It’s August in Montana and that means hopper season. For the next two months grasshoppers and other terrestrials are at the top of the menu for hungry trout. It can be some of the most exciting dry fly fishing of the year, but it can also lead to some hot, frustrating sessions on the river if you don’t know how to fish a hopper effectively.
When fishing any fly it is always help to think about the actual bug itself. In the case of hoppers they are terrestrial insects so they hatch on land and not in the water. Have you ever watched a hopper land on the water? If so you know they don’t land gently. They usually hit the water hard and then they struggle once there. This gives you some clues on how to best fish a hopper.
There is no need for delicate presentations when hopper fishing. In fact the sound of a hopper hitting the water hard often attracts trout from a distance to investigate. That doesn’t mean you can thrash the water blindly while hopper fishing. You still need to work the water methodically, but you can deliver the fly to the water with authority on each drift. The exception to this might be fishing on spring creeks or in situations where you are sight fishing to a specific trout. In those instances you may try a drift or two with a delicate presentation before smacking the fly in above the fish.
Water is a foreign environment for hoppers and they want out of it if at all possible. You almost always see hoppers kicking their legs and struggling when on the water. Most hopper patterns now have rubber legs sticking out all over them and when fishing moderate or faster flows the material has plenty of movement on it’s own during a good drift. It is a different story in slow water though. A dead drifted hopper can often go unnoticed in slow water. That is when a subtle twitch can make all the difference. Most anglers twitch the fly too aggressively, working it almost like a bass popper. In reality you want to impart just the slightest movement to the fly. Just a touch to make the rubber legs move and send out a few ripples. Only once every 5-10 seconds on a long drift and be ready.
Hoppers are a big meal during the summer but an infrequent one too. It’s not like a good PMD or caddis hatch where you see lots of bugs in the air and on the water. On a good day you may only see a handful of hoppers on the water. As a result you don’t need to spend a lot of time in each spot. Hopper fishing is more of a run and gun style. You want to cover as much water as you can in a session. One or two good drifts over each prime lie is all you need. During the summer trout know full well what a hopper is, and if they are going to eat the fly it will happen on the first drift or two. If not then move on to the next spot.
Once you understand how to fish the fly, the next step is where to fish the fly. Some hoppers can fly and there are bugs that end up in the middle of the river, but you will find the highest concentration of hoppers near the bank, especially grassy banks. Focus your efforts on those areas to find the most fish. Make a note of where you raise fish and where you don’t to help narrow down the water types you are working.
Perhaps the most overwhelming thing about hopper season is the selection of flies available. There are more varieties of hopper patterns out there than any other insect. Local knowledge is the key to success. Hoppers that work great on the Yellowstone might not raise a fish on the Bitterroot and vice versa. It is well worth it to spend a few bucks in a local fly shop to at least get in the ball park.
Size, color, and profile are the keys to hopper fishing. Those 3 variables can make for a lot of fly changes in a day if you don’t have a good system in place. When you are trying to dial in the right pattern don’t fish the same water with a new fly. Move to new water with the new fly. Start with size first. If you get no response from a size 10, drop down to a size 12 in the next spot. Still no response then change color for the next spot and then change profile, etc. Once you find a fly they will eat then you can back track and fish some of the water you already covered to see if it produces with a proven fly.
Hopper eats are some of the most exciting in the game. Hook-up percentages can be quite low though. Partly because they are relatively big and buoyant flies, and also because trout don’t always eat a hopper the same way. Some explode on the fly while others come up slowly and sip it, and at times they will even bump the fly first before coming back and inhaling it. Extreme focus is required of the angler. You have to watch the fish eat the fly. That sounds relatively simple, but is harder than you think. Don’t set the hook until you see the fly disappear in the fish’s mouth.
The hopper season in Montana has just started. Two months of big dry fly fishing awaits and it is time to get back on the water.
The image above looks inviting doesn’t it? It is what we dream about when we think of our fly fishing trips. The reality is that it doesn’t always work out that way. Being prepared to fly fish Montana can be the difference between awesome days on the water and miserable ones.
I took the photo above on May 9 and it was the start of a 5 day run of spectacular weather on the Missouri river. By the end of it we were wearing shorts and sandals and even complaining that maybe it was a little too warm. It all seems like a distant memory now. Since then it has been cold and wet everyday. We have only seen the sun for a few fleeting moments this past week and 50 degrees seems like a lofty goal at the moment.
That kind of weather is tough on anglers and guides alike. Cold fingers make it difficult to manage the fly line and feel what’s going on with the fly rod, hoods make it hard to see and hear, runny noses, and full body chills have all been part of the package lately. But the fishing has been off the charts good.
It’s understandable that anglers don’t get excited to see the 3 day forecast for their trip with highs in the 40’s, rain and a north wind. Guides aren’t chomping at the bit in those conditions either, but there are some keys to making your time on the water more enjoyable when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
- Take more clothes than you think you need. It’s always colder on the water than it is in town or at the boat ramp.
- Stay dry. Don’t wait to put the rain gear on. If it starts to sprinkle it’s time to suit up
- Hand warmers are a day maker. Open them and stick them in pockets before you hit the river.
- Extra gloves are a must. On cold, wet days I often go through 3 pairs of gloves or more. Keeping hands warm and dry is a key to being able to fish well
- Surgical gloves are great for anglers. Every fly anglers knows it’s near impossible to fish in full finger gloves. Hands tend to get cold with fingerless gloves as well. Wearing surgical type gloves along with fingerless gloves allows anglers to manage their line and stay warmer
- Cover your head and neck. You lose a lot of heat up top and sometimes a ball cap isn’t enough. Wear a beenie, use your hood and keep your neck protected with a Buff.
- If you are just a little cold, add another layer right away. Anglers go from a little cold to too cold faster than you think. Don’t try to tough it out, just add more clothes.
The fishing in Montana is often great during periods of rough weather. Come prepared to endure the elements and it may turn out to be the best fishing of the year. The cold weather continues on the Missouri river and we will be ready for it again tomorrow.
The Skwala hatch is a big deal these days and for good reason. It is the first main hatch of the season and at times it produces exceptional fishing. But, like any hatch during the Montana fishing season it has it’s pros and cons.
The most common question we get from anglers is, “When is the best time to fish the Skwala hatch?” If I could predict that with any accuracy I would book those dates and take the rest of the hatch off and go tarpon fishing. I really wish it was like fishing the Skwala hatch with Oprah. “You get dry fly fish, and you get dry fly fish, everybody gets a bunch of dry fly fish!”
The reality is a little different. There are ups and downs during Skwalas just like all of our other hatch cycles. Over the years I have had fantastic dry fly fishing as early as the first week of March and as late as early May. I have also seen tough fishing conditions throughout that time frame as well.
The best way to think about it is, that the quality of your actual fishing relies almost entirely on the specific conditions of your trip dates for any hatch. For Skwalas your best bet is to pick dates within the historic window of mid-March through late April. After that it is up to the fishing gods.
If you show up and it’s bright and sunny everyday with rising water levels then you are definitely going to have to work for your opportunities. On the other hand, if the river has been dropping for 3 days and it’s 55 degrees, cloudy and calm then buckle up. The fishing is likely going to be lights out awesome.
The angler’s skill and the guide’s experience definitely play a part. A good combination of those two will make each days fishing better, but they are still subject to the daily conditions. Some days the conditions favor the anglers and some days they don’t.
This season, the last 5 days have been like fishing with Oprah. Just about everyone has been having banner days. In 2017 we were completely blown out in Missoula for these same dates. It is always good to do a little research on locations and best times, but ultimately pick your dates, pull the trigger, and then hope for the best.
Run-off has finally arrived in Missoula, and our Missouri river guide season has started. We always look forward to spending the month of May on the Missouri. This big tailwater rarely disappoints with consistent nymphing, exciting streamer action, and some of the finest dry fly fishing of the year.
With a bigger than average snowpack we are expecting higher water on the Missouri this year than the last couple of seasons. That is not ideal for our dry fly plans, but just like in Missoula, higher water equals more big brown trout and everyone loves big browns!
The big browns are always a special treat, but it is a steady diet of 16-20+ inch rainbows that keep our anglers coming back year after year to the Missouri in May. The spawn seems to be nearly over for the season and those big rainbows return to the main river ready to eat anything that moves.
While the higher flows aren’t the best for midge and blue-wing olive hatches, the trout won’t be able to resist big March Browns and the hordes of caddis that are coming. The March Browns should show up any day, and size 12-14 mayflies covering the river will get some big snouts breaking the surface. The caddis will come next and we will get explosive takes in fast water.
We had an unbelievable spring dry fly season in Missoula with some of the most consistent conditions ever on our local rivers. Now it is time to switch gears as our Missouri river guide season has already started. We will be on the big river for the next month with heavy nets and smiles as wide as the big sky. We look forward to seeing a lot of familiar anglers and introducing a few new ones to the Mighty Mo.