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Project Terrestrial: To Foam or not to Foam (Part III)

This seems to be the most contentious arguments around terrestrials - those that like foam and the anti-foam crowd. For the record, I am pro-foam but do like to tie a number of non-foam flies. In my experiences there are times when non-foam terrestrial flies out-fish foam flies. For me, foam is a tying material like any other and it seems a bit "silly" to be anti-foam but pro-polypropylene, Antron, Zelon, or other synthetic material. But as I typically believe - do what makes you happy (so long as it is legal).

A whole bunch of foam.
Part of my foam collection. From large blocks to 0.5 mm sheets - so many options!

What can I say, I like foam. This is just a bit of my collection.


Why I am in the Pro-Foam Camp


The best argument for foam is that it floats - REALLY well! - and it is very versatile. I have used it on flies from #6's down to #24's. It is a synthetic like so many other synthetics from my nylon or gel spun polyethylene tying thread to the stuff I lash to the hook with those threads - poly yarn, flourofibre, synthetic dubbing, etc. I have long been a "foam fan" because it works.

Hans Weilenmann photo.


By today's standards, my "West Fork Hopper" is a pretty crude foam grasshopper fly but for 1996, it was fairly new and different. There were not a lot of foam flies that that time. Skip Morris's Tying Foam Flies had just been published and the later books from folks like Harrison Steeves had not yet been published (though I knew him from the FF@ LISTSERV - yes, LISTSERV!). Since that photo, I had used some markers to add a little mottling to the legs (brown and/or red) and body (brown) and a black marker to make some eyes. By no means am I trying to promote myself as some amazing fly tier. Today's hoppers are SO MUCH better. I have not fished this pattern in more than a decade and a half or more because quite honestly, there are so many better foam terrestrial patterns. The downfall of this pattern was the hook - a Tiemco 200r which is a great looking - but not a great hooking - hook. And being a standard wire hook, it does not give the hook as much weight as I would like. But it was a learning process. More on hooks for terrestrials in an upcoming Project Terrestrial post.


Arguments Against Foam


It is unnatural. Yeah, well are so are a bunch of other things - including your hook. But you do as you wish, I won't stop you.


Foam does float higher, maybe unnaturally higher which has both benefits and disadvantages. That can be offset by using a heavier hook - a one or two extra heavy nymph hook. I have no strong reservations against fishing foam - it is a fly tying material like any other. I find that foam does not excel in smaller terrestrials - like some ant patterns and small beetles - where I think foam either does not help or is unnecessary. For a size #22 ant, there is so little foam that I doubt that it can really make much of a difference. I find parachutes or hackle as better alternatives for flotation in small flies.

"My" Cricket
Oh, that little bit of foam, that's only an indicator...the rest of the fly is au naturale.

I think there is a good reason to tie (or buy) a few non-foam flies, even in the largest of sizes where foam seems to excel. There may be some times when fish are looking for a hopper that is more in the film or even a sunken hopper.


More about non-foam flies and sunken in an upcoming Project Terrestrial posts. This week, I will highlight a number of foam patterns - the next installment will be the non-foam fly patterns.


Grasshoppers


Grasshoppers, beetles, and large attractor dry flies are where foam really shines. There are seemingly at least a hundred foam hopper fly patterns. The hopper fly I fish more than any other is the Morrish Hopper (below), a pretty simple fly pattern that is durable and realistic. It does require a foam cutter set to create the body and the indicator. I also have cutters for "Tomsu's Supreme Hopper" - and they look great but they take three times longer to tie (at least!) and I prefer rubber legs over the foam legs as rubber moves more easily in the water. I like my hoppers to be fairly quick to tie - I plan to lose a few - and have a little inherent movement in them which rubber legs seem to capture most effectively.

If you do not have the cutters and do not want to buy them, there are many great alternatives that use foam strips or pre-cut cylinders. A really simple hopper is to simply use a foam cylinder for the body and then complete the fly as you would like. A couple of other alternatives that do not require cutters are a couple of Charlie Craven patterns - the Charlie Boy Hopper (below) and the his collaboration with John Barr, the BC Hopper. The Charlie Boy Hopper is particularly effective for tying smaller hoppers (see below). Dandy Reiner's Pink Pookie is another great choice that is pretty easy to tie without cutters (though cutters will help). It, of course, does not need to be tied in pink but I will tell you, pink works! Lastly, another "plug" for my friend Ben's "Ungamunga Hopper" that is a really good pattern that I have done quite well using.

Charlie Craven's Charlie Boy Hopper works especially well for small, early season hoppers.


Beetles


Your standard issue basic foam beetle is a workhorse. Tie it on a standard hook to imitate the more rotund beetles or on a 2xl or 3xl (long) hook to imitate the elongate beetles. To me, an effective foam beetle has prominent legs and an indicator of foam, hair, or yarn to improve visibility and thus fishability. My personal preference is for an abdomen of peacock herl and rubber legs. No need to over-think it. Tie them in a few different sizes, shapes, indicator colors (conditions can change how visible different indicator colors are), body materials, and leg materials. Experiment and have fun.

Parachute foam beetle
An experimental parachute beetle - we'll see if it works this summer.

There are a ton of variations upon the basic foam beetle. I have seen them in orange - which looks like nothing alive but it works. Don't over-think it. Tie a few to imitate the Japanese Beetles that are often quite abundant. And tie a few to imitate the bright yellow rear abdomen of a firefly (pattern link). Andrew Grillo's Hippie Stomper is a good a beetle pattern as any. Remove the tail if you want it to look more "beetle-like".


Ants


I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with ants. They are effective but they are often quite difficult to see. Because of this, my choice of ants either have an indicator or are tied as a parachute - in which case, they are generally foam free. Most of the ants I fish are small, ranging from a #16 to #20 most of the time, sizes where I do not think foam does a lot for a fly pattern.

Shelf-liner Ants
A foam shelf-liner ant with rubber (L) and hackle (R) legs.

The best small foam ant I have seen and used is a shelf liner ant which uses foam shelf liner to imitate the ant segments. Ken's Crazy Ant is one such pattern. There really is not much to it - the shelf liner imitates the body segments and mandibles of the ant and then you want some legs and something that helps you see the fly on the water. Again, no need to over-think it. Fishy's Red Ant is another, little bit more involved pattern that looks worth a try. (Foam shelf liner is in the bottom right corner of the first image on this page.)

Egan's Bionic Ant
My approximation of Lance Egan's Bionic Ant.

On the "this sort of looks like an ant" side of things, Egan's Bionic Ant is a simple pattern that is a hybrid between an ant and a rather effective searching / attractor pattern. I use it much as I would use a Hippie Stomper. It is a very simple and effective fly that has everything I like in a fly. It floats well - but not too well, it has rubber legs, and a visible indicator to improve its visibility on the water. I tie them mostly in black but also have tan and pink foam blocks to cut bodies from. It may well be mistaken for a small grasshopper as well, who knows


Lastly, I know they're called Chernobyl ants but does anyone really want to catch a fish dumb enough to mistake them for an ant? I write about them below in the section on attractors.


Cricket


To be honest, what works for a beetle probably works as a cricket and your cricket pattern may well be taken as a beetle. Unfortunately the fish do not tell us what they mistook our fly patterns for. To imitate them with foam, tie a small, black Morrish Hopper or an elongate foam beetle. Ben's "Ungamunga Hopper" in cricket colors works well too.


Cicadas and others outside of The Big Four


With brood X of the 17 year periodic cicada returning to much of the Eastern United States this year, cicada patterns are everywhere lately. We will not see them in Wisconsin this year and in 2024, brood XIII is expected to emerge in the lower tier of Wisconsin counties (map link). I experienced brood X seventeen years ago when I was doing my Master's on the Ohio River. I caught a huge variety of warmwater fishes on cicada dry flies that summer. They are a heck of a big meal and locally, they can be exceedingly abundant.


Cicada patterns have been around forever and there are annual cicadas that are around every year but they rarely seem to be something you hear much about except for a few places out west or in New Zealand. In the US, Utah's Green River is the first place that comes to mind. Cicadas are large, typically black and orange insects that are typically imitated by huge foam creations. Project Cicada from Curtis Fry and Fly Fish Food is as good a place as any to get you started. Being huge bugs, they are a lot of fun to play around with at the vice.


There are a number of other terrestrials outside of the hoppers, beetles, ants, and cricket such as inchworms and other caterpillars, leafhoppers, bees and wasps, and others. I do not plan to dig too deep here but I think, in some places, it is probably worth carrying a green foam inchworm that will float better than the Green Weenie often used to imitate inchworms.


Attractors


To me, grasshoppers and beetles as well as attractors are where foam really excels. Much of the time, an attractor is a bobber with a hook in a hopper and dropper rig (or not). A Hippie Stomper and small beadhead dropper like a "euronymph", Brush Hog, or your fly of choice is the Driftless rig of choice for many anglers. Later in the summer, a Morrish Hopper replaces the Hippie Stomper in the dry and dropper rig for many anglers. I like the Bionic Ant and Grumpy Frumpy as somewhat more subtle dry fly options. And of course if you have traveled West, there are about a bazzillion foam options that are basically all some variation of the Chernobyl ant.

These are a mix of attractors that range from high floating to film flies - some in realistic colors, others quite gaudy - and one with a built-in dropper tie off. Experiment and have fun.


This is a place where it really does not much matter what exactly you tie, just tie something that will float well and is visible from a distance. Colors seem to matter little. Black is always a favorite and if I am tying it, there is probably some peacock herl or dubbing for the underbody. Natural colors, particularly to match grasshoppers are good but I tend to fish and have good luck with pink and purple flies for whatever reason. While I always have "down-sized" versions for Wisconsin, I have had times where flies on a #6, 3xl (extra long) flies have been just the ticket. Of all the places to experiment and have some fun at the vice, this is the place for it.

Dr. J's X-Legs
One of my experiments - Dr. J's X-Legs is tied on a Klinkhammer hook and is a work in progress

I have been experimenting with some more subtle "terrestrial-ish" attractors tied on Kinkhammer hooks with some success. The idea was to get the abdomen into the water and use the foam to hold the rest of the fly in the film - a semi-sunken terrestrial. I have tied a number without the foam for an even more subtle attractor pattern. And I have tied them with and without hackle. Again, experiment and have some fun - this might provide another option when they are not hitting your hoppers fished along a grassy bank. It has worked for me a few times in the past couple of seasons; generally from July on through the end of the season.


The Take-Home


Foam is a great and versatile tying material that is particularly well-suited for high floating flies. You can find foam in a huge range of colors, densities, and thicknesses. It is shaped easily with scissors or any number of cutter from River Road Creations (or others, I am sure). The possibilities are nearly endless with foam terrestrials whether you are trying to make fairly exacting imitations or gaudy attractor dry flies. Unusual colors often work well and rubber legs help your fly move even when it is not being moved by you.


Foam is great for having some fun at the vice. Glue together some crazy color combinations and cut some Morrish Hoppers just to see if they will work. Experiment with the color of the underbody and foam on your Hippie Stompers or Chernobyl patterns. Mess around with different indicator materials and colors and see what works best for your vision and conditions. Tie some flies with 6 mm of foam and a few with only 2-3 mm to change how they float. Experiment and have some fun with it!


Project Terrestrial Installments


Part 1 - Ants, Beetles, Hoppers, and Crickets, oh my!

Part 2 - Thoughts on Terrestrial Fly Patterns

Part 3 - To Foam or not to Foam (this post)

Part 4 - The Classics

Part 5 - All About Hooks

Part 6 - Sunken Terrestrials and other minor tactics

Part 7 - Seasons of the Terrestrial "Bugs" - a terrestrial fly box

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