The evolution of a revolutionary fly.
[By Scott Sanchez]
A LOT HAS HAPPENED IN FLY FISHING OVER THE LAST 25 YEARS, but the Chernobyl Ant has stood the test of time and, if I may say so, become better with age. That wasn’t the case at the beginning. Initial responses to the fly were skeptical, likely because many anglers overanalyze the top of a fly and forget about what it looks like from a fish’s perspective. However, now it’s almost as familiar as the venerable Parachute Adams in nearly every Rocky Mountain fly shop. It’s become a catchall stonefly and terrestrial imitation, and a great attractor pattern. Suffice it to say, it’s still a valuable fly in an angler’s fly box—fish eat them, and they’re easy for anglers to see. What’s not to love?
Since a small group of Green River anglers created the fly, the Chernobyl has evolved slightly from its original foamand-rubber fly construction and shape. Other fly designers have added their own pizzazz with different underbodies, foam colors and thicknesses, leg patterns, wings, and sizes. But still, the basic premise, imitating those high-protein meals big fish love, remains the same. Catch a hopper, cricket, or stonefly and hold it upside down next to one of those foam-and-rubber concoctions. The similarity is amazing. But even I have to give credit where credit is due. While the Chernobyl inspired other fly tiers, it was the simple classic warmwater fly, a Sponge Spider, that inspired me.
Hare and Foam Chernobyl
HOOK: Dai-Riki 730, sizes 10 to 14.
THREAD: Tan 6/0.
UNDERBODY: Hare’s-ear dubbing.
BODY: Tan 2 mm foam.
LEGS: Medium tan/black Centipede Legs.
BACK WING: Tan Widow’s Web.
FRONT WING: White Widow’s Web
Born on the Green
The origin of the Chernobyl Ant dates to 1990, when a group of guides on Utah’s Green River were tying flies to resemble the river’s large black crickets. Concoctions of deer hair and polypropylene cord were common at the time, but it was Rainy Riding’s foam flies that started to substantially influence fly design.
The final succession of patterns leading up to the Chernobyl included Emmett Heath’s foam body, rubber leg Mutant Ninja Cicada and a fly called Butch’s Wiggler. The Wiggler was a large Renegade with black hackle and rubber-legged tails. Mark Forslund took the fly one step further and created a big foam-and-hackle ant called the Black Mamba.
In the summer of 1990, Allan Woolley substituted rubber legs to give the fly more motion, and the rubber-legged version was an instant success on the river. According to Greg Gaddis, a Green River guide at the time, the guides were hanging around one night, drinking beer and comparing notes from recent days on the water, when Woolley was asked what he called the fly, to which he promptly responded, “It doesn’t need a fancy name. It’s just a damn ant.” Mark Bennion replied, “But it’s a [insert F-bomb here] Chernobyl Ant!”
The catchy name stuck. As anglers fished the fly on other waters, its notoriety spread, and variations of the basic design ensued. However, one other reason for the fly’s growth was that it occurred simultaneously to the proliferation of closed-cell craft foam.
Within a decade, the Chernobyl spread worldwide. Wherever there’s a relatively dry high-altitude environment, you’ll likely find terrestrials or stoneflies easily imitated by these big foam ants. But I’ve also had luck using them to mimic dragonflies, and I know other anglers have used them on warmwater ponds for bass and panfish.
Additionally, a number of different Chernobyl variations have won the prestigious Jackson Hole One Fly contest over the years. It’s all further proof that by just changing the size and color of the original, you can replicate any number of life-forms that live in, or alongside, water.
But you can also downsize. A size 14 or 16 can make an active-looking caddis or a tube fly—some designs lend themselves well as waking steelhead flies. Why stop there? Create bass frogs or giant rodent imitations for taimen. Jeff Currier has fished the fly around the world and seen it trick an amazing variety of species, including the elusive mahseer, snakehead, and freshwater dorado.
The bulk of trout-influenced Chernobyl variations has come from my home waters around the Snake River in Wyoming and Idaho. It makes sense—I live in the land of big stoneflies, hoppers, and attractors, and some key designers include legendary anglers and tiers like Jack Dennis (my mentor), Bruce James, Jason Pruett, Eldon Barrett, Donna Allen, Brandon Powers, John Faust, Will Dornan, and yours truly. I’m excited to see what innovative takes on the classic come next!
Of all the Chernobyl variations, I think Will Dornan’s style, with a large dubbed body and polypropylene wings, is consistently one of the best. The wing does a few things. First, it is visible to anglers. Second, it makes the fly land correctly with the wing up and the body down. Finally, it helps the fly land softly on the water.
It might surprise you, but getting foam flies to land correctly is a big issue. In fact, early versions of the ant used just a front wing, but many now sport a front and rear wing. Two wings make the fly even more visible, and a thick, dubbed body helps hold the foam in place and ballast the fly when it’s soaked with water. Dornan’s style ant is also an incredibly easy and quick fly to tie.
When it comes to wings, I try to avoid bright-winged flies because some fish see the color and spook. An alternative is a wing that is bright enough to see but natural in color. I like gray or tan polypropylene for the rear wing and white for the front. Viewing from underneath, the fly appears natural, but from the angler’s perspective, the fly is still white, and bright enough to stand out on the water. One of my favorites to imitate everything natural is a hair-and-foam style that uses hare’s-ear dubbing, barred tan rubber legs, and a tan rear wing.
Another favorite is Willy’s Red Ant. This fly appeared in the late 1990s and soon became a Jackson Hole favorite—it won the Jackson Hole One Fly contest in 2001. There are numerous thoughts about why red flies work around Jackson in August and September, but no conclusive answers have been drawn. Obviously, the fly was too good to leave one color, so now there are golden stone, purple, salmonfly (rust brown), pink, peach, green, orange, UV tan, olive, and peacock variations available, and most use Mylar dubbing and Krystal Flash tails.
Currier (who is also a good personal friend) says you can’t go wrong with whatever variation you pick. “Just shut up, tie it on, and catch fish,” he says, though I should note many of the color variations in the Jack Dennis Outdoor Shop are there because he had them custom-tied.
Willy’s Red Ant
HOOK: 3XL nymph or streamer, sizes 6 to 14.
THREAD: Black 6/0.
UNDERBODY: Red rabbit dubbing mixed with pearl Ice Dub.
BODY: Black 2 mm foam.
LEGS: Medium round black rubber.
WING: White Widow’s Web.
Tying Willy’s Red Ant
Don’t Do the Twist
A common problem with big foam flies is the body can twist on the hook shank. To avoid this, build up a good thread base first, then coat the hook shank with cyanoacrylate glue, and then add a small amount of dubbing. The dubbing gets fused to the hook, and the rough texture helps hold the foam in place.
The most common foam used for Chernobyls is 2 mm closed-cell foam, but depending on the size fly and how high you want it to float, you can add two or more strips. In fact, my personal preference for size 6 and larger is to use matched strips. (Use contrasting colors for a twotone effect.) If you want only one strip of foam, use 3 mm or 4 mm sheets—you can create a larger profile and make it less dense, though it may take a few more additional thread wraps to secure.
When it comes to legs, there are more options now than ever before. The most common is solid-colored round and barred rubber legs, though Sili-Legs and spandex are also frequent substitutes. Large-diameter legs will support the fly more, while thinner legs tend to “wiggle” on the water more. To that point, longer legs are more animated than short ones, but short legs are more anatomically correct.
Sili-Legs come in amazing colors and move well, but the material is more fragile than rubber, and spandex is the most flexible, but it absorbs water. To adjust spandex leg length or position, stretch the material from both ends. This will make the legs thinner, but you can also slide it to a desired position before releasing.
Long-shank, 3X- and 4X-long streamer hooks are frequently used to tie Chernobyls size 8 and larger. Unfortunately, the hook gap is limited on smaller hook sizes, and hooking fish becomes more difficult because the large foam body gets in the way, so I like to use 2XL or even standardshank hooks for small Chernobyls—those models also help ballast the fly and force it to land correctly. Some of the less exaggerated natural-bend hooks work great, too, because you can tie the underbody somewhat short and expose more of the hook bend, which will improve hookups. Examples include the Tiemco 2302 and 2312, and the Dai-Riki 280.
If you haven’t tried the Chernobyl, take it for a spin. The fly and its variations are amazingly effective, simple to tie, and productive.
Scott Sanchez is the shop manager at JD High Country Outfitters in Jackson, Wyoming. He won the first Federation of Fly Fishers Iron Fly Contest in 2014.