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.
We just finished up an incredible June, and the Missoula Montana Fishing Report looks good for the days ahead. We have had cool, wet weather for the last 10 days and that has kept our trout happy. Water levels are a little below average for this time of year, but water temperatures are still good and there are a lot of options around Missoula right now.
The Bitterroot has been our most consistent dry fly option. The upper river has been most consistent with great PMD hatches and afternoon golden stones. The mid and lower river is seeing the same bugs and certain days the dry fly action has been great while others it is a little more spotty. Dry/dropper rigs have been producing numbers when the fish aren’t looking up.
The Clark Fork has been another popular option lately. On cloudy days the dry fly fishing has been exceptional with PMDs, a few Green Drakes and Golden Stones. Big goldens in the fast water and more technical PMD fishing in the slow stuff. A deep dropper has been helping on sunny days.
The Blackfoot still has big Salmonflies up in the canyon and Golden Stones through the mid-river. Some days the big bug dry fly fishing has been great and others it is hit or miss. If you want to swing for the fences looking for a giant fish on a dry fly then this is a good option right now. Mid and lower river has been good for numbers of smaller to mid-sized trout on dry flies and droppers.
Rock Creek is closed to floating for the rest of the year and the upper river is a wade fisherman’s paradise right now. There are Golden Stones, PMDs, and Green Drakes still coming off in good numbers. Afternoons are the best and anglers who cover a lot of water with a single dry fly have been rewarded.
The best thing about fly fishing in Missoula is the diversity and right now there are more options than at any other time of year. There are a lot of different bugs hatching and plenty of fish looking up. It won’t last forever but we will take what we can get for the moment.
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.
I was jokingly referred to as being a little “salty” in last weeks post. After the winter we have endured I can certainly embrace that salty moniker. Since we are still not on the rivers yet, let’s keep that trend alive and tackle the growing Keep Em Wet campaign.
Keep Em Wet states it “is about releasing fish in the best condition possible. It’s a motto for minimizing air exposure, eliminating contact with dry surfaces, and reducing handling. It’s a movement to empower anglers to take small, simple steps to responsibly enjoy and share fishing experiences.”
I think that it is an awesome idea much like the Kick Plastic campaign, using barbless hooks, and the Clean Drain Dry movement to stop the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species. The main problem isn’t with the movements themselves. It’s the zealots who hijack things to serve the growing trend of social shaming.
These folks take an idea like Keep Em Wet and use it to broadcast their sense of moral superiority every chance they get. They are the vegan/crossfit heros of the fishing world. You will find them in the comments section of your news feed. Under a grip n grin photo of a nice fish, “Great fish! Too bad you killed it to get that pic.#keepemwet”
There are no shortage of examples like that out there. The problem is, no one responds well to being called out, either in person or on social media. If your real goal is education about proper fish handling or better fish survival then send someone a considerate direct message. Blasting them in the public comments is just a self righteous circle jerk.
Of course, the elephant in the room is the actual Keep Em Wet movement. They have done an excellent job in their literature of conveying their points without seeming judgmental or condescending. Their logic is fairly bullet proof, the less you handle a fish and the less time it spends out of water the better its chance of survival.
But how far do we take that logic? If you never even hook a fish surely it would have a better chance of survival. In fact if you never even stressed a fish by fishing to it, the fish would have a better chance of survival. Is the No Hook movement next? A cadre of anglers casting flies with the hooks cut off. Where do we draw the line, and how far down the rabbit hole do we want to go?
Personally, I love to photograph trout. They are all different and most of them are exquisitely beautiful. I get to scratch that photo itch often with my client’s fish. When I’m fishing I’m perfectly happy to unhook almost all of them in the net and let them escape quickly. But if I catch 3 permit in a week down in Mexico you can be damn sure I am going to photograph each one of them.
That is exactly what it is like for most of our clients. They don’t get to see thousands of trout each season. They feel lucky to get to fish a handful of days and they are excited to document the process. To them it’s not just another 16″ cutthroat. It’s the most brightly colored fish they have ever caught. The classic grip n grin is a staple for guides across the west and I don’t apologize for it.
Those photos connect anglers to a world they only dabble in. They are memories of the past, motivation for the future, and they translate into money not only for the fishing industry but a multitude of conservation organizations. Some fish certainly die as a result of a photo session, but I also know for a fact that some fish photos serve as a good reminder to send that fat annual donation check. Does that even the scales? Who knows.
I do try to shepherd anglers away from taking a photo of every fish they catch. Instruction on how to prepare and set up the shot is always given so it takes a minimum amount of time. I also show them how to properly hold a fish or I will hold it for them if needed. To become proficient at anything you have to practice, and I would prefer that anglers practice with me than on their own. I try to steer clear of excess, but we don’t shy away from fish pictures in my boat.
Still, I want that fish to live as much or more than anyone else, and most anglers are quick to pick up on that. Over the years I have seen many anglers go from wanting a shot of every trout to only taking one or two fish pics over 4 days. Most of us tend to go through that evolution and I think the Keep Em Wet campaign is trying to accelerate that process through education and awareness. An idea worth considering for sure.
It’s important to remember that we devote an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy to pursue tiny brained fish with whippy rods tossing pieces of feather and fur lashed to hooks only to let them go once we have caught them. Whether you throw a picture in there or not, the entire thing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We sure do love it though, and in the end it’s up to you whether you Keep Em Wet or not. Just make sure to disable the comments!