Big Antlered Brute

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

We’re all familiar with the Elk Hair Caddis dry fly pattern–very productive, easy to tie, floats high, good for prospecting, works like a wet fly if it gets sucked under. Introduced to the fly fishing world by notable tier Al Troth 61 years ago, it’s said to be a stand-in for an adult caddis fly, although its hair wing fans out far wider and higher than the closed tent-shaped wing of a real resting caddis.

Its current form differs somewhat from the original, which was in fact intended to float low, in the film, like an emerger–an eastern green caddis emerger to be specific. Despite Troth’s love for palmered-bodied flies, this one was not intended to ride high on good dry fly hackle…nor to wiggle like a soft-hackle wet. He envisioned it a ‘tweener.

But now it’s typically tied as dry as can be. The reigning theory is that its modern hairdo–the splayed-wide elk hair wing–may appear to trout to be caddis wings that are vigorously flapping rather than folded. In truth, this fly pattern lets us defy the “perfect drift” rule of fly fishing because with the application of a little gink it can be skittered across the surface, even cross-current…heck, even up-current…and doing so will draw strikes. Skittering the fly makes it resemble a caddis fly ovipositing as it dances around on the top. Trout cannot waste time studying it; they need to strike or it’ll be gone, and ‘gone’ is not in their playbook when it comes to a tasty caddis.

Figure 1: Little Black Caddis

Recently I had a need to imitate small black caddis flies about the size of a #18 hook, and realized that all the Elk Hair Caddis in my fly box use…well, elk hair. Or deer. And thus they were all far too light in color. So I dug around in my material bins for some black elk or deer…but what I found was all so dyed, shiny and perfectly jet-black. Didn’t look anything like a black caddis to me. So I hauled out the big one–the Antlered Brute; I pulled out a hunk of dark moose body hair and got to work.

Figure 2: Hunk of Moose Hair

No mamby-pamby spindly thing, a moose is a behemoth–a beast. And moose hair is as coarse as natural stuff comes. It’s as though it was Mother Nature’s first stab at hair, after several eons of doing scales on big lizards. Using it, porcupine quills come to mind sooner than does bunny fur. Ask your average fly tier what it’s good for and you’ll hear first that it’s good for long dark mayfly tails, which it is. You’re also likely to hear that a hunk of moose body hair will nicely scour a frying pan in camp…and that’s probably true as well. Most of us aren’t even sure it floats.

Ahh, but it does. I once watched a monster bull standing chest high in an arctic pond over several hours, repeatedly submerging his head and shoulders as he grazed on the bottom weed. That hollow hair was the only insulation he needed.

On our tying benches, moose hair is extremely durable long tailing, but is also a substitute for deer and elk, albeit with its own distinct properties. I chose it to make a Moose Hair Caddis. #18 would be the smallest thing I’d attempt with moose, given its minimal resemblance to hair as we think of hair, but #18 is doable. Here’s the recipe I use:

Hook: Any dry fly hook down to #18. A turned-down eye is my preference. I love the fine-wire Mustad 94840 or extra-fine 94833, but extra-fine wire is just not an option with moose–you’ll bend it straight trying to tie down the hair. Even the 94840 requires great care to avoid ending up with a harpoon instead of a hook.

Thread: Any good black thread, 6/0 or stronger, will do. I think thread weaker than 6/0 isn’t up to the moose-taming task.

Body: Dark dry fly dubbing. Rather than black, I like to use very dark brown or very dark claret…more on that later. In a pinch you could even try the underfur from the same patch of moose hair you’ll use for the wings, but there’s not much of it, and it looks like steel wool, and you’d end up with the rattiest fly ever tied. (Yes, for the new age ‘harmony’ of it I even considered this…but…nah.)

Hackle: I like grizzly-dyed-dark-brown dry fly hackle. Otherwise black will do. Despite Troth’s original recipe, I prefer to use good quality surface-dancing hackle.

<Figure 3: Hackle >

Wing: Moose body hair. (Rarely I add a couple of strands of light bull elk on top of the moose, for visibility in low light, but that’s more of a novelty.)

Tying: Keep it simple; no tail. Keep the dubbed body thin, like the natural caddis; no chesty thorax on this bug. If you look at the underside of a real black caddis you’ll see there are subtle color variances, so I decided that doing something similar would be that much more realistic. For this reason I use a very dark dubbing that’s not jet-black…or else I use hackle that’s dark but not exactly black. One or the other should be fine. If you get your subtle contrast with non-black hackle but don’t have brown or grizzly-dyed-brown that seems dark enough, you can darken it further with a sharpie. Whatever hackle you use, palmer it over the dubbing. If any barbules stick out aft like a tail, snip them off.

Like for the elk hair version, once the hackle is palmered, snip off whatever hackle barbs protrude upward from the hook shank, to let the hair wing lie across the back.

Choose dark near-black natural-colored moose body hair, and stack it well. It can resist stacking because the hairs often have tiny curly body hairs wrapped around them, so they tend not to slide with respect to each other. But pull that kinky stuff out, use a smallish clump, and get it as aligned as best you can, hair by hair if you must. Strap it down like you would deer or elk. Moose hair is hollow, but it won’t flair out much–not nearly as much as deer or elk, so this variant of Troth’s fly gives you a little black caddis that looks a bit more like a resting natural. Because of this, I tie on the hair wing to extend out over the hook bend, like the tent-shaped closed wing of the natural bug.

The rough-surfaced moose hair doesn’t roll off to the side of the shank as much as some hairs–it tends to stay where you put it, making for a very durable fly. Use as much thread pressure as you can, being careful not to bend the fine wire of the hook–pinch and hold the hook to help handle the pressure. If you worry about bending, until you grow accustomed to the moose hair you could use a hook of normal-weight wire and rely on the moose hair and good dry hackle to float it.

Snip off the excess hair near the hook eye. You won’t be able to get the nice elk-hair caddis “anvil head” using moose hair, but the fly doesn’t need it. A black thread head with a drop of cement or resin completes the simplistic likeness to the natural.

Figure 4: Black-Hackled Moose-Hair Caddis

If when you cut off all the excess moose hair you leave two hairs protruding, you have some fairly durable antennae of a length you choose. Myself, I’m undecided whether antennae add anything positive, but it’s an easy-to-achieve option. They’ll stay on there a good long while, possibly through several fish. Should turbulent current pull the fly under, when you strip it back to you they stream rearward with a touch of potential realism. (For simplicity and fly box real estate I generally don’t leave antennae on the fly.)

Post-Processing: I love to skitter Troth’s invention across a fishy-looking piece of water…so I like it perched high atop the surface tension. After I tie these (or the elk version too), I run a bit of mono through their eyes and steep them overnight in a silicon liquid–I use some made for waterproofing shoes because I have it on hand, but J.Stockard sells the real stuff, such as Loon Hydrostop and possibly other, intended for the same purpose. Such post-processing means the fly is “permanently” waterproofed and that any additional floatant I may use on the stream has a lot of help, and the fly just never soaks up any water.

I don’t know the relative floatability of moose mane vs. moose body hair, but from close inspection and a thought for what each is supposed to do for the animal, I believe the latter is the more floatable. Moose hair can also add structural integrity to streamer tails, to keep wispier hair from entangling the hook bend. It can add natural-looking dark-colored flotation to the top of a streamer to keep it swimming upright. In a small bundle it can even be used as a thorax-covering wing case, or a twisted pair (if the kinks are tamed) can be used as natural-colored ribbing, like a few strands of pheasant tail feather are used. It can make long lateral legs that taper more naturally than rubber legs and still “swim” when a subsurface fly is stripped.

I fell in love with the big ol’ ugly moose as a child, while reading Will Henry’s “Orphan of the North.” I burned to be entranced by the tall forest silence and know the bite of the polar winds…and many years later, repeatedly with my father, I had the privilege.

Moose hair is ornery, primeval stuff. Able to fend off bitter cold, tangled tundra brush and the teeth of timberwolves, it’s as tough as the big antlered beast from which it comes. There are no moose farms (other than a dubious Siberian ranching experiment), so you can be sure a hunk of moose hair has seen action in the most challenging environments on the planet. Despite its challenges, I love this kind of brutish natural material. These black caddis dry flies are durable; they float, and they draw strikes. They tie up in minutes…even for me. Since they’re so simple to tie and since moose hair doesn’t flair that much, they can be tied small and thus imitate the small black caddis natural on streams where we find them. They’re a great addition to the fly box. It seems to me that wherever I find little black caddis, I find trout who will come out of hiding to grab them.

Figure 5: With Bull Elk Strands

Don’t forget to skitter a few.

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