There is no such thing as a grasshopper hatch, of course. Grasshoppers live and die in the riparian zones along rivers and streams. They’re not mayflies, which roll around as nymphs underwater for a year or two only to emerge as adults for a few minutes or hours. And then die. Did you know that the mayfly with the shortest lifespan lives less than five minutes as an adult? And my teenager thinks his life is hard!
The life of a hopper is, too, quite short, of course, but that’s where the similarities between mayflies and hoppers end. Soon enough, it will be that time of year (mid to late summer) to fish hoppers.
Here are a few tips to help beginners enjoy what is one of my favorite seasons of fly fishing:
1. Let the river warm up.
Several years ago, Steve (my podcast partner) and I fished a gorgeous stream on private property in southwestern Montana in late July. We arrived at the creek about 8:30 or 9 AM, and we rigged up with hoppers. Nothing rose to our casts. I became a bit grumpy.
A Trico hatch was on, but I didn’t have the patience to fish a size #20 Trico imitation. I switched to nymphs for an hour or so, and then I walked upriver where Steve was hauling in his second or third brown on a hopper imitation.
It was like the bell rang some time between 10 and 11 AM, and the trout started feeding on hoppers. It was nonstop until late afternoon. Often, the trout won’t start hitting hoppers until mid to late morning, when the vegatation along the banks warms up.
2. Big is not bad.
I learned to fly fish in Montana and Colorado, but in recent years, I’ve spent more days on smaller creeks than I have the big rivers of the West. My spring-creek-to-western-river ratio is probably four or five days on a spring creek to one day on a western river.
I’ve grown acclimated to the spring-creek requirements of finer tackle and smaller flies. Consequently, I also reach for smaller grasshopper imitations. But if you’re fishing out West, select a bigger hopper just because you can. Go for a size #4 or #6. Make sure you have 3X or 4X tippet to handle the bigger bug.
And then see what happens.
3. Don’t forget the relaxed sip.
I love the aggressive strikes that hoppers provoke. But not all hopper strikes are aggressive. Some fish prefer to mouth or toy with the hopper. Crazy, I know. I’ve caught some large cutthroat in Yellowstone National Park simply by being more patient with my hook set. In general, fly fishers, especially those new to the sport, tend to rip the hook out of the mouth of fish. Certainly, trout love to slash at grasshoppers, but there are often more subtle takes as well.
That means being vigilant when you feel or see a take. Some fly fishers repeat a mantra or phrase when they feel a take, such as “God save the Queen” or “The Cubs finally won a World Series,” depending on your country of origin – and then they set the hook.
4. Give it some action.
Real grasshoppers don’t float passively on the water, unless they are already dead.
If the wind has blown a hopper into the water, then likely it is kicking for shore. If you’re fishing a swift-moving river like the Yellowstone, then you may not need to twitch or skate the hopper. But in more flat stretches, you may want to give the hopper some action by twitching it or skating it across the surface.
5. Drop another terrestrial.
Several years ago while fishing in Yellowstone Park, I dropped a fat foam flying ant off my top hopper pattern, and I caught more cuttthroat off the ant than I did the hopper. I tied the foam ant about nine to twelve inches below the grasshopper, and it worked beautifully.
The Yellowstone River was swift, and with the current, the ant seemed to float just beneath the film. Several times, I watched the shadow of a cutthroat appear from the depths of the river and grab the ant.
6. Pay attention to color.
When I was young, I used to catch grasshoppers and stick them on a naked hook and cast them into the streams. There’s nothing like the action of a real grasshopper in the throes of death on the water. I learned, though, that not all grasshoppers are the same (other than they all seem to have the dark liquid that squirts of their abdomen when you insert the hook). There are a million variety of hoppers, and a host of different earth-tone hues from green to yellow and to brown.
I’ve made the mistake of buying hoppers from a fly shop in Montana and wondering why they don’t work as well in the spring creeks of the Driftless (southwestern Wisconsin, for example). Dumb, I know, but I can be a little slow.
You’ll want to do a little research at your local fly shop. Size and color are important, and every fly is local.
7. Throw one on when nothing is rising.
It always strikes me as odd that when there is nothing rising, I can throw on a hopper in late summer, and an aggressive trout takes the imitation.
Through the years, I can’t remember a time when I’ve noticed trout rising to hoppers, and then decided to throw on a hopper. It’s just that time a year. The creeks runs through a meadow. There are hoppers. And I decide to throw on a hopper. And voila! I catch trout on hoppers. Again, there is no hatch, where you can see the trout rising to mayflies.
Hoppers promise a gob of calories, and during mid to late summer, trout want the gob.
8. Start with foam.
Most hopper patterns come in three styles: foam, natural, and parachute. I tend to start with foam, though I will use more natural patterns when fishing slower water. The parachute hopper always is a win in riffles – I can see it!
Grasshopper season is like the Christmas season. It comes once a year. And if you can have even one great day fly fishing grasshoppers, you’ve received the best present of the year.