Dry Fly Fishing with the Elk Hair Caddis

Complete Guide to Fly Fishing with the Elk Hair Caddis

The Elk Hair Caddis is no stranger to any dry fly box. I would confidently state that almost all dry fly fishers have some form of the pattern tied and ready to fish.

The Elk Hair Caddis is such an iconic pattern that made its mark around the Yellowstone area in the early 70s. It hasn’t changed much over the years and still catches loads of fish.

Fly Fishing with the Elk Hair Caddis

When I fish with a certain buddy of mine, the Elk Hair Caddis is his go-to pattern. He ties it on in the morning and fishes it the whole day! Ok, granted, he may change it when it is a little haggard from catching fish, but he will just tie on another one.

My first thoughts on this are that he will miss loads of fish and only really taking the fish that are tuned into that specific fly, but the truth is the Elk Hair Caddis imitates an array of insects.

Long story short, my buddy generally out fishes me on most occasions, and I put it down to two factors; A, he is a great angler, and B, the Elk Hair Caddis, is just such a deadly dry fly pattern.

Why the Elk Hair Caddis is Great

When you look at the fly and how it is tied, there isn’t much to the pattern. So, what makes it so effective?

The first thing to understand is that Elk Hair is hollow, and this is what gives the fly its buoyancy. The pattern’s ability to sit on the water film is what gives it such a natural look. An adult Caddis or Stonefly comes to mind.

Holding a rainbow trout
Holding a rainbow trout

The rest of the pattern’s designs are simply brilliant. The palmered hackle gives the pattern a high riding position in the water column, and in the faster water, this is a great trigger. The wing case can get a little waterlogged, which gives the pattern a ‘drowned’ look, and in the slower runs, this is often more effective, especially on a tail out.

Another great thing about the pattern is that, if tied right and a little more Elk Hair is used in the wing, the fly can be fished as a dry dropper rig without any problems. A size #16 dry will hold a 2.5mm bead with no issues. This is a very popular way of fishing, particularly on my local waters.

Guide PRO Tip: Learn how to setup a dry dropper rig in this article. 👉 How To Setup a Dry Dropper

The one issue I have with the fly and not by any fault of the pattern, is I struggle to see it in low light conditions. I have bad eyesight, so this happens to most dry flies. The solution to my problem is to tie a small sighter post in all my dry flies. I usually use a hotspot orange which pops in any low light.

A Little History on the Elk Hair Caddis

The Elk Hair Caddis was originally designed and tied by Al Troth. Al had initially intended to imitate a caddis emerger, but with the addition of the Elk Hair, it became a dry fly.

At first, the pattern kept a low profile, with only a few anglers knowing about Al’s fly and its effectiveness. It wasn’t until Al started to sell the fly in a local fly shop called Bud Lilly’s Fly Shop in west Yellowstone that it began to turn heads and get noticed.

Sure, it had loads of competition, especially for a dry fly in that area, but it soon spread to western waters with great success. It wasn’t long, and Al’s Elk Hair Caddis was a staple in most boxes.

Originally designed to be fished as an emerging caddis, which, when heavily waterlogged, it still can be, but when prepped and fresh, it will ride high in the water film. An adult green Caddis fly is what the pattern would represent, but it can also cover the rest of the caddis family and stoneflies.

 As a single dry fly with a long leader, there are very few other patterns that are as effective as they look when fished.

What Fish Does an Elk Hair Caddis Catch?

If we look at history, which I love doing, almost all patterns were tied with Trout or Salmon in mind. As the years have gone by and the sport has developed, many other species are now on the radar. I am of the mindset that you can catch any fish on a fly. You just have to imitate what it eats.

How to Fly Fish for Brown Trout
Use this link to learn 👉 How to Fly Fish for Brown Trout

With that said, the Elk Hair Caddis has claimed many a species, Trout, blue gill, juvenile largemouth bass (we all know they will eat anything), and even saltwater mullet.

The pattern works incredibly well for Smallmouth Yellowfish, a species native to my home waters. I tie the pattern in size #14 or #12 and fish it into the dark. Skating the fly on the surface can also have great results, especially at sunset.

How to Setup an Elk Hair Caddis

The Elk Hair Caddis should be fished as you would any dry fly. A 7-10′ rod, depending on your style, with a floating line is best. If you are fishing a shorter, more classic dry fly rod, such as a glass or cane rod, then a double taper (DT) floating line will do the trick as well.

 A long leader, well, as long as you can comfortably handle, with at least a 3–5-foot tippet is ideal.

Dry Fly Setup
Dry Fly Setup

If you are fishing a dry dropper rig, then a shorter leader will be fine, provided you can maintain contact with the flies and not induce any drag. Drag is a killer! The short positions work for pocket waters when you can get up and close to the fish.

My chosen tippet is 5X for my waters, but I wouldn’t hesitate to drop to a 6X if I need to. The tippet choice will depend on your fishery and the size of fish you are fishing for.

Guide PRO TIP – Skating the fly over the surface at dusk or dawn can be a very effective way of fishing the pattern to induce a take. This is a very unconventional way to fish a dry fly but trust me, it works! Especially when the fish are starting to get picky.

What Does the Elk Hair Caddis Represent

Originally tied to imitate the Green Caddis, the fly can also be confused for a stonefly or even a terrestrial.

Tied in larger sizes, there is no doubt that the fly can be passed as a spider or bug that has just fallen into the water.

Elk Hair Caddis Favorite Size and Color

The size of the Elk Hair Caddis is very dependent on where you are fishing, the smaller flies tend to get washed under in the faster waters, but that said, one wouldn’t be fishing dry in very fast waters.

I’m a fan of a size #16 caddis pattern. I find it very suited for my type of water and conditions.

Where to Buy Elk Hair Caddis

If you don’t tie your own flies, then the  Elk Hair Caddis from Umpqua are great. I like the additional CDC as an underwing for an extra little bugginess.

How to Tie Elk Hair Caddis

The Elk Hair Caddis is a straightforward pattern to tie. It needs good quality Elk Hair and hackle to work well.

Materials

I highly recommend downloading the FREE PDF below by clicking on the picture. Print the document off and lay it along side your tying vise and use it while tying.

Elk Hair Caddis Materials PDF
Elk Hair Caddis Materials PDF

For options try tying this fly is sizes 14 through 18. I also recommend using darker dubbing and wings.

Instructions

  1. Secure hook in vise, wrap level thread base, ending at the hook bend.
  2. Tie in fine wire
  3. Dub the body forward, allowing enough room for the wing to be tied in.
  4. Tie in the hackle, thick side first and concave, facing away.
  5. Wrap the hackle backward to the rear.
  6. Tie off the hackle with wire and wrap it forward. Tie off with thread.
  7. Tie in Elk Hair, ensuring the hair holds on top of the hook shank.
  8. Tie small head and whip finish.

PRO TIP 1- Once you have tied the Elk Hair in, run the thread forward and under the Elk Hair stubs to secure it to the shank. This will prevent the hair from rolling.

One Last Cast with the Elk Hair Caddis

Whether you like it or not (I know of some anglers that don’t), the Elk Hair Caddis is a very effective pattern and one that has earned its spot in my top ten classic dry flies.

My advice is to learn to tie them, then fish them and enjoy the pleasure you get from landing fish on them. Tight Lines!

Looking to Learn the Tips and Techniques for the Fish You Love to Chase? I’ve Got You Hooked Up Below


Kyle Knight writer Guide Recommended

Kyle Knight

Fly fishing has been my passion and pursuit for the past 20 years. I am a South African based fly fisherman who loves nothing more than spending a day on the water. Fly fishing is more than catching fish, being in the outdoors with good friends and family is what it is all about.

Sources

  • A Special Thanks to UMPQUA for use of pictures. Link
Scroll to Top