Welcome to Just Old Flies

Welcome to 'just old flies,' a section of methods and flies that used-to-be. These flies were tied with the only materials available. Long before the advent of 'modern' tying materials, they were created and improved upon at a far slower pace than todays modern counterparts; limited by materials available and the tiers imagination.

Once long gone, there existed a 'fraternity' of anglers who felt an obligation to use only the 'standard' patterns of the day. We hope to bring a bit of nostalgia to these pages and to you. And sometimes what you find here will not always be about fishing. Perhaps you will enjoy them. Perhaps you will fish the flies. Perhaps?


Nobby Hopper

By Alan Shepherd, Launceston, Tasmania
Tied and Photographed by Richard Komar, Plano, Texas
Letort Hopper tied by Ed Shenk,
photographed by Hans Weilenmann, Netherlands


It is unknown who actually conceived the idea of a bulbous head made from clipped deer hair, although the American Don Gapen certainly gave the technique currency with the introduction of the Muddler Minnow in 1937. Writing in 1940, William Bayard Sturgis said that the idea of hair bodies could have been brought to Chicago around 1912 by Emerson Hough, who stated that he had first seen flies tied that way on a fishing trip to the far north of Canada.

It would seem that in Australia, deer hair as a fly dressing material, was not used until the late 1950's. In 1959 two well-known fly-fishermen and fishing authors, Joe Brooks from America and David Scholes from Australia river-fished together in Tasmania, the island state south of mainland Australia. Joe fished a Muddler Minnow (Don Gapen) and David probably fished local patterns, perhaps a Matuka or a Wigram's Robin (Dick Wigram). Scholes was not terribly impressed with the Muddler Minnow in the beginning, this was because it didn't resemble any Australian minnows. It wasn't until 1964, when he fished backwaters on the Meander River with Jim Boswell, another visiting American angler, that David's eyes were opened to the true value of the Muddler Minnow. Jim took four trout with the Muddler when David couldn't land any.

A year or two before Joe Brooks introduced the Muddler Minnow itself, the Missoulian Spook (Dan Bailey), had already made its Australian debut. Essentially the Missoulian Spook is a cross between Don Gapen's Muddler Minnow, made using white deer hair and the Bumble Puppy (Theodore Gordon), a chenille-bodied streamer. Bailey called it the White Muddler Minnow and it was renamed the Mizzoulian Spook by Vince Hamlin, the author of the "Alley Oop" comic strip. Both spellings have been used ever since.

In Australia back in those days, information about new flies and dressing materials mostly came from books, visiting overseas anglers and word-of-mouth. In his 1961 book, Fly Fishing in Australia David Scholes informed Australian anglers of the Muddler Minnow.

A few Australian fly tiers began making the Muddler Minnow and a tackle shop imported some Muddlers from the USA. Interestingly, those first imported Muddlers were accidentally tied on extremely light hooks and anglers couldn't sink them. Perhaps some of those flies may have been used as grasshopper imitations.

In the summer of 1962, Dušan 'Dan' Todorivic and Wolf Duwe were on a fly-fishing trip on the Murrumbidgee River around the delightful fly-fishing waters of the Snowy Mountain region near Adaminaby and Bolaro in New South Wales. Fly-fishers were scarce in those days and grasshopper fishing, to those who didn't fly-fish, was practiced by flicking a live grasshopper upstream using a general-purpose fishing rod. The problem was that they couldn't cast the hopper far and very often, the casting action would flick the hopper off the hook. Anglers began using longer rods, some even used fly-rods so they could cast longer distances. Of those who used fly-rods, many later went on to become true fly-fishers. Fishing a live hopper with a fly-rod still didn't solve the problem of the hopper flicking off the hook and a good supply of live hoppers was always required. Instead of madly running around trying to catch live hoppers, some anglers would spread a fluffy woolen blanket on the ground and herd hoppers onto it. The raspy legs of the grasshoppers would become entangled in the fluffy wool fibres. Another method was to simply herd hoppers onto the water where they could easily be collected from the surface.

I digress. Back to our true fly-fishermen, 'Dan' Todorivic and Wolf Duwe, fishing the Murrumbidgee River in 1962. The large grasshoppers common to that area, Kosciuscola cognatus and Kosciuscola usitatus, were abundant, but using the standard hackled hopper patterns of that era (sizes 10 and 12), they were only having moderate success. After a few days, fed up by their inadequate catch rate, Dan began experimenting at the fly vise.

Dan ingeniously created a new grasshopper pattern. He had used yellow chenille for the body, golden pheasant tippets for an underwing, with a very narrow section of mottled turkey wing on each side of the pheasant tippets. To imitate the red grasshopper legs he utilized dyed-red hackles with the fibres trimmed close to the hackle stems. Dan had some deer hair in his tying kit; perhaps he had been using it to make Muddlers. He knew that deer hair floated so, instead of a normal hackled fly, Dan tied a Muddler head on his new grasshopper, which they called Dan's Hopper.

As a hopper pattern with a spun deer hair head, the Letort Hopper is just a bit older, having been designed by the Pennsylvania fly fisher Ed Shenk sometime in the period 1958-60.


Letort Hopper tied by Ed Shenk, photographed by Hans Weilenmann

Anyway, the trout loved Dan's new pattern; its success rate compared to that of the hackled hopper was extraordinary. The new fly, sat low on the water, much more like a natural hopper. The fly's success was attributed to this low profile. It wouldn't have taken them long to find out that if they landed the fly on the water with a bit of a thud like a real grasshopper, it would still float and if they crash-landed the fly it would often attract trout forthwith.

Dušan 'Dan' Todorvic was a semi-professional fly tier and, with his fly-dressing partner, Tom Edwards, began making the fly commercially.

In summer throughout southern Australia, grasshoppers become very abundant, some years much more so than others. Dan's Hopper was so good that it soon became a popular fly. Some who fished live hoppers even took to using the new artificial hopper. It was almost as good as the real thing, with the advantages of not having to catch live hoppers and, the bait wouldn't flick off the hook.

Also, grasshopper fishing is very forgiving and those learning to fly-fish could more easily achieve success. Compared with normal fly-fishing, where the presentation is usually delicate, with grasshopper fishing you can mess up the cast to some degree and land the fly heavily but still catch fish.

In August 1972, Tom Edwards wrote in the Victorian Fly Fishers Association newsletter: "The Birth of the Nobby Hopper." In the article, Tom clarifies how the name change from Dan's Hopper to Nobby Hopper came about. Tom explains that Fred Stewart, the famed Australian fly-fisherman, commented whilst talking to Bob Rolls, "This fly is more of a Nobby Hopper than a Dan's Hopper." From that time on the name Nobby Hopper stuck.

In Tasmania, David Scholes and Noel Jetson wanted something smaller because Tasmania doesn't have the hordes of large grasshoppers which occur in New South Wales and parts of Victoria. Mind you, the Nobby Hopper is still a useful fly in Tasmania. Noel simplified the tying and produced a smaller version which was immediately christened Noel's Nobby Hopper by David Scholes.


Noel's Nobby Hopper

Dan's Hopper, or the now called Nobby Hopper, made it's way to South Africa. As in Tasmania, the pattern was too big to represent local hoppers. A resourceful South African fly dresser made the fly smaller, but there was one important change to the legs. He put a knot in the legs making that dog-leg or grasshopper-leg shape, now commonly associated with many hopper patterns. It was found that this method of tying the legs had two important attributes. First, the legs acted like outriggers, making the fly more stable on the surface. Second, from an anglers and a fish's point of view, it was much more realistic. The two red legs poking into the surface at the rear end of a hopper seems to be a powerful trigger used on many of today's successful hopper patterns.

The South African version, with its knotted legs, made its way back to Australia. It was discovered in a Melbourne tackle shop by Andrew Braithwaite. Andrew re-introduced it to David Scholes as the South African version of the Nobby Hopper.

From fishing with Joe Brooks and writing about his first encounter with the bulbous headed Muddler, developments had come full circle, and, as fate would have it, much like a boomerang coming back, a great little grasshopper fly had returned to David Scholes.

Grasshopper fishing

Grasshoppers mate in late summer and autumn, after which the females deposit their eggs in soil. The eggs remain dormant throughout the winter and hatch in late spring as worm-like larvae which, soon become small grasshoppers without wings. It takes about seven weeks and five moults or growth stages for the grasshoppers to reach adulthood.

Gradually, as the height of summer looms, less aquatic food is available in lowland rivers and trout start relying more and more on terrestrial foods, particularly grasshoppers.

The hotter the day, the hotter the hopper fishing becomes. However, a slight wind is advantageous. An old trick, when hoppers are plentiful, is to alarm grasshoppers, causing them to hop or take flight. Using the wind coming from an appropriate angle behind you as you fish your way up a river, you can panic and herd live hoppers onto the water. This maneuver is even better when two anglers work together; one fishes whilst the other herds hoppers onto the water. When alarmed by herding, hoppers that can't fly, flee haphazardly in all directions away from the herder. In the rush to escape they often miscalculate their trajectory, placing them on a collision course with the water, particularly if blown by wind. The number of wingless hoppers accidentally ending up on the water vastly outnumber winged hoppers.

If trout can remember, then one of their favorite memories must be grasshoppers. Once hoppers are herded onto the water they are a great temptation which, even the most stubborn trout seem unable to resist. Usually, if not spooked, they will rise to live hoppers with gusto. Rising trout are telling you exactly where to cast your imitation, in most cases a bit upstream of the rise. If the trout won't rise, as you progress up a stream or river, you can induce a trout by making casts to likely looking spots. Be it either learnt of instinctual, trout seem to know about hoppers and the splat one makes hitting the water. They clearly love eating them, so just keep casting, sooner or later one won't be able to help itself. Expect a sudden violent take.

On the wider sections of a river, flying hoppers will often turn back when they find themselves flying over water. This appears to be because they can only fly a short distance. Those that attempt to make it to the other side will constantly lose altitude. As they do so, some inevitably crash onto the surface well out into the stream or near the far shore. The large yellow-winged locusts are the best fliers—they can easily fly across the widest river. Nevertheless, some still end up on the water, especially in the morning when temperatures are not high enough for maximum activity of cold-blooded insects.

When a good offshore breeze is blowing, hoppers may be herded onto a lake or pond using the same technique as for rivers. This manner of fishing is generally best over deep water near the shore.

Once on water, hoppers are virtually helpless. Those that end up on the water early in the day before their metabolism warms up are less likely to attempt to swim; nevertheless, if fishing an artificial hopper, a slight twitch of the rod tip, every now and then, is enough to suggest movement and trout are more prone to be attracted to a struggling kicking hopper.


The common Australian wingless grasshopper Phaulacridium vittatum found throughout southern Australia and New Zealand

Trout feeding well out are generally taking winged hoppers; those feeding closer to the shore are usually taking the smaller wingless hoppers. Although they may be reluctant to feed in shallow, clear water, such opportunistic feeders often zoom up from the depths to engulf a hopper.

Be warned, usually at this time of year and throughout summer, the rivers can become so clear that the trout become extremely cautious and flighty, especially on bright, still days. Trout perceive they can easily be seen by predators in sunny weather, therefore they will look for cover—overhanging brushes above the water, undercut banks, drowned trees, riffles, deep runs, or pools. It is essential to keep as far back from the water as possible, keep your profile off the skyline and your shadow off the water, stalk slowly and endeavoring not to be seen. If herding hoppers onto the water, it is a balancing act between stealth and herding, depending on wind strength. Most trout, including larger specimens, will reveal their feeding station when a steady stream of live hoppers is temptingly drifting overhead.

As the wind and the summer sun dry the fields, grasses take on a bleached straw-and-brown coloration. At the same time, in harmony with the plants, grasshoppers also change their camouflage pattern. As the fields dry, food becomes scarce and grasshoppers seek out the green plants along the riverside. The rocky areas between where the grass margin stops and the actual water begins, holds little attraction for grasshoppers, simply because there isn't much food or concealment from predators. Shrewdly, the best places to cast a small artificial hopper are beside or just downstream of a steep grassy bank over deep water or where grass or tussocks are present very close to the river edge. Look for shaded areas where trout feel safe and wingless hoppers are likely to blunder or be blown onto the water. On flat sections of rivers, grasshoppers generally don't sink. However, on fast-water stretches they are soon swirled beneath the surface and in these areas trout will often take an artificial grasshopper sub-surface.

Materials List: Nobby Hopper (Dušan 'Dan' Todorivic)

    Hook: # 10 – 12 down-eyed, dry fly hook. The hook used in the photo is a Mustad 94840.

    Thread: Clear or black Gudebrod G.

    Body: Yellow chenille.

    Underwing: Golden pheasant tippets and mottled turkey wing.

    Legs: Dyed-red, stiff hackle stems with fibres trimmed close to stem.

    Head & Collar: Natural deer body hair.

Tying the Nobby Hopper

1. Place hook in vise and start thread about a quarter of the shank length behind the eye. Wrap thread down shank to bend.

2. Tie in yellow chenille and then wrap thread forward to the starting point, a quarter shank length behind the eye. Now wrap chenille body.

3. Prepare the legs by trimming the fibres of two dyed-red cock hackles close to the stems. The tip of the stem is tied in at the shoulder—one on each side. The thicker part of the stem is cut so it protrudes about a quarter of the shank length past the bend.

4. Tie in a bunch of golden pheasant tippets, shiny side down. They should be about the length that, if they were pushed down, they would reach the bend. On either side of the pheasant tippets, tie a thin strip of mottled turkey wing a little longer than the pheasant tippet—about the length that, if pushed down, they would almost reach the end of the legs.

5. Cut a suitable bunch of deer hair—typically the diameter of a pencil—and remove all underfur with your fingers, a comb, or a dubbing needle. Stack the deer hair but, before wrapping, be sure to set the length of the deer hair collar at about half the length of the golden pheasant tippets. Once the length is set, wrap in your first deer-hair bundle. Make three or four wraps, and pull the thread tight as you let the hair spin around the shank. Now wrap the thread forward to the front of the bundle. Push the hair bundle back on the hook shank against the chenille as tight as you can in preparation for the next hair bundle.

6. Tie in two or even three more deer-hair bundles, once again the diameter of a pencil, but this time have the tips facing forward, towards the hook eye. Later, this will make the trimming much easier. The number of hair bundles you can tie in is determined by the size of the hook. Once you have your hair attached, bring the thread forward and tie off. Varnish the thread and base of front hairs and let dry thoroughly before trimming.

7. Leaving a three hundred-sixty-degree collar, carefully trim the hair to form the bulbous head. ~ Alan and Richard

Special Thanks to:
Gary Soucie for assistance with the provenance of the Missoulian Spook and the Letort Hopper.

Hans Weilenmann for permission to use the photograph of the Letort Hopper.

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