Caddis fly has become venerable and adaptable standard for the fly box

Posted: Friday, May 19, 2000

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) -- Dillon resident Al Troth tied the first elk hair caddis, that staple of Montana fly boxes, back in 1957.

''That's the first time it came out of the vise and was thrown out on the water,'' Troth said in a phone interview from his home. ''What a lot of people don't realize is the first (elk hair) wasn't tied for a Montana hatch. It was for a caddis hatch in Pennsylvania.''

In that state a 20-inch fish is ''sort of something,'' he said. ''The first evening I fished it, I caught a 20-1/2 inch brown.''

Now 70 years old and afflicted with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative nerve disorder, Troth still fishes some and still ties flies.

''Strangely enough, my tremor disappears when I tie,'' Troth said. He figures he's tying better now than he ever has in his life, although he ties more slowly.

He still gets calls from fly tiers around the country asking for advice, and he still gets orders for his flies, including a recent request from one man who wants 30 dozen.

''Can you believe that?'' Troth said with a laugh. ''I guess he figures I'm not going to be around that much longer.''

Troth started out tying flies for himself and a few friends and said he never dreamed that his elk hair caddis would gain the fame it has.

In imitating the natural, Troth said, the wing of the caddis is by far the most important.

''I think you could tie the (elk hair) fly without the body, without the hackle, without the gold wire rib,'' Troth said. ''You could tie it with just the wings and you'd catch fish.''

They sure are pretty, all those caddis fly imitations -- the Hemingway and the Slickwater, the peacock and the Spent Partridge, the Hi Vis, parachute and X -- with delicate hackles and slender bodies and tufts of iridescent orange or brilliant yellow.

Ask local fly shop staff how many caddis variations you could find and the first response is likely to be laughter.

''Oh, there's thousands,'' said Joe Moore, at Madison River Outfitters in West Yellowstone. ''It just depends on who's tying them. My roommate has his own little imitation that he ties up.''

The abundant caddis is one of the most important insects to trout, and imitating the caddis from larval and pupae to winged stages has proven as consistently successful as any fly fishing strategy.

''You don't go to the river without a caddis pattern,'' Moore said.

The Bozeman area is famous for its huge Mother's Day caddis hatch, which can blanket streams with the emerging insects, bringing trout to a surface feeding frenzy.

''It's the world's biggest orgy,'' said Josh Standish, a guide and fly tier at Montana Troutfitters. ''I've seen it on the Yellowstone -- which this year is pretty well kaput (with silty runoff) -- where you have a tougher time finding water than you do flies.''

If the Mother's Day hatch excites trout, its effect on fishermen is no less profound. They scramble to the river from far and wide.

''It's kind of like opening day of elk season,'' said Jamie Benedickt, manager of Troutfitters.

The hatch this year was under way a tad ahead of schedule with the early warm weather, and anglers descended on fly shops looking for the perfect imitation.

While almost every fly tier comes up with his own twist on a caddis fly, tying a few for himself and his buddies, new flies also make it to the mass-production market each season.

The Slickwater is one of the newest variations, Standish said. Unlike the elk hair, which is tied of natural materials, the Slickwater is all synthetics. The material repels water, for good flotation, and the artificial material reflects more light. The idea is that the added sparkle from that reflection works in similar fashion to a fishing lure like a spoon, practically goading a fish into action.

Because the caddis hatch is so prolific, anglers have difficulty keeping track of their dry fly in the midst of thousands of naturals. That gives rise to another reason for the numerous variations, as tiers add different color combinations.

''If you can see your fly, it makes all the difference in the world,'' Standish said. Different colors can be more or less visible depending on light conditions, so you'll find imitations with white, yellow, orange or other color added.

The Hi Vis caddis, with a button of yellow on its topside, is one of many imitations that add color strictly for the fly fisher's benefit. The caddis insect itself in this area is a fairly dull fellow, with a tan or black body.

Many anglers use a two-fly rig to aid in tracking their fly, Standish said. They'll float a gaudy stimulator like a Trude ahead of a more realistic imitation such as the Spent Partridge.

Although much of the action is on the surface now, it's a good idea to carry a few imitations of the emerging caddis as well, such as the sparkle pupa developed by Gary LaFontaine, Standish said.

Benedickt said he probably has 60 or 70 different flies in his caddis box -- ''it's scary'' -- but he said he still uses the elk hair and Peacock more than anything.

You could lay out a hundred bucks at almost any area fly shop before you garnered samples of each caddis in stock.

Or you might just slide a ten spot out of your wallet and pocket a half dozen of the venerable elk hair caddis, a dry that's been around for 43 years and has probably enticed as many trout to the hook around here as any other.

''The elk hair caddis is No. 1,'' Standish said. ''Everyone has them and they always work.''

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