By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
Nearly 20 years ago I was a rookie guide on my first Madison River guide trip. All was well until lunchtime when we met up with the senior boat. The clients in my boat were happy, but the fishing action left much to be desired. In the other boat – captained by a guide with more than 10 years of Madison River experience – clients were swapping stories of big fish, little fish, the ones that got away, and high fives were plentiful.
The senior guide had his clients fishing caddis insects, and after lunch I changed to a high-floating dry fly and an emerger pattern, which produced results.
Caddis are abundant in most of our local trout streams. As we get into high summer, thoroughly understanding caddis variations will bring more fish to the net. Here’s some help.
Fishing through the entire hatch. The obvious sign of a hatch is the presence of insects in the air, but the hatch begins when larvae or nymphs change into adults. Additionally, when caddis begin their intermediate pupal stage, the makings of a caddis hatch are underway. This early stage is best described as an emergence, when these insects are found in various levels of the river’s current offering trout an abundant food supply. Why is this important? Because 40-70 percent of a trout’s feeding occurs during the caddis’ emergent stage.
Understand emerging caddis. Fishing emerger imitations has recently become popular, but while tying an emerger onto your tippet is easy, fishing them effectively requires advanced knowledge. The hatching of emerging caddis happens fast but research shows that during these periods of hesitation, trout targets the insects.
The first period occurs near the bottom of the river. This may last hours and is best fished using a strike indicator with weighted flies or soft hackles. Add a bit of action to your drift, like a slow lift at the end. Try swinging the fly into softer water as your drift ends, allowing the line to tighten briefly at the end of the swing before another cast is made. Dead drifting will still catch most fish, but emerging caddis move in the current.
The second period of emergence occurs when the pupae shed their cocoons and drift to the surface. As this occurs, the insects emit small gas bubbles and flail their microscopic legs frantically as they race toward the surface where a period of hesitation occurs as the bug tries to break free of the surface film. This requires a massive amount of the insect’s effort and time, as it struggles to free itself from the water. Understanding this struggle is paramount to emerger-angling success.
Trout “porpoising,” or crashing the surface, are feeding on struggling caddis. This is often the most exciting time to fish a caddis hatch as trout splash and gorge themselves on surface-clinging caddis.
Upgrade your arsenal. Visit your local fly shop and stock up on caddis nymphs, pupae, and emergent patterns. If you’re like most anglers you have Elk Hair Caddis, but do you have a handful of Serendipity and soft hackles? Does your box have a dozen Sparkle Caddis Pupa? Get some caddis patterns tied with Cul Du Canard, a natural material adept at holding air when it’s wet, which imitates the emitting gas bubbles. Be sure to have a quality drying powder and floatant for fishing CDC patterns.
Know your caddis patterns. Once you upgrade your gear, choose what caddis patterns fit your fishing style and fish accordingly. If you like high-riding patterns choose Elk Hair or Goddard caddis. If you like low riding caddis, choose a Hi-Vis or Neversink. If the fish are eating emerging insects in the film, tie a CDC emerging pattern like a Weise’s Clacka Caddis or a Z-caddis onto any of the above patterns. The technique of fishing two flies – one floating and one in the film – will increase your action. For nymphs and pupae, choose flies such as Seredipity, Birds of Prey, and the time-tested Hare’s Ear.
For me, fishing caddis is no longer a mystery but a necessity. To get more out of summer fishing, caddis and their imitations should play a vital role.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and he co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.