Fly Fisherman March (1986)
The best grasshopper fishing in Montana comes in September when bright, hot summer mornings get the grasshoppers moving--and when sudden gusty afternoon wind storms blow them onto the water like cottonwood leaves in October. During a recent September I guided a man and his son who came to Montana to fish the Yellowstone. It was the peak of the grasshopper season. Conditions were just right for a great day of fly fishing.
We ate a late breakfast at the Depot Cafe before driving to our put-in at a bridge a few miles from Livingston. The black fenders on my boat trailer were already hot to the touch as we launched the boat, and the grasshoppers seemed to be everywhere. The weather report predicted a midday high of 80 degrees, but thunder-heads were already brewing over the Crazy Mountains to the north, and the inevitable afternoon and evening thunder showers were rolling in off the mountains even earlier than the day before.
My clients were experienced fly fishermen. They'd waded and fished the famous rivers of the east and even fished the Yellowstone, but they had never fished from a McKenzie riverboat before. As I shoved off from the back and pulled out into the current, I knew the wind would be a mixed blessing. There would be plenty of hoppers on the water, but it would be hard to cast and even harder to see our flies on the choppy, wind-blown water.
I also knew the two fishermen would have to learn a little about boat fishing before they got into the swing of things. Fishing from a moving boat is not the same as wading and fishing. You're out in the middle of a big river, facing the bank an floating past beautiful holding water you couldn't even get close to on foot.
Your guide, if he's any good, is holding the boat at a constant distance from the bank and rowing back upstream to slow the boat as you pass the best looking water. A good boat fisherman can pick his line off the water, without stripping it in, and then throw it back down as the next holding pocket goes drifting by. Three isn't much time for back casting. Depending on how quick you are with a fly rod, you'll miss five to fifteen feet of bank between casts, so you cast only to the best looking water, often holding your cast and waiting for the right moment rather than casting too soon and missing good water.
The fishermen in my boat quickly discovered where to look for fish. They were casting well and the fish were on the move, rising regularly to the Bullet Hoppers they were fishing. But they were missing most of their strikes. Both of them seemed a little off balance because of the fast pace of the fishing, and they were frustrated because they couldn't see their tannish-yellow flies on the water. I could see numerous strikes they didn't even detect. Sometimes they'd feel a strike before they could see it, but then, of course, it was too late. It should have been great fishing, but things weren't working out that way.
The sunwas bright one minute, then suddenly obscured the next. The stiff gusty wind threw a light chop on the surface of the water, casting up crazy shifting reflections. It was so hard to see the grasshopper flies the fishermen finally switch to Royal Wulffs for the remainder of the day. The Wulff's tall white kiptail wings show up like flags on the water and they float well too. My clients weren't getting as many strikes, but the they were catching more fish because they could see and control their flies. What they really needed was a high-floating, highly visible fly with the long skinny profile of a grasshopper.
The Royal Wulffs reminded me of an old hopper pattern I'd been tying: a kind if a simplified Letort Hopper tied with a deer-hair tail and a long clipped white antelope head. I liked it because it's quick to tie and effective. I had been using it for cutthroat fishing in Yellowstone Park, but I hadn't been using it for boat fishing because it had a tendency to get water-logged and sink.
I thought if I wrapped the white antelope head with a long but short-fibered grizzly hackle, one that would be only a fuzz wider than the clipped antelope head, the fly would float longer and higher and would still retain the long skinny profile of a grasshopper. I had already caught enough fish on the original fly to know the new fly would work, and the addition of the grizzly hackle would certainly make it float well. Best of all, I knew the white antelope head made it show up on the water.
My idea didn't help us much that day on the Yellowstone. The two fishermen caught a couple of nice fish, but I knew the fishing would have been better if we'd had a high-floating grasshopper that was easy to see.
A year later on a boat trip near the headwaters of the Missouri River, my friend Randy threw a perfect cast, landing his Werewolf within a half an inch of swirling foam surrounded by a thick, mature stand of cattails. The fly hovered motionless for a few seconds, right next to the foam, and then suddenly disappeared, without any perceptible sign of a rise.
Randy instinctively set the hook hard and let out a war-whoop when he felt the size of the fish. It was another two minutes before we actually saw the fish, but I knew as I watched it run downstream, swimming with the current and pulling off line with each swish of his tail that it was a big brown.
If we had been wading, this fish would have run Randy's line right down to the backing in a matter of seconds. But we were fishing from a boat, moving along at a good clip, using the current just as effectively as the fish. We chased the fish through a fast shallow riffle to deep slack-water pool where he tired and we were able to bring him to the net.
It was a handsome fish, 22-inches long, weighing nearly four pounds. Randy had caught steelhead and salmon there much larger, but in 30 years of fly fishing he had never caught a larger trout.
The Werewolf has become my favorite and most reliable all-purpose late-summer dry fly. During the grasshopper season I wouldn't use anything else.
(.............keep in mind I wrote that in 1986. Long before foam hoppers floated by)