Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Small Ant; and, Black Ant; etc.

This dressing for T. E. Pritt's Small Ant Fly, No. 58, substitutes a reddish-brown hen for the tomtit's tail Pritt recommends.




Peacock herl, tied large fore and aft

Reddish-brown (furnace) hen with a black list

Ant patterns have historically been popular with anglers, presumably because they are effective dressings and relatively easy to dress. The Mid-Season 1978 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine included an article entitled “Ants,” a deceptively simple title for a comprehensive treatment of the insect. Author Ernest Schwiebert examines the ant’s “structural morphology” and asserts, tongue-in-cheek perhaps, that the “angler fully prepared to match ant forms on most American rivers must have 40-odd patterns in his bag of tricks" that range widely in size, from the size 28 Minute Black Ant (Monomorium ergatogyna) to  the size 10 Giant Carpenter Ant (Camponotus occidentalis), and in color, from black to brown to red to red-brown to hot orange to yellow to pinkish-red fox to whatever best matches the nuance of different species’ gasters, pedicels, and legs. 

Most anglers before Schwiebert and since (and likely into perpetuity) have preferred simpler criteria for delineating the wide variety of ant species: black or red and winged or wingless. 

British angling-authors often focused on winged ants, and used a range of materials to form the body, although they were most commonly peacock or ostrich herl. The wingless pattern shown above is the Small Ant, No. 52 that T. E. Pritt includes in  North-Country Flies (1886):

“WINGS.—Hackled with a feather from a Tomtit’s tail.
BODY AND HEAD.—A bright brownish peacock’s herl; body dressed full, as shown in the plate.”

Plate 10 for June and July shows a dressing that mimics the typical dressing for an ant—a larger body and smaller head separated by hackle. Pritt notes that the pattern “is best on hot days in July and August. The natural fly is abundant on almost every English river, and the artificial fly is alluded to by most writers. It will now and then do great execution, particularly after a flight of ants.” Harfield Edmonds and Norman Lee include an almost identical dressing in their Brook and River Trouting (1916), but they place the hackle  just behind the eye, a position more typical of historical soft-hackled flies than the mid-shank dressing.

Pritt also includes a Large Ant, No 58, which is a winged dressing, much more in the traditional style of ant patterns. It retains the fore-and-after body style, but hackles the fly at the front of the hook, under a wing that extends beyond the aft section of the body. The vast majority of ant patterns are dressed for winged ants, often utilizing a peacock or fur body. John Jackson gives a dressing for the Black and Red Ant, Nos. 44 and 45, in The Practical Angler (1854). His dressing for the Red Ant is unique in that it calls for the “Herl of Cock Pheasant’s tail” to be used for the body, and in the Art of Angling (1843), William Blacker includes a dressing for a body with “Black mohair.”  In his List of Natural Flies (1843), Michael Theakston also includes dressings for the Red Ant Fly, No. 77—which he recommends to anglers with “the scriptural mandate: ‘Go to the Ant, etc.’”—and the Black Ant Fly, No. 80. Theakston dresses the latter uniquely: “Wings, a silvery grizzle cock’s hackle; dark, blood red or black silk, well waxed, for body, etc.; with a few fibres of dark red mohair at the breast, for legs.”  John Kirkbride, on the other hand, offers fairly traditional dressings for the Red Ant Fly and the Black Ant Flies with bodies of peacock or black ostrich, respectively, in The Northern Angler (1837). John Turton, too, dresses a traditional, winged Red Ant Fly, No. 10 in The Angler’s Manual (1836).

Alfred Ronalds includes a dressing for the Red and Black Ant, No. 36, in The Fly Fisher’s Entymology (1836) that combines the body materials to dress the Black Ant:

This dressing omits the starling wing, but maintains the placement of the hackle that Ronalds depicts on color plate XVI his book. Since he does not prescribe a thread color, this dressing maintains the  color given for the red ant, even though wine or black would seem more appropriate.

Ronalds gives this dressing for the Black Ant: “THE BLACK ANT is made of peacock’s herl, and black ostrich mixed, for the body. Wings from the darkest part of the starling’s wing, and legs a black cock’s hackle.

An ant pattern is also listed as the Aunt Flie, No. 22, in John Swarbrick’s List of Wharfedale Flies (1807), which Leslie Magee reprints in Fly Fishing: The North Country Tradition (1994). Swarbrick’s pattern calls for the same body and winging materials as Pritt’s ant patterns, but peacock is first listed as a body material for red ants in Charles Bowlker’s Art of Angling (1774). Both Charles’ edition and his father Richard’s (1758), utilize black ostrich for the body of the black ant. Richard, however, preferred a body dubbed with “hog’s down, died of an amber colour” for the red ant, which seems an heir to the “dubbing of brown and red Camlet mixt” for dressing the  “flying Ant, or Ant-flie” that Charles Cotton July in his 1676 additions to the Compleat Angler.


  1. Neil, always love reading through some history of the patterns you feature here. I have been tying for a long period of time and believe it or not, a Soft Hackled Ant pattern never crossed my mind. I think I will tie a few of those up for my Bluegill box.

  2. Neil, the last ant dressing pictured with black thread as you describe works well around here. Nice to know the history behind it!