Thoughts on contemporary hopper design
By Ed Herbst
At the recent fly fishing expo in Johannesburg, Marc Petitjean said that, as a professional fly tyer, he can’t afford to spend more than five minutes per fly.
With the increasing availability of mix and match components this is beginning to become feasible for the average tyer.
The Montana Fly Company (MFC) agent in South Africa, Alan Hobson, sent me some hollow, latex grasshopper bodies – what MFC calls ‘Air Bodies’ – and the air-filled body assists in creating a very buoyant hopper pattern which is quick to tie.
I tied my first hopper pattern about 35 years ago. It was a mixture of existing ideas. It had a clipped deer hair head derived from the Dave Whitlock pattern. The body was a piece of furled yellow wool, and the wing was made of golden pheasant tippets. Many Australian patterns have such wings and I figured that if this feature worked in another southern hemisphere country, it would work on South African trout. It had two rubber legs projecting backwards in a V-shape. When twitched, the legs would be folded back against the body by the pressure of water flowing around the body and, when the forward momentum stopped, they would pop out again. I was broken on my first cast with my new pattern. I went back to that spot often in subsequent years, without success but the sight of that big head breaking the surface and then breaking my tippet haunts me still.
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The author’s original hopper pattern – broken on the first cast
Later I became entranced by the McMurray Ant and turned it into a very successful hopper pattern. It utilised the Orvis Quick Sight Ant body but took forever to tie because of the complex leg construction which sought to mimic the posture on the hopper on the water. The bulky upper leg splays to the side and the lower leg dangles downward.
The posture of a hopper on the water – note the leg position.
An overhead view of a hopper on the water showing the leg position.
The first foam rubber version was tied with the Orvis Quick Sight Ant body
In subsequent versions, I separated the two bits of foam so that there was foam over the two heavy sections of the hook, the eye and the bend. By separating the foam body segments, I created more space between them in the middle of the hook shank to attach the wings and the legs.
Ed’s Hopper circa 2011 with the body punched out of a foam rubber camping mattress.
Ed’s Hopper tied in 2016 with Larva Lace foam.
Bullet head hoppers
The current hopper pattern approach is exemplified by the thinking of M C Coetzer, one of the country’s most successful competition fly fishers. For speed of tying, it uses a variation of bullet head design first featured in Keith Fulsher’s Thunder Creek streamers, because this creates a buoyant deer hair head and wing in a single step.
MC Coetzer’s hopper with orange rubber legs and a dubbed fur body
Doug Swisher’s Madam-X is probably the best-known example of this technique.
The MFC Air Body Hopper tied by Alan Hobson with a single leg
Alan Hobson tied two Air Body Hoppers for me using Klipspringer for the wing. One uses the single rubber leg and the other the more complex leg construction which I first used with the Orvis Quick Sight ant body two decades ago
The MFC Air Body Hopper tied by Alan Hobson with the leg configuration first tried twenty years ago on the pattern with the Orvis foam body
The bulky upper leg is the most prominent leg feature in the hopper silhouette and movement is the critical factor. I asked Alan to eliminate the foreleg – small and unobtrusive on a real grasshopper – because I believe that the water flow over the single strand best mimics the movement of a hopper kicking towards the bank.
That said, Gary LaFontaine argued that a wide pattern was most likely to prompt a deep-lying trout to take at the surface and it would be best if you did your own testing in a swimming bath and have a look at your hopper pattern’s movement from beneath the water surface.
Alan tied the illustrated patterns on a DH55 carp hook, the equivalent of a #8 because trout in the Somerset East streams get as big as 14 lbs and are extremely strong. He assures me that the MFC body floats a heavy-wire hook like that. Hopper patterns are inherently both top heavy but buoyant and, to make sure they drift the right way up, one needs a fairly heavy hook to anchor them in the correct position.
Alan Hobson fishing the Naude’s River near Somerset East
A lot of South African hoppers have a reddish tinge in the wings so I asked Alan to add some red micro crystal flash on top of the wing to act as a sighter.
MC Coetzer swears by orange rubber legs and Hareline Dubbin Grizzly Micro Legs have a pleasing mottling as well as translucency.
MFC Air Bodies for hoppers flanked by Hareline silicone legs in brown and olive
The ‘sudden inch’
Movement is often the critical factor that triggers a strike – what Leonard Wright called, ‘the Sudden Inch’ in his book, Fishing the Dry Fly as a Living Insect.
I once witnessed a very telling example of this on a hot and humid day on the Smalblaar near Cape Town.
The water temperature had increased, the trout were sulking and the bass were on the prod.
In the early afternoon there was a huge nuptial flight of ants which literally rained down on the water.
I was watching a small bass in a sheltered pocket close to the bank. A dozen dead ants would float overhead and be ignored. Then, one would arrive in its window which was still struggling and the rise would be instant.
Gordon van der Spuy told me of a similar experience, also on the Smalblaar. From a high vantage point he watched a friend fishing a hopper beneath him. The hopper would drift un-assailed until he twitched it – and then a trout would arrow to the surface.
There’s an interesting quote on this by Al Troth in one of my favourite books, Wisdom of the Guidesby Paul Arnold
Q: Do details on a ﬂy, like legs on a hopper, really make any difference?
Troth: Hard to answer. Sometimes they sure do. I remember in 1986 we had a fantastic hopper season on the Bighorn River. In 1983 I’d originated a ﬂy called the MacHopper which had rubber legs. But the first occasion I had to really use it was in ‘86 during that great hopper ﬁshing on the Bighorn. I was ﬁshing with my son, Eric. We’re coming down one of the ﬁrst runs just below the put-in place at the dam, and he dropped the ﬂy out. I can still see the thing happening. A nice big brown came up and hung under the ﬂy. I said, “Shake the rod tip.” He shook the rod tip and the legs twitched a little bit, then POW, gone. We had great luck twitching those rubber legs on that trip. But the trout in that river had been ﬁshed over so hard that they were looking for something to authenticate the naturalness of the hopper pattern. We had fantastic luck with that pattern the rest of the season.
When tying the MFC Air Body Hopper, it is important to tie in the body without squeezing the air out of it. It has a small flange at one end of the body and, to increase buoyancy and durability at the tie-in point, Alan inserted 2mm foam rubber into the body.
I would also suggest using one of the thinner threads, like Veevus 16/0, or UTC 70 denier, on this section of the fly and coat the tie-in point with Loon Water Based Head Cement to make the fly more durable. (Superglue abrades rubber or latex products.)
I would then tie in the rubber leg and whip finish before switching to 6/0 thread for the bullet head.
When tying in the deer hair remember to spin the bobbin counter-clockwise to flatten the thread which lessens the possibility of the thread cutting into the deer hair.
A few years ago when Denise Hills helped out after as secretary of the Cape Piscatorial Society, I asked her to go through the catch returns which were published in Piscator, the Society’s journal, in the 1970s and 1980s.
Those were the days before catch and release when fly fishers made notes about the stomach contents of the trout they kept.
I felt that these notes might provide some useful information on the seasonal feeding habits of trout because they eat what is available and vulnerable to capture - and so it proved.
What the catch returns showed was that there was a sudden spike in grasshoppers and dobsonfly larvae in the stomachs of the trout in April and May.
I explained why this occurred in an article on Tom website, Why fish hoppers in autumn, and in another article, Trout Diet in the Fynbos Biome, on the CPS website. (This website contains a wealth of information under the heading From the Piscator.)