What’s the opposite of “finesse” as it relates to fly fishing? Power? Water flogging? Brute force?
Trico mayflies and grasshoppers
dominate August fly fishing in Montana, but imitating the two insects might as well be different sports. Tricos are
damn near microscopic, usually in the size-20 class or smaller, requiring a dainty, exacting presentation with
hard-to-see wisps-on-a-needlepoint. It’s an infamously aggravating hatch to fish effectively—though the cognoscenti
can’t get enough of it.
Hopper fishing embodies whatever is the antonym to all that. First of all, the bugs get huge—sometimes occupying the
#4 to 8 range. And, as terrestrials, they genuinely hate being on the water when the wind or a wayward hop lands them
in it. They splash around like a pigeon in a puddle. They struggle mightily to swim and flutter and flop their way
back to shore, often only to succumb to the wetness on their wings dragging them to death by drowning or
jaws. Topwater frog fishing for largemouth bass is
a better allegory than those delicate and refined descriptors we often reserve for dry-fly fishing.
Still, these dichotomous fishing methods occupy many of the same days on the same water in the same hot season in the
Treasure State and other Northern Rockies trout streams. Rigged for both, you can stay stocked on surface eats from
dawn to dusk while many other anglers have switched to bass, carp, snorkeling, or air conditioning.
Male tricos display a black body while the females are more yellow. Look closely at bugs on the surface to make your
call. Photo by Nick Price.
Basics of Trico Fishing
Mayflies of the genus Tricorythodes
are present in many trout streams from the East Coast to the West, but you might be excused for having ignored
them entirely. They’re hard to see for one, and possibly easy to confuse for a
midge if you do. They’re known for occupying slower water than many of their larger Ephemeroptera
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Tricos, “increase in abundance when streams become silted, dewatered
and warmer.” The females l hatch in the heat of the late morning from late July sometimes until
under high sun, when most other self-respecting aquatic insects are still hiding in the bushes or substrate. Mating
and the spinnerfall may be done anytime between mid morning and mid-afternoon. But, trout may continue eating spent
bugs well into the hazy northern dusk.
Guides often push right past a Trico hatch with clients in the boat, putting preference on hoppers and other
easier-to-see bugs. You’d do the same if you were shoveling water for noobs every day. It’s tough to get right, but
the rewards are well worth the effort. All of the best anglers I know are magnetically attracted to a
Side channels can provide great habitat for hopper and trico-eating trout.
How to Fly Fish a Trico Hatch
You might quickly see why this challenge is so attractive. It’s not uncommon to witness rather big fish snorkeling
tricos in a relatively predictable manner. The trout might refuse your first fly. It might refuse your second. The
third may go completely unnoticed. But if you bring the proper time and patience and bag of tricks, you can refine
your presentation and continue to work that fish for hours. Trout being trout, they’ll make a mistake eventually. Be
ready for when that happens.
Sometimes though, Trico hatches are more about hacking through the chaos than presenting an individual fly to an
individual fish. When that prolific “blanket hatch” occurs, trout sometimes eat them in a style more akin to a baleen
whale, hoovering dozens off the surface at once. But they won’t want to shift off their feeding lane or rising pattern
for any imitation that varies from the norm. It’s incumbent on the angler to present precisely on the seam where the
target fish is rising. An inch too short or too far and it won’t get touched. Mind the cadence with which the fish is
rising and time your shots when you think a nose is coming up.
While you can fish upstream to Trico eaters, it’s usually more effective to present quartering downstream in such
situations, whenever the river allows. This can mitigate running the leader or line over spooky fish, showing them the
fly before the mono. In a driftboat, it helps to
set the anchor softly and well upstream of the rise forms. You can always release more scope in the line to get
closer. When wade fishing, work your way close to the riser softly, observing the fish’s behavior, location, and
timing. Don’t be in a hurry. Make deliberate, accurate casts and don’t be afraid to rest the fish after you’ve made a
Best Gear and Flies for Trico Fishing
This is 3- and 4-weight territory, providing precision casts with a minimal splash. A 5 will work if that’s what you
have, but make sure to feather your landing to mitigate fly or line slap. Long leaders are a must for the famously
selective trico eaters, so start thinking about 10 or 12 feet or more, culminating in 6X or 7X tippet. Take your time
and rig with intention, because there is little room for error.
It’s best to patronize a local fly shop if you really want to do well with Tricos. It might not be everyone’s favorite
emergence, but they’ll likely know what size hook and construction of materials the local fish prefer. That might be
as big as a #18 with a full parachute post on some
and Midwestern streams, or as infinitesimal as a #28 on Montana’s Missouri, Clark Fork, or Bighorn. It’s helpful to
come prepared with a strong selection of duns, spinners, cripples, and
in various sizes and experiment your way to success.
Just the phrase “size 28” is probably enough to make most experienced anglers’ eyes cross. But once you see a real
blanket hatch of Tricos coating the slick surface of a wide tailwater, with trout happily mowing through the horde,
you’ll get why the local diehards all carry magnifying-glass lenses and 7X tippet. Like most things fishing, it’s fun
precisely because it is hard.
Grasshoppers vary widely in size and color. It’s difficult to beat brown and tan imitations.
Photo by Nick Price.
Basics of Grasshopper Fishing
Now, forget everything I just told you about Tricos. Take a deep breath. Set down the 4-weight and
pick up the 6.
While Trico mayflies may be an acquired taste, everyone loves hopper fishing. It can be very hit or miss, but when
that explosive hit does come, damn is it hard not to war whoop.
The fishing couldn’t be more different, but it’s exactly those differences that make hopper and Trico fishing so
strangely compatible. July and August Tricos often hatch in the morning, while grasshoppers generally become more
active in the afternoon. Fishing a Trico is all about accurately delivering right on the nose of a specific, actively
rising fish—but it’s unlikely you’ll see trout sipping hopper after hopper. That method is all about prospecting and
covering water, looking for a couple hungry players. Also, the delicacy and finesse of Trico fishing is aided by a
dead or slight breeze. In contrast, grasshoppers live in the grass and bushes along the banks, so a little wind gets
for getsthem in the water. Trout have to be aware of the naturals to eat the unnaturals.
Montana is home to the
northern grasshopper, or northern spear-throat grasshopper, Melanoplus borealis, a member of the
family. It’s one of more than 11,000 grasshopper species worldwide, an order of insects thought to date back to the
early Triassic period—about 250 million years—likely demonstrating the durability of their design. The armored insects
that survive their barrage of predators long will molt five or six times from an egg before they become a fully
mature, winged adult. You’ll see plenty of the terrestrial nymphs, flightless but preternaturally capable of jumping,
throughout the forests and fields during spring and early summer, but they don’t seem to become of paramount
importance to a trout’s diet until sprouting wings and taking to the skies following their final molt, usually
sometime in the heat of July. Trout and many other fishes eat them readily until they die off with the first frosts of
September and October.
Best Gear and Flies for Hopper Fishing
Hoppers are present at all altitudes, so don’t sleep on that side of the fly box whether you’re in a high alpine
lake, wide and slow lowland river, or a creek in between. M. borealis vary widely in size, shape, and
appearance, so grab out of more than one bin in the shop. Effective patterns can vary from 1-inch monstrosities to
stealthy size 14s, in hues from light peach to jet black.
While anglers sometimes intuitively expect the smaller, less obtrusive patterns to produce more, the opposite can be
true. While small may be the call on heavily pressured creeks, the wilds and widths of the lower Missouri and
Yellowstone can bear a tremendous amount of pressure without every fish getting educated every day. . Match coloration
and pattern as best you can, but don’t be afraid to experiment. While natural tan, brown, or gray are often good
choices, pink and orange are very popular too, as are black, purple, and green. Sometimes that matters, sometimes it
Likewise,profile is important—especially on slower waters where the fish have a long time to inspect a hopper.
Something low-riding with natural fibers, like the turkey-winged and pheasant-legged
Parachute Hopper, may prove more attractive to hot trout in low-angle mainstem rivers where they can take a good
hard look at it
first. But in quick water, the simple, all-foam Morrish Hopper is a
durable, buoyant standby—though it might be the first to go in and back out of circulation on many guide boats.
Sometimes something with a little more heft and wing gets a big fish stirred up, not to mention saving on your
floatant bill. I also must acknowledge that hopper patterns are big, relatively simple, and about the most fun bugs to
tie on your own vise. The naturals have large, powerful red or yellow hindlegs, which provide countless interesting
options for mimicry. Creativity can pay big dividends here, because most trout come Labor Day will have seen every
commercial hopper offering sold at the closest fly shop.
Even the largest trout can’t resist and perfectly-placed hopper.
How to Fish with Hopper Flies
A 6-weight with a slightly aggressive line head is helpful for rocketing these wind-resistant flies accurately into
small pockets between cutbanks or boulders, especially out of a moving driftboat. It’s far more like fishing a
salmonfly or other
hatch than caddis or Trico, so don’t
be afraid to slap that thing down and ring the dinner bell. Likewise, it’s usually very helpful to provide the bug
some action once it’s drifting. You’re not jet skiing here, but you do want to get those foamy or rubbery legs moving.
Grasshoppers hate getting wet and fight hard to fly, skitter, or swim back out of it. The trout expect to see them
flopping around like a bird in a birdbath, so that motion can be a major trigger. A light horizontal wiggle with the
rod tip every few seconds seems to be a good cadence.
If the bug sinks, so be it. Let it ride, so long as you can still see it. The biggest and smartest trout in many
streams keep from breaking the surface, making a drowned grasshopper a safer meal. Either sub-surface or on top,
practice a slow hook set, as you would with other large dry flies. Trout often swipe or splash or nose or double-chomp
a hopper to kill it or confirm its veracity. Set when the fish has actually grabbed and turned—not before—which of
course is easier said than done.
Grassy banks are the classic spots for grasshopper fishing for logical reasons that don’t need to be explained here.
However, especially on windy days, it’s not uncommon to see hoppers in flight travel 100 yards or more. That could
land them damn near anywhere in a river or lake. When streams get low and warm late in the summer, trout often move
off the bank and into the deepest, coolest holes in the middle of the flow. It’s better to put the bug where the
quarry lies than where it doesn’t.
Speaking of hot weather and water, with drought conditions across the West, bear in mind that we may only continue to
have our fun with these lovely fish if we continue to prioritize their health. Montana has frequently placed Hoot Owl
closures on many rivers throughout recent summers, closing the fish after noon or after the water reaches beyond 70
degrees. Many anglers practice their own restraint by carrying a thermometer in their pack. I’ve personally had a
blast and learned a great deal from snorkeling rivers in the heat of fire season—not to mention bringing home some
crayfish to boil. Trico finesse and hopper power can provide hot and heavy fishing, but we owe it to our dance
partners to sit down once the water gets too steamy.
It’s hard to not grin wide after a long summer day with tricos and grasshoppers on the water.