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How to tempt hungry trout when hatches are slow and the sun is high

THE TERM "TERRESTRIALS" was first heard in fishing over 50 years ago when the late Charlie Fox used it to describe land-born insects that end up on the water. Fox and the late Vincent Marinaro were among the first anglers to study trout which feed on terrestrials--beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, ants, leaffhoppers, and inchworms, to name a few. Their findings on south-central Pennsylvania's famous Letort Spring Run led to the birth of a new way of fly fishing for rising trout.

Terrestrial fishing opens many doors for summer fly rodders when mayfly activity is relegated to morning and evening hours. The best terrestrial fishing occurs at midday, when air and water temperatures rise and the land-born insects become active. Rain, wind, and careless hopping carry bankside terrestrials to the water's surface, where they are easy prey for trout.

There are millions of terrestrial species, as opposed to thousands of mayflies, but this does not mean you need hundreds of patterns. Usually a handful of flies to imitate the most prevalent bugs in your area will get the job done.

My first terrestrial experiments, back in the 1930s, were with simple #14-#16 sinking hard-bodied ant patterns. The flies, based on fly tier Bob MacCafferty's pattern, worked like a charm and spurred my interest to imitate other trout-important terrestrials--surface and subsurface.

In addition to pattern creation, Fox, Marinaro, Ed Koch, Ernest Schwiebert (and others), and I have developed terrestrial-fishing strategies that work anywhere in the world.

Tough Summertime Conditions

A TERRESTRIAL FISHERMAN'S biggest challenge is battling bright summer conditions--when terrestrial fishing is best. During summer, water levels are low and clear; shadows, reflections, and silhouettes are more obvious than ever (not to mention other troutspooking noises and vibrations). You must approach the stream carefully. If you allow your body to silhouette against the sky, for example, you decrease your chances of sneaking up on the fish.

Keep low by crouching on your hands and knees. This makes it more difficult to get into the right casting position, but it's worth it. Also, try to blend into the background by positioning yourself in front of a tree or other obstruction.

Years ago I realized that when I was fishing into the sun, I was throwing reflections ahead of me and alerting the fish. If I put the sun at my back, my shadow would spook the fish. Therefore, to help minimize reflections, I now fish with nothing reflective dangling from my vest (shiny hemostats, nippers, or pin-on zingers). Several companies now make these tools with nonreflective finishes. The same goes for clothing--no white fishing caps, shirts, or trousers. I even remove my wristwatch on sunny days.

On bright but overcast days, the same advice applies. Minimize reflections so you can get close to feeding fish. Determine what works on your stream in regard to the sun's position. Some streams fish better at different times of the overcast/bright day. For example, on overcast days, one section of my favorite meadow stream fishes best before 10 A.M. From then to about 3 P.M., the sun throws reflections ahead of me and decreases my ability to sneak up on trout. During that period, I fish areas where the sun's angle is not a factor.

Bright sun also affects the fish's ability to see. Depending on the sun's position, it may blind them in one eye (the one toward the sun). So, you may make the perfect approach, but if you place your fly on the blind side of the trout, it may not see it. (A fish may only rise to the right, for example, because its left eye is blinded.)

Shadows are another problem. When the sun projects your shadow far ahead, as in the early morning and late evening when the sun is at a low angle, you should fish sections of the stream where the sun is not at your back.

To sum up: Minimize silhouettes, shadows, and reflections; and tread softly in the water or on the banks.

Tactics--Top and Bottom

TROUT RISING TO TERRESTRIALS are generally not selective feeders and will take whatever the current brings them. This means that on any given day, you can fool them with a number of terrestrial patterns.

I usually start with a small (#16-#18) Letort Cricket. If several fish ignore it, I scan the water's surface for any abundant insects the fish may have singled out. If it's ants or beetles, for example, then I play the match-the-hatch game. Sometimes it's easy to determine what the fish are keyed on; at other times, it's nearly impossible. Observation is the key. Check the banks and streamside brush for a dominant bug that may be making its way into the water.

Presentation usually is more important than matching the hatch. When a terrestrial insect suddenly lands on the water, trout seize the opportunity for an easy meal without scrutinizing what type of insect it is.

For actively feeding fish, I splat the fly almost on top of them with a plop--seven or eight inches out from, and slightly behind, one eye or the other. This "behind the eye" or "splat" presentation depends on the trout's reflexive response to turn and grab the fly without thinking--a conditioned reflex. This presentation works for active feeders as well as sulkers lying in wait for an easy meal. I've seen trout dash as far as eight feet to inhale a splatted terrestrial. For the splat presentation, it's important that your flies be meaty so they can plop when they land on the surface.

When fish are not actively feeding, splat your flies near prime hiding spots, and feeding and resting lies. On meadow streams, look for undercut banks where grasses and bushes overhang the water. Fish often lie in wait for food to fall from the bank.

Also look for places where food collects in the Stream--the forward edges of instream obstructions, and patches of foam that collect in eddies and hold food beneath a protective curtain of cover. A cricket, hopper, or beetle dropped into the foam and jiggled to imitate a struggling insect can entice surging rises. Experiment with jiggling or twitching your terrestrial patterns.

Fish the edges. The best places are where the current changes and creates lines between slow and fast water, and where currents hit obstructions and glance away. Bridges are also great places to throw terrestrial patterns. Oftentimes you can see all kinds of ants, beetles, and caterpillars crawling on bridges. Fish holding below are just waiting for them to fall into the water.

I usually fish terrestrials upstream. As I make my way, I look ahead and pick out the fishy spots--overhanging banks, limbs, or bushes, small backwaters, deeper water between rocks or clumps of water weeds. I keep an eye out for the risers and, with the help of polarized glasses, try to spot trout in feeding lies. By looking ahead, I'm prepared to fire a "behind-the-eye" cast to the fish. It also helps to minimize false casts. It's critical that you don't false-cast over the fish.

Show feeding fish your fly as soon as possible. Don't delay your cast by changing flies. Large terrestrial-feeding trout often eat in short spurts to minimize exposure to overhead danger (birds and other natural enemies). Put your fly in the zone immediately. If the trout refuses your first presentation, then--and only then--change files.

All terrestrials float at different levels in the surface film. Generally, the smaller (and lighter) the insect, the higher it sits on the surface, Marinaro's Modern Dry Fly Code explores this in great depth and is worth reading.

Sunken Terrestrials

THOUGH FISHING TERRESTRIALS on the surface is my first choice, there are times when sunken terrestrials are more effective. Some terrestrials, especially beetles and inchworms, sink quickly when they hit the water. Others are dragged under by currents or wind before they make their way slowly back to the surface.

Most patterns fished below the surface work well. You can simply add split-shot to your leader to sink the flies or build patterns specifically for underwater presentations.

As I mentioned earlier, the sinking hard-bodied ant, fished on or near the bottom, is a killer. Other patterns, like a large, soft, brown wet beetle, work below the surface as well as my soft-bodied Sinking Cricket (black or gray) fished in the deep undercuts where a floater can't reach.

Fish subsurface terrestrials as you would a nymph; dead-drift, or employ wet-fly tactics, Most of the time I fish underwater terrestrials on a tight line, with a nearly dead-drift presentation. Your presentations don't need to be perfect dead-drifts, because the insects often struggle to swim under water and the trout jump on the easy sunken meal.

Small and Large Waters

ALTHOUGH I SPEND A LOT OF TIME on Cumberland Valley's spring creeks, I also enjoy floating terrestrials on little mountain freestone streams. These waters, with their small, beautiful brook trout, often have a canopy of trees and bushes that drop terrestrials in the water. A #14 or #16 Letort Hopper is visible under the shaded canopy and a killer on the aggressive brookies. Other productive mountain-stream patterns are black deer-hair ants with a small ball of fluorescent yarn tied in at the midpoint of the hook shank for better visibility.

On larger streams like the West's Missouri, Snake, and Madison rivers, fish take terrestrials near the banks and in open water. In open water, I fish a hopper dead-drift. Once it begins to drag, I skim it back to me and fish it like a skating caddis.

Once, while fishing Argentina's Chimehuin River below Black Bridge, I skimmed a Letort Hopper across-and-downstream and landed several nice rainbows up to 22 inches. On one particular cast, a tremendous wake followed the fly. It turned out to be a monstrous brown, and when the fish took, I promptly overreacted, losing my fly and tippet before I knew what hit me.

Terrestrial Gear. Since most terrestrial fishing occurs when the water is low and clear, 2- to 4-weight rods are ideal for soft line presentations (splat your fly, not your line), if you plan to mix in some streamer fishing, use a 4-weight. I like short rods up to 6 1/2 feet, but most anglers prefer 8- to 8 1/2-foot rods for this fishing. Single-action reels work fine, and since I do a lot of my terrestrial fishing on smaller waters, I use reels with little or no backing. On larger waters, I use a reel with a drag and at least 100 yards of 12- to 18-pound-test backing.

Lines, like rods, are a matter of personal preference, but standard weight-forward or double-taper floating lines in fluorescent orange or ivory are fine. [Note: Several manufacturers make lines specifically for spring-creek and stealth-fishing approaches. These include Cortland's olive 444 Clear Creek and Orvis's Spring Creek Double Taper to name a few. THE EDITOR.]

The leader is perhaps the most important consideration. The trick is to use a long leader, generally 10 to 13 feet, tapered to 4X-6X tippet. Use 4X or 5X tippets to help turn over large terrestrials like crickets and hoppers, and lighter 6X tippets for smaller patterns like ants. Long leaders are key because they help reduce the amount of fly line needed on the water, which in turn helps eliminate unwanted reflections and surface disturbance.

ED SHENK is currently working on his second book Ed Shenk--65 Years With a Fly Rod. He lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.


IN FLY TYING, FEW PATTERNS have benefitted from the introduction of more than the terrestrials. Foam is the most recent focus of fly tiers. It is durable and tier-friendly, and it floats well, provides a realistic profile, and sits properly in the surface film.

Pennsylvania's Bob Clouser advocates simple and quick patterns. His foam beetles (above) and ants take under five minutes to tie.

Virginias Harrison Steeves III is one of the most innovative foam terrestrial tiers, creator of the Disc O'Beetle and Firefly, to name a few. (See the Fly Tier's Bench on page 64 for pattern' recipes and tying instructions.)

New standard foam patterns, include the Chernobyl-style flies developed on the West Coast and in the Rockies, but used all over the world. Most rubber-legged Chernobyls are tied as ant or hopper imitations, but they imitate anything big and ugly like cicadas and stoneflies. Since much terrestrial fishing includes the surprise approach, sometimes the uglier the pattern the better.

Western guides are also praising the Madonna's Panties, a foam red-ant imitation that floats well and is easy to see on the water.

Of course, there are the reliables: Dave's Hopper (by Dave Whitlock), the bullet-head-style Lawson's Henry's Fork Hopper (by Mike Lawson), Schroeder's Parachute Hopper (Ed Schroeder), and Joe's Hopper' (popularized by Joe Brooks) to name a few. Muddler Minnows fished dry and Stimulator-style hoppers with rubber legs are also proven produce.


Shenk's Fly Box

MANY OF AMY FAVORITE terrestrial imitation were born on the limestone streams of south-central Pennsylvania. Some are of my creation; other are adaptations of the great tiers patterns. All of them work just about anywhere in the world where critters crawl.

Shenk's Letort Cricket and Hopper. The Cricket is my favorite terrestrial. It's easy to tie and its deer-hair construction keeps it afloat even after catching several fish. I've used the Cricker everywhere--from Montana and Wyoming to Southern waters and Argentina's Patagonia. Other anglers tell me of the pattern's success in Europe, the British Isles, India, Africa and New Zealand. I fish it in #10 to #18 in black, which provides a great silhouette against a bright sky. The Sinking Cricket, made with a black wool body, works well in #12 to #16.

The Letort Hopper is my second favorite terrestrial. It is also easy to tie. It's just a dubbed body, flared deer-hair wing, and clipped-hair head. I do best with #12 to #16 patterns, even out West where many anglers fish much larger flies. In fact, one of my best Western browns, a 28-inch Gibbon River male, taken on a #16 Hopper. In addition to a natural grasshopper, the Hopper pattern imitates an adult caddis.

My Sunken Hopper is tied like the Sunken Cricket. Use tan wool for the body and head and trim it to a natural hopper shape, tie on a short mottled turkey wing so that it is flat over the rear body section, and add knotted legs made of turkey wing or goose quill sections.

Ants. I could start my own anthill if I tried to match every ant species I've encountered. Instead, I've limited my approach to a few patterns. For a floating ant, I like the simple fur-bodied ant tied with two bulges of fur dubbing and a sparse dry-fly hackle at the waist. I tie it in cinnamon, black, or brown in # 16 to # 28.

Another effective floating ant is Chaunch Lively's deer-hair ant tied in # 10 and # 12. Its only drawback is its lack of durability. After a few trout, it starts to look scraggly, even if it has a coating of head cement. But then again, I've seen trout take it when it no longer resembles anything much less an ant.

The hard-bodied ant is an effective underwater pattern. It's as easy to tie as the fur-bodied fly. Build the ant body segments with black or red thread and coat them with numerous coats of lacquer or epoxy. Finish with black hackle between the segment.

Beetles, Natural beetles come in a multitude of shapes and sizes. I use two drys that are made of deer hair. For flies imitating larger beetles like the June Bug, I tie a simple # 10 to #12 spun deer-hair bug that I clip to shape. For smaller naturals (#14 and smaller), I use the simple but effective Crowe Beetle (by John Crowe). Tie hollow deer hair to the hook with the tips extending past the hook bend. Pull the hair over the top and tie it off just behind the hook eye. Clip the tips, leaving enough of a brush to simulate a head. Like the deer-hair ant, coat the Crowe with cement to improve its durability. Some tiers add a herl or dubbed body before tying in the deer hair.

The Letort Beetle is another effective dry beetle. It was first designed by Ernie Schwiebert in the '60s. The fly's best quality is its silhouette. Its body is palmered black hackle trimmed top and bottom, and its wing is a flat, lacquered feather trimmed in an oval shape and coated with cement (like its predecessor, the Marinaro Jassid). The original wing was an iridescent feather from a ringneck pheasant, but now the pattern is tied with bronze turkey body feathers. A #16 is the standard size, though I've had success with Beetles as small as #28.

For a sinking beetle pattern, a simple #12 Sinking Beetle is all I use.

Jassids (leafhoppers). The Jassid, originated by Marinaro on the Letort in the '40s, imitates the late-summer populations of leafhoppers. The small insects, #18 to #24, are found by the thousands in streamside grass. The pattern's flat wing is a Jungle Cock eye feather that imitates the natural's flat silhouette.

Inchworms. Both floating and sinking patterns to imitate these critters are always in my fly box. In the spring and summer, inchworms spin their silk and hang from tree limbs, often right over the water. On some streams, trout go nuts over a fallen inchworm. I tie both versions in fluorescent green, the floater with deer hair (a George Harvey design) and the sinker with chenille. Some tiers add a brass bead at the fly's head.

There are many terrestrials and many good patterns that imitate them. Bee and housefly patterns, while not necessary, can take uncooperative trout. The beauty of terrestrial fishing is that any unusual pattern can work, especially on hardfished waters where it pays to show fish something different.



HOOK: Mustad 3906B # 12.

THREAD: Brown 6/0.

BODY: Brown dubbing, tied full.

WING: Brown turkey wing feather section, pulled up over and tied off at the hook eye.

LEGS: Optional. A few sprig of peacock hearl tied crossways.



HOOK: Mustad 9672 # 10-# 12.

THREAD: Black 6/0.

TAIL: Two narrow sections of goose biot, black or blue dun.

BODY: Sheep's wool dyed black or gray. Best constructed with dubbing loop. Build back end of body first, and legs and antenna, then build front of body (head).

LEGS: Knotted turkey or goose quill.

ANTENNAE: Striped center rib of hackle feather.

HOOK: Mustad 9671 or 9672, #10 to #18.

BODY: Black poly dubbing.

WING: Black goose quill section, treated the same as hopper.

HACKLE: Black deer-hair tips, treated the same as the hopper.

HEAD: Trimmed black deer-hair butts.


Terrestrial Fishing, by Ed Koch and Harrison Steeves III, Stackpole Books, 1994

Terrestrials, by Ed Koch, Stackpole Books, 1990.

Ed Shenk's Fly Rod Trouting, by Ed Shenk, Stackpole Books, 1989

Modern Dry-Fly Code, by Vince Marinaro, Crowne Publishing, 1979 (in 8th printing)

Tying & Fishing Terrestrials, by Gerald Almy, Stackpole Books
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Title Annotation:land-born insects in the water
Author:SHENK, ED
Publication:Fly Fisherman
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000

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