Fly-Fishing with Foam Terrestrials
August 28, 2018
When trying to match any type of insects, imitating their prominent features leads to success on the water, whether it is a midge larva, mayfly, or land-dwelling insect. Grasshoppers have three prominent features that are visible to fly fishers, and more importantly to the trout. They have three sets of legs, and although the front two pairs are visible, the rear set of legs is the most prominent and most often imitated.
Hoppers also have a large set of compound eyes on each side of the head. In addition to these highly visible eyes, grasshoppers have three simple eyes called ocelli, one above the base of each antenna, and one on top of their head between the compound eyes. Although not as prominent as the compound eyes, these eyes aid in the detection of light changes, and act as a warning system.
The other prominent grasshopper appendages are the wings, a front set that is smaller and stiffer, and a larger membranous rear set that provides three times the amount of lift when they take flight.
There are a wide range of materials used to represent the legs of terrestrials, ranging from knotted hackle-stem or pheasant-tail legs, to speckled rubber, or vinyl tubing. Rubber legs like those on my VW Hopper allow you to emulate life by simply twitching the fly on the water. Short 1- to 2-inch twitches can be the difference between your fly floating past a feeding trout, or getting slammed.
VW HopperHook: #8-14 Dai-Riki 280. Thread: Green 6/0. Body: Golden brown 2mm foam. Abdomen: Midge Diamond Braid. Hackle: Furnace. UnderWing: Krystal Flash, UV Pearl. Wing: Natural elk hair. Legs: Centipede speckled. Thorax: Ice Dub. Indicator: Wilcox's Psychedelic Foamicator. Eyes: 3-D adhesive eyes.
If you have closely observed a hopper, you probably noticed its large compound eyes. This important element is missing on most traditional hopper patterns, likely because of the time involved painting eyes onto the fly. Adhesive eyes, like Hareline's 3-D eyes, make them much easier, improving the effectiveness of your flies on the water. The 3-D eyes give the pattern an extra element of realism and are available in a host of colors.
Grasshoppers also have distinctive wings that are longer than the body and quite visible to the fish. Turkey quill, and deer or elk hair fibers represent the wings on most traditional hopper patterns, and while these materials work well, there are synthetic wing materials that are easier to work with, more durable, and also look great.
Wapsi's Thin Skin comes in a wide range of colors with a mottled pattern to give the fly a natural look, and it won't add bulk to your fly. D's Flyes Web Wing and Hareline No-Fray Wing material (used on my Herbie) are two other exceptional modern wing materials.
Add Krystal Flash under the wing to give the fly the appearance of fluttering wings when the sun hits it, or add deer or elk hair to bulk up the wing profile and increase buoyancy.
Cicadas, crickets, and beetles are among the most underfished patterns available to fly fishers. I don't know why more fly fishers don't use these types of patterns, but they make my fishing easier—trout are less suspicious of them than the more common hopper patterns.
I use the Herbie to impersonate all three insects, merely by making some simple modifications in colors and sizes. There are a wide range of cicada species throughout North America, all of which fall under the order Hemiptera.
HerbieHook: #8-12 Dai-Riki 280. Thread: 6/0 orange. Body: Black 2mm foam. Abdomen: Midge Diamond Braid. Hackle: Black. UnderWing: Krystal Flash, UV Pearl. Wing: Black 2mm foam. OverWing: Black Hareline No-Fray. Thorax: Ice Dub. Legs: Centipede speckled. Indicator: Wilcox's Psychedelic Foamicator.
These insects have some of the same prominent features as grasshoppers, and rubber legs are still important and bring the pattern to life. The groups of cicadas that fall under the genus of Magicicadaare the ones most often glamorized by anglers due to their mass emergence every 13 or 17 years.
While these long-cycle events cause mass feeding, you don't need to wait for the peak brood to cast a cicada pattern. If you listen closely in the woods you can almost always hear cicadas in the summer, and they are available to feeding fish every year because the majority of them have two- to eight-year life cycles and fit into the category called annuals.
Female cicadas deposit their eggs onto a tree branch, where the eggs develop into nymphs. The nymphs then drop to the ground and burrow deeply where they attach themselves to the roots of a tree to feed. During this evolutionary period, the nymphs increase in size, going through five different juvenile stages until they are fully grown.
When spring comes around, they construct exit tunnels to prepare for their emergence when the soil temperature reaches approximately 64 degrees F. In the last phase, known as the teneral period, they crawl out of the ground around sunset and retreat to nearby vegetation to complete their final molting.Cicadas have cyclical peak emergences, but even at low ebb there are enough of these large terrestrials that trout feed on them. Photo: Paul Weamer
They spend the next four to six days in the trees while their exoskeletons harden. The males begin their adult behavior with a series of four different calls to attract females to reproduce, thus completing the cycle.
The ancient Chinese culture, after viewing the life cycle of cicadas, carved jade imitations of the insects to place inside the mouths of deceased family members to help induce resurrection, a practice still used today. Whether you live in the East or the West, a cicada pattern may also be a way to resurrect your fishing season from what many consider to be the summer doldrums. When there are only sparse aquatic insect hatches, trout switch to primarily exotic foods and large, black bugs like cicadas, crickets, and beetles are high on the menu.
The first time I tied terrestrials with foam bodies, I was under the impression I would immediately be able to hang a weighted dropper nymph off the hook bend without sinking my dry fly. Unfortunately, the weight of the dropper combined with the force of the current proved otherwise.
Disappointed with the floatability of my early efforts, I made a few modifications, which—while common in the tying world today—were revolutionary to me at the time. It seemed logical that if I was fishing a dropper off the hook bend, it would float even better if I made a few extra wraps of hackle at the rear of the fly to help support the weight. This tying design greatly improves the functionality of both my VW Hopper and the Herbie. Adding an elk- or deer-hair wing offers additional buoyancy for fishing heavy water.
Much of the effectiveness of large, foam terrestrials lies in their visibility on the water. If you can't see your fly you are more likely to suffer drag, your fly may not be in the desired location or feeding lane, and most important, if you can't see it, maybe the trout don't recognize it either. The visibility of foam flies in general encourages fly fishers to focus more intently and perhaps fish the fly more effectively. And, let us face it, anytime you can get away with throwing a #8 dry fly whether it is a stone, hopper, or Hex imitation, it is more fun to watch the fly and witness the crushing strikes that big foam, rubber-leg patterns elicit.
Jack Dennis showed me some video of trout feeding on hoppers, and it shed new light on how these strikes occur. Often, trout are not attempting to ingest the hopper on the initial strike. The first contact is to knock the hopper beneath the surface where they pick it back up, chew on it, spit it out, and repeat the process until the pieces are small enough to fit through their gullet. The trout almost always position themselves so they can strike the hopper from the side, which could explain why hook-up rates are not as high when fishing terrestrials as fishing other drys.
Understanding the behaviors of the food forms you are trying to imitate, and when they are available to feeding fish, is a great way to increase your success. Most anglers know that terrestrial patterns are effective on warm and windy days along grassy and undercut banks. What many anglers do not know is the reason.
Grasshoppers are cold blooded, and their body temperature dictates their activity level. Most hoppers do not take flight until their body temperature reaches around 80 degrees. This does not mean that the air temperature must be in the 80s. Hoppers sun themselves like snakes to raise their temperature. Cicadas require air temperatures of 72 degrees to take flight regardless of ambient temperature. Cold weather and rain will stop the feeding and flights of these insects for the day.
Despite these known facts, following the "rules" is not necessary to be productive on the water. These patterns fish well anytime of day from when the trees are budding in the spring, until the first big frosts of October. Fish accustomed to seeing these larger insects on the water eagerly await the opportunity to feed on them.
Don't limit yourself to fishing them along the banks either—fishing these large morsels in the riffles and pockets in the middle, and alongside boulders and downed trees is also fruitful.
Presenting terrestrial patterns does not require the casting prowess of fishing size 30 midges to ultraselective trout. Soft deliveries are not necessary, as terrestrials often land on the water with a splat. By similarly "splatting" your fly onto the water, you will actually grab the fish's attention and likely induce an immediate strike.
When fishing big dry-dropper rigs like this, use 71/2-foot, 3X to 4X leaders. Heavier leaders are less likely to twist in midair due to the helicoptering flight of large dry flies, and the big bugs will turn over easier.
Since foam terrestrials have outstanding buoyancy, using a double nymph rig is highly effective and gives you the ability to match multiple food sources. If the floating imitation does not draw strikes, the dropper will pick up the slack for you. My VW Microstone and Superman are two of my favorite patterns to use for droppers when fishing this style; they have the ability to match several species and are excellent attractors when there are no significant hatches present.
Not to be overlooked, ants and beetles are the most abundant terrestrials. My Glo-Ant matches the flying ants' sporadic but noteworthy appearances on lakes and rivers across the country. The wing is fashioned out of UNI-Glo Yarn, which creates a beautiful sheen in the sunlight, and is impregnated with glow-in-the-dark phosphorus. Simply shine a light on it to recharge its glowing properties.
Glo-Ant Hook: #12-16 Mustad C49S. Thread: Orange 6/0. Body: Black 2mm foam. Abdomen: Midge Diamond Braid. Legs: Black hackle. Wing: UNI-Glo Yarn. Indicator: Wilcox's Psychedelic Foamicator
During the day it's a miraculous ant/beetle imitation, at night I use it is a indicator dry fly for those late excursions when you have skipped dinner or are just arriving streamside at dusk. It's surprising how many times, in the dead of night, trout take the Glo-Ant indicator fly instead of my more realistic mayfly spinner or caddis pattern.
I pride myself on creating patterns that are not only more durable and catch fish, but are able to cross entomological boundaries by imitating more than one species with only minor modifications.
I am always trying to incorporate new materials and ideas to keep my existing patterns in a state of constant evolution, not only to change the look of my flies, but more importantly to increase their effectiveness. Changing the look is easy and fun. Battle testing them on the water is more time-consuming, but someone has to do it.
Vince Wilcox is a Signature Tier for Umpqua Feather Merchants and owner of Wiley's Flies in Ray Brook, New York. His web site is wileysflies.com.