Perhaps we should have changed the title to something more mundane like, Skate or Dead Drift, but to pay homage to a cult classic video game on the old Nintendo we chose to go with Skate or Die. Plus it sounds super intense which is always a way to garner some attention for an important topic - How to Work Your Hopper on the water.
There are various different lines of thinking on grasshopper fishing but fishermen seem to fit into one of a couple of categories when it comes to how to present a hopper - the Dead Drift Camp or the Can't Sit Still Camp. Now there's not necessarily a wrong way to fish a grasshopper pattern, because having fished as a member of both camps, I can say that both of them work. There's a time and a place for everything and refusing to belong to one ideology or the other is really the most effective way to fish. This little piece isn't a \"Don't Ever Dead-Drift Your Fly\" essay, it's really encouragement to try something different and have some success with it, it will make you a better fisherman if nothing else to have one more trick in your bag for days that your normal techniques aren't working.
Put Some Skate on It
For those of you who belong to the Dead Drift Camp, don't worry, you can still toss a hopper out there and watch it slowly drift along through the current, but I'd highly encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and put some movement on your fly every once in a while. Fish are given far too much credit for being discerning creatures that contemplate their meals and decipher situations in attempt to thwart the fisherman's pursuit of them. Really fish are just opportunistic feeders that at times will eat anything and at other times will eat seemingly nothing at all, and that's when you have to entice them a little bit... On the best of days during the summer when it's hot and windy and there's a lot of grasshoppers getting blown onto the water along a grassy bank and there's a nice little current feeding them all down to the fish that you can see dotting the surface, gorging themselves, you seemingly can't do anything wrong. But for those of us who fish in the real world, that doesn't happen very often, so be prepared to fish hoppers without ever seeing a fish rise. If you're going to get the attention of fish, sometimes you simply have to get some movement on your pattern.
So the technicality of \"skating\" or \"chugging\" your hopper is really pretty easy, when you cast your hopper in tight to the bank or out in the middle of a big pool or riffle, you need to remember one key point - don't introduce a ton of slack into the line. If you toss a pile of line out and onto the water and you want to immediately start getting your fly moving, you're going to have to strip out all of the slack in the line first, which oftentimes results in a fish eating your hopper before you can get enough slack off the water to set the hook. No matter how you're fishing, be it streamers, dries or nymphs, line control is paramount to catching fish. But in order to put movement on your fly you need to establish a tight connection to the fly, do this by controlling your line when you shoot it, always have a hold of it and never let go of it. When your fly hits the water, immediately start some movement. There's no \"wrong way\" to chug your hopper along, but stripping it through the current like a Wooly Bugger isn't the greatest way to start.
When you begin putting movement on your fly think of how a grasshopper moves in the water - if you've never seen this before they kick with their hind legs and kind of chug along creating a fair bit of surface disturbance. If you look at this blurry picture you can get an idea that they don't often sit still on the water, unless they are indeed dead. Drowned grasshoppers don't move, they also don't stay afloat for too long - but that's another story for another day. So to start with when you're moving your hopper use short strips of line and use the rod tip to \"skitter\" the fly along the top of the surface. Make sure to keep your rod tip high in the air if you intend for your hopper to stay afloat when skittering and skating the fly, but be prepared for missing a few fish because you won't have much room to set the hook - think strip set.
Now, if you drop your rod tip down to the water and strip and work the rod towards the water, you will \"chug\" and pop the pattern along, oftentimes creating more of a bubble trail and a hollow \"plopping\" noise as the hopper breaks the surface and dives and comes back up. Although this isn't as natural of an imitation of hopper behavior, it does get the attention of fish and they will chase and eat flies being \"chugged\" along just beneath the surface. Skating the fly typically works better in riffles as fish get less time to react to the movement, where as the chug and stop and chug again seems to work better in slower runs and deep pools where the disturbance draws the fish up to examine what's going on. You can employ both techniques in a sequence by simply dropping and raising the rod as you strip and work the tip of the rod to move the fly. Make sure and pause between strips to give the fish a chance to see what you're feeding them, you can let their reaction to your fly dictate how much pause you give, sometimes they like it almost constantly moving.
Where to Work It
Area's that you can employ the skating or chugging tactics are pretty much unlimited, I've fished with this technique on small streams, big rivers, lakes, spring creeks, along deep undercut banks, in the middle of shallow riffles, in deep pools, in shallow tailouts, along structure, in the middle of the river, and I've had success with it on all of them. How much success you will have and where you will have it all boils down to trying it out in different situations and seeing how the fish react. If you are fishing along a grassy bank with rip roaring current on the outside and a small fishable pocket of soft water on the inside, then tossing in your hopper and immediately popping it out into the heavy current is probably not the greatest idea - that is probably a situation that simply trying to get your hopper to sit in that pocket for as long as possible will be your most successful venture. But if you've been fishing countless hours in all of those areas and you're not getting a look at your hopper, then start fishing some slower pieces of water where you can more easily work the fly along and create some commotion that the fish can key in on. That's why chugging patterns along the top of a deep stand still pool can be so effective - the trout hanging at the bottom are accustomed to feeding up top when something breaks the glassy surface and starts causing a ruckus, they will oftentimes come up to see what it is moving around. That's where chugging and pausing can be the most effective - get their attention, and then let them eat it, don't keep pulling it away from them unless they aren't eating on the pause, then try skittering it away from them to see how they react.
If you have a nice grassy undercut bank that you've been fishing and you have been dead-drifting your pattern over and over again in the sweet spot with no reaction, pitch one in tight to the bank and start popping the hopper and really make some disturbance, see what happens. Oftentimes I've found that on undercut banks fish will simply hang out waiting for something to start struggling or creating a commotion before they will leave the relative safety of the undercut bank to see what's going on. When you start popping the hopper along instead of just drifting it through, it gets their attention and now they're looking for a meal, don't be afraid to work a piece of water over a couple of times if you're wade fishing with this technique, oftentimes the fish will eat on the 8th or 9th pass through, who knows why, but it works.
If you find yourself on a smaller body of water or on a big river with a lot of soft inside riffles and shelves, then using the skate and skitter technique can be very effective. In riffles you have to remember that fish aren't getting as complete of a picture of how the world outside of the water looks. Their window of vision is broken up by the moving water of the riffle, oftentimes there's bubbles underneath the surface and their view is somewhat obstructed. That's why the skating technique works so well - instead of simply seeing something just floating with the current that may or may not be food, when you skate your pattern through a riffle fish see a lifelike object moving across their feeding window and they oftentimes are more likely to give chase or try to eat it before it gets away. By playing on their instincts to chase down food before it gets away, you can turn slow days into productive ones by imparting action in the riffles with big dries.
What Flies to Use
All of this would be useless advice if I didn't give you a little tip on what types of patterns work best for what situations. First off, when we're talking about putting movement on flies, don't limit this to hoppers - you can do this with Stoneflies, Caddis, other Terrestrials like Crickets and Cicadas and of course with Attractor Dry Fly patterns as well. The one common theme that you'll find in fly selection for putting movement on patterns is foam. That's right, purists turn a blind eye, if you don't have something that floats nice and high and doesn't easily get waterlogged, you should just stay in the Dead Drift Camp and forget about the rest of the advice I just doled out. All of the patterns that I fish for the above mentioned categories of flies employ foam and typically rubberlegs as well. Foam and rubberlegs afford you the ability to create lifelike movement on the top of the water without worry of your fly becoming so soaked that it's not able to float any longer. If you like to fish a Joe’s Hopper, stop reading, take your time machine back to 1950 and enjoy yourself, this isn’t for you. Especially when you're chugging flies along the surface and popping them underneath the water, you need for that fly to come back up to the surface when you pause, that's why foam is so crucial. Fortunately nearly every good Terrestrial and Stonefly imitation out there is tied with some foam these days. So when selecting a pattern look for something comprised primarily of foam, and make sure it has some rubberlegs too, that will give you the extra surface disturbance you're looking for.
For some specific pattern recommendations send me an email or pop by the shop, I'd be happy to advise you on my favorite patterns for skating and chugging on a river near you.
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