Song of summer

Adding extra terrestrials to your fly box a natural boost

A solitary angler waits while trout rise around him during a wind-born “hatch” of winged ants on Grand Mesa. When summer lake levels are full, anglers can walk the bank, searching for trout cruising along the edges.

Crickets, ants and grasshoppers are among the favorite patterns used by dry-fly anglers to catch terrestrial insects. The cicada hatches on the Green and Gunnison rivers are among the most exciting times of the fishing year.

Fishing tight to the bank often brings strikes from “bank sippers,” trout that hold in undercut banks or where the current sweeps beneath sheltering brush and vegetation.

Late last night, just as Scorpio was emerging in the southern sky, a song of summer began.

The rasp of crickets sounding across the back lawn is more than a simple way to estimate the temperature (count the chirps in 15 seconds, add 39 to get degrees Fahrenheit), it’s also a signal that it’s time to carry a few extra terrestrials with you when you fish.

Not E.T., of course, but crickets, grasshoppers, ants, beetle and cicadas.

How important are terrestrials in a trout’s diet?

Land-grown insects provide a surprising amount of food for trout and other fish, and according to an article by Tom Rosenbauer on the Orvis Co. website, it’s not simply a summer menu item.

“Stomach content studies of trout show that land-bred insects are dominant trout food not only in August, but also in May, June, and September,” Rosenbauer writes. “Well into October and November, beetles can be the most abundant food in a trout’s stomach ...”

But how many beetle and ant imitations do you carry in your fly box or bury somewhere in your fishing vest?

If you are like most Colorado anglers, probably not very many.

“People should absolutely be fishing terrestrials,” said Phil Timms at Western Anglers Fly Shop (244-8658). “Ants are a huge part of a trout’s diet, and with all the beetle-kill trees we have around here, people should be fishing those as well.”

In his book “The Dry Fly,” the late Gary LaFontaine wrote beetles “may not only be the most useful ‘all around’ terrestrial, but the most valuable fly for general searching.”

So why don’t more anglers fish terrestrials?

Timms said he’s not sure Eastern anglers may turn more often to an ant or beetle pattern, but he offered a theory about Western anglers.

“People around here don’t dry fly that much. They would rather tie on a couple of nymphs and catch fish that way,” he said. “I understand you can catch more fish like that, but it’s not the most fun way to fish.”

So what is a terrestrial? The list is long and includes anything that creeps, crawls and flies: grasshoppers, bees and wasps, crickets, cicadas, spiders, inchworms, moths, butterflies, caterpillars, beetles and ants are all considered terrestrials.

Sizes run from the tiniest, mote-sized ant to the biggest cicada, which on Utah’s Green River can be as big as your thumb.

There’s something quite satisfying about tossing a big ‘hopper or cicada in search of trout.

There’s the whiz as it whistles past your hat, the comforting plop when it hits the surface and that stirring sight of a big, toothy mouth emerging from the water to suck down the fly.

But it’s not always slap fishing. La Fontaine cautions anglers to watch real bugs when they hit the water; the insects fall lightly, barely making a ripple.

“Slam a fly on the head of trout holding near the surface and the result is usually panic,” La Fontaine wrote. A fly hitting the surface without a splash is “more natural; watch a real grasshopper fall and this is obvious.”

As Lefty Kreh once said, “Trout are always biting, you just aren’t catching.”

Even a delicate landing will attract a fish interested in some extra calories, and trout in a regular feeding pattern near the bank are just as, or maybe even more, spooky than a trout out in the open water.

It’s always a matter of calories in versus calories expended. Some studies indicate ants and beetles have more calories for their size than other prey, and while a trout has to chase a small fish, that big old bug just floats past the window.

There also are some anglers who say trout like the formic acid in ants. But that supposition goes into the same file with anyone who says they know the taste preferences of a golden Lab.

Fish that feed along the edges (“bank sippers” is the terminology) are more common in spring creeks, tailwaters and nonfluctuating lakes than in the typical freestone streams.

Why? The freestone creeks fluctuate seasonally, with high water scouring the banks and low water leaving broad expanses of barren beaches.

Constant flows, or steady lake elevations, provide grassy overhangs and a steady trickle of careless insects.

These bank-sipping trout can be tight to the edge. Walk softly, look ahead and practice your casting, so you can drop an ant, beetle or grasshopper in a dinner plate-sized hole.

It’s stalking trout at its best, and now is the time to do it.


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