Monday, January 21, 2008

Fishing and Understanding Midges


During the winter months the most readily available insect to the trout are midges. Many people often refer to midges as any fly that is smaller than a size 20. This is a common misconception due to the fact that midges are members of a large order of insects known as Diptera. Other insects that belong to this order include houseflies, gnats, and crane flies. Midges can vary in length from microscopic to well over an inch. The midges that we typically encounter on the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork, and Colorado Rivers especially in the early season (November to January) are tiny and range in hook sizes from minute #30’s to slightly larger #22’s. Most people are intimidated by their minute size and focus instead on fishing the same flies that they have been fishing all summer and fall long, and end up catching very little, if any fish. I have had many customers come through the store and mutter, “I can barely see that fly, how is a trout supposed to see that tiny thing in moving water?” The answer is simple. What midges lack in size, they make up for in quantity. In order for the trout to survive they choose to eat the most readily available insect. Because midges are small the trout have to eat mass quantities of them to support themselves especially through the colder months when little other species of insects hatch or are abundant.



Unlike mayflies one doesn’t need to know the different species or Latin names when it comes to midges. Just look for the midges size (length) and body color. Due to the fact that midges are available and hatch 365 days a year, trout can and often do feed on them continuously. Midges undergo a complete metamorphosis consisting of an egg, larva, pupa and adult. Fly fishers usually only concentrate on the pupa and adult forms due to the fact that a midge egg or mass of eggs are too minute to imitate on a hook shank, and that midge larva typically burrow in the mud, sand, and silt and only really become available to the trout when fluctuations of water are present or if the streambed is disturbed in some manner. A prime example of this is occurs when fish hold and feed directly below you while wading in the river. You are disturbing the streambed and dislodging many of those midge larva that the fish then begin to feed on them. Without a good population of midges in our valley waters like the Fryingpan, the number and size of trout would decrease substantially. Tail waters in particular have a tremendous amount of midges that make up a good majority of the trout’s diet. As a matter of fact the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Dam has 80,000 macroinvertabrates per square meter. Midge larva are wormlike in appearance and can vary in color from red, to brown to black to olive. Midge larva become very effective on the Fryingpan whenever the flows of the river increase in which case many of the larva become dislodged from the stream bottom and become susceptible to the trout. Several effective fly patterns are tied to imitate midge larva such as the Taylor Creek Midge Larva, South Platte Brassie, or John Barr’s Pure Midge Larva. All of these patterns were invented on Colorado tailwater fisheries. Some exciting and visual fishing can be done with larva patterns during the “off season”. Brown trout spawn in the months of November and December and the Rainbow trout spawn from mid February to April on the Fryingpan. Egg patterns are often successful flies when fishing to the fish that hold behind the spawning trout. But the big reason we fish egg patterns like the Flashtail Hot Egg so much is that they make superb underwater strike indicators when fishing to fish that are holding in shallower water. Trail a midge larva pattern like the TC Midge Larva in Red about 12”-18” inches behind the egg. Carefully watch your yellow or orange egg as it passes near the trout and look for the fish to take your larva pattern as the egg approaches near. No traditional indicator is needed when using this technique since one can easily see the egg in shallow water. This is a great technique to use for tricky fish and works well about six months out of the year.




Pupa patterns are effective when nymphed anywhere from the streambed to the waters surface meniscus. Some species of midges cling to substrate on the rivers bottom to make this transition from larva to pupa. Whereas other species of midges are free swimming when making this transition. The midge pupa is typically a shorter, stockier version of the larva, with a robust and pronounced thorax complete with wing pads, gills, and legs. The free swimming pupa move with short bursts as they work their way up to the waters surface. Upon reaching the surface they hang almost vertically with their thorax against the meniscus until the adult breaks through its pupal sheath and pushes through the surface tension to hatch. Several fly patterns are effective when imitating midge pupa including: Jujubee Midges, WD-40’s, WD-50’s, Johnny Flashes, and RS-2’s, One of our favorite techniques to fish pupa patterns is a Dry/Dropper setup using a midge dry fly as an indicator (a surprising number of fish will take the adult as well) and hanging a midge pupa behind as a trailing fly. The distance between the two flies varies on the depth at which the trout are feeding. This could be anywhere from the waters surface to three feet or more. Your trick here is to focus on an individual fish and not a group or pod of fish. Pupa are the most vulnerable to trout when they are trapped in the surface meniscus drifting anywhere from mere seconds to minutes. Greasing your tippet to within a quarter inch of your pupa pattern will enable your fly to hang in that meniscus. You will know that trout are focused on pupa by leaving a tiny dimple rise form that leaves no sign of a trailing bubble after eating the insect.



Fishing midge emerger patterns on the waters surface is an often overlooked technique. When the adult midge breaks through its pupal sheath, it splits open its wingcase (thorax) and pushes its way out as the spent shuck trails behind as the newly hatched adult slowly crawls out. Old time Fryingpan legends like Bill Fitzsimmons and Roy Palm were perhaps the first to popularize these styles flies. These flies include Bills Midge Emerger and Roys Special Emerger. Both of these patterns have common elements. First and foremost is a trailing shuck made of Z-Lon or Antron used to imitate the pupas shed exoskeleton. Both flies retain a slender body with some type of overwing (used more for visibility than anything else) with a turn or two of hackle behind the eye of the hook to imitate the adult’s legs. New age versions of these flies are now becoming popular and include Colorado fly tier Shane Stalcup’s, Hatching Midge series of flies.




Adult midges can provide some of the most exciting and rewarding dry fly fishing of the year. The best time of year to catch fish on adult midges is late February into April. The adult midges have a tendency to clump or ball up at this time of year in an effort to mate. Wind can gather these midges into specific drift lanes where they have a tendency to attract fish that are willing to rise. This phenomenon can be seen on the upper Fryingpan, lower Roaring Fork, and Colorado Rivers during these months. At times it seems as if every fish in the river is looking up to eat midge adults.



The late winter and early spring (mid February to mid April) midges are also typically larger in size than their counterparts in late fall and early winter and can range in hook size from #22’s up to #16’s. Late mornings on the Fryingpan from around 10:30am to about 2pm can produce some magnificent midge dry fly fishing. This is one of the few times that fish seem to rise continuously for that entire time span. Softer rods that can delicately present a small fly with light tippets are a big advantage when fishing midge dry flies. The lower Roaring Fork and Colorado near Glenwood Springs also produces some incredible midge hatches. On these two rivers the midge hatch typically occurs late in the day about an hour before sunset and will often last into the darkness of the evening hours. One of our favorite setups for fishing this hatch is a double dry fly rig consisting of a large #12-14 H&L Variant that is fished as our indicator or point fly, (its white wings and tail provide high visibility) with a smaller #20 Hi Vis Griffiths Gnat or Bills Midge Emerger as a trailing fly. Nine times out of ten the fish will take the smaller trailing fly, though don’t be surprised if you catch some fish on the indicator fly as well. By using this setup we are essentially looking for a rise or take within the immediate vicinity of our point/indicator fly.


Light tippets are essential when fishing midges, especially on the Fryingpan. When nymphing larva patterns or fishing pupa patterns deeper in the water column, tippets of 6X will be necessary, while when fishing pupa patterns at or near the waters surface or when fishing midge adults 7X tippets will be required. Remember, we are fishing light tippets because it is proportionate to the size of fly being fished, not that the fish are overly spooky or skittish. On the other hand, when fishing the larger bodies of water like the lower Roaring Fork and Colorado tippets of 5x are often sufficient due to the fact that we are fishing slightly larger flies and often at dusk when sunlight isn’t on the waters surface. Fluorocarbon tippets are really about all we fish anymore especially when fishing tippets smaller than 5x. The biggest reason behind this is that since fluorocarbon is a denser material than monofilament, it also has a higher pound test strength which is critical when fishing light tippets for larger fish. So what are you waiting for? Spring? Enjoy the magnificent fishing opportunities that the Roaring Fork Valley has to offer through the winter and early spring seasons where the fish abound and the people do not.

Written by Kirk Webb
Manager at Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt Colorado


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