The Perfect Hopper

By Jeff Morgan

Ha! All these years of Westfly fly-tying columns and nary a grasshopper pattern! While the word "hopper" appeared many times, it was usually presaged with adjectives like "overrated," "overfished" or "unnatural."

I often discussed how many millions of hopper patterns are tied, sold, and fished each season, while they usually make up only 4-15% of the terrestrials that the average trout consumes. In comparison, ants and terrestrial beetles each make up roughly 30% of a typical trout's terrestrial diet.

That said, I love to fish hopper patterns as much as the next angler, despite my skepticism about their relative effectiveness. Some of the only flies I purchase these days are unique hopper patterns, so I have amassed and fished with a huge array of imitations. I currently have two full boxes of hopper patterns in nearly every size, shade and silhouette imaginable.

Yet, I still rely on one hopper in 90% of the situations where I fish a hopper. I call it the Perfect Hopper , because it fishes well under an wide range of conditions: big rivers, small streams, pocket water, spring creeks, and even occasionally on grassy-shored lakes.

Before I describe this pattern, consider how hoppers appeal to both anglers and trout.

The Appeal to Anglers

Anglers from all over the country plan their summer travel around hopper season. The only other insect that receives this kind of attention is the salmonfly. Is this a coincidence? Unlikely.

Imitations of both these insects are usually highly buoyant, highly visible, and will draw trout from great distances. This means anglers can see the flies easily and they don't need to cast particularly accurately. In many ways, hopper and salmonfly imitations function as the Rooster Tail of the fly angler's arsenal. It is as good as chuck-it-and-chance-it fishing can get.

The Appeal to Trout

For trout, the appeal of the hopper is more complicated. Hoppers are a highly desired food source, thanks to their large size. However, hoppers are not common in the drift because their excellent flying skills help them avoid water in the first place. And their ability to quickly kick their way to shore helps them get out of the water if they inadvertently land there. Further, trout in high-pressure waters learn to avoid hoppers after a few poorly-presented immitations--or even after a few very well-presented ones.

Imitating hoppers

Since hoppers can function as either a highly desired or highly doubtful prey item for trout, how should anglers imitate them? Certainly trout do not need a wide variety of imitations; if a trout will strike at a hopper, it will do so on the first pass with almost anything that looks like a reasonable imitation.

On the other hand, "reasonable imitation" is a relative term. A rubber-legged monstrosity like the Chernobyl Ant or a fully-hackled antiquity like Joes Hopper may be reasonable in choppy riffle water, but trout will find those patterns morally offensive on a clear, slow flat.

Since hoppers are bulky patterns to carry, and the conditions where they function effectively are rare, it makes sense to only carry a few imitations, but which ones? Here is where a universal pattern that floats well in riffles, yet looks convincing to a skeptical spring creek fish, can prove effective under a wide-ranging conditions.

The Perfect Hopper

The basic form for this pattern is the classic Dave Whitlock pattern, Daves Hopper, with its buoyant spun and clipped deer hair head and turkey quill wing. However, The Perfect Hopper removes what could be considered "extraneous" steps, such as the brown clipped hackle on the body and the red tail. It also removes the two turkey quill tip wings on the sides of the fly and replaces them with a more durable single wing at the top of the fly.

This fly can and should be carried in a variety of sizes and colors. Size is critical when it comes to hoppers. The best month to fish hopper imitations can be July, since most juvenile hoppers have not developed wings yet and thus they are more prone to landing in the water. However, most anglers miss this "hidden hatch" because their patterns are tied to match the bigger hoppers of August and September. Always pack some size 12-14 hoppers to match these early season hoppers.

Color may not matter as much as size. I still carry four colors of hoppers-yellow, pale green, brown, and gray-but except in extraordinary circumstances, a trout that will rise to a hopper will be in such a hurry that it won't have time to comprehend color.

Caveats

Again, hopper imitations have their time and place. Avoid using them on high-pressure waters, slow water, early in the morning, or during hatches of other insects. Maximize your odds by working hoppers near the bank (preferably deeper bank water) in the middle of windy days. By fishing hoppers cautiously and judiciously, you can enjoy the experience of hopper fishing without forgoing the times when other imitations are clearly more productive choices.

New Patterns

Perfect Hopper

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.