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.
August is our slowest month of the fishing season in Missoula. The risk of forest fires and fishing restrictions have caused anglers to shy away from what used to be one of our more popular times. It is certainly understandable, but for the anglers willing to gamble on August there are some secrets of summer fishing that can make for an awesome trip to Montana.
August is your best chance to find unpressured trout. There are stretches of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork that may not see a guide boat for days during August. If you find yourself on one of those stretches where the trout have been rested it can provide some of the best hopper fishing of the season. There are a ton of fishing options around Missoula and many days in August you will have an entire stretch of river to yourself.
Early on, early off is the key to success. Water temps are most favorable early, before the heat of the day sets in. The trout know this and they feed most aggressively during this time period. Take in a gorgeous Montana sunrise and stick some nice trout when it’s most comfortable for everyone. Get back to town and cleaned up to make the most of all Missoula has to offer in the late afternoon and evening.
Skill is rewarded in August. A well placed hopper in just the right spot next to a log jam or a solid reach cast on target to a rising trout is the way to find the biggest trout during summer. Take advantage of your existing skills and be willing to learn some new ones. Time spent learning new fly fishing skills will pay off for seasons to come.
Take what the river gives you. We all want to fish single dry flies to large trout. Some days we are able to pull that off. Other days the fish are pounding droppers or they want to chase a streamer. Other times the trout fishing is off all together and we are able to have fun sessions chasing northern pike or smallmouth bass. Stay flexible in the summer to have the best fishing that you can. In the past week our biggest trout came on a streamer and another angler landed a solid pike for the biggest fish of her career. They adapted to the conditions and had a great trip.
We are enjoying some solitude and good fishing this August. Not much in the way of forest fires and no fishing restrictions yet. There are definitely some secrets of summer fishing and our anglers have been enjoying themselves on the river.
Hero or zero season has finally arrived in western Montana. At least that’s how I like to think about this time period when the rivers are finally dropping, but there are still a lot of questions about the fishing. In the next 10 days or so I am fairly certain that I will see some of the very best fishing of the season, but there will be heartache too. The only question is how much?
As a guide I try to gather as much information as possible to make my fishing decisions. Angler ability, reports from fellow guides, streamflows, weather, hatches, etc. all factor in to the decision of where to go each day. That decision is more important now than at any other time period during the season.
Some years I will have stretches where I make the right call 4 or 5 days in a row. The fishing is incredible, the clients think you walk on water, and if you’re not careful you’ll start to believe it a little bit too. Then there are stretches when you miss the call 4 or 5 days straight. The fishing is tough to downright miserable, your clients wonder if you really have a guide license, and you fill out applications for Subway at night.
The misses always hurt, but they are a little easier to take when you gamble on something that no one else is fishing. Those are home run days where you either hit it out of the park or strike out swinging. The misses that start to mess with your head are when you are off by only a few river miles, either just above or below the action. Hearing a fishing report from a buddy who killed them 5 miles downstream while you were getting it shoved is absolutely brutal. It happens to everyone, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
The problem with Missoula, and it’s a good problem, is that there is so much water. If we just had one river then we’d fish it everyday, take the good with the bad and move one. Not here, we have 350 miles and 4 different watersheds in play over the next 2 weeks. Every day, some guide on some stretch is going to have off the charts fishing. Other guides are going to go home with their tails between their legs. It’s not just chance or dumb luck, there is a method to the madness but there are no guarantees either.
I guess that is what makes June so unique. The chance at having the best fishing of the year, even your life, on any give day mixed with the very real possibility of coming up short. It’s not the best thing for a guide’s mental health or liver but it certainly keeps things interesting.
May on the Missouri River is always one of our favorite times of the season. MTO is over on the mighty Missouri dodging run off in Missoula and enjoying the finest tailwater fishing in the state. We really like early May on the Missouri because the river is typically low, the tributaries are clear, and there is some exceptional dry fly fishing and fun short leash nymphing. This year is anything but typical when it comes to streamflows though. We came into May with a river that was twice as high as normal, blown out tributaries, and cold water temps.
That made for some tough conditions in late April. Fortunately things started to turn in our favor for our first groups in May. The water started warming up just in time, and the guides used their creativity with the floats to avoid the bulk of the river traffic. Since the tributaries were blown out, everyone who was fishing was forced to the upper river. That can make for a crowded river, but we managed to stay out of the herd by using different meet times.
The fishing has been consistent all month. The deep nymph rig has been best for steady action, but in the last week the water has warmed up enough to fish some shorter nymph rigs with good success in the right spots. The tributaries are starting to clear up too and that has allowed the traffic to spread out throughout the entire river.
May on the Missouri River can spoil an angler and guide. Most would consider the high water less than ideal and still we are having good fishing everyday with lots of big rainbows from 16-20+” and some hefty 20+” browns mixed in. We probably won’t see the great dry fly fishing in these high flows which is disappointing. Despite that, every group of anglers we have had so far in May are already planning a return trip to the Missouri next year.
We love May on the Missouri River and look forward to what the second half of the month will have in store.
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.