ant - The Ubiquitous Ant

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

The Ubiquitous Ant
The Ubiquitous Ant

According to Wikipedia, there are an estimated 22,000 species in the family Formicidae, more commonly known as Ants. Only slightly more than half of those species have been formerly identified. Just about anywhere you go in the world, except near the poles and some isolated islands, some species of ants can be found. In the US, there are an estimated 600 plus species. Ants range in size from a minuscule .03 millimeters to a gigantic 2 inches. Because they exist just about everywhere, usually in large numbers, ants are an important terrestrial food source for fish, particularly trout. The word “ant” is derived from ante, emete of Middle English which are derived from ǣmette of Old English, and is related to the dialectal Dutch emt and the Old High German āmeiza, hence the modern German Ameise. All of these words come from West Germanic ēmaitijǭ, and the original meaning of the word was “the biter” (from Proto-Germanic ai-, “off, away” + mait- “cut”). We all know ants bite, and are lucky that fur, foam and feathers that imitate ants cause trout to bite.

Ants from a Madison River Ant Mound
Ants from a Madison River Ant Mound

Along the banks of the Madison river in Yellowstone, there are countless burned out stumps and logs of Lodgepole Pines that resulted from the 1988 Yellowstone fires. Many of those stumps have been enveloped by ant colonies that have created mounds of detritus from grasses and other chaff to create a home. Some of these mounds can rise over two or three feet high.  Ants living in these mounds will forage wide for food. Disturb one of these mounds with a stick or slight nudge with a boot and literally tens of thousands of ants will emerge in a frenzy. (Not recommended with southern Fire Ant mounds). No doubt when the wind blows or heavy rain falls, hapless ants foraging near the banks of the river fall in and are swept into the current.  Some float and swim to safety while others eventually sink. Some become trout food. In fact, no matter where you fish, rivers, creeks, ponds and lakes, there are probably some form of ant colonies nearby and hapless ants will occasionally succumb to gravity and hit the water. I have fond memories of fishing ant patterns underneath flowering shrubs hanging close to the water in Alabama during the spring. Ants would be feeding on nectar and any shake of the shrub would cause ants to fall in the water only to be devoured by hungry bluegill or other sunfish. It mattered not whether the ant floated or sank slowly into the deep.

For the most part, ants, no matter what species, are either black, reddish, reddish and black or black and reddish depending on which end you start at. There are the occasional ants with yellow hues and in the tropics there are metallic green ants. When ants breed, the males and the queens have wings gaining mobility through the air. Another opportunity for the hapless individual to land on H2O instead of terra firma. For the fly tier, the morphology of the ant couldn’t be any simpler. A generally large head, narrow thorax (waist) with six legs and a generally large abdomen. Three-part harmony, with the occasional wings as an encore. The basics of any ant pattern tries to replicate that morphology.

Although there’s no real signature “Ant Fly” pattern that has transcended the last two centuries like there are with Mayflies and Caddis, “Ant Flies” have shown up in pattern lists since the publication of The Complete Angler, by Charles Cotton in 1676. For decades since, fly tiers and trout anglers have listed “Ants” in their recommended patterns. In just about every case the fly is made up of some combination of black and reddish materials. For example, in Alexander Mackintosh’s The Driffield Angler (1806), his list of flies for June, #6 the Ant-fly is described as: “The wings, a feather of starling’s wing; the body of mohair of amber-colour mixed with a little black spaniel’s fur, and small brown silk, black red-tinged cock’s hackle twice around the wings. The hook number 11.” Prior to the era of synthetics and foam, ant patterns were combinations of silk thread, fur and hackle with the occasional hair or quill wings. A few early patterns were tied with spun and closely trimmed deer hair. As synthetics took hold, more variety in ant patterns came on the scene.

Wilson's Ant (1892)
Wilson’s Ant (1892)

The “Wilson’s Ant” pictured to the left was one of many ant patterns described in Mary Orvis Marbury’s Favorite Flies and Their Histories. (1892). Tied in the traditional “fancy fly” style of time, this black ant pattern was designed to fish Carpenter Ant swarms in the streams of the Sierra Nevada and California Coast Range. There were similar patterns simply called “Black Ant” and “Brown Ant” in Marbury’s work recommended by fly anglers throughout the U.S. Most ant patterns were pretty consistent in materials and form until the 1970s when tiers like Ed Koch and Harrison Steeves began experimenting with foam and epoxy to craft ant patterns. Two of the best books that address tying and fishing ant patterns are Terrestials-A Modern Approach to Fishing and Tying with Synthetic and Natural Materials (1994) Harrison Steeves and Ed Koch; and Tying Flies with Foam and Fur and Feathers (2003) Harrison Steeves. Here are a few ant patterns from my fly box. They are easy to tie and fun to fish.

Ant Patterns from my fly box
Ant Patterns from my fly box

On a whim, the two flies at the top are tied with Black Spaniel fur from our cocker: Bob. I should name them Bob’s Ant. They might catch on if J. Stockard starts carrying “Spaniel Fur”.

1 Comment

  1. Very nice article. My smallest black ant (14 or 16 ) save the day for me on the W.Branch Ausable. Below Monument Falls, the only fish I saw was caught by some type of eagle. I saw some activity below my perch on a boulder and a booming voice yelled ” how ya doing!”. He scared the @#$%& out of me. The look on my face was my answer. So he offered me a tiny white midge to try. I asked what it was and if he tied it. No, my friend did, he replied, it’s a midge. God bless his friend, it was a perfectly tied parachute so small I had to change the tippet and couldn’t thread the eye even then. Thanks I said, I can’t even tie it on, want it back. Naw, he said, keep it. So, not wanting to leave in total defeat, I tyed on my little black ant. I lobbed it out into the current on a slack line right below me and shook the rod tip to feed more slack. After a few minutes of this I caught a beautiful little brown. I released it, thumbed my nose at the eagle, and went back to the camp ground. That was over 30 years ago. The West Branch is a wonderful place to fish. I learned so much about fly fishing and met a lot of interesting people, Fran Betters among them. Thanks for allowing me to reminisce…

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