September 26, 2023
I’ve been asked a lot of questions during tying demos and classes over the years, and not all of them are good. The best questions are often some variation of “whose flies do you admire?”
This one always gets my brain racing. It used to be that the list was pretty short, but these days there are just so many good tiers it’s hard to form a succinct answer. As I think about this question over the years, I can tell you one particular tier who has been on that list for decades and it is none other than the fantastic Idaho tier, René Harrop. I know I am not alone in my reverence for Harrop’s flies, as he is simply one of the best fly tiers to have ever wrapped thread. He’s got a distinct style and tying ethic that is simply unmistakable. His creative use of materials is outstanding, and he pioneered the use of CDC in the United States. His skill in creating bugs that are at the same time works of art and perfectly buggy imitations of the selected food sources is breathtaking and is something I have always aspired to. I never give compliments lightly, but in the case of René Harrop, I’ll go ahead and gush a bit.
Harrop lives in Saint Anthony, Idaho, and many of his patterns were born on the Harriman Ranch portion of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, a section of water well known for its snooty trout and difficult fishing. His patterns have always appealed to me both in their beauty and tying skill as well as their uniquely flawless appearance.
Harrop’s Flying Ant is just one example of this thoughtful, less-is-more fly design. It uses just four commonly available materials, which are then massaged into a perfect flying ant silhouette. The pattern is both simple and a great exercise in proportions and material placement. There is nothing on this fly that doesn’t belong. It’s buoyant, visible, and durable—all characteristics that make it perfect in my eyes.
To tie the HFA, you’ll need to start with a standard dry-fly hook of your choice and a bit of dubbing. I prefer the Tiemco 100-SP-BL for most of my dry flies as it is a bit stouter than your typical dry-fly hook and holds up better to the often imaginary extra-large fish I always plan on catching. Natural fur like fine beaver is a good choice for the dubbing, but I have found that synthetic Superfine Dubbing twists down tighter and allows me to build firmer sections that I can shape more easily.
I have taken it upon myself to mix my own ant-specific colors by hand, with combinations of mahogany, cinnamon, rusty brown, and gold colors to get a bit closer to the color of these actual critters. Once the dubbing color has been perfected, I build a robust abdomen well behind the midpoint on the hook shank, leaving plenty of room for the rest of the fly as well as—and this is the hard part—the important voids in between.
In Harrop’s fly, a single, narrow slip of vinyl-coated natural duck quill is tied in lying flat back over the abdomen to imitate the folded wings of the natural. I tie mine in with the inside of the feather facing up, which gives the top side of the wing a bit of sheen that is easier for me to see on the water. A few snips creates a nicely shaped wing tip, and the duck quill ties down with no unnecessary bulk to fatten up the fly.
My favorite part of the HFA is the ingenious use of just two strands of moose hair, tied in on either side of the abdomen to replicate legs and, more importantly, act as outriggers to keep the fly upright. It’s the little details like this that turn me on so much about Harrop’s flies.
A sparse hackle collar just in front of the middle of the shank between the body segments helps keep the fly floating. I have taken to gladly committing the sin of stripping the inside side of the hackle to further the sparsity of this pattern. While this is something I almost always frown aggressively upon, stripping one side of the hackle on this pattern has a genuine purpose and keeps the fly from getting too bushy while conveniently allowing for a hackle collar that stands perfectly upright.
I finish the fly with a smaller dubbed head, typically in a different color than the abdomen but these most certainly can be tied in monochromatic schemes as well. As a point of contention, most bicolor ant patterns are tied with a cinnamon-colored abdomen and darker mahogany or even black head, but in doing a bit of research I have found that most flying ants are actually colored in the reverse, having a dark abdomen and lighter head area. That being said, I stay true to the original pattern and method I have always used to tie this one, even if it ain’t quite right. I’m stubborn like that.
Late summer and into fall seem to be prime time for flying ant falls. Near many Western rivers, heavy rains often flood ant nests and prompt a mass migration to drier ground. During this exodus, these apparently delicious critters often get blown off course and appear on the surface of some of the best trout streams on earth, with surprisingly mixed results for anyone who happens to be fishing that particular day.
If you are so lucky to be in the right place at the right time with one of the “ant falls,” you are in for either some lights-out fishing or a frustrating day depending on what flies you happen to have in your box. Suffice it to say, once you spend a day casting the wrong flies to fish keyed in on a very specific and unusual profile, you’ll never leave home without a batch of more precise flying ant patterns readily at hand. In the absence of a verifiable ant fall, a smaller terrestrial pattern like this has often become an ace-in-the-hole for picky fish that are just sitting along the bank looking for a handout.
Harrop’s Fly Ant Recipe
- HOOK: #12-20 Tiemco 100SP-BL.
- THREAD: Black 14/0 Veevus.
- ABDOMEN: Cinnamon, rusty brown, and mahogany blend of Superfine Dubbing.
- LEGS: Moose body hair.
- WING: Natural duck quill.
- HACKLE: Brown or barred ginger rooster saddle.
- THORAX: Mahogany Superfine Dubbing.
Step-by-Step Fly-Tying Instructions for Harrop's Flying Ant
- Begin by starting the thread just behind the midpoint on the hook and dressing the shank back to the bend. Apply a long, tight noodle of dubbing to the thread and build a pronounced gaster at the rear of the hook that ends just short of the halfway point on the shank.
- Even the tips of two thick moose body hairs and tie them in about a shank length long just in front of the abdomen. Wrap the thread back over them to push them down along the sides of the hook and tightly up to the front of the body. They should be widespread and extend beyond the end of the abdomen. Clip the butt ends and wrap over them forming a smooth thread base.
- Cut a narrow slip of duck quill about half a hook gap wide. Cut the ragged tip off square then shape the end into a rounded point as shown.
- Measure the duck quill to about a shank length long and tie it in with the inside of the feather facing up at the front of the abdomen so it lies flat over the top of the fly. Clip the stub end and wrap over the leftovers to smooth them off.
- Size a hackle feather and prep the base. Strip all the fibers off the inside of the turn and leave a completely stripped butt end to tie in.
- Tie the feather in just in front of the base of the wing and make about four turns, making sure the hackle wraps vertically. Tie the feather off with a couple of tight turns and clip the excess. Dub a tight noodle of darker dubbing and build a round ball for the thorax, being sure to leave a tiny gap between the back of the ball and the front of the hackle. Build a small thread head behind the eye, whip-finish, and clip the thread.
- Apply a small drop of flexible cement to the tip of the wing to keep it from fraying. I like to add the drop then stroke the feather between my fingertips to straighten out any curve and distribute the cement more evenly.
Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie’s Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado. He is the author of four books, most recently Tying Streamers: Essential Flies and Techniques for the Top Patterns (Stackpole Books, 2020).