Sure, virtually every fly fisherman enjoys fishing a dense hatch of aquatic insects where trout become frenzied in their feeding. If the truth be known, though, finding such a heavy hatch is not a common event on trout streams in northern Virginia today. And when you do run into such heavy emergences, they are usually short-lived affairs that last for an hour or two if you're lucky.
Enjoy such hatches when you are fortunate enough to find them. But when no hatches are coming off, there is still a way to experience 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 all the way from March through November. The trout learn to feed on these land insects opportunistically, whenever they tumble in from land. Here in the Shenandoah Valley's trout streams, aquatic hatches are particularly scarce and terrestrials are even more important than in most areas.
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 (Others worth fishing include grasshopper patterns, crickets, beetles, leafhoppers, cicadas and caterpillars).
If forced to select just one fly to fish with all summer long in our area streams, 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 1900s in his famous work, "A Trout and Salmon Fisherman for Seventy Five Years."
A wide variety of ant patterns are available. I like to carry several different styles. For freestone streams and gurgling mountain brooks such as the streams in Shenandoah National Park, 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 1930s. 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 McMurray Ant 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 for 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.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.