Mickey says there’s much more to hopper fishing than just dead-drifting your favourite pattern.
Hopper season in south-east Australia is long. In some years and some places, you can tie on a hopper in late November, and still need to keep them handy in your box until about ANZAC day. Throughout the season, we are blessed with a wide variety of hopper falls, varying in size, shape and numbers. They all have one thing in common: trout love them. Everyone knows that if you cast a decent hopper pattern up a bubble-line against a high bank in summer, it’s likely to disappear. Trout can explode on a hopper pattern as if someone has dropped a depth charge on top of it, slash at it like a great white taking a seal, hold it on their nose in a terrestrial balancing-act before sucking it down… or your fly might simply vanish, leaving no trace but a bubble.
Coming up tight on big fish during hopper time is one of the more addictive aspects of flyfishing. Hopper fishing is too much fun and when it’s an option, I doubt anyone would shun it in favour of another way of fishing. Yet as popular as hopper fishing is, being creatures of habit, we tend to fall into a certain way of hopper fishing and stick with it.
The situation just described: finding a nice high grass bank with a bubble line and searching it with a hopper pattern, tends to be the default position when we think of hopper fishing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it’s the default because it often works. However, if you expand that vision to match the myriad other situations when trout will not only eat a hopper, but can be encouraged to eat it, then hopper time can present so many more opportunities.
The Three Musketeers
To start off with, you’re going to need some flies. When tying, purchasing or stealing hoppers off a mate, I like to break them down into three loose categories: Foamies, Naturals and Hybrids. Each of these fly types will do a certain job better or worse than another.
The Foamies are just that: primarily foam. Foam is great because it rides high, is durable, and it’s easy to tie with. Hopper pattern design has come a long way since the classic winged yellow-and-black Snowy Mountains hopper still stuck in my old Akubra. A lot of the innovative design in this area is happening with foam. My favourite foam flies come out of the States. KK’s Henneberry Hopper has been hands down my number one most used foam hopper for the last two seasons and probably my most used hopper period.
The Morrish Hopper is another trout weapon that shouldn’t be let out of a box unless you’re seriously willing to tangle with monsters. Finally, we can’t talk foam hopper without coming back to Australia for the late-great Muz Wilson’s Wee Creek Hopper; so simple and so effective.
From these foam snacks you can transition into natural materials. One fly that will always have its very own box in my tackle bag is the Wee Muddler. Anyone who remembers the classic New Zealand Trophy Waters series will know this fly well. A super-effective and simple tie, it remains my go-to fly for a variety of hopper situations. Another natural pattern I’ve been using more and more recently, is Gould’s Half-Down Hopper. It’s perfect for a particular presentation I’ll detail shortly.
Finally, there are the Hybrids. These flies incorporate a mixture of synthetic and natural materials, but more importantly, they incorporate the different presentation elements of foam and natural flies. The Category 3 Woomfah is listed as a cicada pattern but makes a great hybrid hopper. McPhail’s Red Tag hopper is a thing of beauty and typifies modern foam tying with classic natural-hopper elements.
As much as style and materials influence which hopper I tie on, it is the profile, size and attitude of flies that ultimately refines my choice. It’s easy to make a convincing profile when tying with foam. All you have to do is cut the right shape. Foam also lends itself well to creating a nice variety of sizes relatively easily. I tend to tie foam hoppers larger and cut them down if I need too. Foam is of course extremely buoyant, and it creates a high-riding attitude.
Although natural materials don’t have the general ruggedness of foam, they can create a different, ‘buggier’ profile very easily. And it’s generally easier to cast a large fly created from natural materials than a foam fly, as there’s usually less air resistance. Hybrids, depending on how they are tied, can get the best of both worlds.
In terms of fly behaviour once on the water, more absorbent natural materials like dubbing and hair will lean towards a half sunk attitude, while more synthetic will tend to ride higher.
The least important aspect of any hopper pattern is colour. While working occasionally in a fly shop, as well as guiding constantly, I get exposed to everyone’s theories on colour. I’ll have three different people walk into the shop after fishing, on the same day, and swear that only their chosen colour on the exact same fly, worked. Fifty percent of people only have faith in one colour, fifty percent in another and fifty percent in another. Making for a grand total of one-hundred and fifty percent of incorrect flyfishers!
Confidence is always the best colour; just use whichever colour you have faith in.
Slip, Slop, Slap
Floatants are an important part of hopper presentation and a correct understanding of which floatant to use and when to use it, is always the best place to start. Basically, I have three types of floatant in my boat or bag all the time: gel, powder and liquid. Everyone has a tube of Gink or something similar laying around and it’s still useful. If you want the best effect, put it on when your fly is bone dry. I use gel as a targeted floatant. Squeeze a small amount onto your fingers and apply where you want the fly to float. Gel works best with natural and hybrid flies when applied to wings (natural or synthetic). When applied to the wing only, the body will sit well down in the film and give a half-drowned look.
Powders are great for drying out waterlogged hoppers and I generally add a temporary all-over high riding coating. I mainly use them as desiccants throughout the day to keep flies up, then reapply gel once the fly is dry.
Liquid dips are the floatants I use most with foam flies (and naturals if I want a high-riding presentation). I used them all the time in the USA, but in Australia, they seem to have only become readily available in the past few years and are underutilised. There are now a few brands on the market to play around with and they create an awesome high-riding fly that doesn’t need constant re-application. (For more on floatants, see this recent review https://flystream.com/tested-high-n-dry-floatants/ – Ed.)
One of the most common mistakes I see on the water, is not using floatant on foam. While foam is great at floating, it’s not perfect and surprisingly enough, left untreated, most foam flies can become waterlogged.
Now you have your hopper patterns and they’re juiced up, it’s time to focus on the most important aspect of any form of fishing: presentation. The hopper drift everyone tends towards is the standard because it does work a lot of the time. Casting upstream from the bank, or downstream from a drift-boat, into the main current that runs closest to an undercut bank certainly works – regardless of the size of the stream.
If you’re aiming for a drag-free drift, you want to throw a slack line; not a dead straight, perfectly laid-out cast. You can achieve this slack line and still turn over a big hopper by stopping the rod high/early in the front cast, letting the leader turn over in the air above the water, bounce back a little, then drop the rod late to lay out the slack line. This cast or a Reach Cast are invaluable tools to accurately throw a hopper, while including enough slack to achieve a drag-free drift. With drag taken care of, you can cover bubble-lines and banks, and sight-fish effectively.
However, you want to have a few more tricks up your sleeve than just a dead hopper floating downstream. Once you’ve mastered the basic rules, you can break them! Drag-free drift is a great presentation for most dry fly fishing, but terrestrials – especially hoppers – have a will to live and big legs to kick with.
The best way to learn any new presentation is to break it down and look at every aspect. The lay-down, the drift and the endgame are a good way to look at dry fly presentation. When you’re laying down a hopper, think about how a natural will land on the surface. It’s very rarely graceful! I like to slap my hopper patterns down and splash a bit of water around. Quite often, you’ll get an almost immediate reactive take. A trout will see the fly land and immediately rush up to it. I’ve had fish turn and swim metres downstream chasing a fly landed behind them like this. I do like foam flies for this aggressive presentation, especially on big water like tailwaters or lakes, because foam’s density carries through the energy from the cast well.
Once you’ve thrown down your hopper and rung the dinner bell (or more likely lunch bell) you’re into the drift. Depending on the length of your drift, you’ll want to consider the twitch. I use the twitch the most when fishing big tailwaters from a drift boat because of the often-long length of a drift. There are also plenty of times when a long drift can be achieved from the bank and a twitch can be used.
There are a few different ways to get that hopper to twitch nicely. With a low rod angle, you can throw little mends that move the fly, which can also give you the benefit of extending your drift. However, lifting is my favourite and most-utilised twitch technique. With a high rod angle and extended arm, I can make the hopper dance and skitter, then drop the rod and let the hopper ‘give up’ right before it gets eaten. Lifting/high-sticking during the drift also allows you to fish heavy water where those big hopper-munching ‘bows like to hang out.
You can also combine the two of course: mending where you need more line, lifting to straighten out or shorten up. Either way, it’s important to understand why you’re twitching the fly – you’re getting the trout’s attention during the drift, in much the same way the slap-down can do first up. In both cases, it’s about alerting a fish to the hopper’s presence. On a long drift, where a trout may have missed the slap-down, the right twitch can be the key to teasing them out from an undercut bank or deep water. You just need to keep the twitches relatively subtle (remember, it’s a hopper not a popper!), and time the intervals between twitches right. On a long drift or even a stillwater presentation, you can effectively ‘wake-up’ every fish you cover or that cruises by; not just the ones that are already looking up.
Once I get to the very end of my drift, either out of the boat or off the bank, I start think about the endgame. The amount of fish I’ve seen rush out to eat a fly that’s being pulled of the water for the next cast or hanging downstream dragging in the current, is mind-boggling. The thing to remember here is, so long as your fly is on the water, a trout can eat it.
We miss a lot of takes because we switch-off when we think our drift is about done and start prepping for out next one. I fish every last piece of water that I can in a single drift – mending line, feeding slack into the system, dislocating my shoulder to get a couple of extra inches of drift or that final twitch. Then I prep for my next cast with one eye on the fly, even as it’s skating across the water at a rate of knots in a ten foot-deep rapid; always prepared to strike.
Another handy way to finish your drift, is to let the fly sink. It might get sucked in by an eddy or pulled under by drag and if it does, don’t write it off. Think about what the fly is doing, and if it’s still in fishy territory, fish it out sunk or half sunk. You may need to develop a bit of sixth sense to think about where its drifting underwater, but often enough with drowned hopper patterns, the takes are savage enough that you don’t need to worry about missing the strike. If I do finish up underwater, I always make sure my pick-up cast going into my next presentation has enough power to be a strike, just in case a fish has grabbed it at the very death.
By the way, you can fish fully or partially sunk hoppers right through your drift as well, and as touched on earlier, this is where natural material patterns, which waterlog more easily, have the advantage. If there’s a particularly good-looking undercut bank that I’ve covered without success with a high-floating foam hopper, I’ll often change to an untreated natural material pattern and allow it to get sucked as far in and under the bank as I can. On bright days in particular when the trout seek shade, this can be very effective.
Handful of Hoppers
There is no standard hopper day. I’ve seen fish absolutely mauling hoppers that are skating across the water on one drift, then on the next drift, the slightest bit of drag sends them packing. The most recent hopper experience I had was on a drift with my mate Mick. We’d pulled up in a back eddy after drifting a nice grass bank, because he had to take a call. I stole Mick’s rod while he was on the phone and was mindlessly slapping his hopper down, again and again, on the bank we’d just drifted for no result. On the third slap-down, a head appeared from under the bank, swam out and watched the fly. I twitched it, and with Mick and I laughing in disbelief, the trout engulfed the fly right next to the boat. It was a three pounder, the fish of the day and even better because I nicked it off Mick!
Ultimately, successful hopper fishers are creative and confident. Go and grab a handful of hoppers, throw them on the water, and watch what they do. Play around with your various hopper patterns on the river before you start fishing them in earnest and watch what they do. Above all, don’t confine yourself to being a one-fly dead drifter – hopper fishing can be so much more.