It’s hopper time for trout fly-fishermen in Eastern Sierra
By JIM MATTHEWS
It may not be the best time to catch the most trout. It may not be the best time to catch the biggest trout. Yet, when flights of grasshoppers move across mountain meadows in the Eastern Sierra, a lot of the big winged insects end up crashing onto the surface of meadow streams and rivers. They land with plops, and then kick their legs trying to get back to the bank.
Many don’t make it.
A one to 1 ½-inch grasshopper with a body the diameter of the pencil is a substantial meal for a trout accustomed to eating aquatic insects averaging about the size of a grain of rice or smaller. The disturbance on the surface is hard to miss in the clear water. So the fish gorge themselves, eating the big insects off the surface of the water in splashy rises.
During the peak of the grasshopper flights, the trout stuff themselves so full of hoppers they look more like brightly colored sausages than the sleek fish they resemble the rest of the year. The binge can go on for several weeks.
Throughout the Crowley Lake basin, grasshoppers are swarming across the sage flats and meadows by the millions right now. The trout feeding binge is happening. Walking across a meadow will send waves of hoppers flushing ahead of your movement, and in the warm afternoons the big insects are flying in all directions. Every trout – big, little, and in-between – is looking up for a big meal to float over their head in all the basin’s streams and rivers – the upper Owens River, Mammoth Creek, Hot Creek, Convict and McGee Creeks, Hilton Creek, and Crooked Creek. The smaller waters mostly hold fish under 10-inches, primarily brown trout, but some wild rainbows, cutthroats, or rainbow-cutthroat hybrids are in the mix. The bigger waters like the Owens or Convict and McGee downstream from Highway 395 can have bigger fish, mostly brown trout in the 14 to 18-inch range.
This is a fly-fisherman’s heaven. It is one of those times when fly-fishing is the most effective type of equipment to use to catch trout. The trout are eating food off the surface, and that is where fly-fishing shines. In fact, it IS the reason most anglers – if they are honest about it – like to use a fly rod. There is nothing quite like watching a trout take you fly off the surface of the water. And the strike on a hopper is comparable to a largemouth bass eating a popping bug. It can be just spectacular.
The best part is you don’t have to use ultra-tiny leaders and little flies you can’t see on the water. You don’t have to worry as much about delicate casts; in fact, splatting a hopper pattern onto the surface can trigger a terrific strike. You don’t have to get up at dawn or fish at dark, the big grasshoppers are most active during the warmest part of the day.
It’s hopper season.
Most of the fly-fishermen in the Crowley Basin right now are in boats or float tubes on Crowley Lake fishing midge pupae or larva imitations below a strike indicator in 12 to 18 feet of water along the weed beds. The fishing is exceptional, and I suppose you can convince yourself that watching a strike-indicator (I like to annoy my hard-core fly-fishing friends by calling them “bobbers”) is kind of like watching the take of a fly on the surface. But my mind won’t make that leap. You can hold a beer in one hand and the fly-rod in the other in this kind of fishing.
I like casting and plopping a hopper pattern next to the bank at the head of an undercut, watching it drift along the meadow grass hanging into the water, and then seeing the flash of a yellow-gold German brown trout shoot up and engulf the fly. Bobbers don’t make your adrenaline surge. Hopper strikes do.
A lot of us also prefer to use our eyes to determine where the trout are holding, not rely on blips on an electronic device hung on the side of a watercraft. We can pick out the mostly likely spots in the deeper runs and pools where a trout will be holding in the current, eyes glued to the undulating mirror of surface above it. Many times you can spot the fish holding at pool tailouts or in eddies, and then try to cast to specific fish without spooking them.
Please don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with indicator midge fishing on Crowley. You will no doubt catch more and bigger fish than I will in a weekend of fishing the upper Owens, and if I spend my time on the little creeks with little fish….
Most fly-fishermen focus on river fishing early or late in the season. Early is when the big rainbow and cutthroat trout spawners move up out of the lakes to spawn in moving water. Many times, you are casting to visible fish with egg patterns and can see the strike – almost as good as a surface strike. In the fall, the big brown trout come up those same streams to spawn and most anglers hurl streamers, either fishing to visible fish or twitching and striping them through deep pools and undercuts. Those are the big seasons.
The less popular time between those two seasons is spent fishing nymph patterns under indicators in lakes or rivers, and praying for a flurry of dry fly action at dusk where we can actually use these fly rod devices as they are intended. (Hot Creek has incredible hatches nearly every day, and it is one of those special waters where fly-anglers can fish dry flies year-around.)
Peak hopper time – right now – should be as popular as the two ends of the season because it provides excellent fishing that rivals the spawning run bookends of the fishing season. This year happens to be one of those exceptional hopper “hatches.” Fred Rowe, a fly-fishing guide in the region who has been fishing these waters for over 40 years, said it was “the biggest year I’ve seen” for hoppers.
This year might be one of those once-in-a-lifetime hatches of hoppers, and you should make an effort to see the spectacle. However, the hoppers are here every summer and early fall in good numbers. The major flights each year get the trout looking at the surface. Long after the major flights of the grasshoppers have ended, and the distended bellies of the trout pulled back to more normal girths, the fish are still keeping an eye out for the big, telltale splashes and disturbances of hoppers franticly kicking legs. Those are big meals they can’t pass up. You can plop hopper patterns next to the banks of rivers throughout the region (heck, throughout the West’s trout waters) and still get trout to come up and eat those big surface meals though September or later.
It might just be my favorite season in the Eastern Sierra: Hopper Season.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.