Fountains of Youth – Classic trout flies that have withstood the test of time … flies that remain “forever young”
by Rusty Dunn
The next time you’re near a trout stream, look closely among the ground cover and leaf litter. You’ll be astonished by the number and variety of ants.
Ecologists estimate that the global biomass of ants is 20% of all terrestrial animals. One fifth of all land animals, measured not by number but by total weight! Wow! Now look in your fly boxes. Are the ant patterns as prolific as the real deal? Probably not. As spring weather warms, your ant imitations should emerge from their off season of hiding. When spring transitions into summer, give those ants some quality stream time. Ants and terrestrials are summertime staples, as much a part of the season as baseball, cookouts, and long slow sunsets.
Ant imitations date to the very beginning of fly fishing. Dame Juliana Berners described fishing with ants in A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle (1496), although her twelve famous flies did not include an ant imitation. Charles Cotton described the first artificial ant in 1676 in Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. His fly, however, did not have the modern profile of two bulbous segments separated by a thin waist. That bit of realism would await Michael Theakston’s ant fly in A List of Natural Flies (1853). Materials have evolved since Theakston, but the basic profile of ant imitations is similar. Early ant patterns usually were winged, but wingless designs became the norm during the 1900s. Pennsylvania’s Vince Marinaro brought ants and terrestrials into the mainstream in his 1950 classic A Modern Dry Fly Code, considered by many to be “the bible” of spring creek angling. It is above all a book about terrestrials, and Marinaro’s favorite terrestrial was the ant:
“If I were to choose one pattern above all others, day in and day out, from fish to fish, the most enduring in the season, it would be the ant in its various sizes and colors.”
Many respected authors have commented on trout fondness for ants. Most speculate that trout like the tart acidic flavor of ants, which are rich in formic acid. Whatever the reason, ants are trout candy.
Ants occur in many sizes but only four basic designs: black vs. red (also called brown, cinnamon, or honey) and winged vs. wingless. Black ants are jet black and completely opaque. Red ants are remarkably translucent. Their cinnamon-red color shines from within by light that is transmitted through the body. Wingless ants are by far the most common. They fall from trees, bushes, and grasses from late spring until the frosts of fall. They are especially plentiful on warm windy days. Winged ants are much less common, but they can create magnificent dry fly fishing. Mating flights of winged males and females emerge in mid to late summer from underground colonies. Such flights are unpredictable and rare, but trout gorge on the windfall. You’ll be lucky to encounter a handful of winged ant swarms in your life, but if it happens, you won’t forget it.
Floating ants cannot escape the surface film, and trout take them very leisurely. Gentle sipping rises on glassy smooth glides usually indicate fish taking either small terrestrials, midges, or mayfly spinners. You’ll probably need a seine to know for sure, because floating ants are almost impossible to see. They float in, not on, the water … sodden, half-sunk, awash in the surface, and blended into the dark background. Make sure your flies float similarly. Fish probably take more ants underwater than above, and a wet ant pattern can be excellent trailed behind an indicator dry.
Trout don’t read the scientific literature, but they know from experience that ants are the most abundant land animal. Ants sustain trout from late spring through fall, and you just can’t go wrong imitating 20% of the planet’s animals. When the weather is warm and the birds are chirping, tie on an ant.
Copyright 2017, Rusty Dunn
Cinnamon Fur Ant
This simple fur ant should also be tied in all black. It is very effective for trout sipping ants. If you receive refusals, trim all downward pointing hackle, thus causing the fly to float lower. If that fails, try a smaller size.
|Hook:||Dry fly, light wire, #14 – #22|
|Thread:||Rusty brown, 8/0|
|Body:||Two distinct bulbs of cinnamon colored dry fly dubbing, with a thin waist in between. The abdomen should be larger than the thorax.|
|Hackle:||Ginger or honey dun rooster, tied short and sparse at the waist|