A Tale of Two Caddisflies

Materials for floating patterns that catch more fish.

[by Dennis Potter]

IN THE 1980S, I WRAPPED PEARL tinsle on a little dry fly; I was already using the material on some of my favorite streamers, and thought it might improve other flies, too. I ordered a few spools of medium-width pearl tinsel, thinking that it would make an interesting alternative to the traditional olive floss body found on the venerable Henryville Special.

I tied a few Pearlyville Caddisflies in size 16 and took a walk through the cedar trees that line the river in front of our place we call the Riverhouse on the main stem of Michigan’s Au Sable River. It was well into the fall, and I knew there would be no insect activity; I was looking for a pod of brook trout that inhabit the shallows close to shore and are opportunistic feeders throughout the year. It didn’t take long to find them.

I sneaked back into the woods and walked upstream to avoid spooking the fish, then eased into the water. I made a few casts with a traditional Henryville Caddis and received nary a look: the trout had absolutely no interest in this fly. After switching to the new Pearlyville, I cast again and caught a little brook trout; the fish took the fly without hesitation.  Using the same fly, I worked downstream and caught two or three more fish, including a nice brown trout. For comparison, I switched back to the traditional Henryville and didn’t move another fish. Other than the difference in body materials, the patterns were identical.

This rainbow refused a host of caddis patterns on a cold morning, but rose for the Opal X-Caddis. (photo by Seth Fields)

Making an Improved Fly Even Better

I discovered opal tinsel in 2002. As soon as I saw it, I changed all my wet and dry flies tied with pearl tinsel to the new opal tinsel. Both materials are equally effective when fishing during daylight hours, but those tied with opal tinsel bodies are far more effective on overcast days and when fishing in the evening. Opal tinsel nearly glows in the dark.

One very early, dark November morning, I stumbled into my tying room to start the day with some tying and a strong cup of joe. I could barely see the outline of the furniture as I reached for my tying lamp; the muted, muddy-gray morning was the only source of light. While fumbling for the light switch, I looked down and beheld 36 little orbs glowing an eerie green; they looked like miniature Christmas tree lights. They were, in fact, the opal tinsel bodies on a batch of soft-hackle wet flies. That event turned on the fly-tying light in my brain.

Montana’s mighty Missouri River is one of the great tailwater fisheries in the American West, and it is renowned for rainbow trout that love to rip line from fly reels during explosive runs. The Mighty Mo is also known for caddisfly hatches of biblical proportions. Over the years, I have tested many fly patterns on that wonderful river.

Opal X-Caddis

Hook: Regular dry fly hook, your choice of sizes.
Thread: 50 or 55 denier gel-spun thread.
Trailing shuck: Z-Lon.
Body: Pearl opal tinsel.
Wing: Elk hair.

Tying the Opal X-Caddis

I tried one of my favorite patterns, the Opal X-Caddis, on the Missouri. It is a simple variation of the X-Caddis developed years ago by Craig Mathews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies of West Yellowstone, Montana. Craig’s simple down-wing caddisfly is arguably the best caddis emerger imitation of all time. The traditional pattern consists of a gold or amber synthetic-fiber trailing shuck, a dubbed body, and a head and thorax of deer hair tied short behind the hook eye. I replaced the dubbed body with opal tinsel to create the Opal X-Caddis.

One day, while fishing the Missouri with angling buddy Tom Champine, we happened across a hatch of olive caddis- flies. We were anchored at the base of a rock cliff, casting up-stream into a sizable pod of big trout. I convinced Tom to use an olive dubbed X-Caddis, while I used the new Opal X-Caddis. Most of the fish were gorging on the emerging insects just under the surface. We started casting, and I hooked 10 fish before Tom caught his first. Not only did the opal-bodied fly bring the trout to the surface to feed, but several of the big browns and rainbows moved well out of their feeding lanes to take the gaudy little fly. That is typical of how well this fly works, and I no longer carry any X-Caddis- flies with dubbed bodies.

I also use a size 20 Opal X-Caddis during the prolific hatch of little black caddisflies on Michigan’s Au Sable. There cannot be anything further in color from the dark charcoal of the live caddis, but the fish take the prismatic little tinsel caddis far better than any other fly I have tried. It seems to have an almost magical quality.

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