The classics work. They would not be classics if they did not work. They never stopped working, we just stopped fishing them. Well, many, maybe even most, of us did. I will argue that there are some very good reasons for fishing "the classics" rather than the foam flies that are so prevalent today. Not all the time - I still love foam and use it most of the time - but there are places where foam does not work as well. I will cover some of that here and some in a later post on sunken terrestrials.
Maybe you have an aversion to foam for purist reasons that may or may not make sense to me. That is fine - to each their own. Fly tying is a big world, do what makes you happy. I have no issues with using foam as I think I have proven in parts I through III of this series. Do what works for you as I will do what works for me. For me, much of the time that is foam - but not always.
Underside view - the view of the trout - of the flies above.
The best argument for fishing non-foam terrestrials, in my mind, is that they float more naturally, lower in the film compared to foam flies. I would argue that you can achieve that with foam by using a heavy nymph hook and/or by using a dubbed body that will soak up just a bit of water under a "Chernobyl" body. But certainly "the classics" I will highlight here tend to float a little lower and more naturally. Lower floating patterns are often harder to see but that can be rectified with an indicator of CDC, poly yarn, or other synthetics (or foam).
A number of the non-foam patterns are quite realistic yet relatively simple to tie. Some of my favorite patterns for tough fish - "my" cricket, Ross Mueller's BHP beetle, Schroeder's Parachute Hopper, and Dave Whitlock's Whit Hopper (patterns / links follow below) - are non-foam flies. Foam also is not as effective for smaller flies where there simply is not enough volume of foam to do much to help float the fly. I have tied some foam ants in size 22, got done, and wondered what the Hell good the foam could do on a fly that small. For small patterns of all the standard terrestrial - grasshoppers, beetles, ants, and crickets - I have a few non-foam patterns that I generally prefer over foam patterns. And there are a few terrestrials outside of these "big 4" that have classic patterns that work great.
Grasshoppers have been imitated by fly anglers for about 400 years so they are certainly not new but foam has lead to an adaptive radiation of grasshopper fly patterns. The early patterns were quite crude imitations. Later imitations were better but did not float terribly well. Ed Shenk's Letort Hopper was a pretty important improvement and eventually, a number of patterns like Joe's Hopper (or the Michigan Hopper) and later the parachute hopper and a couple of Dave Whitlock patterns were further improvements. I do not plan to dig too deeply into the history of grasshopper fly patterns because others have done it much better - link for a very detailed article on the topic.
There seem to a few ways that non-foam hopper patterns stay afloat - spun hair heads (Letort and Dave's Hoppers), bullet heads (Whit Hopper and Madam X), and hackle - either as a standard hackle collar or palmered hackle bodies (Poly Rosborough's Meadow Hopper and Joe's Hopper) or as a parachute (Schroeder's Parachute Hopper and others). The non-foam hopper pattern I carry most often is Dave Whitlock's Whit Hopper and Schroeder's Parachute Hopper or the store bought version of the Spring Creek Hopper from the Driftless Angler.
Links to a few patterns to try, in no particular order:
I love of fishing beetles. Most of the time my choice is the not-so-terribly realistic Hippie Stomper, a foam pattern which we will ignore this week. If you search for beetle patterns - even if you use terms like "non-foam" - expect the first few pages to be foam beetles. There is a good reason for that. There is probably no more simple to tie beetle than a simple foam beetle (for which Google returned nearly 2 million results).
Until foam became all the rage, the Crowe Beetle - a deer hair beetle - or variations of it were largely the beetle fly pattern of choice. The problem with the Crowe Beetle is visibility but an indicator tied into it is simple enough to do. Southern Wisconsin Trout Unlimited's "Rusty Dunn" provides an interesting history of the Crowe Beetle - and another about the Coch-y-Bonddu, another beetle imitation, that are both well worth a read. Beetles are incredibly diverse in species as well as sizes and shapes. There are almost certainly a number of flies taken as beetles that are not intended to be beetle imitations. Again, who the Hell knows what fish are thinking? Not I - and I have put in more than my share time of study of them.
BHP Beetle (I provide a pattern in: Project Terrestrial Part II)
To me, ants are where non-foam flies really excel. Ants are often quite small and there just is not enough foam to really help float a #18 or smaller ant. Many of the foam ant patterns are "ant-ish" in that they have the distinct segments of an ant but they are generally big - too big to mimic most ants. The "Bionic Ant" and most certainly those of the "Chernobyl" variety are rather inexact imitations. While I have run across some large ants - maybe size #10 or #12 - most ants are smaller. I run into a lot more #18 and smaller ants than I see #12 or larger ants. A #16 seems to be a pretty good compromise size.
If you look at how ants float in the water, they are not the high floaters. A number of non-foam patterns work great and are easily tied down to #18 to #24 (well, beyond #20, I am not sure any pattern is "easy"). I do not love the simple fur ant unless an indicator of some sort is added - otherwise it is nearly impossible to see on the water. My go to ant would be a parachute pattern with a white or "hi-vis" post. I have seen about a thousand versions of the CDC ant. I have not tied the version I link below but it looks interesting. Versions I have tied are a lot more like a fur ant but they use CDC for the "humps". Lastly, the "Transpar-ant" is generally a sinking pattern. I have used it as a dropper behind another terrestrial - a beetle or a hopper - with fairly good luck.
I will add one other idea about ants - try a "Royal" pattern as a rough approximation of an ant. My preference is for a Royal Trude but the Royal Coachman, Wulff, and Humpy are all good choices too, particularly for faster water. I have a couple of friends that fish "Royal" patterns a whole lot more often than I do and they do it with great success. Give it a try.
Crickets are pretty straight forward. Most patterns are downsized variations of grasshoppers or versions of beetle patterns. I do not think that you need to carry more than a pattern or two in a couple of sizes. As with grasshoppers, too often I think people carry flies that are too large. I tie my crickets on #14 hooks, 1xl or 2xl, most of the time. Probably the best known of the cricket patterns is Ed Shenk's Letort Cricket, a smaller, black version of this Letort Hopper. Any pattern tied as a grasshopper imitation can be downsized into cricket patterns. And any beetle pattern is probably a pretty good cricket pattern, at least in larger sizes.
Other Terrestrials of Note
While we focus on the "big 4" most of the time - hoppers, beetles, ants, and crickets - there are a host of other terrestrial insects that make their way into trout streams and ponds. There are a number of other terrestrials that are locally important in different places. Infestations of spongy moths may provide a unique fishing opportunity as might spruce moths in the Western US. This list of six New Zealand "must-have" flies includes four terrestrials, only one of which are members of "the big four". Blowflies, cicadas, and willow grubs (caterpillars) along with their green (Manuka) beetles are their terrestrials of note. In Patagonia, it might be their "green worm". Here in Wisconsin, we have more terrestrials than just grasshoppers, beetles, ants, and crickets.
Pennsylvania is where much of the United States' fly fishing history originated, particularly for hard to catch, spring creek trout as the many patterns developed for Spring Creek, the Letort, Falling Springs, Penns Creek, Spruce Creek, Big Fishing Creek, and other "limestoners". In addition to the Crowe Beetle (above), Vince Marinaro's Jassid and Russ Mowry's Green Weenie are a couple of Pennsylvania staples that should get more use outside of the Keystone state. Both are excellent patterns. The Jassid is meant to represent a leafhopper, a small hemipteran that are quite common on trees and often quite colorful - hence the jungle cock wing. The Green Weenie is a caterpillar or inchworm imitation though I quite often have seen them tied with beads. In the original pattern, the chenille body probably does not allow them to float for long and is maybe more often a sunken inchworm or mistaken for a caddis larva.
Attractors are where foam really seems to shine. I am hard pressed to think of many non-foam attractors that are not a little "terrestrial like". The humpy as a pretty good beetle imitation and as mentioned above, the "Royal" patterns are pretty decent ant imitations. I know in New Zealand, the blowfly is typically imitated by a blue humpy or a "chunky" parachute fly. The Madam X and the great many variations of can be thought of as an attractor although most of the time it is tied as a grasshopper imitation. Another old favorite is Turck's Tarantula, a sort of terrestrial / streamer hybrid. Maybe Wisconsin's Hornberg Special fills a similar niche?
"Royal" flies - see ants section above
Dr. J's X-Legs - a pattern I am working on (can be tied with or without foam)
By no means did I cover all the bases here. There are a ton of terrestrial patterns using natural materials. Particularly for ants and beetles, there are seemingly hundreds of patterns using deer hair, dubbing, CDC, and other natural materials. Personally, I think non-foam flies tend to excel on slow water where fishes are looking for food in the film and "floatability" is not the primary concern. My choice for tough fish on flat and often shallow water is my version of the Wendelberg Cricket which I think is probably a better beetle than a cricket imitation on a size #14 hook, the size I fish most often. If that is not the ticket, my next choice is to downsize to a #18 BHP Beetle.
As with all fly tying, flies are limited by your imagination and choices. Have some fun and experiment with different materials, hooks, and patterns and see what works for you and the waters you fish.
Project Terrestrial Installments
Part 4 - The Classics (this post)
Part 5 - All About Hooks (soon, I promise...)
Part 6 - Sunken Terrestrials
Part 7 - Seasons of the Terrestrial "Bugs" - a terrestrial fly box