Things That Go SPLAT!
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Tying a grasshopper or cricket with splayed legs and wings askew sounds messy, but it will look more realistic on the water and catch more fish.

In August and September, Montana’s most famous rivers—the Yellowstone, Madison, Gallatin, Big Hole, and Bitterroot—become grasshopper factories. That abundance is also true for many rivers in Idaho, southern British Colombia, and Alberta. The same phenomenon occurs, to varying degrees, throughout North America. Late summer is also the time of year when many of these rivers yield up some of their largest trout.

This isn’t news to anyone fortunate enough to be on these rivers during grasshopper time. Anglers have known about the importance of hoppers for ages. Unfortunately, many of the hopper patterns offered in fly shops differ little from the flies we had decades ago. Sure, there are some new foam patterns, but many are little more than retreads of the original Chernobyl Ant. Those new flies catch fish but so do the old deer-hair grasshopper patterns. Given all the new fly-tying materials on the market, can we create patterns that more closely imitate grasshoppers?

It’s Alive!

Sometimes almost anything matching the size of a real grasshopper will catch fish, which explains the success of the Chernobyl Hopper and similar flies that really don’t imitate the live bug. When the fish are being stupid and easy, those attractor patterns work fine. Other times, when anglers have been pounding the water with a variety of hopper imitations, the fish can become more selective. Sometimes a good deer-hair pattern such as Dave’s Hopper brings success, but other times the extra movement created by rubber legs is essential to stimulate a strike. During tough periods—and they are more frequent than the easy times—you’ll catch more trout fishing with a more lifelike imitation.

The order Orthoptera includes grasshoppers and crickets. Orthoptera means “straight wing;” the name comes from the front overwings, which are long, leathery, narrow, and protect the membranous underwings. Both insects have segmented bodies and six legs, including the long, powerful rear legs that are designed for jumping. They also have large flat-sided heads with large compound eyes and long antennae. Grasshoppers and crickets can damage crops and are considered pests (think of locusts), but anglers consider them friends.

There are several important differences between grasshoppers and crickets. A cricket usually has longer antennae; they are often as long as or longer than its body. A cricket has noticeable cerci, which are rear tail-like projections. A grasshopper’s long front wings extend to or past the end of its body; a cricket’s overwing is shorter and covers perhaps two-thirds of the body. Finally, a grasshopper’s body is long, narrow, and triangular; its body is broad at the belly and tapers toward the top. A cricket, on the other hand, tends to have a shorter, stubbier, more rectangular body. With those differences in mind, we’ll talk about grasshoppers for the rest of this article, but most of our observations also pertain to crickets.

Size Does Make a Difference

Size and silhouette, more than the color of the body or wing, are the key factors determining the success of any grasshopper pattern. To create a proper silhouette, your grasshopper should have a bulbous head with eyes, a segmented underbody, movable legs, and long, straight wings. The belly on a hopper is always flat and light colored. White and cream are my most successful underbelly colors. Depending on the overall shading of the hopper, I may use a white underbelly tinted light green or white tinted light tan along the edges, but I always keep the belly lighter than the color of the rest of the bug.

Using the correct size of fly is the most important factor leading to consistent fishing success. The size of the natural insects varies from place to place and changes throughout the summer. You should carry many sizes of grasshopper imitations, from three-quarter inch to more than two inches long, and examine the real insects on the streambank to determine which fly to use. My fly box contains grasshopper imitations in six sizes and five color variations, and I make my final selection when I get to the river. Once, on the Yellowstone, I was having meager success casting hoppers to the banks, and a guide suggested I try a two-inch-long pattern. The change made all the difference and I caught several large fish. Last year, on British Columbia’s Elk River, I observed one-inch-long naturals along the banks, selected a matching fly, and enjoyed excellent fishing.

The legs are the next most important factor in creating a good grasshopper. A leaf or twig that drops onto the water doesn’t have moving parts, but an insect does. If it moves, twitches, and wiggles, a fish will think that your fly is alive, and nothing I know creates the appearance of life better than rubber legs.

The Missouri River below Holter Dam, near Craig, Montana, is big, broad, and brawling, and is lined with pastures and grasslands. One of my favorite summer pastimes is to float this section of river in my pontoon boat and bang hoppers against the banks. Several years ago, I had a day when many fish moved from the cutbacks to inspect my deer-hair grasshopper, but most refused my offering. That night I added rubber legs to the pattern, and the next day I caught more fish; some of the strikes were quite aggressive. The rubber legs were only a small addition, but they made a very big difference.

SPLAT!

We all know what a grasshopper or cricket looks like sitting on a limb or blade of grass. Many of us have studied them up close and personal. But this is observing the bug at rest. What about after it splats on the water?

Nobody dislikes casting in the wind more than I do. However, when fishing a stream with a grassy undercut bank or a deep run near the bank, I can become slightly giddy when a strong breeze develops on a sunny August afternoon. That is when grasshoppers are most likely to blow over the river and fall on the water. The sound of grasshoppers crashing onto the surface often stirs the largest bank-hugging lunkers into action. When designing grasshopper and cricket imitations, it is important to think about what the hapless naturals look like lying helpless on the water.

Grasshoppers have four wings. When they are at rest, we see only the top wings, but when the insects are shot down by the wind, the underwings often become dislodged and visible. Those wings are often bright yellow, red, orange, or black, colors not normally depicted in the tan, brown, and green of the body or top wing. According to my research, most hoppers are predominately shades of tan tinted with yellow, gold, or green, and my most successful imitation has a bright yellow body with a white belly and a brightly colored underwing.

Camouflage is essential to a grasshopper’s survival. A grasshopper, unlike a cricket, is typically mottled in color, and an imitation tied in a single color is not very realistic looking. I use at least two and usually three colors of foam, and add a mottled wing material to create the multicolored appearance of the natural. You can also use permanent markers to add spots, stripes, chevrons, and other bits of color.

How you tie on the rear legs is also important. We usually see grasshoppers with their rear knee joints bent up and tight against their bodies. When these insects fall on the water, however, their rear legs splay out in a frog-kick position. A fly tied with wings askew and splayed legs sounds messy, but it looks more lifelike on the water than a tidier imitation.

I have tied grasshoppers on all types of hooks. A pattern tied with a lot of the hook hanging below the fly has a better chance of landing upright on the water. However, using too heavy a hook reduces the fly’s ability to float. I sometimes want a grasshopper to float as an indicator for a heavily weighted nymph plus maybe even another fly, sort of a “hopper, dropper, Copper” rig.

It is vital to have some realistic grasshopper and cricket patterns in your fly box for those times when it’s tough to seduce large summer trout; using a Dave’s Hopper isn’t always good enough. Examine the natural insects along the shore, think about what they look like after they’ve landed on the water, and then try to tie some “real” hopper and cricket patterns.


John R. Gantner is an inventive tier who lives in California. This is his first appearance in our magazine. Stay tuned for more of John’s great articles.
 
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