Don't Fear The Midge
September 24, 2010
Get over it! Yes, they're tiny, tough to tie and tougher to thread. But in the winter months, big trout gobble up these chironomids. That's enough for me!
I waded up to my knees in the lake and tied on a diminutive No. 18 Griffith's Gnat, a classic "cluster midge" fly. My line was a 5-weight, and my leader was tapered down to a 6X.
I cast out over the edge of the dropoff and let the fly sit on the surface.
It took me quite a while. I fan-cast around the clock. There was just a whisper of a breeze, and I let it work the fly gently over the edge of the dropoff.
But nothing happened.
If I hadn't seen the trout before, at Thanksgiving, I'm sure I would have quit. But it was a nice day for January, and for at least an hour, I must have kept casting and slowly working the fly back to me.
Then I saw a dimpling rise to my left. Moments later, there was another on my right side.
I was tempted to pick up my rig and cast to one of the rises. But some sensible part of me left the fly alone, working on the surface with the breeze.
Suddenly, I felt a soft pull. It was hardly noticeable, but I as raised up the rod, I felt a solid resistance.
And then the surface erupted.
It was a nice fat rainbow -- a hatchery fish that had escaped the summer anglers. It jumped three times and fought hard. It was about 12 inches long, with a vivid pink stripe, lavender cheeks and silver sides.
Research on Colorado's South Platte River during winter found 300 midges for every mayfly in trout's stomachs.
I eased the hook from its mouth, cradled it briefly in the cold water, and then it swam away.
I probably fished longer for that trout than any other fish that year. I also remember it better than many larger, easier fish. (Continued)
GETTING TO KNOW CHIRONOMIDS
Midges -- the common name for the family of small insects more accurately referred to as chironomids -- are almost always the last insects a novice flyfisherman tries to imitate.
The vast majority of midges are small, rarely more than an 1/8 of an inch as adults. Many new flyfishers feel intimidated at the prospect of fishing flies tied to imitate such a small insect.
They also find it hard to believe that good-sized trout can be landed on a fly tied on a hook as small as size 20 or 22.
Other anglers doubt that decent-sized trout will pay much attention to such tiny food items. For anglers older than 40 years of age, it can be frustrating to even thread the tippet through the hook eye on such a small fly.
Well, let me set the record straight. Trout -- including some very large trout -- do indeed feed on midges.
Research on Colorado's South Platte River during winter found 300 midges for every mayfly in trout's stomachs.
In mountain lakes, midges are such an important food source that some biologists believe trout couldn't survive without them. Flies tied to imitate these chironomids will catch all sizes of trout. Anglers who play the fish carefully can land very large trout on midge patterns.
How large? Well, on British Columbia's celebrated Kamloops lakes, flyfishers take good numbers of 5-plus-pound trout on chironomid patterns each year.
As for your scrutinizing the eye of the hook, fly shops sell clip-on magnifying glasses to help you do that. For you older guys, there's also an interesting new product called the 20/20 Magnetic Tippet Threader.
For winter flyfishers, midges' most important characteristic is that in waters that don't freeze, they are available to trout year 'round.
Most sub-aquatic insects emerge as adults between spring and late autumn. But different broods of chironomids will hatch throughout the year on the same body of water.
Moreover, there are hundreds of different species of midges, and they can be phenomenally abundant on fertile, low-elevation lakes.
This year-round availability and potential for large numbers make them an important food source to trout. Though every body of water is different, research has shown that in lakes, chironomids are usually the most important to trout before and after other species of insects hatch. In most areas, that means in winter.
Chironomids have what is known as a "complete" life history, with four stages of development: egg to larva to pupa to adult.
In many species of chironomids, the larvae live in tubes in mud at the bottom of lakes, often in bewilderingly high numbers. When they have pupated and are ready to emerge into the air, the insects swim to the surface in a protective pupal husk. They then hang beneath the surface film in a vertical position and they emerge from their husks as adults.
After their wings harden, the adults mate, and the females return to lay their eggs on or under the water.
PATTERNS FOR CHIRONOMIDS
It took the vast majority of fly-tiers quite a while to set their sights on midges. Historically, fly-fishing was utterly dominated by the mayfly.
This tradition began in Great Britain, where the slow, weedy chalk streams of southern England produced virtual blizzards of mayflies and where brown trout had the time to scrutinize them selectively before striking.
When North American anglers began to expand the contents of their fly boxes beyond the bright attractor patterns they'd used for brook trout, they adopted the theories of the English writers and focused nearly exclusively on mayflies.
In Ray Bergman's classic book Trout, first published in 1938, he makes scant mention of flies other than the Black Gnat, which can imitate midges in small sizes.
More recently, fly-tiers have focused their attention on the other two dominant subaquatic insects: caddisflies and stoneflies.
There has been some serious work directed at midge fishing, most notably by Ed Koch and Ed Engle. But if you examine any contemporary fly-fishing catalog, you'll find dozens of patterns created to imitate the "big three" insects, and only a handful that represent chironomids.
If you fall under the thrall of midge fishing, especially winter midge fishing, you will join a small but growing fraternity (or sorority) of flyfishers.
For several decades now, the Griffith's Gnat has been the most popular imitation of an
Actually, it can represent either a single insect or a "cluster" of midges. Because of this, it is possible to fish a fly that's slightly larger than the actual hatching insect that it represents.
This is a comfort to flyfishers who remain uneasy about the prospect of fishing small flies.
The Griffith's Gnat is very effective fished right on top of the water when you see trout feeding on the surface. During winter, this is usually on fairly warm sunny days, quite often in the afternoon.
Normally, the insects on the surface film take a few moments to emerge from their husks. On cold blustery, rainy or snowy days, they can take much longer. During emergence, the midges are very vulnerable to trout. This is when "emerger" patterns are extremely effective. A number of flies have been created to imitate emergers, but the Griffith's Gnat is a fine candidate if you use a razor blade and cut off all the hackle on the bottom so it rides flush on the water surface.
The larvae of bottom-dwelling species are impossible to imitate, but many anglers fish flies that suggest free-swimming species. But all of this activity takes place near the bottom of the lake, out of sight of the angler and usually when there are no rising fish or insects in the air.
During winter, when fly-fishing for trout is something of a leap of faith in the first place, not too many anglers have the stoicism to ply the depths when nothing is happening on the water's surface.
Fishing flies that imitate pupae is another matter entirely. On a warm sunny winter afternoon, if you see midges in the air but no fish are rising, it's a pretty good bet that at least some trout are feeding on the ascending pupae. In addition, when it looks like trout are eating insects on the surface, it's not at all uncommon for them to be actually feeding on pupae.
If rising trout won't take your flies on the top, they are probably intercepting pupae a few inches beneath the surface.
Look for dimplings or bulging rises. When this is happening, the best way to catch fish is to suspend a pupa pattern beneath a strike indicator.
Quite a few pupa patterns have been created in recent years, but the Serendipity and Chan's Chironomid Pupa are both excellent in gray, olive and black.
PRESENTATION MAKES A DIFFERENCE
As in all types of fishing, you'll have a better time and take more fish if you use tackle that's appropriate for the fish, the flies and the setting.
For fishing lakes, I like long rods because they let you keep a long backcast off the water more easily. This is especially true if you're fishing from a low-riding float tube or pontoon boat.
Small flies require fine tippets. Also, you will have less trouble breaking off with a soft rod, because its limber tip functions more like a shock absorber than a stiff rod's.
Floating lines are the most common for winter fishing, even when fishing pupa patterns. Although they cost more, fluorocarbon leaders (or at least tippets) are virtually transparent -- and that can be critical in winter lakes, which are usually very clear due to the lack of algae in their water.
You can cover far more water in a boat or float tube than by wading, but remaining aware of the weather is crucial. Even the most balmy winter days can quickly turn nasty. If the wind comes up or it starts raining or snowing, a float tube or raft can be uncomfortable, not to mention dangerous.
A trailer-sized boat with an outboard provides the safest fishing platform on winter lakes, especially on large bodies of water. You can carry extra clothes and a Thermos with hot soup or coffee, and if the weather goes south on you, you can quickly duck into a lee shore or return to the ramp. Shore-fishing is safest, but fairly restricts how much water you can cover. If you do wade, neoprene waders are much warmer than breathable waders.
As for presentations, "wind-drifting" is the traditional way to fish emergers or adults on the surface. Cast perpendicular to the wind with a floating line and 9- to 12-foot leader, tapered down to 5X or 6X. Then let the wind push the line. You don't have to do anything else except strip the slack out of the line if it begins to belly.
The hardest thing about wind-drifting is to keep track of the fly, which can be very difficult to see, especially if there's the slightest riffle on the water.
The trick to fishing midge pupae is to ensure that the fly hangs vertical in the water column. To do this, most lake anglers employ strike indicators -- usually little tufts of bright-colored yarn (so you can see them) or small cork bobbers. Leaders for pupa patterns are usually at least 10 feet long.
As with adults and emergers, most pupa patterns will be in the 16- to 22-size range, and you will use a 5X or 6X tippet. Weighted flies or flies with beadheads will get the fly down to the appropriate depth.
With pupa, cast out and then slowly retrieve the fly toward you, using a hand-twist retrieve. If you see insects in the air, but no rises, experiment with different depths until you find the zone where the fish are feeding.
Fishing midges on winter lakes takes patience and perseverance. There will be days when the hatch never materializes and you'll return home without having experienced a bump.
But eventually, you'll connect. And taking winter trout on small flies when nearly all other anglers are at home watching football is a most satisfying achievement!