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Project Terrestrial - Thoughts on Terrestrial Fly Patterns (Part II)

I covered some of this ground in the first installment of Project Terrestrial but hope to dig a little deeper into more detail in this post. Then the next couple of installment will feature the foam patterns (part III) and non-foam patterns (part IV).


Match the "Hatch"


Terrestrials are all around - take a look and see what is around you and try to imitate it as best you can. That, to me, is the essence of fly tying and fishing - figuring it out. When that does not work, tie that shit in pink with gobs of rubber legs sticking out of it because sometimes that works too. Quick story time...my friend Henry and I were fishing a bit of "private" water we asked permission to access but as it was, we should have saved our "ask" for another day. The stream was flowing high and chocolate milk colored. We tried all the things you try in those conditions, none of it was working. Finally, I break out this huge - a #6 on a 3xl hook - pink monstrosity that I slapped down heavily upon the water and brought two decent browns to hand in rather quick succession. Then nothing...but I did NOT get skunked.

A Driftless bluff
I am a sucker for bluffs - even if they are not always the best habitat. A small ant or beetle is my choice here.

Do not overthink it! Often when food is rather scarce, as it tends to be in streams in mid-summer, trout can not afford to be overly choosy. Give them something that looks food-like and try to present it in a size, location, and behavior they have seen before. But understand that because most terrestrials are larger than are mayflies and caddisflies, fish are likely to eat fewer of them, shortening the window of opportunity for the fly angler. In a small stream, trout are accustomed to seeing terrestrials anywhere and everywhere. In a larger river, only the fish along the bank have likely seen many terrestrials. Location is easy - most of the time, keep your flies within a couple of feet of the bank or under overhanging vegetation. I have had days where they eagerly move several feet from cover and others where your fly had to be between six inches and a foot from the bank or they were not taking it. Too close and they did not seem to see it; too far and they did not want to move that far. Each day is different, figure out what is working.

Willow-lined Driftless stream
Some prime terrestrial water - I am thinking ants and beetles.

Matching the hatch means not only having a fly that looks at least vaguely like what you are tying to imitate but being able to make that fly behave like what it is imitating. I can not be the only sadistic person that has thrown a grasshopper or two into a stream to see what happens. I am nearly always amazed just how many times they make it back to shore or it takes at least ten yards or more before they get eaten. The first thought that goes through my mind is, "well, what chance do I have if the natural does not get eaten?". But then I put on a terrestrial and more often than not, catch my share of trout. Terrestrial fishing can be funny that way.


I do not have strong feelings on terrestrial fly patterns. I certainly have my own favorites but I really do not think that my choice of a Morrish Hopper in pink over a naturally colored Charlie Boy Hopper is going to be the key to success. Having watched more than a few live hoppers floating downstream, they tend to move, a lot! I like flies that I can either put a little movement into or that have rubber legs that are moved in the current. Some days, the difference is having a fly that sits lower in the water, makes a larger - or a smaller - "plop" when it hits the water, or some characteristic that allows it to better imitate the food trout encountered in the stream.

A ungrazed meadow stream
Grasshopper water! Look for tall grasses, preferably native prairie, along the stream.

Below is a fairly quick treatment of the major terrestrial taxa and how and where to fish them.


Grasshoppers


Grasshoppers (order Orthoptera) are probably the fly that most people think of when they think of summer and terrestrials. There are about 600 grasshopper species in the United States and there are about 60 species from the most prevalent family (Acrididae) in Wisconsin. I do not think you need to know a whole lot about the many species of grasshoppers that occur in Wisconsin (Guide to Grasshoppers of Wisconsin). Tie some in tan, yellow, green, pink, and purple - they all seem to work. The basic grasshopper shape is pretty universal and as they grow in length, they grow in width and height as well. I have no way to quantify this but I think that they are more important early on than anglers would think. Imitate them with scaled-down grasshopper patterns or pull a caddis or stonefly imitation from your fly box and give that a try.


If there is one thing I see that I think angler are doing incorrectly with fishing grasshoppers, it is that they fishing flies that are too large. Even in September, most grasshoppers are not the western behemoths. At adulthood, most of our grasshoppers are probably between three-quarters and one and one-quarter inches (19 to 32 mm). My all around most used size would be a #14 on a 2-3xl hook. I tend towards the small side rather than the larger side when choosing my flies to tie on my tippet.

As I had mentioned in part I, in imitating terrestrials, I like at least one pattern for each taxa that floats high on the water and another pattern that floats low in the water. My choices for flies would be a Morrish Hopper as my higher floating fly and a Whit Hopper for the film floating imitation. For something a little different, Ben Lubchansky's "Ungamunga Hopper" (and cricket - above) is sort of the best of both worlds and it helps solve that hopper missed hook set issue that is pretty common with splashy rises to grasshoppers.


Beetles


Beetles (order Coleoptera) are the most diverse taxa of animals on Earth - and it is not really that close. There are at least 350,000 species of beetles - over a quarter of all known species - though some estimate that this number is an order of magnitude lower than their actual species richness. In comparison, there are less than 70,000 species of vertebrates - nearly half of which are fishes. The largest family of beetles, the weevils, has over 83,000 species. Are you impressed yet?


Beetles are obviously very diverse in size and shape. And they live nearly everywhere - including at least 1,500 species of riffle beetles (family Elmidae) that live underwater. The number of ways to tie beetle patterns are limited by your creativity. My favorites include your standard issue foam beetle, typically a #14, and Ross Mueller's BHP Beetle for smaller imitations.

BHP Beetle
A simple Brown Hackle Peacock (BHP) Beetle - I usually add an indicator (in my old age).

Brown-Hackle Peacock (BHP) Beetle (my interpretation of a Ross Mueller pattern)

Hook: Dry Fly

Thread and rib: 12/0 Black

Overbody: Black poly yarn or substitute

Body: 3-4 strands peacock herl

Hackle: oversized brown hackle, clipped to about 1 hook gape

Indicator: something bright - favorites lately have been Flouro Fiber or Glo Brite floss


Tying Notes: I like this on a light wire, standard length dry fly hook in sizes #16 and smaller. I have tied them down to a size #24 but a #18 and I have tied them on longer shank hooks to represent some of the elongated beetle species. I leave the thread tag end long and use this for a rib. Advance the thread from the eye to above the hook point and tie in the overwing creating an underbody. Once an eye away from the hook eye, tie in the peacock herls and advance thread back to the hook point. Create a peacock herl chenille with the herls and your tying thread and advance this to a hook eye behind the hook's eye. Tie in the clipped hackle, palmer it to the back of the fly, and use the rib to secure it. Pull the overbody over the fly, moving or clipping hackle fibers in the way. Tie it off and add a bit of something you can see - this is a small fly, don't go too heavy on your indicator, just enough so it stands out. This is a fly for smooth water and NOT a fly for those that like nice, clean flies.


Beetles are exceedingly diverse but they can be imitated pretty easily with just a couple of patterns. Beetles are typically dark and some peacock herl for the body never seems to hurt. They have a pretty simple body - they are mostly abdomen and they range from nearly round to elongate beetles that might be five or more times longer than they are wide. Fortunately, they are pretty easy to imitate. I will generally tie most of them "stout" but I will tie a few on 2-3xl hooks to imitate the more elongate beetles you might encounter. I would guess that "my cricket" (also below in images) is eaten as an elongate beetle as much as a cricket. While a #14 is pretty much the standard for beetles, I have done really well on #18's and #20's, particularly around and downstream of bank-side trees. I would also assume - but unlike Datus Proper, I have not learned to talk to the trout, so I can not say this with any certainty - but I think Andrew Grillos's Hippie Stomper is most often taken as a beetle (below).

There are a few specific beetle species I think are worth more examination. First, Japanese Beetles (Popillia japonica) are a rather stout beetle with brown elytra (wing coverings), an iridescent green head, and a black and white stripped underbody. They are a non-indigenous (invasive) species whose adults we see mostly in mid-summer (June - August). They are pretty awful fliers so they hit the water pretty regularly. June bugs or beetles are a more diverse group but in the Midwest, most of them are in the genus, Phyllophaga and June bug is often misleading as they may peak in May. You are familiar with these - they are large brown beetles that are mostly active at dusk and at night. To be honest, I do not fish these a lot but I would think that "plopping" down a large beetle at night would likely result in some very nice fish. They are pretty awful at flying so I would assume many hit the water. Maybe particularly where moonlight or other light reflects off the water. I really need to give it more of a try. Lastly, I do not know much about the taxonomy of the small, nearly round beetles that live on willow trees. But sit and watch the water below and just downstream of a willow tree and you will quite often see rising fish in the middle of summer. When this happens, a small beetle is my first choice, an ant my second choice. They are typically small - a #18 on the large side and a #20 and #22 more typically.

Some "standard issue" foam beetles - get as fancy or as simple as you want. Tie them in different sizes and shapes to imitate the diversity of beetles in your area. And add an indicator to at least some of them to help you see them better.

Ants


Ants (family Formicidae) are pretty amazing insects with a really interesting social structure - not surprisingly, they are in the same order (Hymenoptera) as bees, another eusocial insect group. There are over 20,000 species of ants so while they are not "beetle diverse", they are a pretty diverse group. By mass (weight), ants are throught to be the most abundant animals on Earth. Around streams, ants will range from maybe a #10 on the large size down to some incredibly small (#24 or smaller) species. I would guess that most of the ants I fish are a #16 or #18. Fish love ants - they will literally eat them until the ants kill the fish eating them (the story...).


Tying ants is not particularly difficult - typically an ant pattern has two distinct sections and a thin waist with a few legs or turns of hackle separating these sections. While there is nothing wrong with the simple fur ant, I find them hard to see on the water and often opt for a parachute version or some bright foam or other over body to help me see them. I typically opt for a parachute pattern that will 1) be visible and 2) sit low in the water as ants tend to do. The Poodle is a really effective parachute ant pattern that I have watched my friend Ben do really well on.

Foam ant
A very simple, low floating foam ant tied using a high visibility pre-cut foam cylinder.

After a few experiences with flying ants, it is pretty much imperative that you have a few winged ants - just in case. Cinnamon and black are the colors I have run across. It is 100% a "have to be there at the right time" experience - and it seems damn near totally random. If you ever catch a flying ant "hatch", the fishing is ridiculously good (and easy). I have hit really good flying ant "hatches" twice - once on Wisconsin's Kinnickinnic River and another time on the fabled San Juan River tailwater in New Mexico. When it is happening, I find that the fish are not terribly "picky" about fly patterns - something vaguely ant-like works just fine. If you ever hit it just right, you will remember it.


Crickets


Crickets, like grasshoppers, are in the order Orthoptera but they are sort of the odd-man out of terrestrials, it seems. Fly shops often will have at least a half a dozen hopper patterns and maybe a cricket pattern but that might just be a Morrish hopper in black. I think I fish crickets a lot more than many other anglers do. I find crickets to be more common in heavily grazed pastures than are grasshoppers.

My confidence fly for mid-summer slow water is my take on Wendelberg's cricket (pattern in the post, My Driftless Baker's Dozen). Maybe it is that I am offering something different - not another foam hopper pattern? It looks a lot like an elongated beetle, maybe that is what trout are mistaking it for. Or it is pretty "buggy", looks like food, and it works.


Attractors


There are a huge number of attractor patterns that are "terrestrial-ish". Here in the Driftless, Andrew Grillos' Hippie Stomper is the attractor dry fly of choice by most anglers. It is tailor-made for our streams, a scaled-down attractor. It is, I think, a pretty effective beetle imitation but again, it just looks like food and fish really are not that picky much of the time. Another couple of foam creations that work well in smaller streams are Grillo's User Friendly, the Bionic Ant, and the Grumpy Frumpy. And sometimes, monstrosities like Chernobyls (Training Wheel) work better than they "should". I have had days where "big nasties" have saved the day.

Royal training wheels
A royal training wheel (aka Chubby Chernobyl) - a high floating attractor dry fly - and a good bobber.

You do not like foam? There are a number of choices - humpies, stimulators, and others that do the trick too. Humpies probably are a decent - and visible - beetle imitation. Stimulators are a decent grasshopper or cricket imitation. Add a couple of rubber legs for a more "terrestrial-ish" imitation. For me, I tend to start with foam flies and move to "the classics" if those are not working.


Mid-summer, the trout are looking for terrestrials, it is what is available for food. Give the fish what they want. That or fish a size #18 or smaller nymph. I'll fish terrestrials and they will probably be foam flies.


Project Terrestrial Installments


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

Part 2 - Thoughts on Terrestrial Fly Patterns (this post)

Part 3 - To Foam or not to Foam

Part 4 - The Classics

Part 5 - All About Hooks

Part 6 - Sunken Terrestrials

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

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