What Do Ants Taste Like?


A recent conversation with a friend brought about one of those questions that periodically shake the foundations of Western civilization.

What does an ant taste like to a trout?

No, really.

We were talking about fly fishing for trout on the Missouri River, and he was describing his use of trico spinners.

Tricos, short for tricorythodes, are tiny mayflies that hatch in midsummer. They tend to hatch and emerge from the river in the morning, fly away, mate, then fall back to the water. When they fall back to the water they are called spinners.

If you know how to fly fish a spinner trico imitation, you can do really well. My friend does really well.

But after the spinner fall ends each day, the fishing gets tougher. So my friend said he switches to ants. Because there are ants everywhere in nature, ant imitations catch fish.

black ant fly

A black ant fly | Photo courtesy of Big R Stores

Why? What’s so tasty about an ant?

Decades ago I asked a similar question to a professional fly tier, concerning a Royal Coachman fly pattern, which imitates nothing in nature and so is called an attractor pattern.

His response? A Royal Coachman probably looks like strawberry shortcake to a trout. In other words, nobody knows. But it works.

Ants, however, are different. They are real. They exist. And they contain formic acid.

Ants, especially red ones, produce formic acid to sting predators, capture food and defend themselves. They have a poison gland in their abdomen that contracts and releases the acid.

Formic acid, I’m told, is bitter. Although one Internet expert (yeah, let that sink in) says the formic acid in ants makes them taste citrusy, like a lemon.

So does an ant taste like a bitter, or lemony, crunchy morsel to a rainbow trout? Nobody knows, and the trout I’ve talked to, don’t answer.

red ant fly

A red ant fly | Photo courtesy of Big R Stores

It is known that fish taste things. They have taste buds, which are commonly located inside and outside of the mouth. Ours, of course, are restricted to the tongue.

Bottom fish, like catfish, have taste buds on their skin, fins and barbels. The barbels in particular allow the fish in murky water to taste food from a reasonable distance; they don’t actually have to touch it.

Think of the advantages if we could do with that. You would have the ability to wake up at 3 a.m. and from your bed taste the leftover pizza in the refrigerator. Then decide if you wanted to get up and eat.

Wait. That could be lethal.

While rainbow trout presumably have taste buds, too, they rely a lot on their vision to locate food. This time of year, there are plenty of terrestrials (bugs) about, flying, hopping, falling into the water.

All a trout has to do is find a secure hiding spot and watch for a tasty looking bug to hit the surface. If it doesn’t look like something that hooked them recently, and they are not spooked by a telltale fishing line, they probably will try to swallow it.

While an ant imitation would have no flavor, a trout’s memory or instinct, I assume, would remind it the last ant it ate tasted pretty good.

And if an ant is not available, then maybe that grasshopper floating by will do.

I wonder what a grasshopper tastes like to a trout.


bruceBruce Auchly is the information officer for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the Great Falls regional office. His “Tales and Trails” columns come from a curiosity of all things natural in north central Montana.