The elk hair caddis epitomizes in many ways the American West.
A long time ago, when my oldest daughter was small enough to wonder at the moon, we lay in a tent in the high country above McCall and listened as wild animals surrounded us.
This was the eerie night sound of groveling, digging, very big-mammal like, and as we lay listening to the noises growing more intense, the monstrous mountain beasts with unknown intentions engulfed our imaginations.
For many minutes we were entranced by the alien and vigorous bedlam a few feet from the walls of our pup tent. We were consumed by alarm until I leapt from the two-man with a flashlight prepared for who-knows-what, to find a herd of mule deer bucks in velvet, perplexed enough to stop chomping grass and take note.
What the …? They must have thought. “Hey Charlie, check out the mountain man in his underwear over here …”
Their eyes glowed in the flashlight beam, before they returned to hoofing, uprooting and munching.
A day earlier we had traveled up the two track, past gigantic globes of gneiss, hobbled over outcrops and lumpy meadows through glades of yellow pine, replaced at higher elevations with shorter, thinner, much older pinon of sorts, in an effort to fish a lake I had found on a map.
The only flies I brought were elk hair caddis because they were the only flies I knew to tie, and I would like to say the trout in the high mountain lakes slurped them like pudding, but they did not.
They were after very small midges, and the deeper I crept into the lake, the darker it got that evening, until I gave up.
On the way down the mountain the next day though, in creeks that carved through meadows, the caddis imitation enticed the bevy of westslope cutthroat that feared my silhouette. I slithered close enough to the streams to make long casts landing the high-floating, bug look-a-likes in glassy currents where they were eaten by small fish that flipped in my hand like jumping beans.
I threw the trout back, not that it matters. Old timers, who knew the backcountry when it was water cooled brakes on logging trucks, loved to trundle to higher elevations and catch dozens of those little fish and eat them around a campfire like hot dogs until Idaho Fish and Game closed the streams to catch and keep because many of the state’s pure strain westslope trout lived there.
An attorney in St. Maries who camped up Mica Creek for 50 years told how you couldn’t catch those small Westslope cutties when the sun was out, but a rain and the overcast afterward had them eating bugs, dimpling the water’s surface like a breeze.
Al Troth, who invented the elk hair caddis and tied flies at his home across the street from the college in Dillon, Mont., spent nights in spring at the vise, fishing in the morning, sleeping at day and tying again through the night while watching old movies on a television set out back.
The former school teacher and longtime fishing guide valued the elk hair fly because it imitated a lot of other bugs and it floated high in the slick tailwater of his home river, the Beaverhead, where he spent a lot of time waist deep.
Not far from there is a hot spring with ancient elk heads looking down on the dining hall, and nearby at Wise River, the tavern for years had an elk out back, raised up from a calf in a pole pen. Its shed antlers still hang from the ceiling.
Troth, who grew up in Pennsylvania before moving West, appreciated the availability of good fly tying material.
He was acquainted with the nuances of elk hair. Cow elk hair is shorter, thicker and darker than bull elk hair and because of its larger diameter, it’s more buoyant, making a good piece of cow elk hair a fly tying staple.
I carried my own versions of Troth’s elk hair caddis because they were easy to tie and fish dug them. A handful were packed with the #4 Orvis in a steel tube I bought at a yard sale in Missoula, and rolled up in a tent packed into the trunk of a small car that could go almost anywhere.
Because that’s where the streams and lakes were that held the small, dappled trout.
Somewhere in all of this is a phrase, quite Western:
“Have caddis, will travel.”