Ants: When little things mean a lot by Russ Forney

Articles, Fly Patterns, Step-by-Step Tutorials — By on July 9, 2009 10:43 am

Terrestrial insects are among the most prolific “hatches” on most trout streams and ants are particularly plentiful throughout the summer. While mayflies, stones, and caddis come and go in their seasons, ants are available for months at a time and fish feed regularly on these little morsels. Ant patterns are easy to tie and fish do not seem to develop an aversion to ants as quickly as they do to aquatic insect imitations. Abundant and tasty naturals that are easy to imitate ˗ the perfect ingredients for successful trout flies.

The basic design elements for ant flies are two prominent body segments separated by a slender center section with legs splayed from the narrow waist. An ant can be build with nothing more than a couple of balls of black dubbing tied along a straight shank hook and a sparsely hackled midsection. Variations abound from this simple start with wings, parachutes, pearlescent flash, and contrasting hues adding a level of angler-satisfying complexity to the basic theme. One advantage of brightly colored parachute posts is an enhanced visual marker on small ant patterns.

Even thought real ants actually have three distinct body segments, two segments, slightly exaggerated in size, work just fine on flies destined for summertime trout water. Subtle enhancements, like the thin center section and hackle legs, give acceptable proportions to flies and trigger feeding behavior in fish. When it comes to ants, trout are not hard to please; as is often the case with small flies, a light touch and delicate presentation far outweigh the intricacies of the pattern.

A simple foam body pattern is my favorite ant fly. It rides well on choppy current and is durable enough to survive frequent dunking. A foam ant is made with a short piece of cylindrical foam tied to a dry fly hook, adored with a turn or two of hackle at the midpoint. Cylindrical tubing is available in diameters appropriate for hook sizes 12-22 and can be purchased with a yellow, white, or red signature added to one end, an effective way to increase the visibility of the fly on the water.

Dividing the accompanying instructions into four separate tying steps belabors the process, foam ants are very easy to tie and dozens can be produced in a short tying session. Novice tiers will appreciate the simple construction and ant patterns are excellent teaching tools for beginning tier classes. And best of all: foam ants catch fish!

When tying on small hooks, avoid the tendency to go overboard with materials; a size 18 hook shank fills up quickly. While I have seen ants as large as size 14 in Wyoming, sizes 16-20 are much more common. Fish are more forgiving of pattern size for ants and fishing one size larger is not the problem it can be with spring olives or late summer Tricorythodes. That is not to say that hard pressed trout do not ever get prissy about ants, they just seem to accept a little more variation in ants and other small terrestrials that make up their diet between hatches.

As true terrestrial insects, ants are likely to be found close to the bank. A hapless ant that has fallen into the water might be seen drifting beneath overhanging vegetation and in small swirls disrupting the streamside current. Dead trees are ant magnets, cast a floating ant next to a partially submerged snag and be ready for feeding trout to sample your offering. The take may be subtle, a slight dimple in the surface film is often the only sign a trout leaves when sipping small insects from the water. A stiff breeze can generate brisk activity from hungry trout as ants are blown onto the water. Be patient and work your fly at a natural pace, ants do not skate across the water or leave a splashy signature on the surface.

Simple patterns that consistently fool fish make tiny ants a big deal for anglers. If your fly box is void of these little imitations, grab your tying kit and make amends. A few minutes at the tying bench with some foam tubing and stiff hackle is one of the best investments a fly angler can make for summer fishing.

Tying a foam body ant:

Hook: Dry fly hook, sizes 14-18
Thread: Black
Body: Black or dark gray cylindrical foam, diameter to match hook size
Legs: Two or three wraps of stiff hackle, grizzly or color of choice

Step 1. Start the tying thread midshank and wrap a smooth base covering a third of the tying area.


Step 2. Anchor a short piece of cylindrical foam about one third of the way back from the hook eye, leaving 4-5 eye lengths of foam extending forward from the tie-in point. The foam used in this tying sequence has a red marker added to one end to enhance visibility.


Step 3. Warp tying thread tightly around the midsection of the fly, compressing the foam and forming a slender section between the front and rear body segments. Add a hackle feather at the midsection.


Step 4. Wrap two or three turns of hackle around the narrow waist to make legs, secure the end of the hackle, and trim any excess feather from the fly. Finish the fly with a whip knot and cut off the tying thread. The rear segment of the body can now be trimmed to twice the length of the front end.


Flies in sizes 14 to 18 will cover the most common ants you are likely to find around a trout stream. Color variations in dark gray, black, and ginger are popular among anglers.


Hen hackle tips tied at an angle over the rear half of the body adds wings to an ant pattern, a good imitation of swarming ants blown onto the water.


Bright yellow poly yarn adds visibility and floatation to parachute ant patterns.

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Ants: When little things mean a lot by Russ Forney, 6.3 out of 10 based on 6 ratings


  1. TomGibbons says:

    Thanks for the wakeup. I havenot used ants for a loong while. So.. soon as I get to the creek I will go searching.

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  2. Russ Forney says:

    Good luck Tom. The two easiest ways to find ants are (1) look around a rotting tree snag (preferably half-submerged in the creek) and (2) lay your sandwich on the ground while adding tippet to your leader.

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  3. Mike Schaafsma says:

    Just had to say I love your site and the variety of patterns you offer. I began flytying about 4-5 years ago and they sold in a lawn sale and caught me many a fish on the Grand river between Grand Vally and past Shelburne ON.(mostly flyfishing the small streams for brookies) Keep up the great work! P.S. I remember one of the first simple patterns I did was a basic ant. (Black dubbed body and a black hackle centre) If I can help your site in any way please let me know.

    Mike Schaafsma

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  4. Ryan says:

    I use strips of foam I cut from a sheet and they work just fine. Add a post for visability in orange, or an all orange ant works great. Don’t forget to take the barb off the hook for you C&R guys. Ants and beetles all summer, can’t go wrong.

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  5. Russ Forney says:

    Good point Ryan, I do smash the barbs down except when shooting pictures for an article. Some editors prefer the hook be left “as is” and request photos without crimped barbs. Has become a habit.

    Mike, my first fly was also a dubbed ant. It caught a fish for me and I never looked back, been tying 15 years now.

    Thanks for the comments.

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  6. Jerry Spyche says:

    I have a camp on the West Branch of the Delaware River and flying ants become very important once the tricos start hatching for bank sippers.

    Recently I fished some local streams in WNY where my home is. This stream has many over hanging trees. I had some traditional hackled ants I tied when I was a kid. I thought I would give them a try because flush floating patterns are not as important here.

    For three hours it was non-stop action catching small wild bows and brookies on ants….

    Totally argree that they are a must to have tucked away in your box this time of the year.

    I fish them for bluegill and small bass in my pond also…all fish love them.

    I like your pattern variations!

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