Fly Fishing with Ants

Fly Fishing with Ant Patterns (Setup, Flies and More)

Picture yourself wading in a small stream, you haven’t had a bite in hours and you are slowly starting to lose faith.

For some reason, the fish seem to have gone off the bite and you are left guessing the next fly change. All of a sudden, the water comes alive! Fish start to rise everywhere, launching themselves right out of the water. You can’t tie your fly on fast enough! But what to tie on?

Often this next choice will make or break your session. How often do we opt for the ‘good old faithful,’ a mayfly spinner or caddis, and are left bewildered as to why we didn’t get so much of a sniff? Even though the fish were boiling all around the fly.

Brown trout love ants
Brown trout love ants

The most plausible reason is that you weren’t fishing what the fish were eating. MATCH THE HATCH should be ringing in your head. While this is most often the case, many a time, REVERSING this mindset can be equally as successful.

The answer to all these questions and choices is the mighty ANT pattern.

Why Do Trout Love Ants?

Ant patterns are very effective and can be super deadly if fished in the right conditions and correct drifts.

I feel ant patterns are often overlooked by anglers because, at times, they just don’t feel like it’s the right choice of fly. If I think back over the past few seasons, if I fished an ant pattern more than five times it was a lot. The funny thing is that on those five occasions, I managed to rise a few fish rather quickly.

Fly fishing during an ant hatch
Fly fishing during an ant hatch

ANTS WORK! Think about it, they are probably one of the most consistent food sources for fish anywhere. Ok, so they don’t live in the water, but when they do fall in or get blown into the water, they are easy pickings for hungry trout.

My favorite trout eats are the ant pattern eats, especially the smaller fish that launch themselves out of the water. On my local stream, launching trout means tiny midges or ants. Either way, the next few casts are going to be great fun.

When to Use Ant Patterns

Time of year- what’s interesting to note is that an ant hatch isn’t a random occurrence and isn’t worker ants that mysteriously grow wings and set out to fly. These are, in fact, specific ants of the colony that is sent out to look and start a new colony. What triggers these send-offs, we aren’t entirely sure, but they roughly happen from late winter to spring and after a little moisture in the air or after a sudden downpour of rain.

The ants inevitably end up in the water and can’t fly away, making them an easy snack for a cruising trout. Trout develop an instinct for these foods that can’t fly away and tend to focus on them and not the hatch. Spent spinners, caddis and drowned beetles all fall into the same category of easy pickings.

When the hatch starts, take a minute to look at the actual insect and tie on a size up or size down If the one isn’t working, then move to the other.

Reversing the ‘MATCH THE HATCH’ mythology is also a great way to fish the ant pattern. Think if you have been fishing a mayfly or caddis the whole day without much luck, a quick switch to an ant, and the fish nails the fly. The trout will see this as an opportunistic feed and demolish the pattern. This is often the case, a complete fly change triggers a take.

Guide Pro Tip: Learn about reading the water to find more fish. My article πŸ‘‰ Reading Moving Water for More Fish

My Fly Rod Setup for Casting Ant Patterns

Any dry fly setup will work when fishing ant patterns, and they are so small that you can also get away with a nymph rod as well. My ideal rod would be an 8’9 or 9′ classic dry fly rod, a SAGE R8 comes to mind, but I have fished ant patterns on a simple SAGE FOUNDATION and had no problems whatsoever. In fact, the SAGE FOUNDATION 9 FT – 3 WT is a great dry fly rod and one that I find myself fishing on many an occasion.

Learn how to setup a fly rod with πŸ‘‰ How To Setup a Fly Rod

Leader length

Leaders are personal choices, and I always tell clients or students that you should fish for a leader you feel comfortable with. It’s pointless fishing a 20-foot leader and fishing it badly. Rather shorten the leader and get the right drift.

I personally fish a 15–20-foot leader when on the dries and having an ant on the end of this leader is great. That said, when I fish a very skinny, overgrown stretch of the river, I will shorten it right up to 10 feet. Stealth is the key in these close-quarter situations.

Tippet size

Tippet size should be 6X and smaller. You need a thin, light tippet for the ant patterns because you don’t want the tippet to influence the way the fly drifts. If the ant patterns drift too stiffly, then the trout won’t eat. They are smarter than we think.

Just be aware of the lighter tippet when you are fighting, the larger fish. We all know the big ones didn’t get that big by being stupid. They will fight dirty and aim for every log or snag in the water so fight them smartly and keep them away from anything that could possibly pop the tippet.

Guide Pro Tip: Leaders and tippet can seem like a mystery. Let me help with a couple articles:
πŸ‘‰ How to Make a Fly Fishing Leader?
πŸ‘‰ How Long Should a Fly Fishing Leader Be?
πŸ‘‰ The Best Tapered Leader and Tippet Material

Tips for Casting Ant Patterns

The three steps to a successful dry fly take are as follows:

  1. fish a pattern that closely resembles the hatch.
  2. land the pattern in front of the chosen fish.
  3. allow the fly to drift as naturally as possible while maintaining contact with the fly.

None of these steps are possible if you don’t see the fly land or aren’t able to track it through the drift, and this is often the case when fishing ant patterns.

So how do we correct this? Firstly, a sighter tied into the pattern is the first step to seeing the fly. As ant patterns are often fished after the rain or in overcast conditions, the light isn’t great, so seeing the little size 16 pattern is near impossible. A sighter changes this.

Fish the ant pattern like a pro!

  • Fish the obvious drifts like under trees or brush, bubble lines, hydro pockets eddies.
  • Work the ‘bank to closest seam’ drift first. This is where ants land if they fall from trees.
  • An angled approach with the wind crossing you is best on a windy day, and up or downstream is difficult to see the pattern. A wind from your back can be beneficial, provided you position yourself correctly and keep your leader off the water.
  • When fishing a slower drift, wait a minute before you cast to possibly spot a rising fish. This will help you with location and planning your cast and drift. To cast blindly in these situations can often scare the fish away.
  • The ant needs to drift as naturally as possible. Concentrate on your drag-free drift to ensure success.
Bubble Line for Drifting a Fly
Bubble Line for Drifting a Fly

What Size Ant Pattern is Best

The size of the ant pattern completely depends on the ants you have in your area and surroundings. I know on my local water, the ants would be around a size 14-16 pattern, but further North, where my brother fishes, they are upwards of a size 14, 12, and even a size 10.

It’s best to carry what you would expect to find out on the day with a size up or down from that. This way, your bases are covered, and you shouldn’t have any issues.

Favorite Ant Patterns

Bionic Ant
Bionic Ant
Bionic Ant 2.0
Bionic Ant 2.0
Carpenter Ant
Carpenter Ant
Flying Ant
Flying Ant
Hi-Vis Ant
Hi-Vis Ant

Image credit UMPQUAlink

1. Bionic Ant

A foam-style hopper which is my go-to pattern on our local waters. It rides higher in the water film and can take a beating in the water. The visual aspect of the pattern gets tricky in low-light conditions.

2. Bionic Ant 2.0

The bionic and 2.0 is the highly visible version of the above bionic ant pattern. Fished in low light conditions, you can see this thing from a mile away.

3. Carpenter Ant

The Carpenter Ant is a higher floating version of the flying ant and is an essential pattern for faster waters.

4. CDC Ant

The CDC ant is one of the most underrated patterns around. The tiny CDC fibers move and act just as an ant’s hairs would. The only issue with this pattern is that it tends to sink faster. The key is to dress the fly as you would your dry flies

5. Flying Ant

This is a great pattern to have when those fly ant hatches break out. It is also a great pattern to apply the reversal match the hatch technique to.

6. Hi-Vis Ant

The Hi-Vis Ant is exactly that. A highly visible pattern with softer buoyant seal fur dubbing as the abdomen and head. The fluorescent post can be seen from a mile away, allowing the pattern to be tied in smaller sizes without compromising the ability to be seen.

An Easy Ant Fly to Tie

Below is an easy-to-tie ant pattern that works every time; if visibility is an issue for you, a small sighter post tied into the middle of the hackle will do the trick.

If you would like more info on the tying video and material list, please download it HERE

Last Cast with an Ant

So, there you have it, the mighty ant pattern is a must in your box. You don’t have to like them running around your porch or attacking your sugar pot in the kitchen, but you need to have a few tied and ready to fish on the stream.

They may not be the prettiest-looking patterns to fish or tie, but they are highly effective patterns that catch fish.

Tight Lines!

Are you looking for some great How To Fly Fish Articles? Checkout this list:

Kyle Knight writer Guide Recommended

Kyle Knight

Fly fishing has been my passion and pursuit for the past 20 years. I am a South African based fly fisherman who loves nothing more than spending a day on the water. Fly fishing is more than catching fish, being in the outdoors with good friends and family is what it is all about.

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