January 18, 2022
NOTE: This article is excerpted from The Orvis Guide to the Essential American Flies.
Elk hair comes in many varieties, and even though the hair can vary from one animal to another or by where it comes from on a hide, there are some general guidelines to buying and using elk hair that will help your flies look and behave just right. Although elk hair is hollow like deer hair, neither hair is really hollow like a drinking straw. The hairs have a hard outer coating with a pithy, air-filled interior. Elk hair, in general, has a harder outer layer than deer, so it is less flexible and flares less, even though it holds almost as much air. As a result, elk is quite a bit more durable than deer hair.
Look for hair that looks clean, straight, and even. Hair that curves to one side makes it tough to work with, as your wing will cock to one side or the other. Also look for hair with short, unbroken tips. Hair with long, flimsy black tips is difficult to even in a stacker, it is less durable, and it just gives the finished fly a sloppy look.
Bull elk, often called “light elk,” is relatively short, blunt, and coarse, with pale cream tips. It offers just a slight amount of flare when pressure is applied with the fly-tying thread, and it is more durable than any other kind of elk hair. In its natural state, because of the light tips, it is also more visible on the water. It is the hair most commonly used for the Elk-Hair Caddis, Humpies, and imitations of the paler species of stoneflies. Typically, the tiny black tips at the very end of bull elk hair are short. Cow elk is often called “dark elk” by fly shops. The hair is longer, coarser, and flares more readily than bull elk. The tips are tan, but a darker shade than the tips of bull elk. Cow elk is better for smaller caddis imitations, small Humpies, and anytime you want a darker wing that flares slightly more than it would with bull elk. Cow elk is not as hard and durable as bull, but it compresses easier under tying thread, making it less bulky. Calf or “yearling” elk hair is similar to cow elk and many tiers have trouble distinguishing the two. It is typically thinner and longer than cow elk, so it has a wide range of uses, from very large Stimulators to tiny Elk-Hair Caddis flies. It is also more difficult to find in fly shops. Because it is finer than cow or bull, it compresses into a small point on the hook shank, but because you can put more hairs in the same place, you can get a full wing or Humpy overlay without cramping space on the hook. Calf elk also tends to have shorter black tips than bull or cow, giving finished wings a clean profile. You may also see elk mane, hocks, and rump for sale in fly shops. All of these hairs have little to no flare, and are best for tails on large nymphs and dry flies because they are stiff and durable. Elk mane is very long, dark, and stiff, and makes great tails for dry flies. It can be used as a substitute on any pattern that calls for moose mane. Elk hock is similar in color but shorter and finer, so it is better for dark tails on smaller flies. Elk rump is very coarse and stiff but is a pale cream color, so it is used for light-colored tails on large flies. Because elk mane and rump are so strong, winding a dark hair from elk mane and a light hair from elk rump makes a strong and realistic banded nymph body.
Tom Rosenbauer is vice president of marketing with The Orvis Company of Manchester, Vermont, and is the author of more than a dozen books.