I tied eighteen plastic-bodied midge flies specifically for the Cheesman Canyon water of the South Platte. I made a dozen with wound peacock herl for the head and a few strands of gray Zlon to suggest emergent wings. I could have stopped with these but I made six more with muskrat dubbing to suggest the emerging body of the adult fly and a turn of grizzly hackle for the wings or legs or whatever a microscopic turn of over-priced grizzly hackle means to the fish. I fell back on this pattern because it works and I have faith in it and if the Zlon midges didn’t pan out I wouldn’t be up the creek without a fly I could trust.
I didn’t figure to actually need eighteen midge pupae flies, not for just myself anyway, but my fishing pals had begged off with various lame excuses having to do with wives, broken cars, legal problems — the usual stuff — so there I was, alone on the river with eighteen serious midge flies.
The water was not what you’d call low, exactly. There was a pretty good flow for this time of year. The water was slow and clear and the trout were spooky, prone to flush, pushing wakes that zipped across the surface in their panic to clear the area. Clear, low water fishing is like sub-atomic fishing, dealing with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work in the stream. You never quite know where the fish is, the only thing you can be sure of is where it was and how fast it was moving when it left.
I worked a long, gentle run below flat water teeming with spooky fish. No fish would rise for the little emergers so I sank the fly with a small ball of lead putty. I hooked and lost three fish on the first three casts. I’d have them on just long enough to get the slack on the reel then the fly would pull out. The problem, it turned out, was the hook set. I was not actually striking the fish. Mindful of the small hook and tippet, I was laying off, trying to tighten up rather than strike. I finally settled into something between a hard yank and a strong pull. This was sufficient to firmly set the little de-barbed hook; then, by carefully maintaining line tension I lost no more fish.
Fishing midges is inherently no more difficult than any other type of fly fishing, although it may seem so at first, especially if you read about it before you actually do it. There is a school of thought that leans heavily toward specialized midge fishing gear, although such tackle is in reality just light-weight gear suitable for many other types of flies. The proponents of ultra-midge gear school are probably the same people who will tell you that short, light rods are for little-bitty streams and piss-ant trout while big rods are for big rivers and big fish.
Taken to such extremes, midge fishing can be addictive and obsessive and can create notions of superiority and downright elitism. After all, you can fish very small flies to very big fish with a relatively high degree of success. This can do amazing things to your ego. Fortunately, such elitist attitudes are not tolerated by the cowboys, punk-rockers, gear-heads and computer geeks I fish with, so I have remained pretty normal for a midge fisher, although I do tend, on occasion, toward focused-obsessiveness. Or something that combines tunnel vision with a high pain-threshold.
Tactics and Techniques
First, some considerations and distinctions. Trout like midges. Maybe they don’t actually like midges. Trout probably don’t actually like anything more than anything else. There are just so many midges available that you, and the trout can count on them. Midges are in the stream all year and are said to hatch almost every day. Maybe they really do hatch every day. I know they are always around the stream whenever I am.
It doesn’t take a wizard of a fly to suggest a midge to a trout. Even a hackle-wrapped hook or a bit of fuzzed-out dubbing will usually work just fine. However, you can be particularly picky about your midge flies, tying and carrying adults, emergers and larvae and transitional designs in various patterns, colors sizes and wing configurations. I do. It’s not necessary but it gives me something to worry about while I’m not actually fishing.
Finally, you do not need light tackle to successfully fish small midge flies. While a 2 oz. rod throwing a 2 wt line might be more (pick one): challenging, fun, interesting, expensive, obtuse, playful, stupid or insightful, any decent fly rod will serve as a midge rod. You must use small tippets and small flies to interest the fish, who, by the way, don’t particularly care what kind of rod they are attached to. Most fish don’t really care about tippet size. On the Big Horn, trout will take a #20 midge fly lashed to whatever tipped you can force through the hook eye. Even so, the little hook will still fail long before the tippet breaks.
Fishing to the water or to the fish
You may either fish the water blindly or wait until you spot a fish then figure out how to show the fly to that specific trout. Technique varies somewhat for the two methods. Establishing the best line of drift for the fly is not relevant in blind fishing because, even though you’ve read all those books and picked out what you think is “likely-looking” water, you really have no idea where, if indeed anywhere, fish might be. If I’ve learned anything about trout it’s that they go anywhere they damn well please.
The correct drift line might not be relevant during feeding activity either, especially if the competition for food is high since fish will be more likely to pursue the fly. If an emergence is heavy or sustained, putting the fly in the right drift line is more important because the fish are likely to hang in their lies, or very close to them, and move little for a natural or a fly.
Regardless of the method, the most important element, possibly more important than the fly itself, is a fly drift completely without drag. Such a thing is impossible to attain while the fly remains attached to the leader. Such is the nature of the midge fisherman’s burden. But the appearance of a drag-free drift can be approximated by two things: a long, limp tippet between the fly and the leader, and by drifting the fly downstream to the fish.
I began fly fishing by watching other people fly fish. Nearly all of them fished from a downstream position relative to the fish – they cast upstream and then stripped the line back in as the fly drifted back toward them. I fished this way for some time. I took a casting class sponsored by a major rod manufacturer and learned the proper way to cast upstream. I read a bunch of books that discussed the finer points of upstream presentation and line control. But somewhere along the way, I began to throw my fly downstream toward the trout and let the current flow take it to the fish. I don’t claim that this was an original idea on my part, just the opposite, but I can’t remember where I saw it first. I have stayed with this approach over the years just because it helps me catch more fish, especially in slow, clear and low water conditions. The reason is, I think, quite simple: everything moves together downstream toward the fish, there are no competing currents to create drag and the fly gets there first.
Even better than that, I can make effectively an extremely long and accurate cast, longer and certainly more accurate than I am able to make by throwing a line upstream, by getting the fly and line on the water above the fish, dragging the fly into the fish’s feeding lane, then shaking out line slack as they drift downstream. The only concern with this method is in the strike. Don’t. Strike, that is. You must pull firmly and at the right moment.
Strike hard and quick and you may actually flex the hook out of the fish’s lip, or break off and leave it in the fish. This is especially painful for you, if not the fish, when the fish is large and wild and has been difficult to approach. Afterwards, you must deal with the agonies of fleeting contact with a heavy fish. This, more than anything, will teach the virtues of a disciplined, controlled strike.
A pause before setting the hook is necessary to permit the fish to turn downward and away from you on it’s short trip back to its feeding lie. Where there is any appreciable current the fish will have drifted downstream during the rise. To return to it’s lie the trout will turn cross stream or down stream, dive to the zone just off the bottom where the current is small, then swim easily upstream to its lie. A fish will often turn sideways to the current as it dives after the take, putting it’s body at an angle to the line. It is then you have the most advantageous hooking angle to lodge the hook in the corner of the fish’s mouth.
So, when the take comes, wait. Pause for a second, a long second, then tighten, pulling the hook firmly into the fish.
When the fish is observed during the take, the hook-up can be made at just the right moment with an appropriate measure of force. Also, a strike indicator or secondary signal (leader movement) is not necessary.
Hooked but not landed
Once the fish is hooked, wait to see which way it runs. It may bolt downstream pulling out the slack line putting itself on the reel. Then again, it may run directly toward you. When this happens frantic line stripping or handle-cranking is called for. In any case, get the line up on the reel as soon as possible. Play the fish from the reel, not with your fingers. Remember why you paid so much money for that little-bitty fly reel? This is it. Payback time. Let it do its thing. Relax. Keep the pressure on and nag, nag, nag. Counter all the fish’s aggressive and violent maneuvers with deft rod play and the reel drag. When fighting a big fish, remain calm. Do not panic. Remember to breathe.
Large or strong fish hooked on small flies should either be beached in shallow water or netted prior to release. Be cautious of trying to net a good fish in shallow water. The combination of being hooked and being forced into shallow water right next to you will likely cause a fish to freak at the initial swipe of the net and bolt for safety one last time. Right then, a short line, an awkward rod position, and too much force on the leader often results in a lost fish.
In addition to the venerable Griffith’s Gnat, the midge patterns I’ve had most success with are the Biot Midge Pupae and the Plastic Pupae-Larvae. Actually, both can be fished as pupae or larvae, depending on what’s happening, or, more accurately, what’s not happening. Fish either pattern on top with the greased-leader technique, with or without a strike indicator. The new soft putty-like strike indicator stuff works well if you grease the leader above the fly and roll on two or three little balls of the indicator putty. When a fish takes, the indicators will suddenly straighten out.
Apply floatant down to 6″ or so from the fly. A little floatant on the hackles or emergent wings will keep the fly on top longer. If you can’t see the fly, watch the leader or strike indicator. Tighten when the leader straightens out. Fish it deep by adding appropriate weight to the leader a short distance above the fly. The further the weight from the fly, the more natural the fly is apt to behave during the drift, but it’s harder to detect the take and harder to hook the fish. Also, such a light-weight fly is likely to well up in the currents more than a “normal”-sized fly and this might take it out of the feeding zone near the bottom. I usually weight about 6″ to 18″ above the fly, depending on the depth and speed of the water. The picture to keep in mind is the fly drifting as naturally as possible for as long as possible, above, but not actually touching, the bottom.
When I began fly fishing I thought that midge fishermen were crazy. Why would anyone go to all that trouble to catch large trout on teeny flies. But, as my experience deepened I began to give it a try and eventually midge fishing became one of my favorite methods. You may lose as many trout as you land, and when the big one gets off, it can be painful, but it is certainly one of the most challenging and fun methods you can adopt.
Copyright Michael D Scott 2000