8 Tips for Fly Fishing Grasshoppers

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.

A Beginner’s Guide to Fishing Hoppers

Here is a riddle: what is big, ugly, and sends trout into attack mode? Hint: it’s not your wading boots.

Answer: it’s a grasshopper.

Trout love to eat hoppers and will go into a feeding frenzy when hoppers are readily available. That’s usually mid-July to mid-August, depending on where you’re fly fishing.

Attack Worthy

If you are new to fly fishing, you’ll find that a hopper pattern is your best friend during the dog days of summer. You’ll learn to love hoppers because the trout attack them. I remember fly fishing the Yellowstone River a few years ago with my two sons on a hot afternoon in late July. It was a clear, sunny day—usually not the best conditions for fly fishing. Yet, all three of us had strikes on almost every cast.

Our hopper patterns were irresistible to the Yellowstone Cutthroats.

High Visibility

Something else which newbies and veterans appreciate about fishing hoppers is their visibility.

A size #6 Dave’s Hopper is much easier to see floating down the river than a size #18 parachute Adams. It’s like the difference between watching a strawberry and a single Cheerio floating in the current.

Fly fishers also love hoppers because they seem to float forever without getting waterlogged—especially the hopper patterns ties with foam.

Yes, hoppers are generally “easy-schmeasy” to fish. But here a few tips that will help you if you are a beginner.

1. Be ready!

You’ll often get a hit as soon as the hopper hits the water.

The first time it happens, you may be left with your mouth gaping, wondering why you didn’t set the hook! So expect a strike as soon as your hopper hits the water. Even if it floats for a few seconds before a trout attacks it, the strike will come unexpectedly and demand a quick set (that is, a firm, slight lift of your rod tip).

2. Size and color matters.

It generally doesn’t matter how your hopper imitations are made.

As noted above, foam patterns tend to float longer than those tied with hair. Otherwise, a certain style of legs or the shape of the body matters little. I’ve even caught plenty of trout on large caddis flies and spruce moths during hopper season.

What does matter is size and color.

Now most trout aren’t going to snub a size #8 and only take a size #10 or vice versa. But at the beginning of a season, trout might pass up a size #6 and only take a size #12 because the hoppers they are seeing are smaller. Likewise, if most of the hoppers are green, fish might not key in as well on yellow.

I realize that trout process color differently than humans do. But there are times when color seems to matter.

So, do your homework. Get on the website of a fly shop near the river you plan to fish. Better yet, pick up your phone and call one of their guides.

3. Use a smaller fly as a dropper.

I rarely fish a hopper by itself.

I’ll typically tie on a foot-long piece of tippet material to the bend of the hook of my hopper. Then, I’ll tie on another terrestrial, such as an ant or beetle pattern, to the end of the tippet. This additional fly is called the “dropper” or “trailing fly.” Sometimes, I’ll use an attractor pattern like a Red Humpy or a Royal Wulff as my dropper. Interestingly, there are days when two out of every three trout hit the dropper, not the hopper.

Other days it’s the opposite.

4. Slap ‘em and twitch ‘em.

You don’t need delicate casts with hoppers. You can let the terrestrial hit the water a bit harder than usual. You’re trying to imitate a hopper falling into the river, not a hopper making a smooth, stealth landing.

So don’t worry if your fly makes a small splash. Obviously, I’m not saying slap your line on the water. Slap the hopper on the water.

If your hopper is floating down a riffle or a fairly swift stretch of current, let it float. But if you are in a slower, smoother section, twitch or “skate” your hopper a bit. This imitates a hopper that has fallen into the river and is trying to escape. Caution: when you do this, be ready for a violent strike!

5. Aim for the prime time of day.

Prime time is usually mid or late morning to early afternoon. It takes the warmth of the sun to get hoppers hopping — and a little wind will blow them into the river. If you’re fishing early morning (especially) or late afternoon, you may need to try another kind of fly.

Last summer, I fished a creek in Montana that had a reputation as hopper heaven. I got on the water about 9:30 a.m. and immediately started using hopper patterns.

Forty-five minutes later, I felt a bit discouraged and considered tying on something else. Then I had a vicious strike. Then another, and another. The trout devoured hoppers the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. Then, about four o’clock, it was as if every trout had received the memo that it was time to stop feeding on hoppers. The action simply shut down.

So join the fun. Whatever else you do this summer, schedule a day or two on a river where hoppers live along the bank. Hopper fishing is downright addicting!

11 Reasons You’re Not Catching Trout

catching trout

Catching trout is not easy today. You are batting .000. Maybe the fish are simply not biting. Or maybe you’re not catching trout because of one or more of these 11 reasons:

1. It’s a bright sunny day.

Not always, but I’ve often had better luck on overcast days, especially for BWOs (blue winged olives), which is a common hatch during the spring. Catching trout on cloudy days tends to be pattern for me.

2. Your fly is too big.

Whether you’re nymphing or on the surface, drop a size or two. Go smaller. Make sure you have multiple sizes of the same fly in your fly box.

3. You cast like your mama.

Unless your mama wears wading boots. Figure out a way to false cast less. Precision casting is supposed to be hard. It’s even harder on smaller streams with trees and brush. Catching trout is tied to how well you cast.

4. Your dead drift looks like a rubber ducky with spasms.

Your presentation is almost always the problem. Your fly simply doesn’t look like an insect, dead or alive. Try harder.

5. You scared ‘em.

You should not have walked up to the run like a drunk Abominable Snowman. Crawl next time. On your hands and knees.

6. The run was just fished.

Find a smaller stream with no crowds. Stop fishing the popular rivers during vacation season or on weekends.

7. It’s too early.

Yes, if you want huge browns, then maybe fishing at 4:30 in the morning is a good idea. But if you are fishing hoppers in mid August, for example, sometimes the action doesn’t heat up until late morning.

8. You haven’t moved in 30 minutes.

Remember, fly fishing isn’t bass fishing from shore. Keep moving. After a handful of casts, move on. Find the next run.

9. The river is blown out.

If the river is muddy, why are you fly fishing? Some color may be okay, but if the stream is like chocolate milk, head back to your truck, jump on your phone, and watch Netflix.

10. You’re not deep enough.

Add some split shot to your nymphing rig. Or add some tippet length to your dropper. How often are you bumping the bottom? Every so often is about right.

11. You have the wrong fly.

This should not be your go-to move when you are not catching trout. But if there is a Trico hatch going on and you’re throwing a size #14 parachute Adams, you’ll swear a lot before noon. Know your hatches and patterns.

Give these tips a try, and perhaps your luck will change. You might even impress your mama.