November 08, 2021
By Dave Whitlock
Editor's note: Flyfisherman.com will periodically be posting articles written and published before the Internet, from the Fly Fisherman magazine print archives. The wit and wisdom from legendary fly-fishing writers like Ernest Schwiebert, Gary LaFontaine, Lefty Kreh, John Voelker, Al Caucci & Bob Nastasi, Vince Marinaro, Doug Swisher & Carl Richards, Nick Lyons, and many more deserve a second life. These articles are reprinted here exactly as published in their day and may contain information, philosophies, or language that reveals a different time and age. This should be used for historical purposes only.
This article originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. Click here for a PDF of the print version of "Hopper Time."
It’s 2 P.M., a sunny 80-degrees, windy, and there’s a distinct “click, click, click” wing song coming from the golden clumps of grass and sagebrush banks of the Madison River.
A large clumsy insect flying out of control and sideways in the wind misses the waving, tall streamside grass tops and splats down six feet offshore. Before it kicks three times, a big spotted head pokes its long snout out and the insect disappears with an audible slurp and swirl–it’s hopper time.
Hopper time is simply the best and most exciting time of the year to catch big brown trout with a dry fly. Here’s why.
Hoppers–or grasshoppers (orthoptera)–are large colorful, widely distributed terrestrial insects. As their name implies, they love hopping about on fresh grass, especially those lush, marshy grasses near and along streams and ponds. Although they hate swimming even more than cats do, gusty winds, predators, grazing animals, harvesters, and their amorous activities often deposit them, kicking and fluttering, into nearby waters.
Resident warm- and coldwater fish like trout, char, whitefish, bass, sunfish, catfish, and carp always seem eager to gobble a hopper without hesitation or caution–especially the very largest and wisest of the fishy predators. Why is this?
After being amazed and entertained for more than 50 years of hopper time, my theory is this: Grasshoppers are large, easy-to-catch insects that must be both exciting and delicious to capture and eat. After they get large enough to eat hoppers, the fish seem to anticipate each season of hopper-eating. The adult fish generally prefer large, tasty, live foods to support their size and lifestyle.
Big, wild, super-selective veteran brown trout (from 20 to 30 inches long) that are almost impossible to fool with a fake Trico, midge, Pale Morning Dun (PMD), or golden stonefly will dash headlong from their shadowy hideouts into the shallow, sunlit water to seek and destroy a kicking hopper after it has crashed into the water. The fish take in a swoosh to wave and a glutton’s slurp of water, hopper, and air.
I recall a big scar-faced male brown that lived in a rocky undercut hole on the Yellowstone Park’s upper Madison River for at least five seasons. I caught him four times and introduced him to Art Flick, Len Bearden, my wife Emily, and my son Joel. Each time we caught him, it was always on a #8 or #10 Dave’s Hopper. Nymphs, Muddlers, Woolly Buggers, Royal Wulffs, and Parachute Adams were never his pleasure.
The last time I saw him caught (by my son Joel), he was getting old; his bright yellow, gold, and black-spotted skin had darkened, and his once robust body had become long and very lean. I suspect that was his last hopper season. I know if he had his way, he surely moved on to hopper paradise.
The Hopper Year
Grasshoppers generally have a one-year or shorter life cycle. Hopper nymphs or eggs laid in the late fall are dormant through the winter and become active after spring freezes and frosts stop. The nymphs eat tender green grasses and grow in proportion to the amount of food and warmth–the more there is, the faster they grow. By July, hoppers are usually through their nymphhood and begin to take on the shape, intricate coloration, flight wings, and size of adults. Males are usually more colorful and one-half as large as females, so often there are two or three sizes of the same hopper species present.
In July, August, September, and October, hoppers are mature and abundant and attractive to "hoppertunists," since the major aquatic insects have already hatched. Hoppers love sunshine and air temperatures above 70 degrees F In most places that means they'll be more active between 10 A.M. and 6 P.M.
Big trout set their alarm clocks to wake up about 11 A.M. for the day's hopper banquet. Mating, which occurs from mid-summer to early fall, increases the hoppers' activities, including their traipsing along the tops of the high grasses and weeds or flying in search 0f the lady hoppers. It's these conditions, especially if there's a gusty wind, that cause a lot of hoppers to jump, fall, or fly into adjacent streams and ponds.
These unexpected swims are not fatal for most hoppers, as they are usually able to quickly kick back to the shoreline. But if a hoppertunist detects them, they likely won't make it to dry land. If they are unlucky enough to land in waves, swift riffles, or rapid water turbulence, they often become submerged and are then consumed by hungry fish holding downstream.
Those hoppers that mate and survive their land and water predators lay their eggs at the base of grass clumps, in dung piles, or in soft soil. Some die, but usually not until winter freezes them. A few adults burrow into warm composting humus or dung piles where they escape freezing to death. In some areas, this adult survival is significant.
Spring's warmth hatches the eggs that were deposited in the fall, and a new life cycle begins. The freshly hatched hopper nymphs develop as weather warms and meadow grasses grow. When these nymphs reach about 1/3 to 3/8 inch, they become large enough for fish to eat. However, it's usually July or later before they are large enough to really be significant to large fish.
Flies and Tackle for Fishing Hoppers
Adult grasshoppers are large, colorful, very animated, and unique insects. Imitating them has been an interesting challenge for many fly fishers. There are probably at least two dozen effective and popular fly designs across North and South America.
Patterns. The classics are Joe's Hopper, Letort Hopper, Gartside Pheasant Hopper, Muddler Minnow, Dave's Hopper, Whit Hopper, Lawson' Henry's Fork Hopper, and Schroeder's Parachute Hopper.
When I began hopper fishing back in the early 1950s, the Joe's Hopper was the most popular. But, to me, the Joe's Hopper was tough to cast into strong wind and really twisted my leader. My friend Joe Brooks said he preferred using a Muddler Minnow for imitating hoppers.
It did cast and fish better than Joe's, but its underside didn't look right, so I took ideas from both designs plus a fly of my own and created the first Dave's Hopper. I kept improving it over the years, and it has worked like magic for me wherever I've used it in North and South America.
The most important characteristics of a hopper pattern are:
- Low wind resistance and the ability to strike the water with a distinct "splat" or "plop" sound.
- The ability to float low in the surface film.
- A strong body and leg profile when viewed from below.
- A color pattern and size of the most abundant hoppers in the area.
- A snag guard to protect the hook point.
- Good visibility in the surface film.
Tackle and Tips for Fishing Hoppers
Tackle. Hopper imitations on typical trout and bass streams and ponds are usually best presented and fished with 5- to 7-weight outfits. I find the following combination works well: an 8 1/2- to 9-foot, fast-action, 6-weight rod with a floating, weight-forward bass-bug taper and a 9-foot, knotless bass-bug leader with a 3X or 2X tip. This combination can present hoppers in windy conditions to the shoreline hopper banks. Presenting hopper flies correctly, that is, with accuracy and loud impact, and then hooking and controlling large trout, requires a setup similar to this.
Several years ago, I designed a 6-weight bass-bug-taper fly line for smallmouth bass; it's the best hopper line I've ever used, because it presents them well whether I'm wading or floating. In windy conditions, I can get pinpoint accuracy when using the required straight, curve, and skip-cast hopper plopping.
Two quick bits of advice on tackle:
- For 100 percent knot strength at your tippet and fly knots, coat both with Zap-A-Gap cement as you draw each tight.
- Use a Duncan loop knot for tying on the hopper. It's a great knot that allows the hopper to look and move in a more natural way. After you've tied on the hopper, put a coating of floatant on top of its head, collar, and wing so it will float low, like a live hopper.
Hoppers often sink if they land in rough, rapid, or swift riffle water. Big trout, smallmouth bass, and channel catfish know this well. To take advantage of this situation, use a weighted hopper or add split-shot or Twist-ons at about 18 inches above the fly. I prefer to weight the leader because it allows the hopper to float a few feet before the weight pulls it down. This way you can fish both levels with one cast.
Try this method when there are large rocks, logs, or deep cutbanks and eddies that big fish can hide under. Cast well above them and get the hopper down. Twitch it a little occasionally; otherwise, fish it like a nymph. If the hopper fly has a snag guard, I let it drift beneath and back under logs, root clumps, undercut banks, and ledges. The trout, bass, catfish, and carp I catch on this method are usually large. The diving hopper method is also a secret weapon when big stoneflies are on the surface, especially in the heavily-pounded Madison, Big Hole, Beaverhead, Missouri, Yellowstone, Green, and Gallatin rivers.
Stillwater Grasshopper Presentations
I have had equally good success using hopper flies on stillwaters such as beaver ponds, farm ponds, sloughs, and lakes. At El Saltamontes (in Chile), there are lots of spring-fed sloughs they call lagunas in the middle of the ranch hay meadows. These lagunas consistently produce some of the largest browns of the season—on Dave's Hoppers.
Presentation is basically the same. Slap the fly down near the upwind shorelines, let it rest for three or four seconds, then occasionally twitch it (1-inch moves) three or four times, and let it sit for about ten seconds between moves.
I'm amazed at how big catfish, largemouth bass, and carp respond to hoppers fished on summer farm ponds. I guess they, like stream trout and smallmouth, have learned how wonderful hoppers are to eat.
Hopper time is a super opportunity from about mid-July until October to enjoy some of the best dry-fly action for big fish across North America, from Maine to New Mexico. If you want more hopper time, fly south to Chile when the snows are blowing across the frozen North American landscape. For more information on fishing in Chile, contact Mike Michalak at The Fly Shop.
Techniques, Timing, and Presentations for Fishing Hoppers
Hopper time begins with selecting the right place at the right time. That's usually a flowing water with lots of shoreline bordering grassy meadows, especially if there are overhanging grass and undercut banks.
The best streams are usually narrow. In North America, prime time usually begins in late July, peaks ln mid-August through mid-September, and ends by mid-October to November. In South America, the hopper season begins in late January, peaks in mid-February to the end of March, and finishes by April's end.
Timing. On sunny, windy days, begin fishing around 11 A.M. and continue through 5 P.M. After the sun starts down, hoppers become inactive and hoppertunists know that.
Emily and I fished Chile's hopper-paradise lodge, El Saltamontes (The Grasshopper) in mid-March two seasons ago. Anglers there fish almost exclusively with hoppers. I've never seen a river so full of big browns that were so totally hooked or spoiled on hoppers as this place. It became easy to understand why, once we walked along the meadow bank of the river. Hundreds of hoppers emerged from the grasses like huge, flushing coveys of quail. lt seemed like half of them landed in the water.
Sometimes the lodge has horseback riders travel along the banks to chum the waters with hordes of hoppers.
I got up at daylight on several days and walked the waters up- and downstream from the lodge while the other guests were waking up and enjoying coffee and breakfast. I couldn't raise a decent fish on any fly I tried. It just seemed as if there were no fish in the stream.
Then, at 11 A.M., the river's browns suddenly materialized everywhere, even on shallow open gravel bars. At the same time, the wind began to increase–5, 10, 15 miles per hour–and suddenly the hoppers filled the air and then the browns' stomachs. What an incredible sight, even to this old hopper-time veteran! Hundreds, thousands of hoppers were along the meadow shorelines. I even saw browns leaping up on the banks, cherry-picking clusters of hoppers off the grass stems.
Then at 5 P.M., just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. And I mean stopped. For several days, I fished until dark, while the other guests were visiting, laughing, and enjoying cocktails, wine, and hors d’oeuvres, but I caught no fish over eight or ten inches on anything, including hoppers, nymphs, and streamers.
I've never seen such numbers of hoppers or experienced such fantastic hopper fishing as at El Saltamontes. The browns average 17 inches, and we got fish up to 25 inches every day. In fact, I landed an old, dark, scarred, hook-jawed 27-incher that strongly resembled the old Madison River hopper-eater that I mentioned earlier. Could it be that he'd died and gone to this real hopper heaven at El Saltamontes?
Presentations/Angles. There are three techniques I find most effective to present hoppers.
- Upstream bank casting. Quietly stalk your way along the bank and make sidearm casts upstream. This is probably the most consistent way to take the big bank feeders. Stay quiet and low and wear clothes that blend with the background. Make 20- to 25-foot casts. Make two or three presentations right next to the bank, and then two or three farther from the bank. Then move up about 20 feet and repeat. If you only move up a couple of feet, you run the risk of casting short of the next area's undisturbed trout. This short casting can either scare fish or cause them to turn and follow the fly, and then they are able to see you below them.
- Downstream bank dapping. Quietly creep up to the bank's edge and with just the rod tip and leader, dap the hopper down hard on the surface, pause two or three seconds, then begin twitching it toward shore. Try two or three presentations, then stop and creep back up the streambank. Move down to the next likely-looking spot and repeat the downstream-dap presentation.
- Across and downstream presentation. Wade or float into position across and above the bank—about 30 to 40 feet away. Present the hopper three or four times close to the bank and out 5, 10, and 15 feet. Allow it to dead-drift or twitch it. Then move to the next good spot. Don't wade up- or downstream close to banks where trout or bass are waiting for hoppers. They'll hear and see you and dive for cover, or dash out to open, deep water. I made that mistake for years and it was always costly.
Dave's Hopper Fly Recipe
HOOK: TMC 5263, barbless, #4-#14.
THREAD: 6/0 and 3/0 nylon, color of hopper’s body.
CEMENTS: Dave's Flexament and Zap-A-Gap.
BODY FOUDATION AND SNAG GUARD: Mason hard mono nylon the diameter of hook wire.
TAIL: Short, stiff, natural brown deer hair dyed red.
BODY: Polypropylene yarn the color of the underside of the abdomen. Yellow is the most popular color.
RlB: Brown or cree cock hackle.
UNDERWING: Light natural gray deer hair dyed the wing color (usually pale yellow).
WING: Speckled turkey, peacock, or turkey feather.
REAR KICKER LEGS: Cock pheasant tail quill barbs (ring-neck or golden pheasant).
COLLAR AND HEAD: Short, well-marked natural and natural yellow deer hair.
Whit Hopper Fly Recipe
HOOK: TMC 5263, barbless, #4-#14.
THREAD: 6/0 and 3/0 nylon color of body.
CEMENT: Dave's Flexament and Zap-A-Gap.
BODY FOUNDATION AND SNAG GUARD: Mason hard nylon mono about the diameter of hook wire. Size #10 hook: .015"; size #6 hook: .019".
BODY: Elk rump hair color of the hopper's abdomen.
RIB: Wire or monofilament.
UNDERWING: Light-colored, natural
WING: Mottled turkey, peacock, or turkey feather (secondary wing quill section).
REAR KICKER LEGS: Grizzly neck hackle dyed the color of the legs and trimmed to the leg shape.
HEAD AND COLLAR: Short, dark, well-marked natural and natural dyed pale yellow deer hair.
ANTENNAE: Brown or grizzly neck hackle stems.
My choice for the best all-around hopper is the Dave's Hopper. Over the years I've found a #10 Dave's Hopper with a yellow body, pale yellow underwing and speckled brown wing, with either a red tail or red calves on the kicker leg, to be a favorite design in both North and South American hopper areas. The Whit Hopper has a more distinct profile, is less wind-resistant, and has a more realistic design than Dave's Hopper.
Hopper Snag Guard
I believe a hopper with a snag guard enhances the fly's potential to be fished more effectively. With a snag guard, it can be hopped off banks or cast over or close to bank structures such as root or logs. Any bullet or sloped deer hair-head hopper can be made weedless by simply gluing a simple guard strand of heavy monofilament to the head with Zap-A-Gap. (See illustration.)
- Cut a one-inch strand of nylon monofilament about the diameter of the hook wire or slightly smaller. I recommend using Mason hard monofilament for best results.
- Put a small drop of Zap-A-Gap cement on the nylon strand end. Push it into position on the underside of the hopper's head.
- After the cement sets enough to hold the strand in place, add a second small drop to its base. When it sets hard, trim the strand slightly longer than the hook gap and bend a small foot on the strand end.
Most likely, Emily and I will see you on one of the great hopper waters come next hopper time.
Dave Whitlock is a Fly Fisherman Editor-at-Large. He lives in Midway, Arkansas.