Grasshoppers, beetles and ants, oh my!
By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist
A Montana fly-fishing professional’s life is arguably cause for envy. On the outside looking in, things appear glamorous: shiny new fly rods and reels every season; voicemails and texts rattling off the next river. The toughest part of our existence appears to be cleaning our windshields from the latest hatch.
Those of us with families understand the value of some savings in the bank, but working is still a means to feed a habit. For the next few weeks, that habit is fed by fishing terrestrials on our local waters. In our fly shops you’ll hear excited staff and guides discussing Thunderthighs, Pookies, and Chubbies.
Fishing terrestrials, or insects that live on land and end up on the water, isn’t technically “matching the hatch” but the same level of observation and adherence is necessary. From the spruce moth hatch on the Gallatin to grasshoppers on the Yellowstone, land-dwelling insects should not be over-looked as part of a trout’s diet.
But fishing terrestrials is not as simple as grabbing a few Dave’s Hoppers, a spool of 2X and a few marginal drifts. A little more skill and thought is required.
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 protects bigger fish that could be willing to rise. 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. Many memorable days fishing dry flies often begin and end with sustained winds. Other factors may play a beneficial role – a farmer harvesting a riverside field or, what happens often on the Missouri River, a homeowner mowing their yard.
Foam brings it home. When fly tiers began using foam, the dry fly game changed dramatically in the anglers favor. Foam floats, comes in a variety of colors, and can be cut and molded into myriad shapes. Some of the best grasshopper patterns like Thunderthighs and the Moorish ‘hopper are nearly all foam. A large, foam fly allows you to tie a second fly off the first and can be a weighted dropper, a smaller grasshopper, or other dry or emerging insect. I’ll often start the day with a large foam pattern that I rarely change, yet swap the second fly regularly until the code is cracked.
Think outside the box. As a trout is being opportunistic eating a terrestrial, anglers need to do the same. A few adjustments: 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.
Choose gear wisely. Like deep nymphing or fishing streamers, terrestrial fishing requires a few gear adjustments. Invest in high-quality fly line – turning over big dry flies on longer leaders and ensuring your fly line floats is key. You also must choose the right leader, one that tapers to the fly appropriately so you can cast into the wind. There are several good leaders out there, but Umpqua’s Power Taper is truly the best for this. Quality fly floatant and dessicant is crucial, as is using fluorocarbon tippet for any droppers.
We’re fortunate this year with normal streamflows, and hopefully happy trout will be looking to the surface. Dedicated terrestrial anglers will find success – we always do – but for the angler desiring more out of their late summer angling, ‘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. Along with his wife, he owns Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and with a partner operates Montana Fishing Outfitters, guide service on the Missouri River.