Many of Montana’s most famous trout rivers flow through agricultural valleys flanked by towering mountains. These fertile valleys provide an ideal habitat for large populations of grasshoppers. The bulk of aquatic insect hatches take a pause in mid summer (with a few exceptions like tricos). Once the large scale summer hatches of various species of caddis, stoneflies and mayflies have largely run their course, trout begin to become more opportunistic. The reduction in aquatic hatches tends to occur just as hoppers gain their wings.
Grasshoppers can be found in Montana fields in the spring months but these are the juvenile “nymphs”. The first hopper species begin molting into adulthood in mid July. The importance of the adult stage is that the insects gain their wings. It is the mobility of flight that begins to make hoppers much more available to trout.
Hopper action tends to peak in the afternoons as the warming temperatures help to make the hoppers more active. Afternoons often coincide with convection winds which can steer the lumbering flights of the insects on a wayward course for the center of the river. Once a hopper lands in the water they begin to aggressively kick and swim to return to dry land. Imitating the kicking action of natural grasshoppers by twitching an artificial imitation can often increase your catch rates.
Twitching hopper patterns is a very active experience and definitely increases the fun factor when you are on the river. Actively casting, twitching, recasting and occasionally reacting to a “hopper eat” is hands down the best way to enjoy an August or September afternoon in hopper country. These five tips can help you improve your hopper game.
Tip 1: Know when to twitch hoppers
The easiest answer to “when should I twitch a hopper” is anytime it works! There is always an experimental side to hopper twitching: how hard, how often, etc. Generally twitching hoppers is most effective when fishing larger waters such as float fishing rivers or larger wading streams. The less texture there is on the waters surface the better. Rapidly moving water in riffles tends to provide its own action to a hopper in the water but on slower pools, slicks and tailors a dead drifted hopper tends to look “lifeless”. A few twitches can send the message to the trout that its feeding time!
Tip 2: Know when NOT to twitch a hopper
While adding action to your hopper after the cast often produces results, there are also a few scenarios when it is counterproductive:
In choppy riffles the rough surface of the water will provide plenty of natural action. Twitching your hopper can be unnecessary in these conditions.
When fish are tight to the bank sometimes twitching can pull the fly out of the target zone. In these cases it is best to avoid twitching or at least wait till near the end of the drift to give a twitch.
On very small waters adding too much action can spook trout. On these waters it is best to make a cast with a hard “splat” to simulate a hopper landing and then let the trout come and get it. Some times twitching can send the trout scurrying.
Tip 3: Twitching on an upstream cast
When wade fishing smaller waters you are often walking up the streambed or along the bank making casts directly upstream of your position. In these scenarios you need to be quite aggressive with your twitching technique as the current is bringing your flies back to you. A fast strip, similar to stripping a streamer is required. Strip just enough to keep up with the fly to produce a twitch followed by a dead drift. This is the most difficult position from which to twitch hoppers and experiment with the results. Typically on fast moving streams the twitch is not as critical. On small streams with slow currents the twitch can often be very effective and help turn the heads of trout that may otherwise ignore your hopper. Make sure to experiment with the frequency of twitches as well. On smaller waters you may only need one or two sporadic twitches to make a difference.
Tip 4: Twitching on casts perpendicular to the current direction (float fishing and wading bigger waters)
Twitching hoppers on casts that are perpendicular to the current is very efficient and often the most effective approach on larger waters where you have more room. This is also the most common method when float fishing from a drift boat. Hopper fishing while float fishing is highly effective and allows you to cover a lot of water. Fish that take a hopper pattern nearly always do it on the first cast to a new patch of water. Floating allows you to continuously present your fly to new fish on each cast. The most effective way to twitch hoppers while floating is to cast directly your flies at a 90 degree angle (so perpendicular to the current, directly sideways from your position in the boat vs. the current direction). When you cast perpendicular to the current you can use a combination of a small upstream mend with a short strip to twitch the hopper. Keep the strips short, just a few inches of fly line. It also can be helpful to lift the rod to about shoulder height while keeping the rod “flat” or parallel to the water. The higher rod position makes the mend/strip easier and more efficient. This mend with a short strip technique slowly retrieves the hopper back towards the boat. The mend ensures that in between twitches the hopper dead drifts. This deadly technique perfectly matches the kicking and swimming motion of natural hopper in the water. This same approach works well when wading big water. Generally the most efficient way to twitch hoppers is casting perpendicular to your position. This method allows for efficient "twitches" while also allowing for a dead drift between twitches.
Tip 5: Downstream skate with a twitch
The final technique that you can experiment with is to let your hopper swing down and across the current while twitching it. This is a great wade fishing technique on large waters when you have somewhat uniform currents such as a large flat or a tail-out of a pool. The cast angle starts at about a 90 degree angler. As the fly swings down and below keep the rod high and use the mend and strip technique. You can also experiment with simply holding the rod high but flat while rhythmically wiggling the rod trip side to side while slowly stripping some line in (think Alaskan mousing techniques). The hopper will produce a wake across the current as it twitches. Although natural hoppers don’t actually swim this aggressively the technique can still produce some great action and can really turn some heads when fish get greedy. Often the waking hopper will produce many more “eats” than a dead drifted hopper. This same technique can also be used on tail outs of large rivers while float fishing if the oarsman rows aggressively to slow the boat to allow a swing. Tail outs can hold some large fish and this is a great technique to try in these reaches.
Few techniques can rival the excitement enjoyed watching large trout rise to a large hopper pattern. If you want to increase your success rate during terrestrial season you owe it to yourself to begin experimenting with adding some action to your hoppers!