The perfect dry fly for trout would be high-floating, durable, simple to tie, and almost universally effective. The Elk Hair Caddis is notable for all those reasons, and a few more. The pattern is usually thought of as a Western style, but it was first tied by Al Troth in Pennsylvania in the 1950s. Troth later gained fame as a Montana fly tyer and trout guide, and his new dry fly first came into wide use along turbulent trout rivers in the Rockies. It has produced well for me on trout waters from Alaska to Ireland. Now it’s a global standard.
Sizes and Colors
Caddisflies with outspread, fluttering wings look much bigger in the air than they actually are. This can make streamside selection of a fly pattern tricky, and most people tend to use caddis dries that are too big. Popular Elk Hair sizes range from 10 down to 20. When in doubt, smaller is better. I most often use sizes 16 and 18.
The most useful wing colors are tan, brown, gray, and black, usually with dubbed-fur bodies and hackle to match. A specific caddis hatch might require a more specific imitation-tan wing with an apple-green body is a common example-in which case a local fly shop is the best source.
On the Water
Versatility is key to the Elk Hair’s wide success. While it will often draw a strike when simply dead-drifted over a rising trout, the fly’s high-floating characteristic means it can be skated, twitched, and otherwise worked on the surface. It’s these tactics that can draw slashing strikes from surprisingly large fish, as big trout will hammer the fly with all the gusto of a big bass taking a surface plug.
I usually fish these dries down-and-across stream, using a combination of reach-casting and slack-line techniques to avoid drag. As the line tightens in the current, twitch the fly briefly, then lower the rod tip to create slack and a momentary dead-drift of the fly. This twitch-and-pause routine mimics the action of adult caddis fluttering on the surface. Your leader tippet must be floating along with the fly, or your twitches will drag the fly under. I often dress both fly and leader with floatant before I start.
Sometimes it’s best to dress only the fly. Then your leader tippet will sink, drawing the fly under when twitched. If you allow some slack at this point, a well-dressed Elk Hair will bob quickly back to the surface, an action that trout at times find irresistible.
The Elk Hair’s extreme buoyancy means it also works well as a strike indicator when it supports a small nymph as a trailer. Tie 18 to 24 inches of leader tippet to the hook bend of a dry caddis. Then add a size 22 to 16 Beaded Pheasant Tail or other lightly weighted nymph.
If trout are swirling underneath your Elk Hair, you should either try a smaller size or drag out your small scissors and start modifying the pattern. Trimming away the bottom hackle makes for a lower-floating, more imitative version. Trimming away most of the hackle and the wing makes for a partly submerged caddis emerger.
Elk Hairs aren’t the answer to every situation involving dry flies and rising fish. Trout sipping little olive mayflies will often ignore a high-floating Elk Hair, to give just one example. But for searching the water in the absence of a major hatch-which means most of the time-and for drawing strikes from larger-than-average fish, Elk Hair Caddis are the dry-fly gold standard.