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Montana Hopper Fishing 101

by Mark Raisler

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Why not throw the big fly. Why not toss a fly pattern that everybody including you can see? Why not tempt those big Montana Brown Trout with a really big meal? Why not?!

So that is what many do whilst lost on rural two lane roads in Montana. In search of a memorable hopper eat? Yes.

So many great waters and great ways to fish your way through the famed Montana rivers and streams during the summer months. One of the my favorite ways includes the big fly. The Hopper, the Chubby, or your favorite attractor fly as you visit new as well as familiar resources appeals to many of us.

Here are some tips and techniques to take with you on that legendary summer hopper driven road trip through some of America’s finest trout waters.

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Get yourself a hopper stick. This may be a different rod for different anglers. Some, like myself prefer something with a little backbone. Nad not necessarily in the 5wt range. Something like a Boom-Stick, something in a 6wt, something with horsepower. My personal choice is a SAGE METHOD 690. But the newcomer, which I have enjoyed for 2 days of fantastic hopper hucking, the SAGE MOD has got my attention. Similar in the fact that they are both driven by Konnetic Technology the MOD made inroads in my personal journey with the light and crisp feel in hand. The METHOD is no Sunday Driver demanding constant attention. The MOD delivered the hopper with the same high line speed I have come to enjoy but with the edge taken off a bit.

Not everyone likes a rod with that kind of torque as you may be interested in smaller babbling creeks on your Montana hopper tour. Anything from an ultralight 3wt upwards to the powerful 6 weights mentioned above will get you through. Choose your hopper tool and line it up with the appropriate line….and clean fly lines always cast better. Remember that when trying to reach those fish 50+’ away!

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And here too I like fly lines with purpose. Most of my 6 weights are spooled with the RIO Grand. A powerful fly line matching a powerful fly rod. Don’t forget about the RIO Perception for shooting head ease integrated into a castable everyday foamie flinger. But here again you may want to tread on the softer side of the equation. The RIO Gold is still the choice of many as you cannot go wrong with America’s favorite fly line.

Your hopper rod and lines are covered but what about the terminal end of the line? Long leaders are the first item that come to mind. Long leaders you say with such forbearing fly on the business end? You bet. The longer leaders on the market today are a far cry from that impossible to turn over leader of old. Powerful butt sections that insure leader and fly turnover are available and perfect for your hopper day.

So how long a leader? 9’ 3X for sure but if you want to up the ante I would tie on a 12’ 3X and tippet it with 3’ of 3X-4X. Longer leaders do the same thing that they do for long techy dry fly leaders when approaching the trout with a size 20 Trico. More eats! It is so easy to tie on a short leader attaching a cable of 1X-2X along with that hopper of choice. But think about your quarry. Big brown trout are not stupid…certainly not often enough. So why not give yourself the best tools to get the job done?

Long leaders, big rods and lines you say. Now what? How about the fly? Simply your choice in this category. Some like the fantastically floaty Chubby Chernobles, the Morrish of course, and the other ump-teen million awesome looking and floating and fishing foam based happens in your local fly shack. I personally like the ones you can see! All sizes and colors can work on your local Montana river. The key is to tie the one on that is working! Local knowledge is king here. Ask at the shop, at the boat ramp, at the local watering hole. Ask around. What you hear may or may not be the truth. But glean any and all information you can from those fishy looking cats hanging outside the shop.

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The big fun fluffy flies do not always work. Always a good idea to have a few old school hopper patterns in your box. Dave’s, Joe’s, Whitlock’s, and the more recent Shane Stalcup’s Hopper. The Parachute Hopper has always been a good one with those hand tied pheasant tail legs. Some sort of low riding and nearly invisible class of flies generally work. They of course do. You can’t see it but the trout can!

Don’t forget about the smaller hoppers. They can make that 3 pounder move just as far towards that size 6 hopper that you want to fish. Also make sure to try the size 10 or the size 12. When the fishing gets tough and the fish are aware of the hopper parade that occurs daily on some popular Montana rivers the small fly can make the difference. The small fly, big trout theory.

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What is the best hopper fly to attach on the end of your line? The one you trust. Believe in the fly and you shall reap the rewards.

Dead Drift of Twitch? Oh boy, that is a personal choice. I like the former, and some prefer the latter. I can tell you that there is a big difference between twitching the fly effectively and dragging the fly across the water. The twitch is a learned behavior. The dragging, not so much. Fish, even hopper eaters, do not like the fly ripping across the water like a small motorboat. Wakes are bad on flies, good on trout.

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What kind of water should I fish for the best hopper eats? Let’s start with the obvious locales. The banks are always a good start. Pound the banks and you should be in the zone. Hoppers jump, fly, and fall into the river near the banks; most of the time. But you should expand your horizons and fish off or away the banks too. Why? Because fish eat hoppers in the center of the river too. Honest. Bigger rivers with middle river structures like drop offs, shelves, and aquatic vegetation features will harbor hopper eating trout. Think of the Madison River or the Missouri River and its massive size. Not all the fish can live on the bank. Most live off of the bank in the nearly 100 yards between the two banks. Get off the bank and try the middle!

Fish the inside bends too. Not just the sexy side of the river with rip-rap and fallen trees adorning it. Fish all of the good water. Follow the color changes on the inside bends and you shall be rewarded with some big center river fish. On some tailwaters the common route is not to hug the bank. It is more commonly out in the middle with moving water in the 18”-36” depth range. Try it. You may be rewarded with a monster brown. Remember that all the big ones can’t all live near the bank.

Fishing the road less traveled is a great idea. If you are following someone either wade fishing or in a drift boat go to the other side, to the water that has not been bruised. Just like streamer eaters the hopper eaters are not going to go after every big meal that comes down the lane. Unlike Pale Morning Dun eaters the hopper feeder does not need to eat each and every meal that he sees.

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Hopper fishing falls into one of our favorite seasons in Montana. Make sure you take big fly rods that can handle the size of the fly. While your 5 weight might have enough behind it to turn that big fly over, why not use that 6 weight in your quiver for the hopper. Clean fly lines will help with distance and precise placement. Longer leaders than you would think along with a selection of smaller hopper patterns can mean the difference between a few takes and quite a few takes. Take it all with you on your next trip across Montana in search of the greatest hopper journey in the Rockies!