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How to Fish and Tie Flying Ant and Fur Ant Patterns – and When to Fish Them!

flying and fur ant flies

Once summer rolls around and spring mayfly hatches are a distant memory, terrestrials rise in importance in a trout’s diet. During the summer and fall months, trout are on the lookout for all manner of unfortunate bugs that happen to find their way onto the water, and they seem to have a particular sweet tooth for ants.

A few years ago, I was fishing a stream in southwestern Pennsylvania that somehow stayed cool enough all summer to harbor trout. One morning, I noticed swarms of insects and an unusual number of trout rising along the far bank of a slow stretch of water. I automatically figured they were some sort of Baetis and tied on a dry fly version of what I thought could be hatching. I caught one fish, but there were easily 12-15 trout still rising, and they all refused the dry fly.

Finally, one of the insects flew close enough that I was able to snatch it out of the air. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t a Baetis but a winged ant. I “matched the hatch” and ended up having a solid two hours of action, landing about half the trout I’d seen rising in that stretch.

black ant
Ant populations worldwide number over 20 quadrillion. How many of those do you think end up in the water and get eaten by trout and panfish? A lot!

Flying Ant Hatches?

In the U.K., they call it Flying Ant Day, the day when the flying ants all hatch, swarm, mate, and disperse to form new colonies. In truth, it doesn’t happen in just a single day and can occur multiple days as well as over a period of weeks throughout the summer months, but especially July and August. It’s been found that optimal swarming conditions are during very humid, warm, and calm (no wind) weather, particularly if the conditions the previous few days had been poor. The sudden shift to ideal conditions can bring on massive swarms that can last for hours.

For the most part, ants live a quiet but industrial life tucked away in flower beds, lawns, and under concrete slabs, rocks, and logs. They live in a caste system. Each individual has a specific job that they were literally born to do, and most of them are female worker ants that gather food, enlarge the nest, cater to the queen, and otherwise make sure things operate smoothly. They run a pretty tight ship!

Most of the eggs laid by the queen develop into worker ants, but when the colony is ready for expansion, the queen begins to produce virgin queens called princesses and winged males called drones. These princesses and drones emerge from the nest and scatter to reduce inbreeding and increase their chances of finding mates from other colonies. Growing wings and flying is the most efficient way to do this.

Eventually, those winged princesses strike out on their own to become new queens. After mating, the male is irrelevant (he dies within a few days) and the mated queens look for suitable sites upon which to found new colonies. Once this is accomplished, the females chew off their own wings and get to work.

Ants spend only a short portion of their lives as winged adults, and only when needed to expand into new areas. However, there are literally thousands of species of ants worldwide, with approximately 800 of them living in the United States, and many of them “hatch” at different times of the year. This is good news for fly anglers because, if conditions are prime, there’s always the potential to experience a flying ant hatch.

brown trout
This pretty brown trout was sipping ants in the shadows below some overhanging branches in only about 12 inches of water. When trout are eating ants, they'll often hug the banks under foliage and wait for food to fall into the water.

Flying Ant Versus Fur Ant Fly Patterns

Although flying ants, naturally, have the best odds of ending up in the water, the simple fact that there are so many ants in nature (crawling on foliage, logs, etc.) means that there’s always the potential for them to become food for trout. Therefore, any good assortment of ant patterns should include both flying and non-flying versions.

In my experience, the most consistent producer is the plain old fur ant, tied with either a black or cinnamon colored body. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering the short time spans that ants actually have wings, but somehow it catches me off guard because the fur ant is just so simple. It’s literally two clumps of fur dubbing separated by some hackle, which we’ll discuss below when we get to specific patterns. But I guess simplicity is best, and that goes for ant imitations as much as for anything else in fly fishing.

Of the 12,000 species of ants worldwide, the vast majority of them are some sort of black, brown, or cinnamon shade of color. Black is considered the “universal” color for ant fly patterns. The majority of the time, black ants will also produce the most fish. However, there are times when brown or cinnamon just can’t be beat. Similar to matching any type of mayfly hatch, when the trout are keying in on specific colors, you better have an ant of that color if you want to catch fish.

Fortunately for the fly angler and fly tyer, the basic anatomy of an ant is very similar from one species to another, as is the location and appearance of the wings. The main difference is size. Imitating one species or another is usually just a matter of changing the colors of the dubbing used for the bodies.

How and When to Fish Flying Ants and Fur Ants

Letort Spring Run
Shaded pools with overhanging foliage are ideal places to find trout feeding on ants. This particular spot is located on Letort Spring Run, which played an instrumental role in the development of fly fishing with ants and other terrestrials.

Ideal ant water is fairly shallow (less than two feet deep) and near a bank with overhead foliage or tree branches. It’s here that you’ll often find trout clustered in the shade on summer and early fall mornings, gorging themselves on ants.

Although the summer months are prime time for flying ants and the type of flying ant “hatches”mentioned above, ants without wings can end up in the water anytime. In fact, the fall months here in the Eastern United States can be exceptional times for fishing with ant patterns. In the fall, trout are feeding heavily in preparation for winter, and anything that hits the water is fair game.

On the surface, as a dry fly, is the most common way to fish an ant pattern, whether it’s a flying ant or fur ant. Trout and panfish readily take ants on the surface at all times, even when there’s not a noticeable hatch/rise situation.

One reason, perhaps, is that the downward angled wings of a flying ant aren’t a whole lot different than those of a caddis. Caddis wings are further up the body toward the head, but the general profile is very similar. In fact, there have been times over the years when I’ve used an ant to imitate a black caddis as well as a little black stonefly. Using an ant pattern to match a caddis or stonefly isn’t ideal, but as long as the fly size matches whatever is hatching, the general profile of the ant is usually similar enough to get by in a pinch.

Because there are so many ants and ant species basically everywhere in the United States and the world, with an estimated population of 20 quadrillion ants worldwide, fish in waters around the globe see them fairly often. They fall into the water from overhead foliage, get blown into the water, carried and dropped by birds, etc.  Many of these ants perish and end up in the water column, floating down through the current no different than nymphs.

Nymphing with a drowned fur ant can be very productive. I fish these under an indicator or with a dry-dropper rig. With fur ants, I’m not worried about getting them down to the bottom and typically fish them in the middle zone within the water column or suspended for actively feeding trout. I don’t see why adding a bead to an ant pattern and fishing it Euro-style wouldn’t still be very effective, though. Ants end up on the stream bottom as often as anywhere!

However, I rarely fish a flying ant subsurface, but that’s probably more of a psychological thing. It just doesn’t seem logical to me that a winged ant should be fished as a wet fly or nymph, although I don’t see why it wouldn’t work just as well as the wingless version. After all, wet fly patterns such as the Black Gnat have been around for decades, so there’s no reason that a swung winged ant wouldn’t also produce fish.

Favorite Ant Patterns and How to Tie Them

Generally speaking, ant patterns are a “one-style-fits-all” kind of pattern. Even though they may technically different species, they all have the same basic body shape with not nearly as many color variations as mayflies.

I carry ant patterns in sizes 12-20, in both black and cinnamon colors, winged and non-winged versions. This might sound like a large section of my fly box is infested with ants, but that’s not the case. One compartment of maybe a dozen ants in a variety of sizes and styles is usually enough to fill that niche. The most important thing, as mentioned, is size. A couple of each size is generally all that’s needed.

Another thing to keep in mind when tying these is how sparse you make the hackle (if it’s a hackled pattern) and how thick you make the abdomen and thorax of each of these patterns. I like sparse ant patterns. A few turns of hackle are all that’s necessary in most situations. Ants typically work best during the summer months when water levels are low and clear, and a sparse pattern will outperform a bulky pattern almost every time. However, if I know I’m going to be fishing a bigger river with heavier riffles and currents, I’ll make sure to tie up a handful of bulkier patterns to have along, too.

fur ant
Fur ants are some of the easiest patterns to tie and fish, and also some of the deadliest. Fish these on the surface as well as subsurface like you would a nymph.

Fur Ant, black or cinnamon: The Fur Ant has to be at the top of this list simply because of its versatility. It’s also one of the easiest patterns you’ll ever tie. If you can tie this one, then you can tie pretty much every other ant pattern on this list.

For the body, use a dry fly dubbing or any fur that will float well. Create a bump near the bend of the hook, tie in a black or brown hackle of appropriate size, and then create another small bump with the dubbing in front of the hackle. Whip finish and you’re done.

I fish this pattern as a dry fly, but I’m not afraid to fish it subsurface, too. In fact, it can be downright deadly as the dropper on a dry-dropper rig. To help the fly sink a little better, tie a few samples that incorporate a lead underbody.

Flying Ant, black or cinnamon: This pattern is tied exactly like the fur ant except that you will add the wings prior to tying in and wrapping the hackle. For the wings, I like using the tips of a dun-colored hackle feather. Many ants have a translucent, grayish/dun-colored appearance that is imitated nicely by using these hackle tips. If you prefer a different material for the wings, you can use duck instead. The wings should angle rearward so that the tips are approximately in line with the bend of the hook.

flying ant
Flying ants are a necessity for every fly box. You never know when you're going to hit a "hatch" and trout will be keying on them almost exclusively!

Parachute Ant, black or cinnamon: This is perhaps my favorite ant variation for limestone creeks such as Letort Spring Run and Big Spring Creek, or any stream with ultra clear water and very little noticeable current. This is a low-profile pattern for any stream or conditions that could be considered challenging or have a bunch of spooky trout. The body is tied the same as the Flying Ant, but the wing is set as a post with the hackle wrapped horizontally, parallel to the body. Here’s a video tutorial that might help with this one.

CDC Flying Ant, black or cinnamon: This is another favorite for pressured waters, but in all fairness, there are a dozen different ant patterns named “CDC Flying Ant,” so I should be more specific about which one(s) I used most. Honestly, though, I don’t think it really matters. The key to the pattern is the use of natural dun CDC for the wings. You can tie a regular Flying Ant and substitute natural dun CDC for the hackle tip wings and end up with a deadly pattern. Or you can tie the CDC at the head and angled back over the body like an Elk Hair Caddis and end up with a deadly pattern. Or you could figure out a dozen other ways to do it and end up with a deadly ant pattern.

parachute ant
Parachute ants are a great option for low and clear water as well as for limestone streams or any waters with very slow moving current where trout can be very selective.

Betts Black Ant: This one has a more traditional dry fly look to it with a heavier hackle located more toward the front of the hook. Start by creating a small hump with your thread. Move the thread up the hook to create a small gap before building another small hump with thread. Instead of making it round-shaped, though, tie in black hackle tight against the hump, wrap the hackle and secure it behind the eye of the hook and tie off. To finish the fly, coat the rear body section in a light coat of thin UV resin and cure. Use a red marker to place a red dot on the top of the rear hump.

Chernobyl Ant: These are typically tied in red/black or yellow/black. The Chernobyl Ant is a foam pattern that is better known for use on Western rivers than on waters here in the Eastern United States. It should be noted, though, that the Chernobyl Ant is an excellent panfish pattern because of its durability and rubber legs that species like bluegills find irresistible. However, it’s not my first choice for trout in this region of the U.S. due to its bulkiness and the fact that we generally have much smaller streams and rivers with lighter flows. Many of the foam patterns that work well out West don’t produce as consistently here in the East, and right or wrong, that’s one reason why I’ve never carried a ton of Chernobyl Ants in my trout fly box. For panfish, though, a good selection of these is a must!

Foam Ant, black or cinnamon: This pattern is different than the Chernobyl Ant in that it utilizes foam cylinders for the body instead of flat pieces of foam. They’re much simpler and quicker to tie than Chernobyls.

To tie the Foam Ant, choose a foam cylinder of appropriate size for your hook of choice. Create a thread base and then align the cylinder so that the end with the hot spot is over top of the hook eye. Adjust the length as needed and cinch down with thread. Make several securing wraps and create a small flat spot for the hack. Next, tie in brown or black hackle and wrap it around the middle of the cylinder. Secure and trip the hackle and then slide the thread up under the front end of the cylinder and whip finish right behind the eye of the hook.

Sometimes, after I’ve finished tying a Foam Ant, I will trim the hackle flat on the bottom side of the fly. This will allow the fly to ride flat on the water’s surface. Often, I’ll do this with all of my other ant patterns, too. In my experience, ant patterns look more natural when they are flat on the surface rather than propped up on hackle.

foam ant
Foam ants work well for trout and all species of panfish. They're a high floating, durable option.

Closing Thoughts on Ants

These are just a handful of ant patterns that have worked well for me over the years. How well each one works is usually a product of situation. Sometimes, a subtle pattern is called for and sometimes the situation requires a high floating, durable foam version. The most important thing is to have a compartment of your fly box dedicated these tiny morsels. Some days, they’ll catch fish when nothing else will.

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2 thoughts on “How to Fish and Tie Flying Ant and Fur Ant Patterns – and When to Fish Them!”

  1. I tie a small size 16 and 18 ant with a tungsten bead as the head, hackle, and fur rear segment. I fish in Euro style with success.

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