From Flyfisherman Magazine, 2013
It has always amazed me that caddis, one of our favorite summertime bugs, is so easily forgotten once the seasons start to change. We are all stocked up for the spring and summer hatches with high floating dries and a myriad of emerging pupa patterns, but once the weather starts to turn a bit, we all seem to forget about the buggy little larval stage and go straight to fishing midge larva and pupa patterns until spring rolls around again. While I have been just as guilty of this as anyone, even I occasionally remember that caddis larva are in the rivers I fish year round and will tie one onto my tippet only to be surprised again by just how effective they can be. Caddis larvae are perhaps the most overlooked insect in the river but that doesn’t make them any less productive to those of us who keep an open mind and memory.
Caddis larvae, in various forms, are present in most river systems and often make up a good portion of a trout’s diet. They are a commonly available food source that is often overlooked by anglers, but never by the fish. Throughout the year, and particularly in the leaner seasons of winter and early spring, fishing a caddis larva, either cased or free-living, can be the cause of a surprising amount of bent rods.
Free living caddis resemble tiny caterpillars and, like underwater hobos, live around and under rocks on the substrate while others, known as net builders, build their own little houses out of spider web-like netting and reside there. Still others, known as cased caddis, construct homes of sticks or stones and retract inside to watch TV when not out foraging. Ok, maybe I made that last part up. I don’t know what they do in their own homes and it’s none of my business anyway. My point is, caddis larva are an extremely viable food source for trout and should be among the patterns you carry in your fly box. We’ve all seen patterns tied to replicate these common insects and a few of us even carry them around in our boxes, but when it comes down to actually fishing them with confidence, I know very few anglers who do.
Cased caddis can be a significant food source to trout, and while I do find the free living version to be more effective most of the time, a few cased caddis variations in my box have always earned their keep. Replicating the grass, stick or stone cases built by these bottom dwelling little critters does pose a few wonderful tying dilemmas, but I have found wrapped turkey quill ribbed with fine wire or peacock herl ribbed with clipped hackle to be exceptionally realistic and productive in the pursuit of a likely match. It seems to me that the cased version is a good bet when there is no other insect activity and I reason that this could be because the trout are used to seeing them down on the bottom and they seem like a safe snack, but hey, I don’t have fins.
Net Builder Caddis range in both size and color and remind me of a smaller version of those gooey caterpillars my mom used to pull off the tomato plants when I was a kid. Flies tied in olive, chartreuse green, amber, tan and even orange are good bets to carry in your fly box and can be very effective throughout the year. I typically tie these patterns heavily weighted and will often fish them in tandem with a midge pupae pattern like my Jujubee Midge during the winter months as they both catch fish well and keep my rig down along the river bottom. I tie them in hook sizes from a size eight all the way down to a twenty. Net Builder Caddis, in particular, can grow to be quite large and patterns to match them are fun to both fish and tie.
One of my favorite free living caddis larva patterns comes from the vise of Colorado’s Luke Bever. Luke is an extraordinarily capable fisherman, tyer and guide and while we’re too good of friends for me to ever utter it to him in person; he really is one of those guys that just know exactly what flies to fish and where to fish them. His Better Buckskin came about after being disappointed in the conventional Buckskin pattern’s realism and the desire to build a better version. He’s not terribly creative when it comes to fly names, but the pattern itself is a winner. The original Buckskin pattern that has been around for years is basically a strip of tanned deer hide or chamois leather wrapped around a hook…sometimes with a simple black thread head, sometimes with a dubbed head and sometimes with a peacock herl head. I’ve even seen Buckskins tied with a tail, but I can’t fathom why. Luke took this basic chassis and dressed it up a bit to make it match up with the real thing a bit…better. Starting with a strip of pearl Mylar tinsel over the back of a twisted Ultra Suede body to add some flash, he then designed a more complicated yet lifelike head section that blends the fish catching power and iridescence of peacock herl with the realism of longer, flowing ostrich herl legs. Ribbed with copper wire for both durability and a bit of color, the end result is a pattern unlike the original and truly better in every way. Luke fishes his pattern all year, and when pressed, confessed that he often fishes it along with an egg pattern during the winter months. His subtle yet familiar caddis larva catches more than its share of fish that are a bit shy of the more obvious egg. I have had good success with this pattern during non-hatch periods, particularly in the early morning or late afternoon. When fish return to resting lies after heavy feeding periods, they can still be convinced to grab one last bite and the Better Buckskin does seem to make a great snack.
Next time you’re looking to fill a few gaps in your fly box, remember the lowly larval stage of the ubiquitous caddis and twist up a few variations. Even better, remember to actually tie one on the next time you’re out and see for yourself just how effective these patterns can be.