Go With Grasshoppers

by Gary Borger

Late summer is the time of the grasshopper, and they can be exceedingly abundant. In 1986 my son, Jason, and I were shooting the "Fabulous Bighorn" video and had completed the early summer segment. As we left Fort Smith, we encountered a huge, dark mass on the highway; it was a migration of immature hoppers. The flightless nymphs formed a column a quarter of a mile wide as they crossed the road from one field to another. We stopped the van and watched in amazement. Five minutes passed and still they came; we were so nonplussed by this phenomenon that we never thought to video it. But, boy! did we tie hopper patterns for our return trip in August. And, boy! was the fishing good. Jason took a 24 1/2-inch brown that refused to go in the net; his antics while trying to land the fish sent us both into a laughing fit.

Grasshoppers develop in a fashion that's called incomplete metamorphosis. A nymph hatches from the egg. It looks like a miniature adult without wings. As it grows and molts, the wings slowly develop. Once mature, the hopper is capable of powerful flight as well as powerful jumping. Its leaping and flying can get the insect into deep water, literally. Bob Ippel, an angling companion and good friend, once encountered the lake trout of Superior feeding heavily on hoppers twelve miles from the nearest land. Needless to say, hoppers can be found from bank to bank in trout streams and ponds of any width.

"Shelter for the Shy" Browns are the wariest of all trout; even the young fish stay always near cover. Salmo trutta has long been Jason's favored species

Lithograph by Jason Borger

Hoppers have some distinctive traits that the fly fisher needs to carefully consider when buying or building imitations. First, these insects are chunky of body and drop to the water very positively. They don't splash in like a rock, but neither do they ease in like a piece of thistle down. "Plop" is perhaps the best word to describe the way a hopper falls to the surface. The most productive flies, then, are patterns like Dave's Hopper, the Letort Hopper, Henry's Fork Hopper, and others designed to closely imitate the compact bulk of the natural. 

In streams, the best hopper fishing is often near shore, since there are usually more insects close to the bank. Trout will move out of deep water and into the near-shore shallows and actively search for the insects. The thin water at the edges of the stream allows the fish to rise to the surface with little expenditure of energy, and near-shore bottom structure frequently offers better holding positions than the main channel.

On rivers like Montana's Bighorn or Canada's Bow, I've had incredible fishing by wading slowly upstream and prospecting the water ahead with a hopper, especially in riffly areas. Fish of two feet in length or more are often encountered in water that barely covers their backs. It's really exciting to see that huge head poke out and slurp in your fly. It's even more exciting when the fish roars out of the shallows for the cover of deep water, tearing great lengths of line from the reel.

While shallow water is most often found near the bank, there can be areas where midstream shallows are also found: at the heads and tails of islands, where gravel bars cut diagonally across the stream, at the tail out of a pool, in riffles, over a submerged weed bed, and so on. Don't pass up such areas during hopper time. Remember, hoppers can easily get to the center of even huge rivers, and the trout will be watching for them.

"Second Summer for mykiss" The widely transplanted rainbow (Oncorhyncus mykiss) provides sport worldwide, and Jason has pursued them from the brawling rivers of Alaska to the silken currents of spring creeks in Montana, New Zealand, Tasmania, England, and other places.

Lithograph by Jason Borger

Another great way to fish big streams is to float them and cast grasshopper flies in against the bank, often times within inches of dry land. Areas of undercut banks or heavy overhanging vegetation can be especially productive. On the Bow, the water right next to shore is often too shallow to hold fish, but about three feet out, the bottom drops off sharply. The trout hang right at the edge of the deep water and watch for hoppers.

When float fishing, don't keep picking up the fly and recasting unless it's necessary. On Montana's Madison, where the fishing is pocket shooting, then the casting is rather rapid fire. On the long placid glides of the Bow, however, the fly may be repositioned only once ever minute or two.

On small streams, I often don't wade at all. The trout of late summer can be quite spooky, and I have no desire to telegraph my presence to them. Rather, I sneak along and fish likely holds with as much care as possible. A great tactic is to cast the fly delicately into the grass on the opposite bank and then gently pull it off. Be prepared! I've had some really big fish lunge out of the water at the falling fly. I'm usually so startled at such antics that I either break off the fish or simply forget to set the hook. Hopper fishing is anything but dull.

During hopper time, trout ponds can offer some really remarkable fishing. The trout cruise around a foot or two under the surface looking upward for the big insects. When they spot one they often rush it and take it violently, producing sporadic, showy rises. The trick is to remember that the fish are constantly on the move. If you can actually see the fish, cast the hopper fly about eight to ten feet ahead of it and get ready. If you can't see fish, then toss the fly in the vicinity of the rises and wait it out. You may have to let the fly sit for several minutes, or a fish may nail it the instant it touches down; you never know. Like I said, hopper fishing is anything but dull.

Hooked under the collar (through the thorax) and weighted with one small split shot, the natural hopper is a sure-fire bait for trout and panfish. As a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, I used to collect them by the jar full. My method was a little less exotic than Pat McManus' "Grasshopper Trap," but only because I didn't have a car. We'd catch them in very early morning when they were still cold from the chill of the night.

Whether you fish with artificial or naturals, grasshoppers will produce. Their size stirs the imaginings of even the biggest trout at a time of the year when most people think that fishing's done for the season. Think hoppers, and this year, when the warm winds blow through the tansies and goldenrod, you'll be ready for some of the best fishing of the summer.