Tying Better Ant Patterns
Ants can form an important part of the summer diet of trout in both rivers and lakes. Learn what makes an effective ant pattern.
ack in my high school days, my calculus teacher, Mr. Brady, asked me to tie him some flying ant patterns for his trip to Idaho. Flying ants? Why not an Iron Blue Wingless or a Quill Gordon?
At the time I was into CDC, beadheads, and all the innovative new materials and styles in American tying. I naÏvely passed off his choice as the patterns of an "old guy," but I tied them anyway.
I had a few extras left over after his order, so I tucked them away in an obscure corner of my fly box. Several months later I dubiously tied one on. You can guess the results. Now about 30% of my dry fly fishing is with ant patterns.
Like grasshoppers, ants initially receive a great deal of attention from beginning fly anglers. It's hard to pretend that trout never see an insect that will quickly colonize any food left out during a shoreside lunch. However, these flies seem to migrate to the back of the fly box as the neophyte angler gains experience.
Why? I think it has more to do with the growing fascination with other trout foods (and their imitations) rather than a lack of productivity. Unlike hoppers, ants form a critical part of a trout's midsummer diet. In a month-long stomach sampling I did last summer in Yellowstone, ants were six times more prevalent than hoppers in stomach samples.
Coming to Terms with Ants
Before launching into fly patterns, let's clear up some terms. A "flying ant" is an ant with wings; this includes tens of thousands of species. Flying ants are more mobile and therefore more apt to be carried onto the water by the wind. Many species do not have wings, but they sometimes drop onto the water.
A "carpenter ant" is the common term for any type of large, black wood-boring ant. A "termite" is a totally different type of insect, but very closely related to ants.
Limitations of Basic Patterns
Ant patterns are extremely simple and quick to tie, and even a novice tier can create flies that are quite realistic. They can be great searching patterns: realistic enough to fool picky trout, yet representative enough to elicit strikes from opportunists. They can also be the perfect curveball to throw at those jaded midsummer trout that have seen it all.
A basic ant pattern requires nothing more than two balls of dubbing and a wrap of hackle; that's the universal commercial pattern found in most fly shops. While this style catches fish, it has many shortcomings:
As always, improvisation is needed to create a more effective pattern.
The first thing to add to the standard ant pattern is wings. Whether you use hackle tips, Raffia, Z-Wing, or CDC, the wing will add an extra dimension to your pattern. Most ants encountered by trout, especially in lakes, are of the winged variety. Besides realism, the wing can add floatation and visibility to your fly.
The only exception to this rule is when you are tying tiny ant patterns to cast over ultra-selective trout. Under those conditions, a standard ant pattern with dubbing and deer hair legs usually works best.
Next, I always use sparkle dubbing with ant patterns. Why? Because ants have reflective exoskeletons. If you look closely, light bounces off an ant like it was a piece of living obsidian. Plus, ants have tiny hairs on their abdomens, which also reflect light.
This may not seem obvious to us, but think about it from the perspective of a big Yellowstone cutthroat drifting downstream with your fly two inches from its nose; a little extra flash can sell your fake.
Since visibility is a common complaint with ant patterns, the use of contrasting colors can be useful in spotting these patterns at a distance. The Cascade Flying Ant pattern does this by creating a "Trivisible" pattern, which contrasts with itself under any light or water conditions. It has a black body, brown hackle, and grizzly hackle tip wing, each of which contrasts with other parts of the fly. While most anglers turn to over-used parachute patterns for visibility, this fly enhances visibility without utilizing the same visual clues that turn off heavily pressured trout.
Most people only fish ant patterns in the size 12 to 14 range. That's the size I use 75% of the time. But I also carry flies in ranging from size 6 to size 22 or 24. The extreme sizes, both large and small, are excellent for fooling heavily pressured trout that have seen a lot of anglers and flies. The larger flying ant patterns are great for the big ants that take to the air in the Cascades during May and June.
Once you try these ant patterns, it'll be hard to go back to the standard old attractors. Perhaps it will turn you onto the brave new world of terrestrial fishing, where beetle, cricket, cranefly, inchworm, cicada, wasp, and black fly patterns crowd the old, suggestive patterns from your fly box.
Jeff Morgan has written many articles for Westfly, mostly on entomology and fly tying. He is the author of An Angler's Guide to the Oregon Cascades and Small Stream Fly Fishing..
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