Southwest Fly Fishing

By Don Roberts

I almost shouted into the phone: “Pink?”
   “Yes, pink,” my old Montana guide friend repeated, amping up his own volume, and sounding a mite peeved. “I’m tellin’ ya, that’s what they’re taking on the Clarks Fork right now.”
   Of course, I’d stuffed my fly boxes with many different flavors of hoppers, but not the slightest tinge of pink among them. I mean, come on, who carries pink hoppers? So what was I missing (besides pink hoppers)? Apparently, as regards the order Orthoptera, quite a few things.
   Perhaps foremost among the anatomical features of this insect are its prominent, hinged back legs—a marvel of biomechanics that makes applied-engineering majors swoon and anyone attempting chase and capture in the field to alternately lunge and fume, or laugh dementedly (as any dirt-faced urchin between the ages of 4 and 14 can testify). Obviously, the grasshopper’s wings provide another engine—more powerful and pronounced in some species than in others—of locomotion. Hoppers come equipped with a two-tiered layer of wings: first, the forewings, called tegmina, which are not used for flying but instead form a stiff leathery cover; and second, the under- or hind wings—broad and membranous, with radiating veins that permit them to be folded flat like a Japanese fan—which hide in folded repose, ready to instantly unfurl and instigate flight.
   North America has 548 species of grasshoppers. Many members of the order Orthoptera, male grasshoppers among them, produce sound, technically known as stridulation, by rubbing together roughened or corrugated portions of their legs or wings. Some of these insect strummers make music with such distinctive notes and phrasing that individual hopper species can be recognized from their song alone. As poet Conrad Aiken mused, “all day long / we hear your scraping summer song / like rusty fiddles in the grass.” To anglers frequenting rivers in August, that rasping buzz and jjrrr of hopper hordes regales the ear as the sweetest of symphonies.
   Because of their widespread abundance, corpulence (nutritional content per bug), and gustatory qualities (the umami of insect dishes), grasshoppers are universally regarded as protein on the fly—or hop. They’re an important staple for countless species of birds, reptiles, small mammals, freshwater fish, and omnivores in general, not the least of which includes humans. In Asia and Africa, fire-roasted hoppers are as common as cornflakes. In accordance with the ancient dietary laws in Leviticus, locusts (the swarming phase of grasshoppers) are the only insects deemed kosher in Judaism. The Torah states that only flying insects with four walking legs and two springlike legs (distinct musculature and extended knees)—thus allowing propulsion away from filth and contamination—may be avowed kosher. Orthopterans alone meet those narrow qualifications.
   Whether grasshoppers are considered protein or pest depends upon circumstance. Biblical allusions to locust plagues are scattered throughout the Old Testament. No consistent taxonomic distinction exists between grasshopper and locust species. Technically, they’re the same critter. However, concurrent with climate shifts and population fluxes leading to overcrowding, grasshoppers may undergo werewolf-like transformations. When certain, normally docile, species of short-horned grasshoppers are forced to jostle for space, the unavoidable, mosh-pit-style contact triggers both morphological and behavioral changes. They change color from dull brown to a fierce neon yellow, breed more efficiently, cleave to groups (swarms), and become much more aggressive, invading in epic legions and devouring the surrounding greenery.
   In the Plains states, locust events are expected—anticipated, loathed, and feared—stoically viewed as episodic nightmares on the wing. A few years back a massive swarm of locusts swept into Idaho and Wyoming, descending on the land in undulating clouds. They ate the farmers’ crops, every last seed, kernel, leaf, and blade. And when the crops were gone, they ate the farmers’ laundry, right off the clotheslines.
   Although we tend to think of grasshoppers as an open-country phenomenon, they’re certainly not confined to savannah and subdesert regions. It’s not by vague happenstance that North Carolina hosts a minor-league baseball team called the Greensboro Grasshoppers. In fact, grasshoppers are found in every state, including Alaska, where the northern grasshopper (Melanoplus borealis borealis) lives, and Hawaii, home to the native long-horned grasshopper (Conocephalus saltator) and the vagrant grasshopper (Schistocerca nitens), a troublesome invasive. Besides the obvious—fields—grasshoppers inhabit a wide range of habitat, including, counterintuitively perhaps, tundra, bogs, marshes, mountain meadows, and even swamps.
   Environmental preferences, of course, predispose grasshoppers toward adaptations in color, size, and shape. Devising the perfect hopper pattern, then, relies upon one’s willingness to do the required region- and river-specific homework. That said, it’s hard to go wrong with a selection of size 6 through 12, tan, yellow, green, or black foam-bodied hoppers.
   When it comes to tying hoppers, don’t get distracted by frivolous ornamentation. In most situations—namely, the bouncy and broken water typical of the majority of rivers—a well-reasoned gob of foam and a splay of rubber legs will go a long way toward seducing fish. There are exceptions. On the linoleum surface of a spring creek, for instance, picayune details matter. Slick, pellucid water calls for a more realistic, low-floating pattern.
   And what about those pink hoppers alluded to earlier? As it turns out, they’re not common, but not terribly unusual either. The relatively short (1- to 1.75-inch) and pudgy three-banded grasshopper (Hadrotettix trifasciatus) ranges from Manitoba to Alberta and south to Texas and Mexico, typically inhabiting grassy slopes and upland meadows in the Plains states, most notably (for angling purposes) southwest Montana. Coloration varies from year to year, but usually a warm, slightly coppery tan predominates. However, on occasion an entire brood of three-banded hoppers unabashedly dresses themselves pretty in pink.
   Yes, small fish will eat, or try to eat, hoppers. Nonetheless, grasshoppers invariably attract the larger fish, the meat hunters, because the energy exchange—calories expended for calories gained—makes it worth coming out of hiding for such large bites. Then there’s this final point to ponder: the mesmeric take. The slurp. Sometimes violent. Sometimes silent—just lips and a void. Each in its own way surpassingly lurid.
   Obscene takes and big fish. What’s not to like about lobbing hoppers?
Don Roberts is an Oregon-based freelance writer and photographer.

 

 

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