In an excerpt from his new book, The Feather Mechanic II: Beyond the PatternGordon van der Spuy dives deep into the delicious versatility of an ant fly pattern.  

Earlier this year I found myself walking back from a day’s fishing on the Bokong River with African Waters when an ant “hatch” started. These “hatches” can be localised to a specific pool or area so ants don’t necessarily mean that the whole river starts boiling. It all depends on where those ants are emerging from. This time I was on my own and didn’t have any guides to persuade me about the dangers of climbing down mountainsides in the near dark. By the time I got down to the pool below it was practically dark. Threading the small ant onto my tippet was challenging. I was literally doing it holding the fly up to the last embers of the setting sun. I couldn’t see much. I’d cast the fly close to me and listen for the take.

There were about 100 fish rising in the vicinity of my fly so I kind of had to guess when I thought the fly had been eaten. I managed three fish in the dark and probably missed 20 more.

Stars align

The next evening I made sure I was on that pool an hour earlier. I took the whole day off and just tied ants in preparation for the mayhem I suspected would take place. I tied a wide variety of patterns ranging from #12 all the way down to #24s just to make sure I had my bases covered. This kind of thinking doesn’t always work out as ants don’t “hatch” with the regularity of say midges. They tend to take to flight when conditions are just right. The chances of getting this “hatch” on consecutive evenings is never guaranteed and unlikely in most instances.

Luckily for me the stars aligned and those ants did exactly what I thought they would. I sat there and enjoyed the best two hours of dry fly action of my life. As the “hatch” progressed the fish got a bit more selective regarding what they would eat. By the time I finished I was on a #24 ant on an 8x tippet. Landing big yellowfish on fine tackle and tiny flies is thrilling stuff. 

Gordon with a yellowfish, caught on his Easy Peasy Ant on the Bokong River with African Waters.

Easy Peasy Ant fly pattern

The nice thing about the ant fly pattern is that there is not much to tying them. You want a pattern with a very distinct profile. In the case of ants that means two distinct body sections separated by a thin waist. The head and thorax are separate sections but I treat them as one thing because unlike the abdomen of the fly, there isn’t a drastic separation between those two body parts. Older ant patterns used to always put the hackle in between the two body segments. This never made sense to me as it seriously messed with the profile of the fly. That thin waist is a prominent trigger.


A natural ant, floating on the water’s surface, with its abdomen deep in the film.

“I like a fly that breathes in the drift”

The other thing I like is for my ants to sit nice and deep in the surface film. The naturals tend to get “glued” into the meniscus when they’re drowning. To this end I’ll sometimes tie them on emerger hooks to get that abdomen to sit nice and deep in the film. Black flies can at times be a bitch to see so a post helps with spotting the fly. A parachute hackle keeps the fly nice and stable in the drift and aids flotation. A sparse halo hackle of CDC fibres under the hackle adds a bit of inbuilt mobility to the fly. I’m big on that. I like a fly that breathes in the drift. That’s why I’m such a fan of CDC.

Life Changing Ants from The Feather Mechanic II: Beyond the Pattern.

In the beginning when I fished ants I’d take a very literal approach to how I imitated them trying to match the naturals very accurately. I’ve come to the conclusion that fish don’t care about the aesthetics of a fly in quite the same way that fly tyers do. What we see and what fish see are simply not the same thing. Rough, simple, impressionistic flies that present well are the ticket. That said, don’t assume that these little fishing flies aren’t elegant or subtle. People are prone to overcomplicating and overdressing terrestrial imitations. I don’t know why this is but it’s definitely a thing.

Don’t smash the TV

Most people tie terrestrials the way my Granny used to decorate the Christmas tree. They get so caught up with the decorations that they forget about the tree. The one year the tree fell over and smashed her brand-new colour TV. That was the last time she decorated her Christmas tree barring some very light tinsel and the little angel on the top. Tying is the same, less is more in most cases. 

Watch Gordon’s step-by-step video on how to tie the Easy Peasy Ant below:

The defining factor that puts really good fly tyers and fly fishers apart is the fact that they do the detail well. Detail doesn’t refer to complicating things, detail entails doing the simple things well and recognizing what the important things in a fly are. Nuances are important. Fundamentals are ultimately the building blocks for brilliance. Get the fundamentals nailed the whole time and success is bound to follow. 

Read Gordon’s full story in issue 41.

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