Fishing With Hoppers: Lessons from the Henry's Fork
July 15, 2013
I live in Montana about three miles from the Madison River. On a good day, the Madison offers wonderful hopper fishing for rainbows and browns that aggressively pounce on a wide variety of hopper imitations. In nearby Idaho, on the Railroad Ranch of the Henry's Fork, the hopper fishing is remarkably different. The flat water of the Ranch — officially known as Harriman State Park — and the hyperselective rainbows that live there demand highly realistic hopper imitations, and sophisticated fishing strategies and techniques.
I spend more time than most Ranch regulars fishing with hopper imitations because I have learned that hoppers catch exceptionally large trout. Over my 29 years of fishing, and 13 seasons of guiding on the Ranch, my clients and I have taken 1,523 rainbows between 17 and 24.5 inches. Hoppers took a significant share of the largest rainbows in that group, producing even more large trout than Green Drakes.
And you do not have to be planning a trip to the Henry's Fork to benefit from learning about hopper fishing there. The strategies that have evolved on the Ranch are relevant on flat-water trout fisheries throughout the world.
Jay-Dave's Fishing With Hoppers
The presentation of any hopper imitation on slow-moving water is critical. However, many high-riding patterns designed for fast water and opportunistic fish simply do not fool wise fish in difficult spring creek situations. If a good Ranch fish takes a hopper it is a credit both to the inherent realism of the imitation, and the effective drift the angler achieves.
I have tested many hopper patterns on the Ranch. I have had success with realistic hoppers tied by Mike and Sheralee Lawson, René and Bonnie Harrop, Al Troth, Jack Gartside, and Jay Buchner. Of all the fine patterns tied by these innovative artists, the most productive for me has been the Jay-Dave's Hopper tied by Jay Buchner of Jackson, Wyoming. After experimenting with it in many sizes and colors, I have found the best producer to be a size 12 with a cream body.
There are many anglers who suggest that smaller hoppers are more effective on selective trout. I disagree. I have tried many small hoppers — as small as size 16 — and none have been as effective on the Ranch as a size 12 Jay-Dave's Hopper. A disadvantage of small patterns is that they become difficult to see if the wind is blowing, or when you are taking shots at fish at long range.
Another logical reason for the efficacy of the size 12 Jay-Dave's that seems to be missed by proponents of a smaller fly is that the majority of the naturals are about a size 12.
Apart from the size, very few fly fishers seem to consider the weight of the fly. I've tried quite a few foam hoppers, and found it difficult to get them to hit the water with the fish-attracting "splat" that I get with the significantly heavier Jay-Dave's hopper.
I decided to test this theory and weighed a few hopper imitations and a few natural insects. I found that a live grasshopper comparable in size to a size 12 fly weighed 8 grains on the highly accurate scale I use for hand-loading rifle cartridges. (There are 437.5 grains to an ounce.)
My size 12 Jay-Dave's imitation weighed 5 grains. A foam hopper of comparable size weighed only 2 grains. I am confident the greater
mass of the deer-hair tie attracts trout when it lands on the water with a more realistic splat. Whatever pattern you use, I am confident it will be more effective on flat water if it has mass similar to a real hopper.
Once you find a particularly productive hopper pattern, stick with it. Many anglers who fish the Ranch or comparable water change flies too frequently. Rather than searching for the perfect fly, concentrate on achieving more effective presentation with your imitation.
When I fish the Madison, I use relatively short leaders and concentrate on smacking big, high-riding hoppers down immediately in front of my target — often a prominent rock. Feisty Madison trout often explode on a hopper just seconds after it splats down, and an instant before it reaches the rock.
In Harriman State Park I've learned that getting a good, long drift with a hopper is critical to consistent success. As a result, I began to experiment with longer leaders for hopper fishing. I use a leader that is only slightly shorter than those I use for my small mayfly duns and spinners. Unlike my standard Ranch leader, which is 17 feet long with 4 feet of 6X tippet, my hopper leader is 15 feet and has either a 5X or 4X tippet. The long hopper leader still allows me to turn over my relatively small hoppers. (Casting a size 8 or larger hopper on a leader this long would be exceedingly difficult.)
The long leader and tippet help me achieve the longest possible drag-free drifts. The length of the leader makes it less likely that the fish will see light reflected off your line, and there is less of a chance that you will line a fish. A 5X tippet sounds light for a hopper, but when the water is low and clear, I think you will get more takes from the toughest fish.
I frequently check my long leaders for twisting. Hoppers don't seem to twist my long leaders as much as big Brown Drake spinners, but you still can get significant twisting after a long afternoon of blind casting.
While a long leader is a critical component of a good drift, it is not as important as effective manipulation of the line and leader during and after your cast. The reach cast is indispensable for placing your line upstream of the leader so that you can get the longest possible drift before the current imposes its will.
It is equally critical to learn to cast slack into your line and leader. Practice and perfect the various slack-line casts that are described in the many fine books written on casting
techniques. I have found that a variation of the shock cast works best in our often windy conditions. I slightly overpower my forward cast and just before it straightens out in front of me, I shock the line by making a quick, short pull back with my line hand. The sudden stop puts slack in the line and leader before it falls to the water.
To achieve the longest presentable drift, it is important to learn to feed line after the cast. I "flip" slack line out behind my floating fly by pointing the rod down at the water and using an up and forward flick of the rod tip. The flick must roll out at least a rod-length of line on the water.
When I attempt to teach clients to feed line, their first attempts usually fail to place enough slack line out on the water. The flick is not simply a shake of the rod tip — you must learn to roll line out.
Walking the Dog
A particularly important technique that can help extend your drifts is to learn to walk your hopper as if it were a dog on a long leash. I walk my hopper by making a reach/shock cast toward the bank and then wading downstream in the river at the same pace as the fly. It is similar to the long drifts you can get from a drift boat by making the same cast, and slightly slowing the pace of the boat. Obviously, you can only implement the strategy if you have water like the Ranch, which is slow, shallow, and relatively obstacle free.
It has surprised me how many of our best Ranch fish will take the hopper after it has drifted a long distance. I frequently get takes after the fly has drifted 30 feet or more. I honestly believe that achieving the long drifts that result from "walking the dog" may be the single most important technique you can use to increase your takes when fishing a hopper to highly educated fish on flat water.
I have not been able to watch fish follow a hopper as it drifts because I am too low in the water and do not have the perspective that would allow me to see the trout. But when I once discussed my experience of having large fish take a hopper after particularly long drifts, my friend and employer René Harrop smiled and said, "I am sure they are inspecting the hopper as it drifts."
Most of my enjoyable contests with Ranch fish are at relatively close range. Often a fish sipping small mayfly duns or spinners can be approached at ranges of well under 30 feet. However, when I fish hoppers, I stand well back from the fish — or the stretch of water I am fishing — when I cast. I have convinced myself I get more takes if I stay at least 45 feet from my target.
If conditions allow, I make casts of 60 feet or more in an attempt to spook fewer fish. While accuracy is paramount with small mayfly duns and spinners, trout will move short distances to take a hopper, so it's less critical to cast right on their noses.
Real hoppers kick and twitch after they fall into water, and in places where there are a lot of stoneflies and fast water, moving your fly is the local custom. [See "Pitchin' & Twitchin'" on page 46 for details on this opposing philosophy that is prevalent on the Snake River. The Editor.]
However, on the Ranch I have had little success getting big fish to take a hopper by imparting movement to my imitations. I can get dinks to take a twitched fly regularly, but the big fish all seem to be conditioned against a twitched fly. In flat water with pressured fish, my suggestion is to try a dead-drift first with any hopper pattern.
It is important to attempt to get your hopper imitation to land with a modest splash. You can learn to turn the fly over so that gravity makes it hit the water with appropriate energy. I am convinced fish will "hear" the sound the hopper makes when it hits the surface. They may not take the fly until they inspect it carefully, but they will be more likely to take it after the splashy landing.
The famous Hopper Bank on the Henry's Fork is situated so that the prevailing southwest winds blow hoppers into the water.
On a good day — before scores of anglers have pounded the area — you can have incredible fishing along the 400 or so yards of the Hopper Bank.
Look for similar areas on your waters where the wind is most likely to blow hoppers and other terrestrials directly into the river, and not away from it. Grassy shorelines, hayfields, and pastures are perfect environments to find your own "hopper bank."
Middle of the River
The downside of the Hopper Bank is that everyone knows about it, and it gets hit hard. To avoid competition, I fish hoppers in less obvious areas like in the middle of the river.
When we have a good hopper wind, it's not uncommon to have the bugs blown 300 feet across the river. Fish that are off the banks are happy to take hoppers. And hoppers are poor swimmers. Even if they don't land in the middle of the river, the currents combined with the twisting and turning of the river can carry them there.
I had one memorable guide trip when a rather outspoken client made it clear to me he thought it was silly to fish a hopper anywhere but on the bank. When the first 20-inch rainbow holding in the middle of river sipped his hopper, he was ready to fish in places other than the banks.
Watch the Wind
One morning I looked out the window of my Airstream trailer and noticed we had an unusual wind from the east. I reflected on the huge number of hoppers I had seen the day before on the east bank of the Avenue of the Giants. Usually, our prevailing southwest winds do not push hoppers into this area of the river because the wind blows them back onto the land, but I knew today could be different.
When I walked past the Hopper Bank on my way to the Avenue of the Giants, there were two drift boats and three wading fishermen working the bank.
When I got to the Avenue of the Giants, there was nobody in sight. As I walked the shore, scores of hoppers flushed off the path and were blown into the water. I had some trouble tying the hopper onto my tippet because I was so excited by my plan. I had not made four casts before a great 20-inch fish sipped the hopper at the end of a drift and tore down the river. After I landed him, I was feeling pretty smug.
If you are standing in the river and casting toward the bank, in a perfect situation you'll be driving the bushy dry fly into the wind, so you'll have to practice your casting to cope with it. You must generate high line speed and be aware of the impact the wind coming from different directions will have on your casts.
Fishing hoppers in the wind forced me to perfect casting with my off (or left) hand. If the wind is howling from my right side, the use of my left hand is a great advantage in making a cast. When you have perfected the off-hand cast, you will never try to cast with the awkward "off-shoulder cast" again. It takes less time than you think to get a functional cast with your other hand.
Hoppers do not go underground at 4 P.M., but I have found hopper fishing at Harriman State Park declines in effectiveness after 4:15 P.M. I can't tell you how many times I've had excellent hopper fishing from 3:30 to 4:15, and then suddenly not be able to get a take. I don't know if it's the angle of the light, the timing of afternoon winds, or the daily patterns of grasshoppers, but I have found it true. So for me, when the sun gets low, I switch to other flies and other tactics.
There are ample numbers of hoppers on the river through most of September until the first major frosts of the year begin to thin their numbers. Despite the number of hoppers still on the water in September, the hopper fishing declines dramatically after the middle of the month.
My feeling is that by that time, our best fish have been stung too many times and seen too many hopper imitations to be consistently fooled. You can get the occasional good fish to take after mid-September, but you will not have the same incredibly productive days as during the last week of July and all of August when the fish are first turned on to this food source.
Conversely, don't wait until too late to start trying hoppers. The first few days of hopper fishing tend to be the best on most Western rivers.
In late August 2009 at 3 P.M., I found four trout lined up in Lower Bonefish eating PMD duns. I was fishing a hopper with a 4X tippet when I saw the fish, and I did not want to convert to a tippet compatible with a size 18 PMD. Instead, I got three of the four fish to eat a hopper on the first drift, and they all ate the hopper as if they had been waiting for it.
I have confidence that even tough-to-catch trout feeding on small mayflies will eat a hopper. There will, of course, be times when the result of getting a good drift with a hopper will be that you will not see the fish again. I have not quantified it, but my guess is that during hopper season, I have about a 50 percent success rate of getting a fish to rise to a hopper when it is aggressively feeding on other small insects.
The classic hopper rise on most rivers is violent. Trout have to make quick decisions to take the fly in fast-flowing water. I love the way most of the fish on the Madison smash hoppers. On the flat, slow water of the Henry's Fork, however, the majority of the large fish take a hopper gently. Some trout sip hoppers as if they were mayfly duns, so look for subtle, hard-to-see rises to hoppers on flat water.
Many clients cannot see the gentle rise to a hopper pattern if the surface of the water is disturbed by wind. Despite the number of hours I have fished hoppers on the Ranch, I have also missed many takes.
The problem of seeing the rises is compounded by the fly often being at a considerable distance from you. All you will see at long range is a modest swirl in the wind-rippled water. It is very easy to miss. It is imperative to concentrate if you are going to see the subtle rises. On the Ranch there will be the occasional violent rise, but the subtle take is much more common.
When I started fishing hoppers in big open water, I wondered if I could get more rises by fishing two hoppers. During a long sabbatical in New Zealand, the Kiwis taught me the value of fishing two floating flies. They simply tied the first fly in at one side of the eye of the hook and the leader tippet of the tail fly on the other side of the eye. I was surprised that the system rarely tangled.
I fish a single hopper when I want maximum accuracy. In open water, when I am trying to cover water, the double fly setup has increased my number of takes.
I put a significant amount of tippet (4 feet) between my first and second fly. I like the greater coverage the system gives me, and I have learned I can cast it without a problem — if I am careful in the wind.
I do not drop a small nymph off the end of my hopper. The technique is effective, but I deem it inappropriate for Harriman Ranch water because it is essentially indicator fishing. I do not think you should take short cuts that demean the Harriman Ranch experience. I see two hoppers as different because you are convincing fish to rise.
Harriman State Park
The Harriman family deeded the 16,000-acre Railroad Ranch property to Idaho in 1977, creating the state's first park. Roland and W. Averell Harriman not only donated the property, they insisted upon the creation of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to manage future parks. The property has long been called the Railroad Ranch because the Harriman family earned much of their wealth from the railroad business. In addition to fly fishing, the park serves as a wildlife refuge, and in the winter its many miles of trails are groomed for cross-country skiing.
The river on the Ranch is wide, placid, easy to wade, and known for its complicated hatches and difficult trout. The trout fishing declined in quality from 2002 through 2008, but improved winter flows from Island Park Reservoir — for which the Henry's Fork Foundation (henrysfork.org) deserves great credit — has provided an upturn in the fishing in recent years. I hope the recent improvements will convince more young American fly fishers to fish here. Many foreign anglers visit the Henry's Fork because it is an iconic American River that has received much press abroad. But I'd like to see more U.S. anglers because we need people willing to help protect the incomparable water the Harriman family gave to the world of fly fishing. We need a new crop of youngsters to adopt this river and protect and care for it.
The fishing is very tough, you have to work hard, and there are many other places that provide more trout to the net in less time. If you want a 50-fish day, the Ranch never was the place to come. However, if you want to find out how skilled you are, and appreciate the subtleties of a quiet and thoughtful day in a place soaked in fly-fishing history, I can think of no better place. Thanks to the legacy of the Harriman family, there are no daily fees for fishing the Ranch. It's free for anyone with an Idaho fishing license.
I would suggest you hire a guide the first day you fish Harriman Park. That's how I got my start 29 years ago. It is not easy to learn to effectively fish the Ranch on your own. I am proud of the guides I work with at Trouthunter, and highly recommend them. None of my angling friends will be surprised to read that I recommend Mike Lawson's superb guides — who work out of Henry's Fork Anglers shop — with equal enthusiasm.
If you have not fished the Railroad Ranch of the Henry's Fork, 2013 would be a great time to give it a try. If you want hopper fishing, try between the last week of July and the first week of September. If you come with a willingness to work hard, there is a good chance you may have the most exciting fly-fishing experience of your life.
John McDaniel, a retired anthropology professor, lives in Manhattan, Montana, and is a guide on the Henry's Fork. His book Fly Fishing the Harriman Ranch of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River was recently published by The Whitefish Press.