American Fly Fishing

By Don Roberts

As physician-poet Lewis Thomas so keenly observed, “Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.”
   Wait a minute. I just caught one watching my Samsung flat-screen. OK, that’s not entirely true. The ant was actually eating a cookie crumb … and watching TV.
   As long as we’re getting anthropomorphic here—or perhaps antopomorphic—just as humanity has spread virally upon the Earth, there’s no getting away from burgeoning ant populations. With the exception of Antarctica (ignore the first syllable) and a few other frigid outposts on the globe, ants thrive in almost every ecosystem on the planet. Even in such seemingly inhospitable environments as New York City, ants have developed strategies that ensure their prosperity. An ongoing study conducted by professional researchers, school kids, and volunteers has revealed that New York City’s open space (e.g., parks, gardens, medians), totaling 41,466 acres, accommodates about 16.7 billion ants. That’s not counting the tree-nesting species, such as the black carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus), the pavement ant (Tetramorium sp.), or the under-cement nesters (Monomorium minimum), which all told would add at least a billion more to the
above estimate.
   Needless to say, ants are an astonishingly adaptive race. Though not quite offering the most biomass, as calculated by total weight—a distinction claimed by beetles—ants are without doubt the most numerous of all insects. Simply put, for every person on earth there are a million ants. Their success in so many environments must be attributed to organizational (social) skill sets, including mimetic (traits imitating neighboring organisms), mutualistic (common property rights), commensal (partnership arrangements), and parasitic (exploitation of a host species).
   Despite exhaustive study and research—thousands of ant-related books in print, 22 ant titles currently topping the natural history market, and Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson’s monumental, Pulitzer Prize–winning treatise, The Ants—there’s still way more we don’t know than do know about ants. However, from the perspective of today’s anglers—indeed, going back to the days of horsehair lines and sheep-gut leaders—one thing has always been abundantly clear: fish love ants.
   It’s hard to believe it could be the taste, at least by the measure of my palate. (And, yes, fish possess acute smell and taste receptors.) Some years back, while witnessing trout bingeing on ants—carpenter ants were whirligigging out of a canopy of old-growth ponderosa and into the fringes of an alpine lake—I impulsively popped one in my mouth. After all, the trout were damned near beaching themselves to get at them. With Callibaetis mayflies hatching and damselflies flitting everywhere, and even caddisflies pogoing about, it wasn’t for lack of food. Let me tell you: unless you masochistically relish a spasm-inducing gag reflex running from your tongue down to your toes, do not eat an ant. Ever.
   Perhaps the formic acid produced by, and indicative of, so many ant species drives trout nuts. Maybe it’s the crunch and the protein. Maybe it’s just the novelty—the manna from heaven, so to speak. Maybe it’s all of these factors. But whatever the specific appeal, trout often lunge at ants with about the same restraint shown by teenagers attacking a platter
of nachos.
   That’s not to imply there are no obstacles, complications, or misconceptions associated with fishing ant patterns. The problem starts with a clear understanding of the ant-as-fish-kibble dynamic. In terms of forage, not all ants are created equal. Although numerically most ants travel by terra locomotion—walking—those ants that end up in the drink do so because of, or in spite of, the reproductive imperative. Sure, a few pedestrian (land-based) ants blunder into a lake or stream, but by and large it’s the winged ants that, due to pilot error, end up on the menu. Male winged ants, called drones, emerge in concert with breeding winged females, often referred to as queens. Typically, the males take flight first, laying down a scent (pheromone) trail to a landmark, often vertical vegetation such as a pine tree, where mating commences. For some species the scent becomes a cumulative attractant, resulting in an orgiastic swarm. It’s during this nuptial phase, with ants caroming pell-mell through the lower atmosphere, that they are the most vulnerable. Or, as an old Bosnian proverb muses, “When an ant gets wings, it loses its head.”
   The upshot? Putting your trust in an ant pattern tied without some type of wing is probably a waste of time, if not folly. Or put another way, wings are a why-the-hell-not proposition, providing balance and a visual aid.
   Before venturing any further into what makes an effective ant pattern, it would be prudent to take at least a cursory look at ants’ anatomy, their creature features. Despite the 22,000 different species, and variants therein, an ant, wherever it may be encountered, is instantly recognizable by its distinct barbell body shape. For its overall size, the ant’s head appears disproportionately large (all the better for housing compound eyes and an array of sensory organs), and is counterbalanced by an equal, or slightly larger, metasoma, or abdomen, containing the reproductive, respiratory, and digestive/excretory systems. Between the two lies the mesosoma, or thorax, a complex ligature-like structure to which all six legs
are attached. 
   The beauty of imitating an ant lies in the utter simplicity of its silhouette—basically a bulb at each end of the hook. In terms of fly design, the thorax, though not exactly negligible, serves mainly as a gap upon which to wrap hackle, wings, and/or some type of high-visibility post. Ant patterns range from the classic fur ant—basically two oval humps of dubbed fur, with hackle at the waist—originated by Bob McCafferty in the 1930s, to the more contemporary foam or sparkly variations. While well-conceived and-crafted ant patterns do deceive fish, they all have drawbacks. The most common defects involve visibility, buoyancy, and humdrum sameness (patterns too often seen, and summarily snubbed, by jaded trout). By all means adapt to a given situation by trying different patterns and different materials, and even a changeup in size. But bear in mind that fly selection is far less crucial than strategy. Fishing ants is an intimate, highly attuned affair. Applying golf as a yardstick, think of fishing an ant as a putter’s game: short, soft, precise.
   No matter how you approach the practicalities of fishing an ant, you may relieve some of the residual tension by viewing the whole thing within the larger context and entertaining a philosophical perspective. After all, there’s a temptation to romanticize the species, despite the fact that ants are nothing if not ruthless. Wilson cautioned, “The foreign policy of ants can be summed up as follows: restless aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation.… If ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week.”
   In the meantime, fish all you can. Because humans, not ants, are still in charge. Although, frankly, it doesn’t look good.


The full version of this article is available in print, PDF, and through our free APP.