One morning last week, stepping into the garage for some now-forgotten reason, I startled into flight a grasshopper resting on the concrete floor. Not one of those small, green-yellow junior-size grasshoppers just about as long as one joint of your finger. This was one of the big guys, two-plus inches long, whose wings when they unfold in flight remind you of those accordion-style paper fans people use to fan themselves on a hot day.
Apparently it strayed into the garage when the door was up, and was imprisoned when the electric motor brought the door down for the prior evening. In keeping with one of my eccentricities, I grabbed a scrap of cloth from the bin where window washing rags are kept, and—after several failed attempts—managed to capture the wriggling insect, escort it to the pedestrian door, and evict it back outdoors.
Since then, while mowing, picking garden border boulders in a nearby gravel pit, and generally just being outdoors, I’ve seen more of their kin. Clearly it must be hopper time. I have no official credentials as a naturalist, or as a phenologist, one of those people who keep track of when different natural events and phenomena occur. But there is logic to their appearance as July wanes and August approaches, a time of heat waves, thunderheads and scorched lawns. Grasshoppers feed on grain, pasture and vegetable crops, and now is the time when these are maturing; witness the first cutting of hay going on right now. It stands to reason that grasshoppers will be more in evidence now, when important food sources become most available.
Grasshoppers have a place in the angling world, too. Not as much as they once did, when fishing with natural baits was more the rule than it is now. Hoppers were particularly useful for fishing small rivers and streams, farm ponds and quieter portions of a lake, particularly where grassy cover—their natural habitat and namesake—lies close to the shore. Winds blowing over this vegetation, as well as misdirected hops, would often end in a grasshopper landing unexpectedly on the water, where it would make a leg-kicking ruckus as it tried to break free of the surface tension.
That’s when a smallmouth bass finning quietly behind a midstream boulder, or a brown trout sheltered by an undercut stream bank, would be attracted to the spasmodic kicks of the struggling hopper floating down the current, and either suck it in or attack in a splashy rise. A small, fine wire hook impaling a live hopper would often be the device by which such a fish could wind up on a stringer or in a creel.
A similar scenario might be seen on a farm pond, or in the quiet waters of a sheltered bay; places where largemouth bass and bluegills would take a hopper fished either on the surface, or “drowned”—as certainly sometimes happens in Nature—but in this case sunk with a small split shot, and suspended beneath a bobber.
Just as some anglers once collected their own nightcrawlers in darkness after a rain, some collected grasshoppers and crickets to be used for bait. Tactics included using a wool blanket much like a minnow seine, but drawn through a field rather than through water. The legs of a hopper will readily stick to wool, and the insects could be readily picked off it.
Grasshoppers also move more slowly in early morning, when temperatures are cooler and the sun hasn’t yet warmed them. At such times a grasshopper might be plucked from the vegetation on which it is resting before it can take flight, a small net making the capture even more certain. The hoppers could be stored before use in a jar, or in a hopper trap. These traps could be purchased or homemade, essentially a cage with wire mesh or netting for its walls.
As long as anglers have been pursuing fish, the live baits they used have eventually been imitated with artificial representations. Soft plastic worms, and balsa wood imitation minnows with treble hooks—Rapalas—are among the more familiar modern examples.
Imitating something as light and fragile as a grasshopper was a challenge, one that was first taken up by anglers who fish with fly rods. They used materials like deer hair, turkey feathers, yarn and thread lashed to a long hook. Today these natural materials have been augmented with closed-cell foam, which is virtually unsinkable, for those times when fishing an artificial hopper on the surface is the preferred tactic.
Grasshoppers as bait may be “old hat” in today’s angling world. But in the right place, at the right time, either the real thing or its artificial imitation—fished properly—can still be the tactic that brings fish to the net.