Terrestrials and the Trout – A User’s Guide in Four Parts

Looking a bit like a wasp himself, Muz holds a good brownie. The flowering gorse in the background sends clouds of bees across dangerous waters. Photo Andy Trowbridge. Terrestrials and the Trout.
Looking a bit like a wasp himself, Muz holds a good brownie. The flowering gorse in the background sends clouds of bees across dangerous waters. Terrestrials and the Trout. Photo Andy Trowbridge.

Terrestrials and the Trout – A User’s Guide in Four Parts – Parts One and Two

By Paul Corliss

What has changed since the very first account of fishing with a fly was written? Nearly all things but one have, that one is the food. The insects and creatures of water and land are pretty much exactly as they were millennia ago. Angling author Francis Francis (parents were an unimaginative lot in the early days) wrote what is still one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful angling books in 1867 called appropriately “A Book On Angling”. In this series of four articles, Terrestrials and the Trout, we’ll look at food items for trout that originate from the land such as beetles, grubs, spiders, caterpillars, moths, flies, grasshoppers, cicada, wasps/bees, crane-flies and so on, along with how to imitate them.

He concurs when he says that “the flies fed on by trout have been the same from all ages, I conclude, and therefore one has nothing to do but to take them (artificial flies) from those who have gone before, selecting the best favoured by the fish, and leaving out the worst, and make such suggestions on dressing them as experience may dictate. “Tying imitations of them has altered but the things to be imitated haven’t.

This is considered the oldest picture of angling. The Egyptian fishermen here are using rods as well as lines and may be equipped with a spinner or plug for casting, c2000 BC. (From P.E. Newberry, Ben Hasan).
This is considered the oldest picture of angling. The Egyptian fishermen here are using rods as well as lines and may be equipped with a spinner or plug for casting, c2000 BC. (From P.E. Newberry, Ben Hasan).

Claudius Aelianus, in the third century AD, wrote a book called “De Animalium Natura” that described primitive equipment of a pliant reed, six feet long with a line of the same length tied to the tip, at the end of the line was attached a hook on which a fly was created. This earliest of artificials had a red wool body with two cock-chicken neck feathers wrapped in to simulate wings. The natural the fish were feeding on was too soft to impale on a hook and also quickly lost its colour. Thus the need for an imitation was created.

Of course, the use of the natural impaled on the bare hook was common practice, even in New Zealand where anglers used to have a field day with a couple of “creepers” or Dobson Fly larvae stuck on the bare hook. I’m sure that where licenses still permit it, some less adventurous anglers still tread that path.
Captain Hamilton, in his “Trout Fishing and Sport in Maoriland” (1904) gives a description of the essential accoutrements for the “terrestrial” angler, the insect flask. I quote: “Flask For Creeper, Cicada, Grasshopper, Etc”.

The Insect Flask

This should be a japanned zinc flask, 8 inches (20cm) high, 2 and a quarter inches (57mm), across the bottom, 1 inch (25mm) across the top, with a strong hinged lid. It should be round in shape, perforated over its whole height, and it should have a zinc handle three-quarters inch (20mm), in diameter and three-quarters inch (19mm), wide, and fastened 1 and a half-inch (38mm), from the top edge of flask.

“It should be hung from a buttonhole by putting a twine loop around the flask and through the handle”.

In later advice, the Captain advises that a sufficient quantity (of grasshoppers, cicada, grubs or creepers) should be collected the evening before, as “even if the fisher has an attendant at the waterside much time may be lost procuring these while trout are on the feed.”


He advises that blow-flies, beetles etc may also be used successfully in the same manner.

The Achilles heel of the trout is undoubtedly its stomach. If it will open its mouth to eat an identifiable something it is the chink in the armour we need.

We must construct an imitation that will fit the bill. Nymphs, duns, spinners, lures etc have been successfully proven over the centuries in all their various dressings and their advocates have promoted and fought for them. Another field of imitation that has delivered the goods but has not been so often championed, the terrestrial insect, has in fact been used and tested with complete success for hundreds of years.

A. Courtney Williams in ”A Dictionary of Trout Flies” (1949) notes that the natural winged fly forms but a small part of the trout’s diet. We will ignore for the purposes of this article the majority diet of nymphs of caddis and mayfly taken underwater and such other dietary supplements as small fish, molluscs, shrimp etc and concentrate on those food items “on the surface” but originating on land, beetles, grubs, spiders, caterpillars, moths, flies (order diptera), grasshoppers, cicada, wasps/bees, craneflies and so on.

Williams suggests that imitations may be usefully extended to this range of “terrestrials”. He states that the ephemeridae (the mayflies), “have assumed an exaggerated and unwarranted importance in the minds of the average fly fisherman.”

They are clearly not the only flies worthy of consideration. When one adds into the equation the abundance of terrestrials and habitat proximity to trout waters in New Zealand, then their “availability” to trout pushes them further up the ”on-surface food ” chain of demand.


Clearly, this is not meant to imply that if there is a hatch of some identifiable mayfly or caddis being taken from the surface you should persist in flopping out some monstrous cicada imitation the size of a small fox-terrier. It is a question of using them at the right or appropriate time. Try not matching the hatch during the Mataura River rise and see how successful you are. Similarly when the willow grub falls from their leaf blisters trout will take nothing else.

They will move ten feet to intercept the small yellow/green blob. It represents the larval stage of the sawfly (Pontania proxima) and as they drill their way out of the leaf-blister they drop onto the trout’s tablecloth.

Maybe some people have difficulty calling a willow grub imitation a “fly” in the purist sense, but the argument applies equally to say a nymph, it is not yet a ”fly”. The object is to catch trout as sportingly as you can and an imitation of trout food tied with fur and feather (or the modern synthetic equivalents) onto a hook must come close to qualifying as a “fly”. Of course, some flies resemble nothing on earth let alone trout food, yet they deliver. I have no wish to be side-tracked into the Glow-bug debate, so will stop this line of logic before I get into mischief.

The simplest dressing I use for the willow grub is primrose floss tied around the bend of the hook (sizes 16 and even 18 if your fingers can handle it) in a plump body tied off with a brown silk head. I usually tie a thin underbody of lime green floss to improve the colour effect when it’s wet, it looks juicier somehow.

The rise to the willow grub can be very difficult to detect if you’re not looking for it. It’s a very deliberate take, but initially, it can be confusing. The rise seems to be a surface one even though you can’t spot the fly on the surface. In fact, the take is in or under the surface. A soft supping rather than an energetic slash, often the surface is not even broken, just a soft dimple as the water boils.

I was caught out once when fishing the Opihi River. The trout was clearly visible sitting downstream of a trailing willow and I just knew he was on the grub but had only my nymph box with me. In a fit of imagination that surprises me still, I stripped a #16 Pheasant Tail nymph and moulded a twist of yellow/green floating indicator putty to the bare hook. Well, I could spin this one out for a good while but the bottom line was that it landed a couple of feet to the left, the trout slid over and sucked it in as neat as you please. I had him on and under control before he said farewell from under a flood-stranded gorse bush. It worked then and has worked twice more since, very cheap flies and so easy to tie!

The flying or winged ant seems more prolific overseas in Australia, England and the United States, but they do occur here and even the wingless worker ends up as trout L tucker when a good wind blows them from streamside vegetation. The New Zealand southern ant (Chelaner antarcticus) has variable colouring, ranging from black to orange. In summer, winged ants, both short-lived males and fertilised queens, fly in search of nesting sites and thus make themselves available as potential trout tucker.

I have found a few in the stomach of trout and I have no doubt that trout will recognise your imitations and investigate Why trouts like ants is a bit of a mystery, anyone who has crushed one will recognise the urine-like smell of formic acid, but like them they do. Imitations have been around a while as well.

Charles Cotton’s writing first appeared with Walton’s “The CompleatAngler” in 1676, and he gives a dressing for the flying ant of a mixed dubbing of brown and red soft wool and a wing of light grey hackle. Jack Dennis in his “Western Trout Fly Tying Manual” (1974) for the black ant gives the following:

Ant dry fly.
Ant dry fly.

Terrestrials and the Trout – The Black Ant

Silk: Black monocord or heavy black nylon thread.
Body: Black thread lacquered.
Hackle: Two black neck hackles.
Tag: Red lacquer or red thread or floss
Tail: None.
Hook Size: #8 – #20.
The hackle is tied at the “waist” of the fly and both ends are built up as knobs of tying silk.

To help the ant float low, as the natural does, give the underside a bit of a trim with the scissors to get it down into the surface film. Some tie the ant with fur or deer hair and swear by their effectiveness, but the only other one I could recommend from experience is the McMurray Ant.

This requires two small balls of cork or balsa drilled to allow a short length of monofilament to be threaded through before anchoring them to the hook with glue. The lumps were painted black and tied over the mono in the middle along with a few wraps of black hackle, fiddly on a size 16 or 18 hook, but very effective. The balsa or cork can be substituted by two small chunks of dense foam enclosed in black pantyhose material. Of course, a true sportsman would not take the easy way out and simply buy a pair of stockings.

C F Walker in his “Trout Flies: Natural & Artificial” has this to say about the ant: “An artificial ant is very seldom required but when it is wanted it is wanted very badly. Trout seem to be inordinately fond of them.” Though he acknowledges that in 30 years of fly-fishing he has never had occasion to use one himself. He gives William Lunn’s dressings:

Southern Ant. Terrestrials and the Trout.
Southern Ant.

Terrestrials and the Trout – The Red Ant

Tying Silk: Deep orange
Body: The tying silk wound to form a fat blob at the tail end with a few single turns to represent the “waist”.
Wings: Fibres from a white cock’s hackle tied on slanting over the body and trimmed with scissors to the required length
Hackle: Light bright red cock Hook size: #18 – #14

For a dark ant substitute the above as follows: crimson tying silk, a blue dun cock’s hackle for the wings and a very dark red cock for the hackle. If you really want to try accurate ant patterns you’ll have to consider going as small as size 28 hooks. Generally, the ants are fished underneath overhanging branches and trees.

As American master angler and tier, Ed Koch comments, “Fished near the stream’s edge, a foot or so from the bank the ant will often get more looks, rises and takers than any other fly”. Small sizes, (he’s talking of black and cinnamon ants here) 20 to 28, are best.

Trout near the bank. Terrestrials and the Trout.
Trout near the bank.

Occasionally I have been confounded by trout who were surface-feeding regularly and refused time after time the tiniest well-placed ant: but minutes later, I’d present a monstrous size 14, and the trout took as if it hadn’t eaten for a week”.

How often have I had a trout studiously ignore my most delicately presented size 16 dry flies, nosing it suspiciously then turning away and down as if it was the most stinking creation to float down that stream in its lifetime? Slap a well-hung size 8 green cicada down on its head and you’ll swear that it can’t have tasted food in a year, a slashing, no-nonsense, I’ll-have-that-if-it’s-the-only-thing-I-ever-eat type of take. Who knows why?

Try catching a trout after dusk with a slim blue dun when the brown beetle is about, theoretically possible but highly unlikely.

A big clumpy deer-hair beetle plopped vigorously onto the surface is far more likely to deliver a trout, that’s what they’re on and that’s what they prefer at that time. The natural is a fat lump and needs this shape to succeed. See also Terrestrial Insects – Wasps, Bees, Beetles and more with John Hey.

After dark, it is the shape that becomes the most important key to success.

A well-hackled Coch Y Bondhu or even a big Royal Wulff can be used without sacrificing too much of the imitation but the plump deer-hair fly reigns supreme in my diary.

Mike Weddell, now New Zealand resident; and once world professional casting champion, selected the Coch Y Bondhu as one of his Ten Best New Zealand trout flies. He uses it as a general pattern to explore the water as it is a solid looking mouthful and highly visible to the fish. Equally important, it floats well in rough water and is readily seen by the angler. It can imitate a range of beetles and even the blowfly and will catch fish feeding on cicadas and damsel flies.

The Brown Beetle (Costelytra zealandica). Terrestrials and the Trout.
The Brown Beetle (Costelytra zealandica).

Brown Beetle (Costelytra zealandica)

Fishing for trout as they rise to the brown beetle (Costelytra zealandica) is a special way to fish. Not necessarily the method used but the time of the day, when the hustle dies away and everything seems to slow down to meet the night. The rise can last anywhere from 5 minutes to three-quarters of an hour. If you can get a trout in the 5-minute rise you’re doing well.

Settle yourself down on the bank and relax before the grass starts to rustle with beetles. As they whir and bumble all around you, look and listen for the tell-tale plop of a rising trout. If he plops three or four times in reasonably quick succession you’re in, but always remember to give them a chance to settle into a feeding rhythm before casting.

Norman Marsh’s dressing in John Parson’s “Deceiving Trout” (1988) goes close to the more buoyant deer hair specimen, though a twist or two of reddish-brown hackle at the head should improve the deception:

Silk: Brown
Body: Synthetic brown yarn
Wing case: Peacock eye herl (iridescent green)
Hook size: #12 – #16

Love’s Lure dry is also an effective beetle pattern but is better floated in the day rather than the night and is a fair representation of the green or manuka beetle. The green beetle (Pyronata festiva) can be tied the same as the brown but should be tied far slimmer and replace the brown wing case with a green one.

When the succulent green beetle is dripping off the manuka bushes around Lake Taylor and the upper Hurunui River they can provide the hectic sport we hear of from Taupo. l have never seen the great rafts of green beetle that float like huge islands at the mercy of the winds (according to northern writers) but often the problem of too many naturals on the water can occur down south.

There are four possible solutions that can help at a time like this and all but one are designed to make your imitation stand out: use an imitation far bigger than the natural – whether you can see the trout or not, give the fly the twitch of struggling life – try an entirely different fly that will stand out from the masses – scream, snap your rod into pieces and go home.

John Mclnnes (writer of Tread Quietly and Look Closely) suggests a similar strategy that incorporates the use of terrestrials when he has difficulty picking them up on the one species they are taking (mayfly or caddis fly on the surface). He imitates the occasional meal of terrestrials, a big spider, a beetle, an ichneumon wasp or an early cicada, he gives them something recognisable and seasonable but different and bigger. Christchurch anglers driving through Hagley Park this summer cannot but have been impressed by the deafening drone of the cicadas, singing a raucous song that drowned out the traffic noise.

The clapping cicada (Amphipsalta cingulata) is the largest and noisiest of the many species of native cicada. The Maori name, kihikihi wawa, means ”roaring like heavy rain”, as apt as you could possibly get. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, the trunks of the oak trees festooned with the dry husks of the nymphs, left to hang after they’ve hatched.

Norman Marsh’s “Trout Stream Insects of New Zealand: How to Imitate And Use Them” (1983) gives a reasonable cicada pattern, though I feel it would improve if the deer hair was dyed an olive green and “plastic attractors” added as wings.

A natural cicada has finely veined wings that reflect the light. When this beauty is floating downstream on a sunny day you can see the flashes of light reflecting in the air but more importantly into the water. Often it has been the flash of reflected light from the wings that has alerted a stationary trout to my cicada’s presence.

Remember, when a cicada blunders into water it hits with a decent thump. Don’t get carried away but don’t be scared to give it a hard splat on the surface. This can be the only attractor you’ll need, or maybe they’ll spook so quickly, you’ll wonder what it was you were casting at. They’ve worked on waters as diverse as the Orangipuku and the Haupiri Rivers, the Silverstream, Lake Mahinerangi, the Opihi, the Robinson and the Tekapo Rivers, Lake Clearwater and particularly the Rakaia River.

There is another cicada, alike in all respects to the clapping cicada, except it is only a third of the size. This cicada, whose name I do not know, is abundant among the tussock and matagouri country and I suggest you use the Umpqua pattern, but on smaller hooks, if you can manage.

Marsh’s Cicada Pattern

Collar: Peacock herl
Body: Deer Hair
Hackle: Brown cock
Wings: Badger hackle tips
Tail: Deer hair
Silk: Brown
Hook size: #8 – #12

Umpqua Cicada Pattern

The Umpqua pattern is closer to what is needed. It originated in New Zealand, is not ashamed of its bulk and has olive deer hair. I have used them up to size 6!

Collar Olive deer hair
Body: Olive deer hair
Wings: Shimazaki Fly Wing over pearl Krystal Flash
Head: Olive deer hair
Silk: Olive
Hook size: #8 – #10
No tail

This pattern also calls for black monofilament eyes. I don’t think it matters a damn to the trout but it certainly gives the angler the confidence that his imitation looks great.

Blowflies Bluebottles

I know one ancient angler who restricts his trout fishing to the headwaters of the major Canterbury rivers. While he has a few other flies, the whole of one side of his flybox is stacked with Blowfly Drys, probably 20 to 30 of them, all plump and well hackled. The addition of white calf hair as wings (the same as in the Royal Wulff) gives a great indicator of white against the black hackle. He is never short of big trout and goes through his 20 – 30 imitations every season, as they get torn and worn by the many big trout that they entice to the surface.

The most common blue blowflies are the native (Calliphora quadrimaculata) and the European. Basically indistinguishable from each other they are a plump 8 – 10mm in length and a disgusting but juicy morsel for trout. There are always bluebottles about in the backcountry and this is the reason why you should always carry a few counterfeits in your fly box.

R K Bragg’s pattern from Draper’s “Trout Flies in New Zealand” is close enough but can be improved by first building up a plump body of black chenille and a few peacock herls and also incorporating the white deer-hair wings which double as a useful indicator.

Tail: A short tuft of the black squirrel.
Body hackle: A good quality tapered black hackle is tied point first at the tail and then wound up to the head. Follow this up with turns of metallic blue lurex tinsel. Blue floss will suffice but the metallic sheen reflecting into the water is the key attractor Hook size: #14 – #10.

Black Gnat

A standard Black Gnat dry in the bigger sizes can do the job and has an added advantage in that it is a more general pattern and can be taken for other insects as well.

Humphy Blowfly

The Humphy Blowfly is as good an imitator as you could wish for. It has risen fat rainbows from the Rakaia River headwaters in the South Island and defeated a few big browns up the Mohaka River in the North Island, geographically diverse evidence.

Fadg Griffiths in his “The Lure of Fly-tying” (1978) gives illustrations and dressings for over 25 different beetles and nearly 30 different grasshoppers!

American George La Branch in his “The Dry Fly and Fast Water” (1914) debates imitation of the natural at length and quotes Professor James Rennie and his book “Alphabet of Scientific Angling”.

Rennie argues against the “exact imitation” theory and supports the appearance of being a living insect as the key and making the artificial a fly that “would attract the notice of the fish by its form and colour, rather than to imitate any particular species of fly.” He further notes that ”the larger they are, as in the case of grasshoppers, so much the better, because they can furnish a better mouthful.” I agree.

Perhaps we could manufacture a deceiver from Izaak Walton’s days. “You must be sure you want not in your magazine bag the peacock’s feather, and grounds of such wool and crewel as will make the grasshopper. With these and a short line you may dape or dop, and also a grasshopper, behind a tree, or in any deep hole; still making it move on the top of the water as if it were alive, and still keeping yourself out of sight, you shall certainly have sport if there be trouts; yea, in a hot day, but especially in the evening of a hot day, you will have sport.”

The key to success with many of the terrestrials is not just imitating the shape, size or colour but the movement, intentional drag applied selectively and at the right moment, a cultured twitch, especially in the slower water.

The bigger size of terrestrial imitations gives us the added advantage of visibility and flotation, particularly important if they are to be fished with success on faster water, broken water and riffles. No time for a leisurely examination here, a too fussy trout will be a hungry trout, so they need to grab it quickly while it is available.

A big cicada imitation can deceive these big Canterbury high country browns. Photo by Andy Trowbridge. Terrestrials and the Trout.
A big cicada imitation can deceive these big Canterbury high country browns. Photo by Andy Trowbridge. Terrestrials and the Trout.