July 21, 2022
By Ross Purnell
This article originally appeared in the Aug-Sept 2015 issue of Fly Fisherman.
The Rio Ñireguao runs through the hayfields, pastures, and native grasslands of Chile’s stepped agricultural land at the southern end of the Andes. Flocks of black-faced ibis walk the plains, feeding gregariously on a moving carpet of grasshoppers and in the river, trout line the banks and roam the shallows, feasting on the bounty of summer. This is the lab component of what has to be the world’s most rewarding education in hopper fishing—rewarding because if you do it right you can land 30 trout or more per day, with a respectable number over 20 inches.
But the Ñireguao can be a stern schoolmaster as well, and if your hopper game isn’t up to snuff, or you can’t deal with the howling wind of Patagonia, you can get spanked harshly. With 9,000 trout per mile, you feel like you’re wearing a dunce cap when everyone else is hooked up, and you’re clearly failing.
The beauty of this instant reward or punishment is that you quickly learn what works, and what doesn’t. And the hopper tackle, techniques, and tactics that work on the Rio Ñireguao work just as well back home along the grassy, winding rivers of the American West, from the North Platte in Wyoming, to Montana’s Ruby River. Here’s to happy hopper hunting!
There are more than 11,000 species of grasshoppers (order Orthoptera, suborder Caelifera) worldwide, and the almost exclusively herbivorous insects exist almost everywhere there are plants. But because they lay their eggs in the ground and are susceptible to drowning, and also to fungi and parasites that thrive in damp, cool conditions, hopper heaven is usually an arid region with less than 6 or 8 inches of rain annually.
Probably more important than the annual rainfall accumulation is the timing of that rainfall, as some stages in the grasshopper life cycle are more capable of dealing with rain than others.
Irrigation is often a key indicator of the quality of the hopper habitat. If the farmers in your area use sprinklers to grow hay, soy, or corn, it likely means the region is dry enough for hoppers to hatch and survive, and then thrive as adults on unnaturally robust crops.
Close to harvest, the irrigation sprinklers are turned off so the crop can mature and dry (you can’t bale wet hay, or combine wet grain). When the water is turned off (or late summer becomes naturally dry) the hoppers migrate from the brown pastures and swathed hayfields to verdant creek and river bottoms where the grass is still growing. Like all living creatures, hoppers need water to survive, and they get almost all of their water from the green plant life they prefer.
Many longbeard fly fishers have learned to expect mayfly hatches around phenological events, for example in the East, Hendricksons hatch within a few days of the first blooms of forsythia, and Sulphurs hatch at the same time you see white flowers of mountain laurel.
The same is true of hopper “hatches.” If you’re looking to hit a perfect infestation of buzzing, chirping grasshoppers along your favorite trout stream, watch the farmers’ fields. Harvest time is hopper time.
Like most fly fishers, I long believed that hoppers only ended up in the water through a combination of wind, lack of foresight, and poor flying ability. I presume they never want to be in the water, because when I see them land, they unerringly kick like hell toward the nearest shore.
But some scientists have postulated that in some instances, the hoppers are suicidal. [“Parasites brainwash grasshoppers into death dive,” by Shaoni Bhattacharya. New Scientist, August 31, 2005. The Editor.]
Two known parasitic worms Spinochordodes tellinii and Paragordius tricuspidatus have a life cycle that can only be completed underwater, yet the worms grow only inside crickets and hoppers. Grasshoppers ingest the microscopic larvae of the worms, and the parasites grow to lengths of 3 to 4 times the length of the host. The parasite leaves the host when the hopper drowns, and then the worms independently reproduce underwater.
It seems that this life cycle could be the evolutionary result of a dependable number of accidental hopper drownings, but some scientists claim the parasites manipulate the nervous system of the host hopper, and hijack its behavior, forcing the hoppers to jump into the water and drown. This works out well for trout, who don’t care about the mental welfare of hoppers, or the reproductive habits of parasitic worms. They just want to eat.
But based on what I’ve seen in decades of hopper fishing (and exponentially demonstrated on the Rio Ñireguao), hoppers mostly end up in the river accidentally. When it’s cloudy and cool, grasshoppers don’t move much, and the errant splash-downs happen far less frequently. Trout that depend on hoppers as a major food source adjust their feeding schedules accordingly, sometimes so dramatically that the fishing altogether goes sour. Nymphs, drys, streamers, it doesn’t matter. When hoppers are the major seasonal food source, the river on a crisp, damp morning can be as lifeless as a retirement home. It’s not just that the trout aren’t on hoppers, it’s that they’ve switched off altogether until the afternoon “hatch.”
Sun and heat is what gets the hoppers moving on fall afternoons, but although heat might be a required catalyst, there’s often much more driving their movements. As mentioned before, hoppers often migrate away from harvested fields or dry over-grazed pastures as they seek out food and hydration in the river bottoms.
Reproduction is another important movement motivator. The churring stridulations of grasshoppers in the fall is the sound of males rasping their femurs against their forewings to attract females. The larger females move toward the sounds and lay their eggs in the ground beside the noisy males.
Hoppers also jump/fly to evade predators both perceived and real. Cows and sheep along an unfenced riverbank are generally bad for a watershed in the long run, but on a hot afternoon, they can send hundreds or thousands of hoppers into the river.
Normally I walk a riverbank only upstream while looking for rising trout, but when the banks are loaded with hoppers it’s not a bad idea to walk downstream and watch hoppers hurl themselves into the river before you. Walk slower than the current along the bank, and make frequent pauses to watch what’s going on downstream.
Sometimes I make these types of walks merely as an observational exercise. I help the local farmer remove some pests, feed some trout, then take my rod far downstream to find some other trout that might be acting in a similar fashion with the help of the wind and cows only.
Dealing with Wind
When a strong fall wind blows a whole season of leaves into a steelhead stream, turning it into a messy, hook-catching potpourri, I pack it in. And 25 knots on open ocean is about 5 to 10 knots over my limit. I quit.
But in hopper fishing, the wind is your friend. Upstream, downstream, east or west, it doesn’t matter. Windy days are the best days to catch trout on hoppers. Without the wind, hoppers do a fair job of moving about by leaping as sub-adults, and then by both leaping and flying when their wings are fully developed as adults.
Their legs don’t propel them as you might think, as horses or frogs do by powerfully extending their legs to apply force. Instead, grasshoppers use their legs as a catapult mechanism, taking time to shorten and contract the muscles, storing energy, then releasing it like a slingshot that produces a great amount of energy, but not a great deal of accuracy.
When they release this evasive energy, it produces enough velocity and distance to successfully evade a snake or bird, but the landing leaves much to be desired. Sometimes, as with the case of a river landing, it’s out of the pot and into the fire.
On a windy day, hoppers can be everywhere in the river from the middle to the shoreline, and in every riffle, bend, and slow deep pool, but they are far more concentrated in some areas than others, and so are the feeding trout. Whether you want to catch lots of trout, or just the biggest trout, it’s a no-brainer that you should focus your efforts where the best hopper habitat is adjacent to the best trout habitat, and the wind is driving the hoppers toward the water.
A perfect situation for a right-hand caster would be a strong crosswind blowing left to right over a riverbank of California brome, with a choppy slot 12 to 18 inches deep near the bank. Everything is going your way here, the wind is blowing the hoppers into the river, blowing your fly away from your body, trout use the chop as overhead cover, and they likely aren’t in that location looking for nymphs on the bottom. Quick, bouncy water is highly oxygenated (important on hot late-summer afternoons) and it partially obscures the details of your fly, forcing the trout into a “consume it or lose it” situation.
Of course, even if you seek out these perfect windy scenarios, you’ll still have to deliver the fly. And around the next bend, you may be dealing with a headwind, tailwind, or a crosswind blowing your fly against your right shoulder, or flat skinny water may force you to cast farther in the wind to avoid spooking feeding trout.
Yes, the wind is your friend, but only if you know how to deal with it by backcasting short and parachuting the forward cast when you have a strong tailwind; by casting “cack handed” (over the opposite shoulder) to deal with a bad sideways wind; and how to use your thumb to drive the rod forward and your forefinger to suddenly stop the rod and shoot the line down at the water before it can be blown off course.
Casting over your opposite shoulder (or learning how to cast with both hands) my be the most important tool because some days on certain rivers, it seems that the wind and the good hopper habitat are always on the wrong side for a right-handed caster.
These skills all take experience and practice, and would take another separate article to describe in detail, but there are some tackle shortcuts you can take to make those physical efforts more successful. When you’re dealing with a 20-mph wind, and a 22-inch brown trout is possibly at stake, you don’t need to introduce roadblocks with the wrong rod, line, or leader.
Rods. When the topic of fly fishing comes up in general conversation I’m frequently asked “What’s the best rod?” My answer is always, “Best for what?” The rod you use for casting a size 22 Trico accurately and protecting 6X tippet is not the same rod you use for projecting a #6 Panty Dropper into a headwind.
What you want for hopper fishing (particularly in the wind) is the stiffest, fastest rod you can afford. A 9-foot 5-weight Sage Method might be the perfect hopper-specific rod (especially on windy days) but if I could only take one rod for the whole day I’d prefer the wider fishing range of a G.Loomis NRX or Orvis Helios 2. Sometimes you plan on hopper fishing all day but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Lines. One reason you need a rod with backbone is to handle the mass and the taper of the line you need for hopper fishing. Punching a hopper into the wind is only partly about the rod, and mostly about the fly line.
A double-taper fly line is about the worst choice you can make for hopper fishing, and a general-purpose weight-forward trout line is not far behind. The front tapers of both are usually very similar, the double taper merely has the same taper at the other end instead of running line.
What you need for hopper fishing is a line with as much mass forward as possible, with a short, steep taper and a short tip. At Trouters Patagonia in Chile this past winter, I was able to test the 5-weight Scientific Anglers Siege, RIO OutBound Short, and Airflo’s Streamer Float on multiple rivers in Chile both wading and from the boat, and the OutBound Short is simply better at transferring energy into the leader to turn over a bushy fly pattern because it’s shorter with an overall head length of 30 feet and a front taper of just a little over 6 feet. The other two lines have head lengths of closer to 38 feet with longer tapers, which is better for accuracy and carrying line for longer casts, but when it comes to making one-shot wonders with large flies in gusting conditions, the OutBound gets it done better.
Leaders. As you get closer to the fly, your decision making becomes more critical, and a leader tailored to the demands of hopper fishing (in the wind) is the quickest, cheapest, easiest way to improve your delivery.
Too many people try to cast a leader that is too long, so the fly is more easily blown off target, or just doesn’t turn over. There’s no sense in fishing a 12-foot leader when your fly lands 6 feet from the fly line tip anyway. If you’re a consumer of knotless tapered leaders, 7.5' RIO Powerflex 1X to 3X leaders are good ones. Add 12 to 18 inches of 2X or 3X tippet to the end to help create a little extra slack near the fly and you’re set.
You should only use 3X tippet in hard-fished, clear water that is slow and flat. Even with this diameter you might have difficulty casting big bushy flies accurately, with “wind” knots, or trouble with the fly twisting the leader and tippet.
Fluorocarbon leaders and tippets are not required, in fact nylon monofilament is limper so you’ll get better drag-free drifts, it’s easier to seat the knot correctly, and it’s more elastic so you’ll get a little more shock absorption. Save your expensive fluorocarbon for subsurface fishing.
If you tie your own leaders, I shoot for at least 60 percent butt section with 3 feet of .024", 1 foot of .017", 1 foot of .012", and 2 feet of 2X.
Due to wind resistance, knotless tapered leaders are really the best way to go. I even cut the loops off the leader butt and fly line and use a slim, compact nail knot to cut through the wind better and cause fewer tangles.
Due to the shorter and stouter leader you should use with large, wind-resistant flies, it becomes more critical to plan your approach (if possible) to create presentation angles that show the fly first, and not the leader.
But sometimes you’re in a big river where you can’t wade out, and you want to dissect a juicy piece of water along the bank. You can’t cast from midriver because it’s too deep, and you don’t want to work downstream because it spooks too many fish. So when you are wade fishing, there are many situations where you’ll have to cast nearly straight upstream at fish that are facing away from you.
When you’re working upstream with that short leader, don’t go for long casts with long drifts, instead pepper the water carefully and wade forward or extend your casts in only short 12- to 18-inch increments to avoid lining any fish.
It’s true that sometimes trout look for the splat! of a hopper, and you’ll get a great many strikes right when the fly touches down. But I’ve also noticed over the years many trout mouthing the hopper while facing the “wrong” direction. In other words, when they took the fly they were facing me and swimming downstream in the same direction as the fly.
Since their standard feeding position should have been facing upstream, I presumed that the wary trout spied the fly, allowed it to pass overhead, then turned and followed it downstream, eventually taking the fly in the downstream position. However, at El Saltamontes Lodge in Chile, fishing the Rio Ñireguao and its small tributaries like El Gato and Cow Shit Creek, we stalked dozens and dozens of wary trout in cramped spaces with clear water and just bathtub-sized pieces of open water among the weeds. When we spotted big trout in these little places, the guide’s advice was always the same: “Cast behind the trout.”
“Say again?” I asked the guide, thinking I didn’t hear correctly the first time he said it.
“Your fly should land a foot or two right behind the trout,” he affirmed.
Never have I had a bonefish or tarpon guide ask me to cast behind a fish, and for decades I have focused all my efforts at getting my fly in front of as many trout as possible. Why in the name of all that is holy would I come all the way to Patagonia, hike for miles, spot a 21-inch brown, and then intentionally cast behind it?
It sounded crazy. But I did as instructed, and piloted my fly to land just behind the trout, which promptly turned 180 degrees and took my fly while swimming downstream. And then it happened again, and again, and again. In fact, it was standard procedure to make the first few casts right behind any spotted fish to eliminate the risk of spooking the trout with any overhead movement of the line or leader. I found out that if you’ve got a nice chunky hopper pattern landing on fairly placid water, a trout can easily sense those vibrations, turn, and consume its prey.
We as fly fishers are deeply entrenched with the idea of giving only visual clues to trigger a strike, but the “sound” of a hopper can be a powerful incentive that circumvents a great many problems. When trout react to a dinner bell like this you get far fewer refusals. It seems that when they make that 180-degree turn they are already partially committed, and they have less motivation or opportunity to give the fly a close visual inspection.
All those “behind the fish” visual experiences in Chile made me reconsider all the other trout I’ve caught on the Bow, Bighorn, North Platte, and elsewhere, where I was casting upstream, but was surprised by a trout taking my fly facing downstream. It could be that many of those trout “heard” my fly land behind them as well.
By using short increments advancing up the streambank you’ll first put your fly behind a trout and within hearing range, and only afterward advance the fly into the trout’s field of vision. That work behind the line of scrimmage can pay big dividends with wary trout in clear water that are tuned into feeding on hoppers.
Flies for Hopper Fishing
There is no single “best” hopper pattern. While much emphasis over the years has been placed on matching your hopper to the same size and colors as the prevalent naturals, too often this fools people into ignoring other important factors such as the water type, the current, light conditions, and the wind.
Matching the hatch based on what you see in a hayfield isn’t all that important because the grasshopper “hatch” has much less uniformity than say a mayfly hatch, there’s fewer of them, and each grasshopper has a huge calorie value, so there’s less propensity for the trout to become selective to a certain size or color.
Also, even if you see many small hoppers in a field, remember that immature hoppers don’t have wings and they don’t fly like adults. The bigger flying adults are the ones that end up in the river, so those are the ones you should be imitating.
Your fly should have the distinctive profile of a hopper with a squared head shape, and the legs are key. I once spent an entire afternoon on Slough Creek’s Second Meadow, not fishing at all, but being cruel to grasshoppers and learning a lot in the process. The hoppers were slow that day, and easy to catch by hand. By peeking my head over eroded cutbacks I could drop hoppers down nearly on top of large 18- to 20-inch cutthroats to see how they reacted. These were suspicious fish—they rarely ate on the “plop” of the landing, and nearly always eyeballed the fly for some time before inhaling the insect. They acted as though they had been caught before.
After a few feedings, I experimented with pulling one leg or both legs off the hopper, and it clearly made a difference. Hoppers with one leg were occasionally refused, a real hopper without any legs just didn’t get eaten, not just because the profile was wrong, but because without legs, the insect couldn’t move.
More important than the profile of the fly (I believe) is the movement. Real hoppers instinctively kick their legs to swim toward shore, and trout look for these micro movements. Flies like the Fat Albert have more legs than a real hopper, but trout can’t count. More legs on a fly patterns just means more movement, and I think rubber legs on a fly today are required. I wouldn’t fish without them.
The best flies today have knotted hind legs to reproduce the bulk and angle of a real hopper’s hind legs, and indicator yarn on top doesn’t seem to hurt a fly’s effectiveness at all. In riffle water, the legs move independently, but in flat, slow water it sometimes helps to animate the rubber legs just a little bit with subtle twitches of the rod tip.
The twitch game is often a boom-or-bust proposition, and depends a great deal on your ability to control line and mend. You’ve got to take slack out of your line to twitch the fly, but once you remove that slack you are teetering on the edge of creating drag. A subtle twitch here and there works wonders, but drag can be a killer so you’ve got to count on the current creating slack for you, or else introducing slack with mends in between each twitch. Hoppers don’t motorboat across the water, they give very faint twitches here and there.
It’s also important to match your fly to the water type. A size 10 Hopper Grande is a great flatwater hopper pattern, and because of its smaller profile it’s fairly easy to cast in the wind. But it doesn’t float well in fast water and is tougher to see than say a Neversink Hopper Popper or a Sweetgrass Hopper.
Beyond the wind, lighting conditions can play an important role. On dark, windy overcast days it seems like dark foam flies like a Fat Albert provide a stronger silhouette than a tan or natural-colored fly, and can bring more strikes. Hold your fly up to the sky on a cloudy day and it seems like at every angle, what you’re identifying is an outline. And black flies have the strongest identifiable outline.
On a sunny bluebird day, you’ll see only the outline if you put the fly between you and the sun, but at all other angles, when the sun is shining on the fly, the colors and small details of the fly become more apparent. That’s why I use realistic colors on bright sunny days, and a black Fat Albert, Cathy’s Super Beetle, or a black Chernobyl when the sky is overcast.
Many fly fishers speculate that black flies at times succeed on hopper water because there are also beetles, crickets, or cicadas around, but the steelheader in me believes that trout can just pick out the strong outline of a black fly better than anything else. Whatever the reason, they certainly work.
El Saltamontes Lodge
The name of the lodge translated literally means “the grasshopper” and with 12 kilometers of the Rio Ñireguao winding through his 5,000-acre cattle ranch, Jose Gorroño may be sitting on the finest grasshopper river on the planet.
The Ñireguao flows through high desert grasslands locked in a huge valley at the base of the Andes. To get there, it’s a 90-minute drive from Coyhaique, Chile, that climaxes with a dramatic canyon slot that separates the lower from the upper river. Above the steep canyon, the valley broadens into a wide grassy expanse where Jose’s pedigree Hereford cattle and prize alpacas graze.
The weedy spring creek was one of Chile’s first catch-and-release trout streams, and the site of the country’s first scientific trout population study, which estimated 9,000 trout per mile. At that time, the river was all brown trout, but in 2010 a flood washed rainbow trout down from a private lake high in the watershed, and those fish have both thrived and reproduced.
Interestingly, the guides believe that the rainbows don’t compete with the browns for habitat, and actually fill a void. You’ll still catch 99 percent browns in some beats where there is a lot of flat water filled with woody debris, and along sod cutbanks with deep slower water. But the rainbows have taken over the fast riffles and the few spots with bouldery fast water.
Most of the trout in the river are from 14 to 18 inches, but on a normal day you’ll have shots at a dozen fish over 20 inches, and the lodge record is 14 pounds, so you know “the big one” is always out there.
The Rio Ñireguao is a classic spring creek with gravel-bottom riffles filled with caddis and mayflies, and weedy flats with midges, crustaceans, and aquatic worms, but the trout here depend on hoppers for a huge part of their calorie intake.
I grew up in the Rocky Mountain West and have fished for 30 years in rivers known as great hopper rivers, but never have I seen a valley with as many hoppers as the Ñireguao. On a hot, windy afternoon, walking across a pasture is like a summertime blizzard, and you cannot walk the banks without seeing hoppers falling into the river by the dozens.
While the river valley is a treasure, no one would experience it without Jose Gorroño’s El Saltamontes Lodge—the culmination of his lifetime of work in an extremely remote region of Patagonia, and the result of a 30-year partnership with the exclusive booking agent The Fly Shop at Redding, California (www.theflyshop.com).
When he bought his first parcel of land in the valley in 1983 there was no electricity in the region, but luckily, Jose’s education as a mechanical engineer allowed him to create a clean and sustainable hydroelectric turbine using the water pressure created by a small mountain spring, a pipe, and gravity. The same spring provides fresh water to the lodge.
Jose had excess electricity (and still does today) so he shared it with nearby small farms, and in 1995 he built a small community center/church for the residents of El Gato (the local community of fewer than 100 residents) and powered it with his own electricity.
The spacious and comfortable guest cabins and the main lodge also reflect Jose’s character and hard work. Built from local river stone and rough-hewn logs, the buildings surround an outdoor wood-fired hot tub (also designed by Jose) where you can relax after a day of fishing.
Everywhere you wade/dine/ride at El Saltmontes you enjoy the visionary effort Jose has put into his ranch and the lodge. His success at protecting and preserving not just the fishery but the culture and history of the people and the land are a story all to themselves, and Jose has many more stories to share at the dining table, making him a central part of the charming hospitality everyone experiences at El Saltamontes.
By the end of our one-week visit, the five couples in our group were comparing Jose to “the most interesting man in the world” we’ve all seen in the Dos Equis commercials—only the television character is fictional, and Jose Gorroño is the real deal.
Gorroño is a ranching pioneer and was the first in Patagonia to use embryo transplants of pedigree Hereford cattle in local Chilean cows to quickly improve his cattle herd. He collected alpacas from the Aymara Indians in Bolivia, Peru, and Northern Chile, and once chartered his own cargo plane to export 300 live alpacas to the United States, where they were sold to breeders all over the country. Today, gentle alpacas roam the ranch, and local artisans use the soft microfibers to craft shawls, hats, and sweaters.
He has an impressive stable of horses, descendants of either an Arab stallion or of the world champion show jumper Ratina Z crossed with a Chilean mare, and a full-time equestrian instructor to run the riding program at El Saltamontes.
He has sailed the Pacific Ocean solo from Chile to Australia many times, been becalmed, survived storms, and repaired his own boat to survive. He has spear-fished the Great Barrier Reef to feed himself, been involved in deep sea salvage operations, and bought and sold bulk gemstones in Guyana and Colombia to finance his travels, been jailed by corrupt government officials in Jakarta for failing to deliver a bribe, and he has most recently self-rescued after a skiing fall into an icy canyon that resulted in a compound fracture of his arm.
He is a gracious and humble host, but over dinner, if you ask “where did you get this antique diver’s helmet?” or “what’s the biggest shark you’ve swum with” or “which horse is your favorite” you’ll find out that the most interesting man in the world is not in a beer commercial. He owns a ranch and fishing lodge in Patagonia.
. . .
As a guide on the Bow River I once had a prospective client from New Jersey tell me he didn’t want to fish the river in August because in his opinion “hopper fishing is too easy.” Well, some days are easier than others, that’s for sure. But on other days—when the wind is blasting against your casting shoulder, or you find a picky 21-inch brown looking for hoppers in flat glassy water, you’ll need every tool in the box. I hope some of these tips help you find the fish of your dreams.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman magazine.