Eye of the Guide


Tom Travis - March 7, 2011

I have been frequently asked what types of patterns were the most under-utilized on Montana waters. Simply put, terrestrials are the most effective and under-utilized patterns on Montana waters. Now I know that many of you are already using hopper patterns, but I am referring to ants, beetles and crickets.

Why are these patterns shunned by many anglers, regardless of their effectiveness? The main reason is that many anglers can't see these patterns on the water, and therefore refuse to use them. Other anglers admit that they are so keyed into the hatches of mayflies, midges and caddisflies that they simply forget about terrestrials.         

Here on the waters of Yellowstone Country, terrestrials are often referred to as the insects of summer. Yet the first few warm days of April will bring the ants out to wander the banks and they stay out until the cold winds of October drive them away. Beetles begin to show themselves in mid-May, and though their prime time seems to be June and July, they can still be found streamside throughout August and well into September.

For twenty-some years I have guided on the waters of Yellowstone Country and have sampled the trout's stomach contents using a stomach pump. I have found ants, beetles, hoppers and even crickets to be a regular part of the trout's diet. So let us go back through the pages of angling history and take a look at terrestrials and what has been written about them.


When learning to tie and fish a certain type of imitation, I find it interesting to see where and how the development of that imitation came about. With terrestrials, I am speaking in generalized terms, as there are many different terrestrial insects that are imitated, both wet and dry. However, it is interesting to note that the very first mention of a terrestrial insect is found in what has come to be considered the origins of accepted angling literature.

In 1496, Dame Juliana Berners, who was the prioress of the Sopewell Nunnery at Saint Albans, had her book entitled "A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle"  published as part of the second edition of the "Boke of Saint Albans",  which was edited and published by Wynkyn de Worde. In her book, Berners described twelve  fly dressings for the season that corresponded to the actual insects she was observing. For July one of the specified patterns was a wasp. Thus, the very first mention of terrestrials begins with the very first book on fly-fishing.

The pattern for Dame Juliana Berners' wasp fly is as follows:

      The wasp fly:  The body of black wool and wound about with yellow thread, the wings of the buzzard.

It should also be pointed out that in her book, Berners mentions several live baits that the angler should use. In June she recommends the cricket and for July she recommends the grasshopper, bumblebee and hornet. For September she suggests that house crickets be used. In her text she also mentions green-bottle flies, maggots and butterflies. Even though all of these were not developed into artificial flies, this reference to live bait fully shows that Dame Juliana Berners was well aware of the fact that trout and grayling would eat terrestrial insects.

The next of those early authors who wrote about terrestrial insects was Charles Cotton of Beresford Hall, a close friend of Isaac Walton. Cotton's book entitled "Being Instructions How to Angle for A Trout or Grayling in a Clear Stream" was published in 1676 as part of Walton's six editions of the "Compleat Angler". In his book, Cotton listed sixty-five original fly patterns for fishing the entire season on the Dove. Among these patterns are several terrestrial imitations.

In April, Cotton calls for a Horse Flesh Fly, in late May the Camlet-fly, which is a moth. In June he talks about the Flying-ant fly and Green, Yellow and Dun colored Grasshopper imitations. In July he suggests the Wasp fly and the Shell-fly which drops from the streamside willows. In August he gives patterns for another Ant-fly, Fern-fly and Harry-long-legs, all of which are terrestrial insect imitations. Remember that these are still all wet imitations, the dry fly theory doesn't show up until the mid-1800's.

From a pure fly tying standpoint, the next notable work was published by Richard Bowlker in 1747 and was entitled "The Art of Angling". His son, Charles Bowlker, published the second edition in 1774. Their fly construction method ushered in the age of modern fly tying. Many of the patterns that were originated by the Bowlkers have stood the test of time and are still with us today.

Many of the authors that followed Cotton also listed a terrestrial pattern or two. However, the next major work, as it relates to the development of terrestrial fishing, didn't show up until 1836. This was the wonderful book entitled "Fly Fisher's Entomology" by Alfred Ronalds. This book started anglers and tiers looking at the trout, the stream and the insects with closer eyes. He showed how observation was one of the keys to successful angling. He discovered that trout were sensitive to noise that is transmitted through the water from the stream bank, and he detailed the effects of noise on the holding and feeding lies of the trout. He also made important discoveries on how the refraction of light can affect the vision of the trout. He was the first to study and classify the various insects that the trout feed on. Ronalds also explored selective feeding behavior and that included some remarkable studies on the role of ants and beetles in the trout's diet. With this work he anticipated some of the findings of Vince Marinaro 150 years later in "A Modern Dry Fly Code".

If one follows angling history, it goes without saying that the next major contribution was to have a profound effect on terrestrial fishing. This was not so much a fly tying innovation, though it would change how we would look at all imitations. This author is George Philip Rigney Pulman and the book is "Vade Mecum of Fly Fishing for Trout". It was first published in 1841, and  a  revised edition was published in 1851. This set us firmly on the road to fishing the dry imitation.

Though Pulman does not claim to be the inventor, nor does he write as though he were, he is, however, acknowledged as the first to write about fishing the dry fly. As with other imitative forms, the dry fly was to have a profound effect on the development of terrestrial fishing.

Authors that followed contributed bits and pieces to the development of terrestrial fishing through either fly fishing theory and method or fly tying development. Most notable were Francis Francis, William Stewart, William Blacker, and James Ogden. In 1886 Frederic M. Halford published his first of seven volumes, the classic "Floating Flies and How to Dress Them". The theory of fishing floating flies became accepted. However, it should be noted, that even though Halford acknowledged terrestrial insects, his imitations were more mayfly-like in appearance than anything else. Halford listed pattern #60 as Hackle Red Ant, yet it was hackled just like his mayfly imitations. With pattern #66 & 67, the Red Ant and the Black Ant, two mayfly-like wings were added. Anglers would still have to wait for better terrestrial imitations to appear.

So, as you can see, changes in presentation methods and fly construction were really starting to move forward. There was still plenty of important work to be done by men such as J.W. Dunne and Colonel E.W. Harding right up to present day English authors like John Goddard, Brian Clarke and Charles Jardine. Now we are going to move across the ocean to America and focus on the discoveries that would move the art of fishing terrestrial imitations into its own sphere of importance.

There were many American authors that mentioned or listed a terrestrial pattern or two during the early 1900's. However I feel that the next major push came from Edward Ringwood Hewitt, who published "Telling on the Trout" in 1926. Hewitt wrote several outstanding books on fly fishing and justly deserves his reputation as a creative thinker and technician. Hewitt's experiments on the Neversink led to the creation of the Hewitt skaters. These are dry-fly spiders with unusually long, stiff, dry fly hackles.

Next, in 1934, we have Preston Jennings and his classic work a "Book of Trout Flies". Jennings gives excellent coverage to ants and their importance as a trout food. In 1938 the legendary Ray Bergman published "Trout", in which he mentions the Cooper Hopper, developed by a Michigan angler, Ken Cooper. Bergman also discusses the effectiveness of Hewitt's spiders. Bit by bit the knowledge and understanding of terrestrial food forms grew. Charles M. Wetzel follows with his book "Practical Fly Fishing" in 1943.

During the late 1930's and throughout the 1940's two anglers in Pennsylvania were hard at work solving selective feeding problems on the Letort, Yellow Breech and Big Spring. Their findings began the renaissance of terrestrial fishing as we know it today. The anglers were Charles K. Fox and Vince Marinaro. The book that brought terrestrials to the attention of the anglers and changed the way that we would think about them, fish them and construct them, was published in 1950 and entitled "A Modern Dry Fly Code" and was written by Vince Marinaro.

It is interesting to note that the angling world kinda missed Vince's book when it was first published. It wasn't till after "A Modern Dry Fly Code" was out of print that a slow ground swell of interest began to grow, and this lead to the book being reprinted in 1970. However, not all anglers missed the first printing. In 1955, Ernest G. Schwiebert Jr., published "Matching the Hatch", another volume which was destined to become a classic. When reading “Matching the Hatch” you will find patterns for ants, beetles, spiders and hoppers. Furthermore if you read the General Bibliography you will find “A Modern Dry Fly Code” listed.

In 1963, Charles K. Fox published,"This Wonderful World of Trout" and followed in 1967 with "Rising Trout". Both of these books shed more light on the development of the terrestrial and how Marinaro and Fox worked their way forward to solve the problem of proper imitations and presentation. This was followed by "Selective Trout" in 1971, by Doug Swisher and Carl Richards. Swisher and Richards cover leafhoppers, ants, beetles, crickets and hoppers. They also talk about "A Modern Dry Fly Code". As a matter of fact, Vince Marinaro is listed in the acknowledgments: "Vince Marinaro for his pioneer work in terrestrial fishing and in new-pattern innovations".

In 1976, Vince Marinaro published his second and final volume entitled, "In the Ring of the Rise". Once again his discussion of light pattern, rise forms and presentation methods helped the angling world to further understand terrestrials and the methods to fish them.

Since Marinaro's last book, there have been a few books and a  number of magazine articles which have covered, at least in part, terrestrial fly fishing and the importance of it.  Most notable among the books is "Tying & Fishing Terrestrials" by Gerald Almy, published in 1978. Another is "Terrestrial Fishing" by Ed Koch which was published in 1990 and the most recent addition is "Terrestrials" by Harrison R. Steeves III & Ed Koch, which just came out in 1994.

Finally we need to talk about the fine books of Dr. Gary Borger. In 1980 he published "Naturals" which gave full play and coverage to terrestrials. In 1991 his next volume entitled "Designing Trout Flies", devotes an entire chapter to terrestrials and again in his most recent work entitled "Presentation", published in 1995, Gary gives ample time and information dealing with terrestrials.

Even with the recent additions, there is still much work to be done in the realm of terrestrial fishing. Also, the time now seems right for one of the authors to gather all the information available on terrestrial fishing together in one volume. Much of the information is scattered and fragmented throughout angling literature, and often anglers skim over and miss this important knowledge.

Now that we have looked at the history of fishing terrestrials, I would like to share with you some of my favorite terrestrial patterns and further insight on the importance of each of these insects.


It is fitting that we begin with ants. With the possible exception of grasshoppers, none of the terrestrial food forms are mentioned more than ants. This is for good reason. Many of the terrestrial food forms are only available during very specific time periods. Ants, however, are available from April to October here in Yellowstone Country. There are many types and colors of ants, from large carpenter ants to tiny red flying ants. Many anglers refuse to fish ants because they can't see them. If this is your problem, simply fish the ant as a dropper behind a pattern that you can see.

Many anglers ask when should ants be used? We, as a people, seem to like things in very neat and ordered categories and because of this we often fail to realize the natural happenings on streams, thus we lose some very good and interesting fishing. This happens when we become too rigid in our thinking and fail to observe. Trout often feed opportunistically on terrestrial food forms, and during the warm months of the year most streams have a constant "Terrestrial Drift" going on. Not only will this bring surface rises, it may also induce some subsurface activity.

Ants, being very active and extremely numerous, often end up in the water as part of the terrestrial drift. Therefore, employing the use of ant imitations, both wet and dry, during time periods when the trout seem to be keyed to nothing special, is not a bad choice. Anytime there are super heavy numbers of ants on the water, the trout can, and will, become very selective to ants. This is just like fishing any other hatch. Work the feeding trout using good presentation methods and good imitative patterns.

Often the observant angler will find a trout or two stationed in a feeding zone where they are seeing a lot of ants, even when other trout may be seeing none or only a few. These trout can be quite fussy, and may only take a properly presented ant imitation. During the slack times of the day I may use a two fly system, fishing both a dry ant and a wet ant. Both patterns have served me well. Many anglers fail to consider wet ant imitations. They seem to think that ants float forever and never end up under the water. Nothing could be further from the truth. They do end up subsurface, just like everything else that fall into the water. Therefore, it stands to reason that if the trout will rise to the surface to feed on the floating ant, it will also feed on the drowned subsurface ant. That is why I use the wet/dry two fly system. Now let's take a look at my two favorite ant patterns.


I also tie this in a red and cinnamon color variation. Now let's take a look at my favorite dry ant imitation.


I also tie a cinnamon color variation using camel thread, Scintilla #76 Medium Cinnamon and brown or grizzly dyed brown hackle and a wing post of either color.


Other than a few anglers who utilize beetle imitations on the spring creeks or on one of the Park streams, we sell very few beetles in the shop. Could it be that maybe there are just not that many beetles around Montana?   Basically, beetles are not popular because they are hard to see, and like many of the terrestrial insects; it is only on rare occasion that we see them covering the water. Therefore, if they don't carpet the water, then the trout seldom feed on them. Right!!  No way.

Please remember that trout feed in an opportunistic manner when it comes to terrestrials.  Here in Montana the beetles start to become available to the trout in mid- May and explode during June and July. Their numbers start to dwindle in August. However, September normally brings heavy numbers of the little shiny black beetles along the banks of the Yellowstone River and I have seen these little beetles on both DePuy and Armstrong's Spring Creeks. Beetles vary greatly in size and color and the angler/tier should have a good selection on hand to cover the bases.

Again you might ask why?  The sheer number of beetles is staggering, and they are found in all types of habitat. Due to their numbers, they maintain a prominent position in the summer menu of the opportunistic feeding trout. There are approximately 24,000 species of beetles found in North America. If anglers were to start looking for and collecting beetles on the waters they fish the most, they would indeed be surprised.

Once all the factors dealing with beetles are comprised as related to trout, one can understand the statement that "It would indeed be a rare summer's day when a trout couldn't be tempted with a beetle imitation". Once again, many anglers find small beetle imitations hard to see. That problem can be solved in one of two ways. First you can fish the beetle in conjunction with another more visible pattern. My favorite method on the spring creeks   is to use a beetle and drop a trude or hopper pattern behind it. During the hopper season I often fish beetles and hoppers in combination. The second way of solving the visibility problem is taken care of at the vise. Almost all patterns can be modified to include some sort of Hi-Vis indicator on the imitation.  

For those of you who wish to undertake beetle identification, I suggest you start with the Peterson Field Guide to Insects. However I do suggest that you might start fishing beetle imitations a little bit more on all the waters that you fish. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

When fishing beetle imitations, the angler should keep one thing firmly in mind when presenting the imitation to the trout. That is that beetles are clumsy fliers, and when coming down on the water they create a considerable disturbance on the surface of the water. Also when crawling about and falling into the water, again due to their shape, they also create a disturbance that is less than delicate. Therefore the imitation should also be presented to create that disturbance. Now let's take a look at one of my favorite beetle imitations.



In the west, the words, "the hoppers are out", brings a smile to the faces of the guides and local anglers. Everyone starts to make plans to go fishing. The grasshopper is the one terrestrial that all anglers seem to be familiar with. Like other popular forms of fly fishing, much has been written during the last twenty-five years about hopper fishing. Most everyone writes about fishing the banks. However, if that's the only water you fish you will be missing a great deal of very good fishing.

Besides the banks, also fish the riffle corners, drop off edges, and the current lines. Due to their size, hoppers can be found anywhere on the water and the trout are willing to take a good looking hopper pattern. So remember when fishing hoppers, to be sure to cover all the water.

No, not every trout will take the hopper, but the more water you cover the more fish you will take. When fishing hoppers I generally will cut my tippet back to 4X. Even then I lose a few fish on the "TAKE". Now I would like to share a hopper pattern with you that was developed by my angling partner Rod Walinchus.


This pattern was developed by Rod Walinchus and is listed in our book, Fly Fishing the Yellowstone River, An Angler's Guide, published in December 1995. Rod says this is one of his favorite hopper patterns. Rod also claims this pattern is very effective! Even though this pattern was developed for the big water of the Yellowstone we soon found out that when tied in sizes 10 & 12 this was an excellent spring creek hopper.

Now to the final terrestrial that we cover and that is the cricket.


Here on the western spring creeks this is one of the real "sleeper" patterns, meaning that during late July and all through August and into mid-September, cricket imitations are very, very effective. However, this is a pattern type that is almost totally ignored by the anglers. Years ago I watched an elderly angler from PA take a dozen fish on Armstrong's on what I later found out was a Letort Cricket. Oh, did I tell you that I watched this happen within one hour in the afternoon! That sure made me a believer in the effectiveness of cricket imitations.

Now here is one of my favorite cricket patterns.


In closing I hope this information on terrestrial insects will cause you to employ them more often. You will be glad that you did!!!

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