We are in the dog days of summer. Right now, it is hotter than two rats in a wool sock and streams/rivers are hot, low, and clear. But even with all this disdain, summer is one of the most fun times to target trout. The reason is simple. While the mayflies are preparing for their fall appearance, the land bugs and animals or “terrestrials” come out in groves. It may be stifling hot at some moments but take a moment to listen to what is around you; the frogs are peeping for a mate, the crickets and grasshoppers are chirping into the night, and the cicadas noisily keep campers awake at night. These terrestrials are the types of critters that trout are now keyed in on, and the ones that should be coming out of your fly boxes! In the following sections, I will outline some of the infamous bugs that appear during the summer and some tips and tricks on how to fish them.
Grasshoppers: the king of the terrestrials
West is best. Not only is this a saying comely referred to for surf casting on the east coast, but it holds true for grasshoppers. Here on the east coast, grasshoppers are certainly around, but not in the numbers in the western United States. But while I mentioned that terrestrial fishing is better and more popular in the west, the history of terrestrial fly fishing was surprisingly developed right here on the east coast. Vincent C. Martino in his 1950 book A Modern Dry Fly Code, is credited with developing the class of artificials known as terrestrials. And he did that on the Letort Spring Run in central Pennsylvania. Ed Shenk, along with Martino, developed the Letort Hopper, one of the most popular and decorated hopper patterns to date. Do not let anyone ever say that the east coast does not have a great terrestrial hatch because we certainly do!
Hoppers still manage to find themselves in dicey places by misjudging jumps or getting blown into the water on a windy day. Splashing a big hopper pattern in the middle of summer sometimes makes the weariest trout let their guard down. One of the best methods for fishing grasshoppers besides pounding the banks is to use the hopper-dropper method. Off the shank of the hopper, tie 18-24” of tippet down to a nymph of your choosing (a smaller dragonfly nymph works wonderfully in the summer). Your hopper is now a nutritious sight for a hungry trout and also your indicator. This is a great way to fish riffles in the summer and other fast-moving waters. My choice of hopper for the hopper-dropper is a big foam Chubby Chernobyl, a popular pattern out west for grasshoppers and the salmon flies. The Fat Albert is another popular choice for this technique.
Ants: snacks for trout
Trout love flying ants. The Catskill mountains are notorious for a flying ant hatch of epic proportions. I have only ever hit a flying ant “hatch” a few times. Once on the main stem of the Upper Delaware and another during my time at Penn State. What is unique about these hatches, is that they come and go quickly. They swarm up to do Ant things – build nests, protect the colony, move the queen – and then disappear just as fast. But when they do manage to find themselves in the rivers, trout gobble them up. Matching the hatch is almost nonexistent with ants. Just get the pattern close and you will be into some success. These patterns are rather simple to tie. Two balls of dubbing separated by some hackle should do the trick. Or even foam works well.
Caterpillars: A fuzzy wonder
I think every fisherman has a story about finding a Woolly Bear Caterpillar streamside and sending him into Davey jones’s locker. During summer many years ago, I was in the Pocono mountains and these fuzzy caterpillars were everywhere. I was a young child at the time, I proceeded to gather a handful of them and chuck them into a fast-moving run. Within seconds, a feeding frenzy began, as trout ravenously devoured these tasty morsels. My father immediately tied on a Woolly Bugger (another pattern developed in Pennsylvania by Russell Blessing) and I spent the next hour catching fish cast after cast. While the Woolly Bugger resembles many different insects and animals, I like to think it resembles the Woolly caterpillar best. Even though August is a little late for caterpillars, stragglers are still around and fish cannot resist an easy target. Remember that green-inch worms are also around. A green weenie is a great nymph pattern to be tied under a hopper or fished alone. Or dare I mention a mop fly to imitate a grub!
Beetles: insects or indicators?
How many times have you been swimming in a pool to find a green, shiny, beetle floating amongst you? The Japanese beetle is an invasive species that is here to stay. Introduced in the early 1900s, these beetles now inhabit the entire eastern coast. And somehow, they always find themselves in water providing a tasty snack for fish. Besides the Japanese beetle, many other beetles are active in the summer months. Like many terrestrials, matching the hatch is not all that important here. Just having something that resembles the beetle shape should be good enough to trick a fish. Black foam is a popular choice for matching the beetle profile. This is another good prospecting fly similar to grasshoppers as you will not necessarily get a bona fide hatch. It is not a pattern I fish frequently but worth a try on a hot summer day.
Cicadas: the loudest insects alive!
Sit outside in the summer and just listen. What do you hear? The loud rumble of electricity running through powerlines? Or is it one of the largest insects on the east coast yelling for a mate? There is no denying the sounds of cicadas. Annual cicadas (ones that hatch yearly) are around during the summer months. In 2021, we had an incredible hatch of Brood X cicadas, one of the 13-year life cycle cicadas, that led to amazing fishing. These incompetent fliers can fall out of the tree like a small meteor crashing into the earth. And if it happens to be in a river, fish see a juicy steak. Fishing during a cicada hatch is one of the most fun a fly fisherman can have. Throw subtly right out the door! When cicadas hit the water, there is nothing subtle about it. This is one of the only times in fly fishing where a big, ungraceful splat is a go-to cast.
Lanternflies: invasive fun!
As of 2014, Lanternflies have become a new terrestrial to add to the fly box! They are a nuisance and should be killed on sight if you cross one, but fish eat them just like cicadas! The jury is still out on whether fish think they are actually lanternflies or maybe cicadas or just some other large bug. But either way, they are fun to fish with, just like cicadas. I will not spend too much time talking about these but refer back to my previous article for more information on this invasive species.
Mice: creeping while you are sleeping
I will finish this article with my favorite terrestrial animals to fish with, mice! While all the previously mentioned categories can be classified as terrestrial insects, mice actually fall into the terrestrial animal category and therefore are included in this article. I don’t think it is a big secret anymore that trout, especially large bruisers, eat mice on a regular basis. There is nothing better than rowing down a river at midnight with a full moon lighting up the bow as you listen for your mouse pattern to get blown up. Fishing with mice is more a sound-type of fishing than a visual type of fishing. I will offer a few pieces of advice for those who want to play the night game. First of all, use a heavy leader. Fish have a much harder time seeing the leader at night. I typically use a 10-20 lbs leader during the evening. This also helps with throwing these large mouse patterns. Second, do not strip these patterns like a streamer. An injured baitfish moves along erratically throughout the water. If you have ever seen a mouse swim, it is calm and rhythmic. Try tucking the rod under your arm and using two hands to swim the fly across the water in a slow, constant movement. Lastly, when you do have a fish strike, do not set the hook! The number of times, you will pull the fly right out the fish’s mouth will drive you crazy when you first start mousing. Just continue on, pulling the line in until you feel pressure. Then give it a good strip set! This will guarantee success. Sometimes fish hit it multiple times before they take the fly. Be patient! Mousing is a fun way to finish off an evening when the action just would not let you go home before dark. Things really do go bump in the night!
Summer fishing is usually frowned upon by trout fishermen. But it doesn’t have to be. My favorite time to fish is the end of August into the beginning of fall. The reason being is that, unlike fall where fish seem to only want a certain type of mayfly, in the summertime, opportunities are endless! Early morning mayflies can transition over to flying ants, followed by grasshoppers, ending with mice! Any combination can happen to make summer an exciting time to get on the water. Just be careful of those water temperatures and practice safe fish handling!
Featured image by John Fallon (fallon_outdoors)