be engulfed by riffles and dragged down by fluoro. But with the Elk Hair Caddis, you don’t need to worry, because the thing is not too shabby as a wet fly either!  If mine goes into its scuba mode in riffles, I just go ahead and let it drown, and swing, and then I strip-retrieve it, and they’ll still sometimes hit. I’m really not so sure they think it’s a caddis fly at all when it’s lurching itself upstream at depth like that, but strangely I’ve yet to hear myself let out a foul oath when such a wet-fly retrieve of this fly brings a hammer-strike from a hungry fish.

This kind of versatility can save you time changing out flies.  It’s a good prospecting dry–very fault-tolerant. I’ve tossed my friend the Elk Hair Caddis into pour-overs and waterfalls and watched it get pounded down into the depths, I’ve dragged it upstream like an amateur, I’ve slapped it down with a clumsy cast and a loud smack, and I’ve zipped it along the top by accident more times than I can remember. Yes, we strive for artistic perfection–it’s part of our quest–but this fly won’t make you pay for your faults nearly as much as another dry fly would, or a tiny larval pattern…or a spouse.  Truth be told, I’ve probably had as many takes on an Elk Hair Caddis by doing things all wrong as I have being perfect.

Now that’s a friend to take fishin’.


  1. Most definitely a go-to fly here in SW Montana and Yellowstone. This is an especially effective and simple to fish pattern on the Firehole River in the riffles whenever caddis are around (just about all the time).

    1. I tend to use the version like in the photo–lighter deer hair with natural / brownish palmered hackle & body. Just seems to be a (more or less) universally effective tie, so I keep the decisions simple and just go with that. What version do you tie on first in Montana? I know there are some guys who go with slate grey or even black as a first choice, because of the sedge/caddis species most predominant in their regions.

      1. Of course the fly shops sell all sorts, but I fish mostly white to very light tan flies. I have a few darker patterns, but rarely fish them because I can’t see them in low light conditions. Also, our fish aren’t that selective. I find that if I can see the fly and get a good drift I’ll catch fish. If I can’t see the fly the catch rate goes down and frustration goes up.

        1. Yeah…the old “set the hook if you see a splash anywhere in the vicinity of where you think your fly might be” is always a much lower yield endeavor than seeing the fly. I like the high vis nature of the Elk Hair Caddis too.

          I’ve seen some tyers back-sweep the wings of other flies, such as March Brown and Adams dries, and many of them claim it gives them superior results. The back-sweep angle is a lot like the deer hair angle of the Elk Hair Caddis, and it stands to reason that it’s one of the qualities that makes the Elk Hair Caddis effective. A close look at winged bugs of various kinds shows they’re often actually of “swept-wing” design. I think I’ll start tying up a few Catskill-style dries, but modify the wing posture more like the EHC hair, and see what comes of it.

          Love experimenting that way! A trout of any size on a self-made rod with a self-tapered leader and a self-tied fly of one’s own design just amplifies the whole experience.

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