Bend A Knee

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

As the years have gone by, my fly-tying hands have become slightly less steady, and I don’t see my never-spill-my-coffee days coming back. I think a lot of us can sing a similar song. I can still tie #20 flies if the shanks are 2x or longer and I can still thread a 7x tippet into them, but some tying tasks are an exercise in frustration and in the letting loose of words my family may never have heard. One of these tying tasks is the creation of the grasshopper leg.

Oh, it’s easy, all the videos will tell you–just peel a couple of long barbs off a pheasant tail feather and tie a knot in them. Done! The problem is that those barbs enjoy being straight. They’ll cling faithfully to each other…until on some secret signal they suddenly fan out and point to the four winds. They spring themselves out of any granny knot that isn’t fully cinched down. And if you’re wise to those tricks, they will always–always, it seems–choose to sacrifice themselves by breaking, rather than let you succeed. I’ve tried just about every way I could think of, and a lot of different little tools and bits of hooked wire and microelectronics clips and what-have-you, to no avail. I’ve worked for 40 minutes trying to get a single pair of hopper legs, only to end up with none.

But I hate to have fake bug legs beat me in this life. And yes, I could buy the pre-knotted kind, but I like to do things myself. Plus, I like a shapely hopper leg with two knots in it, not one. Assuming mammalian anatomical terms are applicable to insects, I want the “knee” knot and I want the “ankle” knot.

So some time back I set about to find a simple way to make hopper legs. Many of you are onto this simple trick already, but some may not be, and some are only now finally entering the “quaking fingers” stage of life…so I’ll share it. There are two steps:

1. I cut off three parallel stuck-together barbs of a pheasant tail feather. I fold them with a crease where I want the first joint to be, and put a tiny dot of super-glue on the creased fold. I let it dry.

Figure 1: Basic Knee Crease

2. I fold them with a crease where I want the other joint to be, and put a tiny dot of super-glue on the creased fold. I let it dry.

Done.

Figure 2: Knee and Ankle Creases

There are a number of advantages of this simple shortcut method over trying to tie knots. First of course is the ease of making the legs. Second, I can put the creases exactly where I want them, along the length of the leg. Knots typically aren’t so cooperative, and if the leg hasn’t already broken just starting the knot, it’s likely to break while “worrying” that knot into the right position–it weakens the barbs and if they don’t break now they will while they’re being fished.

Third, for legs that have both the knee and ankle joints, I can ensure that the “foot” below the ankle is not facing back inward toward the leg’s “thigh.” Knots, again, will defy one’s wishes if they can.

And fourth, the legs wiggle nicely in the water because they remain naturally flexible and I don’t need more than about three barbs per leg.

Figure 3: Tied-on Legs

Now, a few tips are in order: One is that I make the ankle joint first. For some reason that makes creasing the knee joint much easier. And if the three strands of a “foot” try to separate, I stick them back together with an extra tiny hint of the glue–doesn’t reduce their motion in the water at all. Also, if the pheasant barbs are longer than I need, I leave the extra length up at the high end of the “thigh” section, which makes tying leg to fly easier and lets me pick how gangly I want the overall bug to look. Gangly is good, in general, for lifelike motion.

Don’t try to tie the legs onto the fly until the super-glue is completely dry, else your fingers become part of the final creation and that mistake can break the legs off. I have used the slow-drying “gel control” super-glue (it’s the variety shown in the photos), and it works fine, but actually I like the thin quick-dry stuff better for this particular job. The extra alignment time a gel-type glue provides is just something I end up waiting on. I believe a UV-cure product would work well too, but it needs an extra hand to run the black light, and the additional control just isn’t needed. This job doesn’t require surgical precision.

Downsides of this method over knots? None that I know of. Unless you love uttering expletives, try this quick trick next time you need anatomically correct grasshoppers.

There are tried-and-true hopper patterns, but I like making stuff up. So I tie a hopper that uses cream-colored foam for a body, to float high and be an effective dry-dropper buoy capable of supporting a bit of weight. I simplify with a chenille head instead of spun deer hair–a bit of Gink on the chenille works just fine, although I don’t even think it’s needed. My high-visibility versions use long yellow wing hair; more compact versions use shorter. Both look like hoppers and both benefit from a little soft hackle behind the head and long gangly two-joint legs that wiggle with every bit of riffle and breeze the overall bug catches.

Figure 4: A High-vis Leggy Hopper of my Own Design

Figure 5: Another Leggy Hopper Design

There are a lot of different hopper and katydid species, of different lengths and colors, some that can fly and others that cannot…and the basic idea of this kind of pattern I show above can be changed and adapted easily to fit the size and color desired. And those changes may or may not be necessary, as some species are practically everywhere. Probably the biggest three features of any grasshopper include a fat juicy body (and foam lends itself well to that), and a bulbous head, and those long kinked wiggly legs.

9 thoughts on “Bend A Knee

  1. Jerry Riley

    Mr. Vorhis, I first thought you were watching and listening to me tie legs. At 80 I too am not that steady anymore. What a great procedure. I thank you, and my wife will thank you.

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      Hi Jerry, great to meet you! Hey, I found a little more recently that the barb-bending process itself, prior to the super glue step, is greatly simplified by first stroking a little clear fingernail polish (that’s what I use for head cement) across the three barb strands out at the feet, and then near where I intend to put the knee. it hold them together. I let that dry quickly and then the initial crease of the joint is much easier (since the barbs won’t separate then).

      It might be that the glue drop on the joint itself could also simply be head cement too, but I haven’t tried that because I felt the super glue would be a bit more durable. But maybe.

      Tying a hopper still takes me time, but it’s fun and at least now I can make them.

      Get a couple of these going and by midsummer when the naturals are big you ought to be into some big fish. Best of luck, and do come back and share how it works out for you!

      – Mike

      Reply
  2. Chuck Stine

    I understand the problem. I have some arthritis in my hands from weight lifting and almost surgically removed my left index finger carving a turkey, which I have been going for 50 years. I know there are those who have to do things the old, or original way, but at 75, I ask myself what is the frustration level worth. I think I might try those pre knotted legs and see if they work. My hat is off to you for staying in the original game. But in my old head, If that stupid fish wants that fly, I’m not really sure how much difference the leg style will make. Keep fight’n:

    Reply
  3. Mary S. Kuss

    Nice solution to a tricky tying problem, Mike. We fly tyers all have to choose our battles, and fabricating hopper legs isn’t one I’m willing to fight. I guess that’s mainly because I don’t tie a lot of hopper patterns. Here in Pennsylvania, they are generally not the big deal they are out West. When I do tie hoppers, it’s usually the venerable Letort Hopper which, oddly enough, doesn’t have legs. It still seems to work. I’ve watched Davie McPhail videos of his method for knotting pheasant tail fibers, and I can do it. But it’s too fussy, my results too inconsistent, and my resolve too weak to do enough of it to become proficient. If I feel a need for hopper legs at some point in the future, however, I will definitely use your glue method. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      Chuck and Mary, thanks for reading and sharing, and I get it. Battle-choosing is one of the primary wisdoms we acquire as we mature…and those who never master it remain noble but tragic heroes. Here’s what happened: I’d looked forever for cream-colored foam for non-specific bug bodies–you know I like to make things up. Found some (it’s not easy, believe me), and I started with a hopper attempt. I felt that jointed legs moving in the water would be as important for coaxing those reluctant strikes as the movement of soft hackle on a wet fly. I found I couldn’t make knotted legs to save my life, but I’d not prepared by buying pre-made legs.

      So: Buy some & wait? Or innovate? Gratification delay is another of those maturity things, but one I could never quite get the hang of…plus the pre-tied ones only have one joint and they don’t look as realistic to me. So I went the DIY route. And it worked like a charm.

      It’s another one of those “prefabricated vs. self-made” dilemmas so prevalent in the tying practice. In truth this “dot of glue” thing can be used for a lot of otherwise difficult problems.

      I have fished a hopper about twice in the last eight years I’d say…but I intend to step that up. Hoppers make very good dry-dropper flagships–a loud plop isn’t out of character and they’ll almost hold up a small anchor…plus they’re as likely to draw the attention of larger fish to the area as any bug I know…at least from midsummer on. I’ve never seen a single grasshopper on the banks of the stretch of river I normally fish, but I don’t beat the bushes as a general rule and I have no doubt that the trout know what a hopper looks like.

      Anyway that’s where I’m coming from. Pick one’s battles? Yes, agreed…but I guess I’d picked one, found myself losing badly, and decided to win. : )

      – Mike

      Reply
      1. Chuck Stine

        Hello Michael:
        Understood. I guess for me, personally, it is a case of have to rather than anything else. I am about 2 months out of surgery for that finger and only have partial feeling in it and do not have full movement back. whether I ever will, remains to be seen. I started tying with an eye for changing things around to see what they would do. The first fly I ever tied and fished,was at Kennedy Meadows on Hwy. 108. Third cast, I got a hit. Now, It’s hard to tie shoes, because I can’t completely feel where my finger is. So for me now, It’s the easy way to do it, and may be not the best way. Well, like the guy said, that’s how the mop flops:
        Take care:

        Reply
        1. Michael Vorhis

          Chuck, may you regain all your original dexterity and ejoy many more decades of tying effective flies.

          My best guess of what state/country Kennedy Meadows and Hwy 108 are in is that you’re talking about the middle fork of the Stanislaus or the nearby Kennedy Creek in California’s High Sierra. As the crow flies I’m only about 120 miles from there, but of course roads up there don’t interconnect much so time-wise it’s a world away. I had some good fishing up near Markleeville once while on a 2-day kayak trip down the Carson, but have never fished the Middle Fork Stan.

          – Mike

          Reply
          1. Chuck Stine

            Hwy 108, is on Sonora Pass. Kennedy Meadows, has a camp ground, rental cabins, small store and cafe and is also a pack station for trips up into the back country, I believe all the way to Yosemite. You are right. There is both a fork of the Stan going though there, also Kennedy Creek, which I believe is the one that follows the pack trail. Any way, The fly I made was nothing more than a size 14 hook, a small brass bead, wrapped with olive green chenille and then I palmered a grizzly hackle through it. Simple. I only got the one hit, but I have a feeling the hook was too big. Most of the fish I saw, were in the 6″ range. At least my fly got a hit. Most of Kennedy Meadows, survived the big fire they had. My dad used to fish a creek in Charity Valley when I was just a baby. I have never fished it myself. You won’t even find it on the map of Hwy. 88. But it iis up near the top where Hwy 89 comes in. Take care:

  4. Michael Vorhis

    Thanks Chuck, good points; see my response below in a combined response to Mary and yourself.

    (And feel free to click my name on this reply, then go to “Contact Us,” and send me an email on the side, and I’ll be glad to share a few bits of lore that have helped me hugely in the finger joints subject area.)

    – Mike

    Reply

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