The Big Caddis

Fly fishing took a bit of a backseat in 2017 due to all the time involved in moving and getting established in Laramie. No surprise there, really. And we spent a lot of our free time just exploring the area with the kiddos – it’s been so much fun showing my wife and girls around the areas where I grew up. A lot of old memories relived. Worms and bobbers have also made a resurgence in my life, now that I’m often fishing with a two-year-old. How priorities change.

My oldest catching her first fish at Huck Finn Pond in Laramie.

But I still got the itch to cast a fly rod, and the Laramie Plains Lakes were often my saving grace. I fondly remember fishing these lakes when just a little boy armed with a Zebco 33 and casting Renegades and Hornbergs behind a clear bubble, wet wading in shorts and old tennis shoes. This was back before that Christmas when my dad graced me with my first fly rod (an 8-foot Pflueger 5 weight) at the age of eleven. I love fishing the North Platte and the Laramie and the countless streams and creeks in the high country, but the Plains Lakes will always hold a special place in my heart. And the fact that I can leave my front door and be at one of these lakes in under half an hour is a convenience I’ve never appreciated so much, especially when a few hours after work may be the only time free time I have to slip away.

Growing up in Laramie, my stillwater fly box was simply fundamental. Olive beadhead Woolly Buggers were a staple, especially in spring after ice out before the hatches really started coming off. Throw in some scuds, assorted little nymphs (heavy on the Hare’s Ears and Pheasant Tails), damselfly nymphs, some parachute Adams and Dark Cahill’s to cover the callibaetis (not that I knew that was the name of those little gray mayflies back then), some very simple olive wet flies I called Green Things, Renegades and Gray/Black QTs (Renegades with grizzly or black hackle), Elk Hair Caddis, Hornbergs, and Muddler Minnows. The Muddlers were for the high point in summer fishing on the Plains Lakes: when The Caddis were hatching.

Caddis generally start coming off on the Plains Lakes in May and can last well into September, with an assortment of species present. But the big caddis are the high point, generally peaking in late June and early July. I’d guess now that they’re Traveling Sedge, or some very similar species. Growing up they had lots of names depending on who you talked to… millers, giant caddis, western caddis, gray caddis, speckled caddis, big caddis, and so on. When someone asked, “are the caddis hatching?” they were generally referring to The Caddis. Easily an inch long, it seemed like you could see them motoring around on the lake from a half mile away when the wind was calm (rare around here, but it happens!). The hatches generally start up in late afternoon and really get with it as the sun is setting over the Snowy Range to the west. And the fish take notice. And some of those fish are big. The last hour of light is the golden hour, and even when it gets too dark to see your fly and your brain starts telling you it’s about time to give it up for the night, you can still hear those explosive takes on the water around you.

A good late-night brown.

The Muddler was always my go to pattern for representing these big caddis, where floatability and a big wake were the key ingredients. Generally a size 8, but sometimes a 6 or even a 4, heavy on the deer hair for buoyancy. With my return to the Plains Lakes in June this summer, I scrounged up what turned out to be a meager supply of suitable Muddlers, admonishing myself for letting my supply get so low over the years. Along with some CDC & Elk to cover the smaller caddis, they did the trick. But my first night out, with ten more years of fly tying experience behind me, ideas for improvements began churning in my mind. I’ll always have confidence in a Muddler Minnow under just about any circumstance, but there had to be something that floated a little higher, was a little quicker to tie, and wouldn’t result in a mess of hair trimmings in my parents’ dining room. Because it became obvious I’d need to do some tying soon.

Awesome spots on this brown. My faithful poodle Leo watches on.

The problem was that nearly all of my fly tying supplies were still buried somewhere in the nine shrink-wrapped pallets sitting in my parents’ garage. I’d already had to temporarily repurpose the chest pack for my binoculars as a chest pack for fishing. Though I’d had the foresight to keep my vise, the essential tools, and a few fundamental supplies (including a few Whiting saddles) to cure the tying itch during the move, it became obvious the supplies I had handy were not going to be up to sufficient. I hated buying supplies I already had, but knew it could be another month or two until I could again dig into my hoard of supplies, and waiting two months was not an option. Begrudgingly I threw down money at the local fly shop for some deer and elk hair, knowing somewhere I had what felt like half a hide of each squirreled away (hunting has multiple rewards). Add in some CDC, tinsel, hooks and a few other odds and ends, and I was off and running.

Sitting at my folks’ kitchen table after the girls were asleep for the night. I experimented with this and that, and what became my staple for the rest of the summer caddis hatch was beautifully simple and effective. Nothing revolutionary. Just a big CDC caddis. Dai-Riki 320 size 8 hook, gold tinsel body, four CDC feathers as a down wing, and front collar of golden badger or speckled badger hackle. I’m a big fan of Trouthunter CDC for these big buoyant wings, in natural tan and dyed caddis dun colors. I don’t know that color is that important – profile, buoyancy and wake are likely the important part – but I’m the type of guy who likes having a Plan B in case Plan A doesn’t work out. The finished fly is roughly half again as long as the actual caddis, but an oversized fly has never been an issue for me during this hatch and only helps to (so I believe) make the fly more visible in the almost guaranteed wind chop on the water. It’s all about the chug-chug-chug wake.

Plains CDC Caddis: gold tinsel body, tan CDC wing (4-6 feathers), and badger hackle.

The big fly floats like a cork, even being stripped over and through rough water, and an amadou patch and some Frog’s Fanny keep it riding high after multiple fish. Plus it’s so quick to tie I could afford to switch out flies as needed if the one tied on was losing its buoyancy.

When some of those trout attack those big caddis, it sounds like someone dropped a bowling ball in the lake. June can’t come again fast enough.

A caddis munching rainbow.
A beautifully still evening at the lake.

A Return to the Wyoming Plains

Where the hell did that last two years go? Oh yeah… another baby to kick things off. I met my second daughter in October 2016. Somewhere along the line in that year, with our family about to grow to four, my wife and I started thinking it was time to say goodbye to Alaska. We’d both been there for going on nine years at that point, and we were already facing the realization that traveling to visit our family “down south” was going to quickly become more complicated (and more expensive) with baby #1. With the exciting news that baby #2 on the way, we made the decision that it was time to move somewhere south of Canada. But where to go?

My wife’s family is still deeply rooted in eastern Iowa and Wisconsin, though her sister long ago established her family down in New Mexico. My parents were still in Laramie, Wyoming, with the rest of my extended family clustered around southern Nevada and California. The main goal was go get closer to family, but we also hoped to find a location where the company I work for has an office so that I could transfer internally and not be starting over completely with my career. My wife was freelancing, having recently left her agency job, so she was a lot more mobile in that regard. My wife and I are also small-town people at heart, so we wanted something smaller than Anchorage. After a lot of what ifs and fanciful discussions, the choice became clear. We were heading for my hometown. Back to Wyoming.

Somewhere on the Wyoming plains.

I never thought I’d end up back in Laramie, but life is funny like that. Not that I held anything against Laramie – I loved growing up there – but I just figured after Alaska (if there was an after Alaska – a couple years ago I wasn’t sure I’d ever leave) I’d end up somewhere else. But Laramie fit the bill best, all things considered. It’s a day’s drive (albeit a long day) from Iowa, New Mexico, and Nevada, and just a couple hours from Denver and an international airport. Of course, having my parents in town is a fantastic perk – we get to see them regularly and have free, enthusiastic babysitters ten minutes way. With its mix of mountains and prairie, high desert and farmlands, my wife thinks of a Wyoming as an appropriate mix between Alaska and Iowa. And since I already know the area, we were well prepared to start taking advantage of the vast opportunities for fishing, hunting, camping and exploring.

Getting in one last float on the mighty Kenai. And giving my brother a crash course in rowing a drift boat.

We put our house on the market in early 2017, waiting to get through the first few months of settling into a routine with our second daughter. I took some FMLA time to assist with the kiddos, and also spruce up the house (I feel like I repainted every flat surface in that place) prior to selling. The goal was to be back in Wyoming by May to get out of Alaska before another summer could put its hooks in us (and so we’d qualify as residents for Wyoming big game hunting tags in 2018). Packing everything you own to move 3,000+ miles is no small feat, and it was awfully overwhelming, but somehow, we got it done. Fly tying materials alone filled the remaining space in the plywood crate I built to ship down my mule deer shoulder mount. By April we’d shipped out via freight all but the bare essentials (nearly 6,000 pounds on nine pallets – how did we accumulate that much stuff?!?), wondering if we’d ever see it again. (And we nearly didn’t – but that’s another long story I’m not excited to relieve.) The house sold, closing in May right on schedule.

My wife flew up to Alaska when she moved there in 2007, and had always promised herself that if and when she left, she was going to drive. So when it was time to leave, my wife hit the road in our trusty 2001 Tundra for the long drive back, her parents having flown up to make the trip with her; they took their time with no real schedule to keep and enjoyed experiencing the Alaska Highway for the first time. My wife took our youngest, while I took our oldest (plus the dog and cat) and made the quick trip via Alaska Airlines. I’d made the drive before when moving to Alaska, and keeping a two-year old toddler content in a car seat for a week straight was not a challenge I was ready to face.

Somewhere on the Alaska Highway.

And just like that we were in Wyoming. 2017 flew by in a blur as we got established in our new life… buying a house, getting kids into daycare, settling in to work, and setting up bank accounts, insurance, and all that fun stuff. We moved into our new house in July, staying with my parents until then. Being able to live rent-free at my parents’ place while house hunting was a tremendous convenience, but after two months that house was feeling awfully small (with four adults, two kids, three dogs, and three cats coexisting).

Leaving Alaska, and all our friends and family there, was hard. I still have plenty of Alaska adventures on my bucket list, but looking back I can honestly tell myself that I took advantage of as many opportunities as I could while I was there. And having lived there for nearly a decade, planning a trip back now seems easy. On top of that, my brother still lives there, having moved up in 2013. He recently married a wonderful Anchorage girl, so I imagine them being there for the foreseeable future – that alone makes for a good reason to visit often. Then there’s always the fishing. My wife is already making plans for a June trip to put some salmon back in the freezer.

An impromptu bush plane flight with family and great friends was a terrific way to say goodbye to Alaska.

Selling our first drift boat was also hard, but the logistics of moving it with us didn’t outweigh our sentimentality. So we compromised and sold it to my brother and his wife, keeping it in the family, with the condition that we get full rights to its use when visiting. They’ve already put that beautiful wooden boat to good use, so it couldn’t have worked out any better.

A proud new drift boat owner.

Golden Sculpzilla

The other day I received an order from J. Stockard that included a zonked golden variant rabbit hide. Not that I needed any more zonker strips, but sometimes you just have to give in to the urge to add another color to your quiver. As I looked over the hide, I immediately knew I’d need to fashion up a few Sculpzillas with the new color.

Sculpzillas are one of my favorite streamers. They’re one of those patterns I wish that I had invented and hope that, if someone hadn’t already beaten me to the punch, one of my creative sessions at the vise would have arrived at the same result. They’re one of my confidence flies and have brought steelhead, rainbows, cutthroat, and dollies to the net.

golden sculpzilla
Ready to cut off the hook and add a stinger hook.

As with many patterns, how I tie this pattern has evolved over time. The way I tie my Sculpzillas is a bit different than the standard pattern offered by Solitude Fly Company. I use a shorter rabbit strip, threaded with braid, allowing me to switch out stinger hooks (to change size or replace dull hooks). I’ve forgone the marabou altogether and rely on three layers of soft hackle for the collar. In the end, it’s a shorter pattern that still maintains the front-heavy sculpin profile. Stubby Sculpzilla.

The ingredients and the final product.
The ingredients and the final product.

Sculpzilla is one of those patterns that takes a while to tie if you’re only going to sit down and wrap up a single fly. As with many flies, the bulk of the time is wrapped up in material prep… putting cones on hooks, cutting and threading wrapping strips, sorting and prepping hackle. It’s a pattern I only tie in batches. If I get my act together and prep the materials beforehand, it’s pretty easy to sit down at my desk and crank out several.

Shank: Any old hook will do. I like a hook with a large enough eye to hold the cone in place without wraps at the front (one less step). I have a pile of O’Shaughnessy hooks I use for this purpose (Mustad 3406 or Eagle Claw 253).

Cone: 3/8″ brass cone with eyes, backed with a half dozen wraps of lead wire to hold in place.

Eyes: 3/16″ eyes to fit the cone. For this batch I used Hareline red/black oval eyes.

Thread: UTC 140 Ultra Thread

Tail/Wing: 1″ long rabbit zonker threaded with 30# braid (I’m currently using Cabela’s Ripcord Pro, but anything similar will do… Fireline, PowerPro, Ugly Braid). Use a needle to thread the braid through the rabbit strip prior to tying in.

Body: Ice dub, either silver minnow or olive depending on the color being tied. Tie in the braid, then dub the body up within 1/4″ of the cone and then tie in the front of the zonker strip.

Flash: Ice Dub Shimmer Fringe, black pearl, over the top. I don’t use a lot.

Collar 1: Red grizzly soft hackle.

Collar 2: Barred feather of your choice. Mallard, wood duck, gadwall, grouse, etc. For this batch I used ptarmigan feathers – they’re a beautiful barred brown of varying shades with soft webby fibers and a strong, supple stem.

Collar 3: Grizzly soft hackle, color to match the fly (natural, olive, or brown). Brown for this batch.

Stinger hook: #4 octopus from your favorite brand. For these I used Allen hooks.

golden sculpzilla
Gold – a nice addition to the family!

Tie off. Cut off the big hook. Slip on the stinger hook. Tie on leader. Cast. Catch fish.

A new year and a new blog

This blog is something I’ve mulled over for several years,  never sure if it would ever become a reality. It probably wouldn’t have without the gentle but repeated push from my supportive wife. I kept saying, “next year, when I have more time.” With a growing family, dog, cat, nine chickens, house that tends to fall in the “fix it up” category, blossoming career, and the desire to spend as much time as possible outside rather than in front of a computer, free time to start a blog wasn’t materializing in great abundance. So I decided that 2016 would be the year it happened, one way or the other.

And so here it is. And I’m excited. I’m excited about the prospect of sharing my passion for fly tying and fly fishing, making what I hope is a meaningful contribution to the online fly fishing community from which I’ve learned so much and found so much enjoyment and inspiration. I’m excited for an outlet to write and express my thoughts and opinions; I’ve always enjoyed expressive and creative writing and look forward to the chance to mix things up from the technical writing that consumes so much of my “professional” life. I’m far from what I’d consider “technically savvy” and am jumping into this blog from a fairly naïve perspective, so this will be a learning process. And I’m excited about that, too. Bear with me as I slowly figure this all out.

In the weeks and months and years ahead, I hope to use this blog to discuss all things fly tying and fly fishing, with a very Alaska-centric perspective, though there is no doubt my Wyoming upbringing had a tremendous influence on my fly fishing and fly tying experience. I plan to post on fly patterns, both of my own design and favorite patterns developed by others, techniques and tackle for presenting those flies, and of course reports from time on the water. 2016 is going to be a great year. Cheers!