The Mighty Midge
Why the smallest fly in your box is the ticket
to big winter action.
Which insect brings trout to the surface 12 months
a year? Mayflies or caddisflies are good guesses, but theyre
dead wrong. The answer is midges, tiny swarming gnats that buzz
over the surface of just about every body of water. Although midges
resemble mosquitoes, they dont bite. They just stimulate
some of the best winter trout fishing youll ever encounter.
I catch over half my trout each year on midge imitations. But
I know that most flyfishermen dont take advantage of them.
Sales of trout flies fall off to almost nothing below size 18
(most midge patterns fall into the size 18 to 24 range), as do
sales of fly-tying hooks. Dont be one of the many anglers
who shy away from using these flies before they ever try them.
Here are some common myths about midge fishing and plenty of reasons
why theyre false.
Big trout wont eat little flies.
Every time I hear this trout-stream platitude, I
think of the 24-inch brown trout I caught on a size 24 midge in
New Yorks Delaware River. Or the 8-pound, 29-inch rainbow
that the famous trout guide John Gulley took on the North Fork
of the White River in Arkansas. Big trout have to eat midges.
In a typical mountain trout stream, one of the few
insects active from November through March is the midge. And because
midges hatch in huge numbers, trout find them an easy, necessary
meal. A trout in cold water needs to eat, on the average, 3 percent
of its weight daily to survive. Although trout dont always
meet that requirement during the winter, when midges drift in
the current and hatch, a 2-pounder may devour over 500 of them
Ill never be able to hold a big trout on such a
Dont worry. With todays advances in
hooks and tippet material, catching a 20-inch trout on a size
20 fly is no big deal. Tackle for fishing midges is exponentially
better than it was just 20 years ago. The tiny hooks used on midge
imitations are far stronger, the points are sharper, and one type
even has an oversize eye so its easier to thread. In addition,
whereas tippet materials in the tiny 6X and 7X diameters used
to test a pound or less, you can now buy 7X tippet (.004 inch
in diameter, about the size of a hair) that tests at 21/2 pounds,
plenty strong for most trout that youll encounter.
If you arent convinced, have someone tie a
piece of 7X tippet material to a size 20 fly. Let them sink the
hook into the end of your little finger. I guarantee they will
be able to pull you around the room. You wont throw the
hook, and I doubt if the tippet will break.
I cant see a tiny fly like that on the water.
Maybe not. But an honest flyfisherman will tell
you that he only sees a dry fly part of the time. During most
drifts, you approximate where the fly is and strike gently whenever
you see a rise in the general vicinity. Its no different
with a size 20 than it is with a size 12. However, there are some
tricks that help. First, look for the shine of your leader on
the water. It will point you to your flys position, and
you may even see the leader twitch when an unseen trout takes
your fly. Another ploy is to make a few hard casts (off to the
side of where a fish is feeding!) so that the fly lands with a
hard splat. A few casts like this and youll get a better
idea of where your fly goes. Some anglers roll a tiny piece of
floating red strike putty 3 feet up the leader from the fly. Others
attach a larger dry fly to the tippet, then fasten a foot of 7X
tippet to the bend of the bigger hook and tie a midge to it. This
helps you estimate the flys position and, again, may twitch
if a trout eats the fly in a subtle rise.
One fortunate aspect of midge feeding is that trout
usually do it in calm, unriffled water. Still, you might see just
a wink on the surface. You might also spot the wide black head
of a big trout porpoising. Other times, you might only see the
foam on the waters surface part as if an unseen hand has
pushed it aside. In any case, its better to be safe than
sorry. Strike gently, just enough to move the leader an inch.
It doesnt take much force to set these tiny hooks, and if
the fish was not rising to your fly, you wont make enough
commotion to scare it.
I cant tie such a small fly.
Midge pupae are drab and simple, as are most of
the flies that imitate them. The best ones have simple thread
bodies with a pinch of fur or peacock herl at the head. Midge
pupae are often the fishs preferred stage of the insect,
because as theyre trying to hatch, pupae drift helplessly
in the current. Trout often take them right in the surface film,
and you use standard dry-fly tactics. Either try a special midge
pupa fly, or just trim most of the hackle and wings off a tiny
dry fly and dont put any floatant on it, so it drifts just
under the surface. A pinch of that strike putty helps you to follow
the fly and will indicate when a trout has inhaled it.
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