Fishing for Trout with Ants
September 30, 2016
There is a pretty freestone stream that heads in a glacier and hooks around the mountain to flow north. I know a place to park where the rig can be hidden from the road.
It would be a quick tramp through the woods I thought, but the heavy blow-down left over from the last storms had not been cleared from the trail. After a half-mile of walking the trunks of fallen trees and swinging my legs over downed timber, I followed the sound of water to the river's edge.
Tied on gossamer tippet was a foam-bodied No. 14 Rainy's Red-Butt Carpenter Ant with black legs and a red wingpost.
Down at the bend there was timber in the water and two deeper slots adjacent to a backwater channel.
The red wingpost stood out in the riffle. A slim dark form streaked up from the bottom, slashed at the fly then turned away. On the next cast I caught and released the first of a bunch of cutthroat.
In pocket water, there's always one good spot that will be dominated by one bigger fish. When I had the angle right, I rolled a short cast to the edge of the seam on the darkest water and saw a 10-inch rainbow eat the fly and turn with it. He broke my 6X tippet.
Over the course of the next hour I lost all my ant patterns but the last and biggest. Most of my flies adorned branches and driftwood, while a few went home with their trout. Retying, I had plenty of opportunity to observe ants — all black — from the very tiny up to a carpenter so big it could have starred in its own movie.
In 35 years of fly-fishing, I've treated ant patterns as novelties. I've always had them in the box, but have seldom used them. Not so anymore.
The trick lies in imitation. Ant patterns are easy to tie, but there are many types. For one thing, the most common ant pattern is tied of floss with a bit of hackle around the middle. It retains that hourglass profile, but it does not rest flat upon the water. The only perspective that matters is what the trout sees from below.
Another thing we miss when we buy or tie ant patterns — the reflectance. Look how shiny an ant's body is. Floss doesn't sparkle. Foam doesn't shine. Most black dubbings don't cut it either. Put some sparkle in an ant with epoxy or Ice Dub or Antron. Blend in a little purple with standard black dubbing. Try sparkle dubbing beneath a foam body.
Most ants encountered by trout have wings. That's how ants get in trouble in the first place. This otherwise lowly creature sprouts wings and takes to the air without flying lessons and comes crashing down. Winged patterns are more likely to match the bugs we will encounter on the water.
Foam bodies tend to ride flat upon the water, and the way they hold their shape keeps the fly fishable long after floss and dubbed bugs come apart.
We should not think in terms of tying on an ant pattern when fish are feeding on ants, but instead use each pattern in a specific way.
While a lot of ant bodies these days are crafted from closed cell foam, Ed Sutryn's McMurray Ant is built with painted balsa wood strung on a piece of tippet material. Tied sparse, on a No. 12 to No. 14, this pattern is good to have for one of those blessed days when an ant fall happens and fish come to the surface to feed with abandon.
Peak ant numbers show up on warm, calm days. What happens is that a population gets too large for the nest and a generation of winged reproductive adults flies off to establish a new colony. The Cascade Flying Ant (No. 10-16) mimics one of the unfortunate colonists that has crashed to the water. This is a good bug to have in the box when fishing waters close to clear-cutting activity or anywhere dead timber on the ground encourages nesting and foraging. Using black Ice Dub for the body, it has a bit of sparkle.
Ken Walrath wanted a realistic ant that was easy to tie and floated all day long. With a foam body, short wing and grizzly hackle, Ken's Crazy Ant is good to keep in several iterations to match the size and color of bugs on the water. If you tie your own, try adding black rubber legs.
With its trademark ringed red abdomen, Rainy's Red Butt Carpenter has extra strike trigger attractant.
The Parachute Humpy Ant is tied from black closed cell foam. A grizzly hackle is tied parachute-style around a foam and yarn post. This is a go-to pattern when there are a lot of carpenter ants in the neighborhood. It works equally well on still waters and in fast-moving streams. The yarn makes it more visible on the water.
When Guy Turck wanted a fly that mimicked a flying ant, but also had attractor qualities, he developed the Power Ant. Tied with furnace hackle, white calf tail and rubber legs, this bug (No. 12) shows up on the water. It's a good choice in the upper reaches of productive watersheds. With plenty of floatation, it can be used as an indicator fly with a drowned ant trailed beneath it.
The simplest ant to tie and the most commonly found in anglers' boxes, is the floss-bodied Black Ant. A single black hackle, simulating legs, separates the thorax from the abdomen and even the eye of the hook looks like it is the ant's head. There's no question this is an effective pattern, but when is it best employed? It works as a dry until the first fish or two have swamped it. After that, the bug wants to sink. Let it. Trout eat more ants beneath the surface. Keep a taut line — no retrieve is necessary — and keep an eye on the end of the fly line for any movement that signals a bite.
One generation removed from the Black Ant, the Epoxy Ant, is tied with the same floss body. But it employs fast-drying epoxy to give it shine. This is an important pattern to keep in a box of terrestrials. Tie it in all black and in black with a red abdomen. And give it a wing. These tend to sink and, if they are close in size to the natural (No. 14-20), they can be deadly.
Holger Lachmann's Winged Ant is tied with resin-coated foam, so it's going to float. Blackened with a marker, it shines. But it gets even more sparkle with flash dubbing wings. This one would be a good choice when black ants are on the surface and fish are well fed and choosy.
One of my favorites is the Ant Misbehavin. For the waters I fish, a No. 12 is a good compromise. It's a foam bodied pattern and it looks like what a carpenter ant looks like after the first slap — maybe not dead, but punch-drunk. Because it is tied with closed cell foam, it floats. The downside is I can't see it on the water. I have to cast, watch the fly line and leader touch down then keep my eye on the spot where I think it is.
We miss out on fishing ants because they don't show up well and are quick to drown. They are not easy to fish dry on fast currents, but lakes are a different story.
Consider a mountain lake. Perhaps a wildfire killed a lot of timber, or a series of small clearcuts opened up the forest canopy. Such places are home to ants. When populations get too big, a batch of winged adults flutter off in large swarms to populate new territory. This is likely to happen in the morning on a warm day between May and September. When they fly in tricky wind, thousands of unlucky ants may be blown onto the water, where they are greeted by hundreds of fortunate fish.