Look to terrestrials to catch fish

By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist

Streamflows are low, air temperatures are warming, and hatches are dwindling. These may appear part of a recipe for poor fishing conditions, but things aren’t as dire as they may seem.

We certainly need to be conscious of conditions—cease fishing in the late afternoon, bring fish in quickly, and keep fish wet at all times—but as hatches wane, trout become more opportunistic and look to land-dwelling insects to supplement their diet.

Terrestrials are tasty and often large morsels—grasshoppers, ants and beetles—that can be blown into or land on the water. Trout feed despite a lack of hatching aquatic insects, so a grasshopper floating by is easy feed for a hungry fish.

To successfully fish terrestrial insects and be more in tune with trout behavior, here are some tips for being a better hopper angler. And by hopper fishing, I’m speaking in general terms to cover all elements of fishing land-dwelling insects that find their way onto a river.

Observation. Before you rig your leader, tippet and flies, take a few minutes to survey the scene. Is there a hatch and can you see fish rising? What, if any, banks or structure might provide shade or additional cover? Is there a prevailing wind? These are all questions that can determine if fish may be looking to the surface for terrestrials.

The lack of a hatch means fish may be eating terrestrials. Bank structure and shade cover protect bigger fish that could be willing to rise. And a predominant or sustained wind carries insects onto the surface.

Wind is your friend. In most fly-fishing scenarios, wind is a four-letter word. But it’s desirable for fishing terrestrials. Memorable days fishing dry flies often begin and end with sustained winds. Other factors may play a beneficial role like a farmer harvesting a riverside field or a homeowner mowing their yard—a frequent occurrence on the Missouri River.

Hop on the good foot and do the rubber leg thing. Nearly all effective hopper patterns incorporate rubber legs into the fly. Many guides are fans of rubber legs that have a variation of color, or white-and-black stripes. Look for rubber legs that demonstrate free flowing action once on the surface of the water.

Tackle adjustments. Many hopper patterns tend to be large and bulky. Most are tied with foam and large wings. Therefore, you need to fish large diameter tippet and possibly a shorter leader to help the large fly “turn over” at the end of your cast. Last year Umpqua Feather Merchants developed a Power Taper leader. This is now all I use for fishing big flies. It allows for a longer leader so a better drift is accomplished, but the taper is thicker to the tippet so I can fish a lighter tippet, which also helps get a natural drift.

Hey diddle diddle, right down the middle. Low water this year is a reality. Lower than average streamflows work for us, and against us. A good tactic for fishing big dry flies when water levels are weak is to drift your dry fly right down the middle of the river. Logic says to fish the banks as terrestrials blow into the water from land, and plenty of fish are caught near bankside structure this time of year. However, the coolest water, which harbors the hungriest trout, may be in the middle of the river.

Early to bed, early to rise. Trout are very sensitive to light. By late summer, they’ve had their fill of bright sunshine, so the bigger fish tend to be active in low-light conditions. Start early or fish late and target waters with ample shade as well.

Think outside the box. Just as a trout is being opportunistic when switching to a terrestrial diet, anglers should do the same. Once on the water, consider stripping or twitching a hopper or terrestrial pattern. When choosing where to fish, plan accordingly—if the forecast calls for sustained winds in one direction, choose a bank from which bugs can blow into the river.

My favorite head-scratching tactic is to fish a few sizes larger than expected. You’ll most likely catch a few of the smaller crowd pleasers, but stick with it and you just might hook into a true showstopper.

Despite our lower than average streamflows, consistently good fishing opportunities exist. Dedicated terrestrial anglers will find success—we always do. For the angler willing to adjust their skill set or learn more, plenty of “hopper-tunities” await.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky, he is co-director of the Montana Fishing Guide School, and co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.