Fishing ants for summertime trout

This time last year, we were already into the early stages of what amounted to a four-month drought throughout our region.

Most small to medium streams were dreadfully low and clear, making trout fishing extremely challenging or, in some cases, all but impossible. So far this summer, however, we have enjoyed regular rainfall, sometimes even a deluge or two in some places. All that precipitation has kept area trout streams at wonderful levels overall.

Of course, typical summer water levels are only going to be a fraction of the flows trout fishermen generally experience in the spring, so anglers who expect to fish for trout with the same tactics in July as they did in April or early May can also expect to be largely disappointed with the results. Even with the desirable water levels we have right now, stealth and finesse are of utmost importance for success because the trout tend to be extra spooky now and will be gone at the first hint of an intruder. By far, the biggest mistake I see most summertime trout anglers make is to scare away their quarry well before getting into casting range.

For fly fishermen, summertime brings with it the opportunity to fish a special genre of fly patterns collectively known as “terrestrials.” These are land-based insects, such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, inchworms, crickets, leafhoppers, beetles, ants and other bugs that find their way into most trout streams on a regular basis this time of year. And all those terrestrials can comprise a large part of a trout’s diet now as well.

Trout fishing with terrestrials was pioneered right here in Pennsylvania during the 1940s and 1950s by a host of angling authors such as Vince Marinaro, Charlie Fox, Ed Koch and others. These innovative anglers used the placid limestone spring creeks of the Cumberland Valley as their laboratory for designing fly patterns and perfecting fishing tactics to tempt the finicky trout that lived in those waters.

When it comes to terrestrials, trout rarely become as selective as they can be during a mayfly or caddisfly hatch when there are concentrations of a specific insect available. Most terrestrials find their way into the water by accident and then are carried away by the current. As a result, the trout are used to seeing a random assortment of hapless bugs floating by and then pick them off whenever they can.

The fish simply don’t have the luxury of being locked into a single food source. Therefore, some of the best locations to fish terrestrials are near low-hanging tree limbs or other shrubbery. In addition to providing a home to all sorts of bugs that will fall or be blown into the water, such streamside vegetation also offers welcome shade to the fish along with some overhead protection from aerial predators like kingfishers and herons.

Terrestrial patterns can also be fun to tie. Unlike most aquatic insects, which tend to be delicate and translucent, most terrestrial insects are robust and opaque. Those characteristics make it possible to tie terrestrial patterns from all sorts of unconventional fly-tying materials such as cork, balsa wood or foam rubber that are not only quite buoyant but also extremely durable.

If I had to pick one, my favorite terrestrial imitation would be an ant. Ants are extremely common, so it’s a good bet that most trout are used to seeing them and will likely respond to one that floats by their feeding zone. I like a basic black parachute-style ant in sizes from 12 to 20, depending on the conditions. I’ll also have a few cinnamon ants in smaller sizes for some extra variety.

Ants also work extremely well when fished subsurface. A simple ant pattern tied on a wet fly hook from black rabbit fur with a turn of black hen hackle to simulate legs will work fine. Although a little more time-consuming to tie, I also like a hard-body wet ant. This pattern is constructed by building two bumps from tying thread at the rear and front end of the hook shank with a narrow waist in between to form an ant-shaped body. Then paint the body with two or three coats of clear lacquer to produce a shiny, realistic looking bug. Finish it with a turn of hen hackle around the waist for legs.

A wet ant can be fished like a conventional nymph in deeper runs. In shallower water, a wet ant fished on a tandem rig from a dry fly is also a deadly combination.