It has always amazed me that caddis, one of our favorite summertime bugs, are so easily forgotten if they don't happen to be hatching right at the moment. We are all stocked up for the spring and summer hatches with high-floating drys, and a myriad of emerging caddis pupae patterns, but in early fall and winter when they stop hatching, we all seem to forget about the buggy caddis larva stage.
While I have been just as guilty of this as anyone, even I occasionally remember that caddis larvae are in the rivers all year, and every time I tie one on my tippet I'm surprised all over again by just how effective they can be. Caddis larvae are perhaps the most overlooked insects 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 common food source that becomes particularly important in the leaner nonhatch seasons of winter and early spring. When nothing else seems to be happening, fishing a caddis larva, either cased or free-living, can be the cause of a surprising number of bent rods.
Free-living caddis resemble tiny caterpillars and, like underwater hobos, they live around and under rocks on the substrate. Some free-ranging caddis known as net builders use webs to filter their food from the water.
Cased caddis pupae construct homes of sticks or stones, and retract inside to watch TV when they are not out foraging. Okay, 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 larvae are an extremely viable food source for trout, and should be among the patterns in your fly box.
Cased caddis are a significant food source for trout, and while I often find that free-ranging caddis larva imitations are more effective, there are times when the cased version works better.
Replicating the grass, stick, sand, or pebble cases built by these cased, bottom-dwelling 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. It seems to me that the cased version is a good bet when there is no other insect activity.
Free-ranging caddis 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 imitations of these "rock worms" and can be very effective throughout the year. I typically tie these patterns heavily weighted, and often fish them in tandem with a midge pupa pattern such as my Jujubee Midge during the winter months as they both catch fish, and they help keep my rig down along the river bottom. I tie them in hook sizes from an 8 all the way down to size 20. Caddis larvae can grow to be quite large, and patterns to match them are fun to both fish and tie.
One of my favorite free-ranging caddis larva patterns comes from the vise of Colorado's Luke Bever. Luke is an extraordinarily capable fisherman, tier, and guide. 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 knows exactly what flies to fish and where to fish them. His Better Buckskin came after he became disappointed in the realism of the conventional Buckskin, and decided 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 the real thing a bit "better." Starting with a strip of flashy pearl Mylar tinsel over the back of a twisted Ultrasuede body, he then created 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 that is truly better than the original in every way.
Luke fishes his pattern all year, and often fishes it along with an egg pattern during the winter and early spring. His subtle yet familiar caddis larva catches more than its share of fish that are shy of the more obvious egg.
I have had good success with this pattern during nonhatch 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.
Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie's Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado, and is the author of Charlie's Fly Box (Stackpole Books, 2011). He is also the featured tier in two new Fly Fisherman DVDs: Warmwater Fly Tying and Saltwater Fly Tying. Both are available now at the flyfisherman.com store.
Fly Tying The Better Buckskin
Hook: #12-16 Tiemco 3761.
Thread: Black 8/0 UNI-Thread.
Rib: Small or Brassie-size copper UTC Ultra Wire.
Shellback: Medium pearl Mylar tinsel.
Abdomen: Tan Ultrasuede or chamois.
Thorax: Peacock herl and black ostrich herl.
Better Buckskin Step 1 of 6
Start the thread at the 75 percent point and wrap a thread base. Tie in copper wire on the near side of the hook and wrap over it to the bend and forward. Tie in a length of pearl tinsel on the top of the hook. Wrap back over the tinsel, taking care to keep it centered on the top of the hook, all the way back to the bend and then forward.
Better Buckskin Step 2 of 6
Cut a thin strip of Ultrasuede or chamois and trim the end to a point. Tie in the pointed end at the bend of the hook with just a few tight, flat wraps so as not to create a lump. Return the thread to the starting point, and then twist the Ultrasuede into a cord. Wrap the Ultrasuede forward, tie it off at the 75 percent point, and clip the excess.
Better Buckskin Step 3 of 6
Wrap a thread base forward to the index point behind the hook eye and back again. Tie in a strand of black ostrich by its butt end at the front of the abdomen, then tie in two thick strands of peacock herl by their tips. Move the thread to the index point just behind the eye.
Better Buckskin Step 4 of 6
Make two or three turns with the peacock herl up to the eye and tie them off. Clip the excess herl. Wrap the ostrich forward through the peacock herl with two or three well-spaced turns. Tie the ostrich off at the index point and clip the excess.
Better Buckskin Step 5 of 6
Wet your fingers and sweep the ostrich and peacock herl down and to the sides of the thorax. Pull the pearl tinsel forward tightly over the top of the fly. Tie the tinsel down just behind the hook eye with three tight thread turns.
Better Buckskin Step 6 of 6
Wrap the copper wire forward to the back of the thorax and bring the last wrap of ribbing under the thorax and tie it off on the near side just behind the hook eye. Helicopter the wire to break it off. Clip the excess tinsel, build a small thread head, and whip-finish.