Even large brown trout will rise to tiny midges during the winter.
There is a hatch going on right now in a trout stream near you. Hundreds of insects are hatching, and if conditions are right, trout sip them like Emily Post drinking champagne, so subtle that even a careful observer can miss the rises. With a little modification of your tackle, the fishing is easy yet fascinating. The hatch is the midge hatch, and it's not just for little trout. I have caught some of my biggest stream trout during midge hatches, and because the big guys need to eat a lot of midges to get filled up, they rise frequently, giving you a better shot at hooking them.
Midges live in every trout stream and they hatch year-round. From April through September, the bigger mayflies, caddisflies, and terrestrials often overshadow their hatches. But from October through March, they have little competition on the water's surface, other than the rare Blue-Winged Olive mayfly or Black Stonefly hatches. Midges can also hatch all day long, and not necessarily when you expect them. I've seen midge hatches at dawn in the middle of a snowstorm. I've seen them right at dark on cold breezy days. And I've had great midge fishing in the middle of a hot August afternoon. But if you hedge your bets in winter, plan on being on the water from late morning to late afternoon, when the water warms.
Midge hatches are terrific because trout need to eat a lot of them to get filled up, so rises can be nearly constant for hours at a time. The other convenient aspect is that when trout hover near the surface, as they must when feeding on midges, they can barely see objects above the water (due to a physical principle of water that I won't get into). Thus, they are easier to approach and don't spook as easily.
Midges are similar to caddisflies in that they exhibit complete metamorphosis, with a larva, pupa, and adult stage. The larvae live in slow water, particularly water with silty or weedy substrate. In slow, stable waters like spring creeks and in tailwaters, midges may comprise the majority of the insect biomass-and the food supply of the trout that live there. In famous rivers like New Mexico's San Juan and Colorado's South Platte, trout feeding is concentrated on midges, and if you want to catch fish either on top or below the surface, flailing the water with anything but tiny flies guarantees you a slow day. Midge nymphs can also be deadly, but today we're just talking about dry flies. What better topic to break the monotony of winter?
Don't Be Afraid of Tiny Flies
Many people shy away from fishing midge hatches because they don't feel confident using tiny dries. One excuse for not fishing midges is that it's hard to hook a trout on such a tiny hook. Patently untrue. Your hooking and holding percentages on a Size 22 hook are no worse than on a Size 12. I'll tie a 6X tippet to a size 22 dry, stick it in your lip, and I guarantee I can pull you around the room-and you will not throw the hook. There is also the argument that the tiny hooks straighten when a huge trout is hooked. Terrific! That's a problem I love to have.
Another reason some people give is that your fly is hard to track on the water. True-but so are much bigger emerger patterns, and we fish them all the time. Here are some hints on tracking a small fly on the water:
- Tie a larger, more visible fly on your tippet-something like a size 16 Parachute Adams. Tie two feet of 6X or 7X tippet to the bend of the Adams and attach your midge pattern. The Adams will tell you where your fly is drifting, and also acts as a strike indicator in case a trout takes your midge unseen.
- Place a tiny piece of Strike Putty on your tippet two feet from the fly, or just rub the leader with Strike Putty in a small area. The color will tell you about where your fly is drifting.
- False cast well off to the side of the fish and let your fly slap the water once or twice. This sounds crude, but it will enable you to estimate your fly's position much easier.
- In all cases, whether using an indicator or not, when you see a rise, a wink, or a gentle bulge where you think your fly is drifting, tighten the line gently, by stripping or moving the rod tip sideways six inches. If the rise was not to your fly, you won't spook the fish.
The best approach to fishing midge hatches is to use a 12-foot 7X leader and a careful stalk. I've found one of the best ways to spot midge-eating trout is to watch the bubble line in a slow pool. If you see a patch of foam slide to one side, contrary to the current, you can bet a trout just ate a midge pupa or small mayfly. By approaching a trout from directly behind, in his blind spot, you can get within 20 feet if your casting and wading don't spook the fish. Because a fish's window to the outside world is quite small when hovering just under the surface, your fly must land within 6 inches of the rise. When fishing to trout feasting on emerging pupae, a perfectly dead drift, without a hint of drag, is often the only way you'll get a rise.
If you get hooked on midge fishing, as I am, you'll eventually lust after a Superfine rod. Most serious small-fly anglers prefer fly rods with slower action, both for casting delicacy and protection of light tippets. With these rods you can put some serious boots to big trout and get them in quickly-and safely-because you seldom have to worry about popping a tippet.
Fishing on even the coldest days, as long as the wind is not blowing, has gotten very comfortable in the past few years. Here's the outfit that's kept me fishing happily in very cold weather, from Maine to Kamchatka: underwear of Merino Endurewear, Superior Comfort Boot Socks, Fleece-Lined Breathable Wader Pants, a favorite wool sweater, and Storm Chaser Windproof Fleece. If it's raining, snowing, or sleeting, or if the wind is blowing hard, I'll add a Tailwaters Rain Jacket. And don't forget some warm gloves designed especially for fishing. A warm hat completes the outfit. Don't worry about buying new waders. With the outfit above, a good pair of breathables will keep you plenty warm, and you won't develop bone-chilling perspiration inside your waders when walking into a fishing spot.
What Kind of Flies Do You Need?
Montana's famous Madison River offers great midge fishing all winter long. You won't see other fishermen, but you might need snowshoes or skis to get to the river.
As with caddisflies, midge pupae emerging at the surface provide better sport during a hatch than the winged adults, because the adults fly away quickly. Midges are so small and insignificant that you can miss a hatch entirely, and they often appear to be just part of the background buzzing around the edge of a stream. Your first indication might be the sight of trout poking their snouts above the surface, grazing emerging midge pupae from the film. Imagine how difficult it is to locate an insect the size of one the letters on this page drifting just below the surface. No wonder mid 20th century British anglers called midges "The Angler's Curse".
Imitations of midge pupae are small and simple. Most are made from just a thread or quill body and a fur thorax. More complex patterns sprout pupal shucks hanging from the tail end, or tiny wings spouting from the thorax. Some have hackle, but if they do it is very sparse and soft. The idea is to have a fly that lies right in the film, just like the helpless adults. You can either touch a small dab of dry-fly flotant to the fly, or grease your leader with fly or line dressing, except for the last few inches. This gives you a fly that floats just under the film, like an emerging pupa.
If you tie your own flies, or want to buy patterns separately, follow this link for adult imitations and this link for pupa and emerger imitations.
It will take you to our collection of midge patterns, and if you are a fly tier, click on the image of the flies you like. For each pattern, we've given you the complete tying recipe. Midge patterns are perhaps the easiest dry flies to tie-as long as you have either great vision or some magnification help. One of the secrets to tying great midge imitations is always use 10/0 thread.
When an adult midge hatches from the pupa, the insect buzzes and pirouettes on the surface, looking like an out-of-control wind-up toy. Their tiny pale wings, held flat over the body when at rest, beat furiously. An adult midge's behavior on the surface is so erratic that it's a difficult meal for a trout, because the fish cannot predict where the fly will be at the moment it rises-much like trying to shoot a snipe. However, you may sometimes see trout splashing at midges as they skitter across the surface. These are usually small trout.
How to Find Midging Trout and How to Fish For Them
Unlike fish that are eating emerging pupae, trout feeding on winged adults may take a fly that is dragging slightly, or even one skating across the surface. However, it's so difficult to imitate the true buzzing motion of an adult midge because, after all, the tiny fly is attached to a 9-foot stick and a 200-pound human. I stick to dead drift unless I'm totally frustrated and just want to try something in desperation.
Midge larvae and pupae are eaten in all types of water, from boiling rapids to dead-still backwaters. However, emerging midges at the surface are invariably feasted on in slow water, where a trout can suspend for hours just under the surface, poking its nose into the film to gather hundreds of midge pupae an hour, barely moving a fin. In every trout stream I know, certain places at the center or tail of big slow pools host individual trout that sip midges all day long, even if the fish in the riffles above are eating mayflies or caddisflies. Most anglers never see these fish. Pay careful attention to deep spots along the bank, in the shade, where the current is very slow but not completely dead. Points of sod, logs, or rocks along the bank that create tiny bays behind them are very tasty spots. Look for trout where these points jut out, behind them in a backwater (often facing downstream because of the reverse current!), or at the tail end of the cove.
Not all trout streams are open during the winter, but if you check the stream reports on our web site, you'll see that most of the rivers where winter fishing is legal report midge activity. If stable weather is forecast, it's even worth a trip to the Madison in Montana, the White in Arkansas, or the San Juan in New Mexico. For a fly fisher, there is no better way to beat the winter blahs than hitting a breathtaking midge hatch.