October 05, 2022
Growing up in and around the great rivers of the coastal West, every kid in jeans and soggy tennis shoes with a fishing rod in hand becomes intimately acquainted with caddis.
In the summer my friends and I marveled at caddis, how they constructed their little houses and clung to the plate-sized rocks in the riffles. We called them periwinkles because that's what our daddies told us they were, but we came to understand they were the same bugs as the big, tent-winged bombers we would see in October.
Everywhere the caddis occurs it is a favorite food of trout. For anglers along the coastal rivers, the relationship of caddis to sea-run cutthroats is well known. We look forward to the first sightings of cutts that we see tucked up against the banks on an August day.
Across the West, particularly in the inland streams of the coastal states, as well as in Idaho and Montana, the October caddis hatch really begins in September and hits its stride in the first weeks of October. Even into November, the big bugs can still be found above the river.
But the caddis hatch is more complex than the "all at once and then it’s over" hatches of some aquatic insects. Caddis are such an important part of the trout diet that in many rivers there is a direct correlation between the number of caddis and the number of trout the river can support.
Interestingly, caddis larvae may live in a stream for up to three years before they hatch, and trout feed on caddis year-round.
Even in the midst of the hatch, there are good opportunities for trout to feed on subsurface caddis, and successful anglers recognize that the opportunity goes beyond the topwater bite, even in October.
TOO BIG TO IGNORE
Separate a caddis larva from its shell and what you have is a pale-yellow rock worm with a jet-black head and legs. Trout eat them shell and all, but the larva itself is the prized treat. Since the larva stores all the energy it’ll need as an adult in the form of a fat body, the larva is like trout bacon.
Sometime in August the caddis begin their final transitional stage toward a brief adulthood, similar to the process of a caterpillar enclosing itself in a cocoon. The caddis attaches itself to a rock and seals itself inside its case where it transitions from the larval stage into a pupa. When the time is right, the pupa breaks out of the case and begins to migrate to the edge of the stream where it crawls out upon a branch or a rock and dries its wings.
So even though trout feed on caddis throughout the year, they are suddenly more available and vulnerable in August, September and October. Hatch timing is not as easy to mark as that of a stonefly hatch, for example. Much of the hatch can come off during night hours. In fact, it is safe to say that if you see even a single orange-bodied, tent-winged bug above the river, the hatch is on. To the trout’s way of looking at the world, the party has started, and it’s mostly below the surface.
The larval stage is imitated in both cased and uncased versions. The flies can be tied on scud-style on English bait hooks or on straight hooks sized No. 10 to 6 and 2X to 4X long. The fly should be heavy.
Beads, lead wire and copper ripping can all be used to make sure it sinks fast. To tie a passable cased-caddis imitation, peacock herl works as a good body base and may be overlaid with a rooster hackle to add depth to the body. The body of the worm can be tied to represent it partially out of the case, or not.
To be ready for an October caddis feeding frenzy, tie or buy John Hazel's Deschutes Cased Caddis, Oswald’s BH Rock Roller and Peeking Caddis.
Now picture the worm free from its case. An imitation of this stage is good fly to fish by itself anytime between the middle of July and into the fall. My favorite representations are tied in off-white, yellow and orange overlaid with clear latex. Heads and legs are completed with dark rabbit or muskrat with the guard hairs picked out. Some other good caseless larva patterns include Tan Caddis Larva and Rip Caddis.
For all intents and purposes, these flies should be fished on a dead drift. I learned to fish them with the rod in the high-stick position, but they can also be fished with a strike indicator. Trout tend to suck them in and spit them out just as fast, so it pays to set the hook at the slightest suggestion of a grab.
Paying attention is critical to successful caddis fishing. If you are dead-drifting in current and your line stops, set the hook immediately—neither your fly nor real-life caddis larva can just suddenly stop in the current.
As good as a larva imitation is by itself, the thinking fly fisherman knows that it can be improved dramatically with the addition of a pupa pattern on a dropper.
Peak caddis hatch activity is most likely to take place on cloudy days from late afternoon until dark. Anticipating this can precipitate what I think is the most important and exciting stage of the hatch.
Exploit the "pre-hatch" phase with a tandem rig that includes a pupal imitation up top and a larval imitation down deep.
Fish the two-fly rig on a dead drift, then let the flies swing at the end of the drift. Accentuate this part of the presentation with a very subtle twitch or two by turning the tip of the rod in a small circle. Now your dead-drifted flies are mimicking emergents, and the trout are watching.
If a few naturals begin to hatch, it might pay off to tie on a dry with a pupa imitation on a 24-inch trailing dropper. Cast, dead-drift, swing, lift the rod, twitch.
Some of the better pupa imitations include the Tungsten Dirty Bird, Mercer's Tungsten October Caddis and Morrish October BH Caddis Pupa.
ON THE SURFACE—HATCHING
Fishing the dry is a lot like fishing in hopper season. Caddis hatches are unlike most mayfly hatches; they don’t cover the water like mayflies do. Thus, even in the heavy phase of the October hatch, caddis are not typically all across the surface with trout rising to attack them. But the flies are big—some of them fall into the water and trout will be looking for them.
At this stage of the game, the fly is trying to break free from the surface, get its wings dry and fly off. Some accomplish this with ease while others struggle. Since it is difficult to add motion to a fly that imitates the tiny struggles of the real caddis, it is usually better at this stage of the hatch to fish the dry on a dead drift.
After the natural has left the surface, it will not be available to trout again unless a strong wind drives it back to the river. At such times the fly may be wind-smacked, and a dead drift is again the preferable presentation. Instead of waiting for mayfly-like rising activity from trout all across the river, look for trout near banks and islands in 2 to 4 feet of water where grasses and willows overhang. These are spots where trout know they have a chance at grabbing freshly hatching caddis or the wind-smacked adults.
Some of the great October Caddis dry imitations include the Morrish October Caddis Dry Fly, Improved Orange Sofa Pillow and Orange Stimulator. This is also a good time to stay with the time-honored dry-and-dropper routine, with a small Rubber Leg Pheasant Tail, Emergent Sparkle Pupa (brown and yellow) or a yellow X Caddis in tow. Run the dropper about 24 inches back from the dry fly.
ON THE SURFACE—MATING
The next opportunity for the trout to eat the big bug is when the female returns to the water’s surface for the egg laying dance.
When the adult female drops her eggs atop the water, she touches down, lifts off and touches down again. Sometimes the current pulls her under and she beats her wings to get back to the air, only to touch down again. Egg laying most often takes place from late afternoon until after dark, and the process will assuredly bring trout up off the bottom.
Some trout get so engrossed in the ritual they will chase caddis out of the water, going airborne. Caddis are such a rich source of energy for trout that they get far more calories in the bite than they expend in the leap.
Add a skitter to the end of a dead-drift dry-fly presentation with a quick mend to get most of the line off the water, then turn a small circle with the rod tip. If the fly lifts off the water and touches back down, even creating a bit of drag, it’s okay. It is one of those relatively rare moments in a dry-fly fisherman’s career when drag is a good thing.
Trout seem to materialize in the clear water and chase the bug for two, three, four, five feet across the surface. There is little else like it.
Go-To October Caddis Patterns
Three flies that should be in every serious angler's arsenal:
- BH October Caddis Bird's Nest: The Bird’s Nest is a classic, and this version of it is purpose-built for late September and October when caddis may be found throughout the water column. Look for current seams and foam lines. Dead-drift this pattern beneath a strike indicator, or you can high-stick it and watch the leader. At the end of the drift, allow the fly to swing, then rise up in the water column. Add another emerger on a dropper to increase the effectiveness. Fish emerger caddis patterns in Nos. 12 to 14.
- Bird's Octoberfest Caddis: No amount of sloppy casting or cluster of 18-inch cutthroats is going to sink this pattern with its foam underwing and tail. The wing presents that caddis fly profile fish see as it lights on the surface, with the red hackle adding reality to the pattern. While an angler might opt for a parachute-style tie in calm water, it's a great pick for the riffles and tailouts where a fish has to make a quick decision or miss the meal. Fish it dead-drift in early afternoon, but as the shadows start to grow longer, try skittering the fly at the end of a drift or mending a "re-float." Fish this one in Nos. 10 to 14.
- King's Crane Candy CH: If I had to pick a caddis larva out of a lineup, it would look a lot like this one. While a lot of rock-cased October caddis go orange, many of them tend toward this shade of tan. And that blend of mylar in the dubbing adds sparkle. You know that bead is going to sink it, and fast. While tied to represent a crane fly larva, this pattern also imitates a caddis larva, which can be particularly effective for rainbows, sea-run cutthroat trout and steelhead, especially in August, September and October. Fish it deep on a dead drift with an indicator or use the high-stick technique and that sixth sense that tells you to set the hook when the unseen quarry inhales the offering.
Note: This article was originally published in the West edition of October 2021's Game & Fish Magazine. Click to subscribe