A veritable blizzard of grasshoppers means it’s a good time to catch some fish, since they’re out for a feast. PHOTO BY JIM MATTHEWS
It was a friendly argument around a campfire. Three fishing buddies were arguing about when the trout fishing was best in the Eastern Sierra. One was clinging to the late April trout opener, arguing that it was when big rainbows were spawning and no one had fished waters in the region since the previous November. The second was pointing out that the big browns spawn in the fall, that it was prettier then because of the fall colors, and the opener and summer crowds were gone.
The third listened for some time without chiming into the conversation. The fire popped and a spark shot out of the coals past the quiet angler. Both the arguing anglers watched the spark fly past their buddy, and stayed looking at him: Their looks asked the question: Well, what do you think?
“Hopper season,” said the third angler. 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 and continue to pick up those that drown and eventually wash under the surface. The fish get fat during hopper season.
An imitation grasshopper is shown next to a real one. Both are a good choice to bring in fish during hopper season, when the grasshoppers are out and the fish are looking to feast on them. PHOTO BY FRED ROWE
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. Looking into the throats of freshly-caught trout, you suddenly understand where the expression, “stuffed to the gills,” came from. The binge can go on for several weeks, and the trout will eat hoppers from when they first start buzzing around meadows in early July right through September. The biggest flights of the big insects will last for two to four weeks most years and can happen anytime from July through early September, depending on the weather year and elevation.
The 2019 summer was hailed as an incredible hopper season. Fred Rowe, who was the first fly-fishing guide in the region before fly-fishing was cool, simply said, “this is the most intense hopper season I’ve ever seen.” Rowe, who still guides fly-fishermen through his Sierra Bright Dot Guide Service (www.sierrabrightdot.com), said his clients were having 15 to 30 fishing days on the upper Owens above Crowley, landing brown trout to 20 inches on surface hopper patterns.
In the Crowley Lake basin, anglers walking across the meadows of the streams that feed the lake – the upper Owens River, Hot Creek, McGee and Convict creeks, Hilton Creek, Whiskey Creek, and Crooked Creek – were greeted with waves of thousands of hoppers flushing ahead of them. You heard about the swarms of grasshoppers in Las Vegas? It was like that.
But every meadow along every stream in the Eastern Sierra had more grasshoppers than most years. From the West Walker north of Bridgeport, south through the East Walker River drainage (especially Green Creek and Summers Creek which were especially mobbed with hoopers). Lee Vining Creek, Rush Creek, along with Parker and Walker creeks in the Mono Lake Basin were swarmed at levels that rivaled the Crowley basin. Rock Creek and Bishop Creek also had a big hopper hatch.
But this is not just a once-in-a-lifetime event. There are big hatches of grasshoppers on all the Sierra meadows each year, and the trout eat them with gusto, especially the wild fish who know what they represent – an easy, big, meal.
For fly-fishermen, these is when they can splat a big hopper pattern down onto the surface of the water, not worry so much about finesse, and still catch fish. For spinfishermen, they can fish small hopper-like crank baits or live hoppers (impaled with a small hook just under the top of the thorax to keep the bait lively and kicking) or the surface with and a small float. Even long after the big numbers of hoppers have disappeared, a sunken live or imitation hopper (Rowe said a yellow woolly worm is the perfect fly) drifted deep through pools, runs, or undercuts will catch more fish that other baits and lures. The fish have been eating them for at least a couple of months, and won’t pass up just one more. [Crickets you can purchase at tackle shops make a good substitute if you can’t catch enough grasshoppers in the meadows to use for bait.]
At the campfire, the two arguing anglers were now focused on their fishing buddy who repeated. “Yes, hopper season in the summer and early fall, that’s the best. Every trout in the Sierra is eating them, the weather is the best it will be all year, and even I can catch fish during hopper season. It’s a no-brainer.”
Of course, fishermen being fishermen, the argument went well into the night.