Everyone loves to fish a thick hatch of aquatic insects where trout become frenzied in their feeding. But if the truth be known, finding a good hatch is not a common event on many waters throughout North America today. And when you do encounter such heavy emergences, they are usually short-lived affairs that last for an hour or two if you're lucky.
Fish them when you are fortunate enough to find them. But when no hatches are coming off, there is still a way to enjoy fantastic dry fly fishing. The answer is simple: fish terrestrials. These are insects born and bred on land that make their way accidentally into trout streams from dawn until dark, basically from March through November in most parts of the country. The trout learn to feed on these land-insect opportunistically, whenever they tumble in from land.
Early on in my trout fishing career I discovered how important these land insects were. That's why I wrote an entire book on the subject called "Tying & Fishing Terrestrials" (Stackpole). Today, we'll just look briefly at one of the most important terrestrial flies of all, the humble ant.
If forced to select just one fly to fish with all summer long anywhere in the country, it would be hard to top the ant. Anglers have known for centuries how much trout love ants. Edward Hewitt wrote about them in the early 1900's in his famous work, A Trout and Salmon Fisherman for Seventy Five Years.
A wide variety of ant patterns is available. I like to carry several different styles. For freestone streams and gurgling mountain brooks, a sinking ant is sometimes effective. Tie these with a floss or thread body, lacquered to produce a hard body.
Most of the time ant flies should float on the surface. For that it's hard to top the classic fur ant pattern. It's tied with two oval humps and a thin waist in between with a turn or two of hackle for legs in the middle. This pattern was developed by Bob McCafferty in the early 1930's. The fly floats well when dressed with a floatant and is effective throughout the country in either black, cinnamon brown or hot orange. They are also useful when swarming flights of mating insects fall into the water in large numbers. Fish it dead drift over natural holding lies and near the edge of the stream under brush and tree branches where the insects often tumble in.
Closed cell foam is an excellent material for many terrestrials, ants included. Tie them with a thin waist in the middle and hackle for legs and you'll have a rugged fly that floats like a cork. Speaking of cork, that's another good material for ant patterns. That was the material Ed Sutryn, of Pennsylvania, used to create his unique McMurrayAnt fly in 1965.
This pattern uses two pieces of painted cork or balsa threaded on a section of monofilament with space in between. This is then attached to a hook with hackle wound between the two segments for legs. This fly floats beautifully and has a nice sheen like the naturals. You can also make cork or balsa ant flies by simply carving a small indention between the two main body sections.
One of the most outrageous looking ant patterns is the Chernobyl Ant, a large pattern with rubber legs. It's especially deadly on western rivers.
Ants are great searching patterns if no rises are apparent. Cast them to likely stretches of water and you'll be surprised how many fish you didn't know were there suddenly rise up and sip in your offering. Also try fishing the heavier cork or balsa patterns with a "splat" to draw the attention of the trout.
Often they'll come charging over and slurp down the fly like a piece of candy.