Hoppers . . . Finally

By Jeff Morgan

Fly anglers tend to match what they see. They see adult caddis , so they fish with dry flies that match the adults--and ignore the unseen pupae that trout are consuming at a 5:1 ratio to the adults.

This is also true with grasshoppers . We see them bouncing and leaping away from our feet as we walk down to the stream, so we assume the trout are all but ready to leap out of the water and scarf them directly off the streamside grass.

In the three years I've been doing this column for Westfly, I've presented over a dozen terrestrial patterns. Not one was a grasshopper imitation. Why? Because trout eat hoppers much less often than they swallow other terrestrials.

On most streams, terrestrial beetles compose 30% of the terrestrial diet, ants about the same, and grasshoppers a paltry 4-8%. On higher-pressure waters, many caught-and-released trout are wise enough to ignore any large dry fly altogether. Ants, beetles, craneflies , leafhoppers, and inchworms, depending on the conditions, are often better terrestrial choices than a hopper.

So what terrestrial do fly anglers imitate the most? Hoppers!

I think that's because hoppers are sexy flies. They are easy to see, float well, and bring savage strikes. While they certainly catch fish, more fish are often possible with an ant or beetle.

But often is not always, and there are times and situations where hoppers can be advantageous for anglers.

Jeff's Reconversion

After several years of virtually ignoring hoppers, I had a reconversion experience last summer. On a windy afternoon on Montana's Madison River, I was helping friends Paul and Jean Belfanti chase trophy browns to cap off their Yellowstone trip. When walking the bank, each step would send scads of hoppers into the air. Several would plop into the water, drifting down to the slow bend below us. Once they reached the slow water they were devoured with vicious, slashing rises.

Forgoing the trico spinners we had rigged up, I would walk the bank every few minutes while Paul and Jean would cast into the armada of drifting hoppers and await the inevitable rises once their flies hit the slow water. We stuck dozens of fish in a fifty-foot stretch of water.

Beetles, ants, and crane flies aren't worth the hook they're tied on in this type of situation, but a hopper imitation is ideal.

That experience was perfect for hoppers: the banks were grassy and the wind was high, blowing many hoppers onto the water; and the pool the trout were holding in was deep enough (6-15 feet) that a hopper would be the only late-summer insect to bring these hefty trout to the surface.

Deep water, wind, and grassy banks are the trinity of good hopper fishing.

Hoppers also useful in early-autumn or early morning/late evening fishing in late-summer. At these times, a nymphing rig might be optimal. But let's face it: with only a few precious days left before cold weather makes geverything a nymphing show, a hopper with a beadhead dropper 24-30" behind it can be a happy compromise. While the hopper may only get a few strikes, it serves as a buoyant strike indicator for the nymph below.

The Dubbed Deer Hair Hopper

My experience with hoppers has led me to two distinct kinds of hopper patterns. The first is for the "trinity situation" described above; those patterns also are good for lightly fished creeks.

Here I want a high-visibility, high-floating hopper that is also durable. When fish strike at hoppers under these conditions it is a reaction-strike: there is no inspection time, and as the fish is often rising through deep water and looking at the fly through a choppy surface, detail is less important than function. The Dubbed Deer Hair Hopper fits this situation.

While most commercial patterns also work fine for this type of fishing, I like to add foam underbodies and tie them extra-bushy to make them more durable.

Hoppers for Pressured Trout

The second kind of hopper pattern is for those situations where fish have the time inspect and reject a fraudulent hopper or they have had way too many big, bushy patterns thrown at them.

The following tips are some ways to improve your hopper patterns and make them more applicable for something besides inexperienced, fast-water trout.

  1. Avoid the "X." Natural hoppers don't have equally proportioned front and rear legs. Flies where the rubber legs form an "X"-such as the Madam X -look unnatural on the water. The legs appear as lifeless as pine needles. In deep or fast water, they neither help nor hurt, but for pressured trout this "X" shouts "Fraud!." Avoid this dead give-away by making the hind legs the most prominent feature on your fly. Use knotted pheasant tail fibers or clipped and knotted hackle stems for the hind legs and use short front legs.
  2. Form a Thin profile. Hoppers appear from the top or bottom as thin creatures. Fat or overdressed patterns might float well, but they greatly reduce the number of trout that approach your fly.
  3. Use Low-Visibility Tent Wings. Hoppers have a wing that lies over the body in a tent-like fashion, like a caddis. Unlike the relatively large caddis wings, these wings rest on the sides of the abdomen. From below, the body is much more prominent than the wing. As some hoppers have absent or underdeveloped wings in their immature stages, a large wing may not be the best addition to hoppers. I like to keep my hopper wings small and inconspicuous from below.
  4. Tie Smaller Sizes. Most commercially hopper patterns are size 6-10, while larger patterns, including the Chernobyl Hopper, may be found up to size 2. Smaller patterns are rare. The result is most fish never see a small hopper imitation. Combine that with the fact that the vast majority of natural hoppers consumed by trout are size 10-16 and don't have wings to save them from an errant leap
  5. Use a Variety of Colors. Most hopper patterns are either tan or yellow, although the natural insects can occur in lemon yellow, chartreuse, dark brown, dark gray, or dark olive. A hopper of a different shade can often change the mind of a trout that snubs standard imitations.
  6. Avoid Hackle. I know many fly tiers who share my fetish about no-hackle mayflies and caddis. Yet many of these tiers gladly overdress a hopper imitation. Hackle obscures the view of the fly and reduces the effectiveness of any flat-water pattern, whether it is a size 20 blue winged olive or a size 6 hopper. With a foam underbody and adequate floatant, almost any hopper pattern should float adequately in flat water situations. Plus, the lower the fly floats, the better.
  7. Don't ignore the Chernobyl family. Yes, they have the elegance of a plastic worm, but Chernobyl ants and hoppers can be effective tool flies. I have found them more effective as true hopper imitations if I position the legs at the front and add a wing. They are visible, easy to tie, great floaters, and double as bass flies or Christmas ornaments. By cutting the Chernobyl material lengthwise you get a less repulsively massive body.

The Raffia Hopper and Improved Madam X incorporate the principles listed above.

One Last Tip

If you watch hoppers leap onto the water, you'll notice that they usually kick their legs until they face the shore, then attempt to kick their way towards land.

If hopper patterns aren't producing trout, yet you're sure the fish are taking natural hoppers (the sound of a "hopper rise" is unmistakable during the doldrums of a late-summer hatchless afternoon) try giving your fly a series of short (1-2") shoreward hops. This requires making a roughly perpendicular cast from well back on the bank.

The short twitch requires a bit of practice, but it is more important to spot the lie and move into position carefully so you don't spook the fish you're targeting. This technique can be awesome for pressured trout on the Henry's Fork, Silver Creek, or the Madison where most trout have learned to be wary of hoppers that are dead-drifted or skittered on a swing.

Patterns

Dubbed Deer Hair Hopper
Raffia Hopper
Improved Madam X

Jeff Morgan has written many articles for Westfly, mostly on entomology and fly tying. He is the author of An Angler's Guide to the Oregon Cascades and Small Stream Fly Fishing.