Eye of the Guide


Tom Travis - December 05, 2010

"Some say big flies mean big fish, but sometimes that just is not true, the innovative angler must be observant and flexible when considering the options".

In the Rocky Mountain West there are few times in the fishing season that create the excitement generated by the appearance of the hoppers. For many, the onset of the hoppers means big flies and big trout! It is the eternal hope that the next cast will bring to the surface one of those fabled trophy trout.

When I was growing up, every school boy knew that hoppers made great bait for trout, bass, bluegills and smallmouth. For centuries anglers have looked fondly on the grasshopper as excellent bait during certain months of the summer.

The path of the grasshopper pattern is indeed interesting. Here in the West during the early 1970's you might find a Joe's Hopper, Letort Hopper, Dan Bailey's Hopper (Deer hair version of the Joe's), possibly a Pontoon Hopper and, of course, a Yellow Muddler Minnow. Today the number of hopper patterns is somewhat overwhelming. Many American anglers seem to believe that "Hoppers" are purely an American invention. That simply is not true! 

According to W.H. Lawrie, in his book entitled A Reference Book of English Trout Flies, 1967, the first mention of a grasshopper pattern can be found in The Art of Angling, 1651 by Thomas Barker. That was followed by Charles Cotton in 1676, with his Instructions how to angle for a Trout or Grayling in a clear Stream. This was added to an edition of Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler. Cotton listed the Green Grasshopper and the Little Dun Grasshopper, and others, down through fly fishing history, have mentioned grasshoppers or listed hopper patterns. However, Andrew Herd, a noted British Fly Fishing Historian, states that in the United Kingdom, the development of grasshoppers never kept pace with the development of Mayflies or Caddisflies and was never considered all that important.

In Fly-Fishing Secrets of the Ancients, 2009, the author Paul Schullery offers a thought from Vincent C. Marinaro, the author of A Modern Dry Code, 1950. Marinaro thought that maybe the size of the grasshopper caused many in the Halford era to disregard the hopper, as it simply was not elegant enough. It was aesthetically inappropriate, and thus to be ignored.

It was left to the Americans to launch their own inquires and develop their own theories on pattern design and presentation methods. We have a fairly interesting report from the Lewis & Clark Journals regarding hoppers. On July 16th 1806 Captain William Clark noted the massive number of grasshoppers he encountered while moving along the banks of the Yellowstone River.

In the East in 1864, Thaddeus Norris wrote about the grasshoppers and how much the trout liked them. The development of the grasshopper moved forward very nicely during the 1800's, however there was also controversy between those who decried the realistic patterns as totally needless and worthless. Yet there were others who were fascinated by the challenges offered in creating realistic hopper patterns that were effective. As far back as the 1890's there appeared Thomas Chubb of Vermont, who tied and sold a reasonably realistic hopper in his catalog.

John Harrington Keene, who published Fly Fishing and Fly Making in 1892, had a very realistic looking hopper that he pushed. But at the same time his criticism of Mary Orvis Marbury's wet hopper was harsh. From the 1890's to the 1950's many fly tyers played with grasshopper patterns, but only a very few patterns have stood the test of time and become standard patterns among the anglers of today.

One of the first hopper patterns which were to become a classic standard is the Michigan Hopper. This pattern was developed by Art Winnie, a noted Michigan fly tyer. Art developed this pattern during the 1920's and popularized it. When it was first designed, the Michigan Hopper had a Yellow Chenille Body and no ribbing of clipped hackle. 

The pattern that evolved is as follows:

Joe's Hopper

In my reading I have found that there seems to be a bit of a controversy over how it went from the Michigan Hopper to Joe's Hopper. Was it because Joe Brooks, one of the best known anglers of his day, wrote about and used this pattern? Or was this pattern developed by George L. Herter in 1929 and named for Joe McLin? I leave others to debate that topic. For me, it will always be the Michigan/Joe's Hopper.

What caused the popularity of the Michigan Hopper to grow, where other patterns had faded in the mist of time? In my opinion the answer is simple; first the pattern was easy to tie and secondly, it worked! There is nothing like success to garner popularity. This pattern became the standard accepted hopper pattern for anglers across the country. 

In the East another hopper which was destined to be a classic was being developed in the late 1950's by Ernest Schwiebert in cooperation with Ross Trimmer. At the very same time Ed Shenk was also developing a hopper pattern. Both patterns are similar, yet they are both different. The pattern I am referring to is the Letort Hopper. The testing ground was the famed Letort Spring Creek in PA. After a quiet discussion between Ernie and Ed, Ernie's pattern became the Letort Hopper and Ed's the Shenk's Letort Hopper. Both patterns were highly effective. The following is the recipe for both patterns.

Letort Hopper: (Schwiebert)

Shenk's Letort Hopper

This is the pattern listed in Spring Creek Strategies, By Mike Heck, 2008.

EOTG - Grasshoppers
A few of the author's hopper patterns

In the 1970's we began to see other hopper patterns which were effective and would become standard accepted patterns in the hopper world from fly tyers like Dave Whitlock, Doug Swisher and Carl Richard, Jack Grathside, Mike Lawson and Rene' Harrop. More hopper patterns were to follow at a steady pace until the year 2005. The number of hopper patterns exploded from 2006 to 2011. Which one is the best to use? Why the pattern that works! I know that is not much of an answer, but I couldn't resist. 

Now, we will talk about hoppers and presentation methods.

Recently, I read an author who claimed that all the hoppers in the east are brownish or green. Yet having grown up and fished in that part of the country, I remember (my notes confirm this) picking up yellow bellied hoppers on the West Delaware, Beaverkill and along the Letort as well as on many of the waters in Michigan. I have also seen and collected some greenish, tan, brownish and grayish hoppers on those waters as well. The point is there are several species of hoppers; some with distinct color marking, while others can be influenced by the chemical content of what they are feeding on.

Therefore, catch the hoppers on your home waters, or on the waters you intend to fish and look at the bellies, bottom of the thorax, head and sides. That is what the trout see, not the top! As I stated at the very beginning of this missive, many anglers go for big hoppers, hoping for bigger trout. However, the only rule is that there are no rules. I remember reading in John Shewey's 1994 volume Mastering the Spring Creeks, where he was fishing on Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park and the natural hoppers were a size 6. However, the trout ignored the larger hoppers and fed on small hoppers. I have seen this happen many times myself over my many years as both a fly fishing guide and as an angler.

Be observant. Haste and casual observation can lead to frustration, as often the trout will rise to the larger imitations but they won't eat them. Not only must you be observant to the day you are afield, but you also need to be knowledgeable to the season. Here in Montana this year we were all given a stiff reminder. This year (2011) the hoppers never showed up in late July in any reasonable numbers as they normally do. This was due to a long, cold winter season and cool, wet spring that wiped out the early hoppers. In mid-August when the hopper fishing should be going strong, the hoppers were still very small (Size 14 to 18's) and their numbers reduced from what we normally see in most of Montana.

Every now and then we would catch a few fish on hoppers, but overall the hopper fishing was far from normal, except for the reports coming from the Big Horn River. On the "Horn", they were having some pretty decent hopper fishing!

Lately, I have had a chance to catch up on my reading. I have been doing a lot research as it relates to presentation methods and the fly manipulations of hopper imitations on the water. Some of the stuff I have read is pure "Bull" and some of it made me wonder if the writer had ever really fished a hopper imitation. Therefore, here are my thoughts on the proper presentation methods for fishing a hopper pattern.

First, if you are going to fish a hopper imitation, be sure that you are using a fly rod that is suited to the task. You want to be able to deliver the imitation to the surface of the water in the proper fashion. This means you need to cast the imitation to the water rather than two or three feet above the water as you would with a mayfly imitation. Part of the attractor of the hopper is that is plops down on the water. This happens because the wind blows them off the bank, or they take an ill advised leap and end up on the water's surface. At first they will sit there for a moment and then they will struggle on the surface. This dead drift and struggle is the key to the presentation of the hopper. Drive the imitation to the surface, allow it to drift for a moment or two and give it a little twitch to simulate the natural struggling on the surface. Now, I said a little twitch to simulate the struggling insect, not wild jiggling to imitate a hopper doing the Foxtrot or Line Dancing.  

Another point of interest is the tippet. I have often seen anglers switch to a hopper and never consider the tippet; 5X, 6X or 7X tippets don't work real well with hopper imitations. First, it is hard to drive an imitation to the surface with those tippets and secondly the hopper "take" can oftentimes be explosive. Light tippets mean that you can often be broken off on the strike. On Spring Creeks I generally go to 4X; though if it is very windy I will use 3X. On the big rivers like the Yellowstone I will be using 1X, 2X or 3X tippets depending on the wind and the size of the hopper imitation to be used. I also consider if I will be fishing the hopper alone or if I will be using a brace of flies; fishing a hopper with a nymph dropper, or a dry hopper and a wet hopper; or possibly two dries, like a hopper/beetle combination.
If you are going to use a pair of flies, consider the size of flies to be used and the weather, then select the proper leader and dropper strand to do the job. When the trout are really on the hoppers I seldom use a dropper, unless it is a wet hopper. When I am using a hopper as a searching pattern, I might use a nymph or even a small streamer.

On streams like the Lamar River, Soda Butte Creek and Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park, I will often use a hopper with an ant dropper as a searching combination.

In conclusion I would like to share a short story about a trip to the Big Horn River in mid September 2011.

We had arrived on the "Horn" and were expecting trico spinner falls. Some caddis and baetis fishing had been reported, along with nymphing, and we were told a few trout were still being taken on big hoppers. I noticed that the water was less than clear. There had been no recent rains, the flows and water temperature were reasonable, so what was causing the discoloration? Ah, an algae bloom in Yellowtail Reservoir could cause the discoloration and that, indeed, proved to be the case.

I had checked with friends about the size of the hoppers being used and was told that sizes 6 & 8 hoppers had been the general choice of the anglers and guides. The morning was just perfect with unbelievable trico spinner fishing which began around 9:15 A.M. and didn't end until 12:30 P.M. The fishing was outstanding and even though the tiny tricos we were using were size 20's, we were using 5X tippets. A lighter tippet would have meant too many break offs due to heavy weedbeds.

After we broke for lunch I took a walk along the bank and there were hoppers everywhere, the ground appeared to be moving. Many of the natural hoppers had yellow bellies; some had tan and there were even a few greenish hoppers. The overall sizes were sixes and eights; so the reports seemed to be correct. As a light breeze began to blow, we noticed that the trout seemed to move closer to the banks to feed on this bonanza of hoppers. There were hoppers all over the water and the trout were on them, like they hadn't fed in hours. We took the time to change to 3X leaders and one of us tied on a Yellow Size 6 hopper, and the other tied on size 8 Tan hopper, and the trout totally ignored our offerings! We would get an occasional rise to one of the hoppers, where the trout would come up and bump the fly. We tired twitching them and nothing!

Because of the discolored water and the heavy weedbeds, we were only fishing single flies, so switching was fast and easy. We tried a size 10 Yellow Foam Hopper and a size 12 Tan Foam Hopper and that was the answer. The fishing was outstanding; as a matter of fact we used nothing else for the rest of the day.

EOTG - Grasshoppers

The next day the trico fishing was shorter in duration as the wind came up earlier in the day, so the hopper fishing began around 10:30 A.M. Once again the fishing was outstanding, however only if the patterns were size 10 and 12's. They just were not interested in the larger hopper patterns. We tried Purple Hoppers and Pink Hoppers and as long as the size was right, the trout ate them. On both days we fished the hopper using the drift and twitch method. Why did they take the Pink and Purple Hoppers? I don't know. I do know that those colors work and have worked on several different rivers.

EOTG - Grasshoppers
A pink hopper

EOTG - Grasshoppers
A purple hopper
EOTG - Grasshoppers
A 'popper' hopper

Our trip to the Big Horn was one for the books. The hopper fishing was some of the finest I have ever enjoyed. In these times of fishing many two fly rigs, it was really fun to fish a single fly.

When the conditions are right and the trout are on the hoppers, it can be the most exciting fishing you will ever have. Just remember that sometimes bigger isn't better!

Enjoy & Good Fishin'

Special Author's Note
The spur for this article began with a conversation with the Lady Fly Fisher about the number of hopper patterns that were available. She was shocked by the number of hoppers that there are. I showed her a box with a selection of hoppers that was far from complete. I am always teasing her about living a sheltered life when it comes to flies.

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