The Elk Hair Caddis Fly Pattern

The Elk Hair Caddis is important, both as a pioneering pattern in the use of Elk Hair as a tying material and for its effectiveness and versatility.

Whether you like history and philosophizing or you’re just an avid angler (or a bit of both, like me) you’re going to get your money’s worth out of this fly.

It not only looks like a caddis fly, the elk hair design sits the fly so high that it can dance and skitter over the water’s surface, much like its real-life counterpart if fished delicately.

Besides, it’s one of flyfishing sage John Gierach’s favorites.  That probably counts for something, right?

What Does it Look Like?

If you were to look at the Elk Hair Caddis from underwater, the resemblance to an actual Caddis fly, I’m told the action and look is remarkably similar – I’ve never successfully seen a Caddis fly from underwater so we’ll have to take people’s word on this.

When a caddis fly sits on the water, you basically just see those big, triangular, tent-like wings.

Even from below, the wings dominate the profile – they fold over the body and rest of the surface, obscuring the rest of the insect.

And, that wing profile what the Elk Hair Caddis is really trying to imitate.  The Elk Hair tied along the shank does a pretty near perfect job of re-creating this look.

What Does The Elk Hair Caddis Imitate?

The Elk Hair Caddis imitates an adult caddis fly or a small stonefly.

While that may seem fairly narrow and, perhaps, a little unimpressive, it’s worth remembering that there are over 14,000 species of caddis flies in existence.  And, as far as I’m aware, the Elk Hair does an excellent job of imitating all of them.

Add to that its ability to imitate a stonefly and it becomes pretty damn versatile.

In some ways, it has some of the same appeal as the Adams.  The Elk Hair Caddis doesn’t look quite like any particular caddis or stonefly, but it does a good job of looking pretty close to all of them.

The History of the Elk Hair Caddis

The pattern was created by Al Troth in 1957, in an attempt to imitate the Green Caddisfly.

While Troth was, apparently, attempting to make an emerger (a fly used to imitate a nymph as it comes to the surface and becomes an adult) and which, ideally, hangs from the surface, his use of elk hair made it highly buoyant.

When to Fish It

The Elk Hair Caddis is both a hatch-matching pattern and a searching pattern.  If there are caddis flies hatching, find a size and color that matches the insects you’re seeing, and you’ll do well.

But, even if there are no caddis flies obvious, trout often don’t want to pass up a good meal – especially in fast water, where food disappears quickly.

Like other high-floating elk and deer hair patterns, the Elk Hair Caddis does well in these fast, turbulent conditions.

I’ve heard that some anglers, when fishing slow, flat water, will clip the body hackle down to allow the fly to float near the surface.

Like other high floating dry patterns, the Elk Hair also makes a solid hopper in the hopper-dropper combo. The highly buoyant elk hair keeps the fly from getting pulled under by all but the largest of dropper nymphs.

Other Uses

Aside from its intended use as a trout fly, many anglers have had success using modified Elk Hair Caddis as a Steelhead (Sea Run Rainbow Trout) fly.

These Steelhead Elk Hair Caddis patterns are typically large, ranging from size 6 to 10, and many custom tied patterns have a flash addition – a few stands of subtle translucent material tied underneath the wing.

Variations Of The Elk Hair Caddis

While the Elk Hair Caddis was originally an attempt to imitate the Green Caddis, it has since been tied in a wide variety of wing, hackle and body colors to simulate different species of caddis and small stoneflies.

The trimming of body hackles has allowed the traditionally high-floating fly to successfully navigate calm, still waters with the same effectiveness it brought to more turbulent streams.  I’ve also seen it tied entirely without the hackle, presumably for this reason.

Increased in size and with the addition of flash, it’s also proved a solid steelhead fly.


All in all, I find this one an interesting story.

The Elk Hair is a perfect example of success through failure.  A failed emerger turned pioneering dry.

An attempt at a highly specific pattern turned versatile searching pattern.  Maybe that’s why I like the Elk Hair so much.

Every time I pull it out there’s a reminder that even if my day is a disaster and nothing goes as planned, that’s not a reason to give up hope.  Success comes in strange and unexpected ways.

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