These stories are written and copyright by me. Please do not re-post or publish without my written permission.
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 200
Money can’t buy you love, but it can hook you up to a hundred pound rainbow.
Michael D. Scott
It was a good day on the Frying Pan River and I had made a good cast. The big grasshopper fly boomed out and dropped just upstream of a partially submerged boulder. The fly rocked on the current then swept toward the rock and was sucked under in a slashing boil of water. I lifted the rod, the line snapped taut, almost jerking the rod out of my hand then snapped free, sailing into the air. In front of the rock, the fish rolled, the grasshopper fly still hooked in the corner of it’s jaw. It saw me and lunged directly at me, snapping its teeth, ivory razors flashing in the sunlight. It was a mutant.
I wouldn’t say that I panicked exactly; I kept a grip on the fly rod as I did a fine imitation of a two hundred pound man in waders and heavy boots trying to set a speed record running through water. If the mutant had stayed in the river it would have had me cold, but fifteen feet away it jumped, slammed into me, knocking me down hard in about six inches of water.
I sat up, my butt in the stream, my hand still clutching the rod. Strange… there was blood on the cork handle. The mutant had cut three long, almost surgically pure gashes through my waders and down my right thigh. Blood seeped into the water.
Slap, thud, flop!
The mutant thrashed on the rocks, twisting and straining for the river. It was small for a mutant, probably about thirty or thirty-five inches long, maybe forty or fifty pounds. It was mostly black with raised green worm-like tracks on its back intertwined with blazing red stripes and orange bumps along its flanks.
Maybe I can kill it before it gets back into the river, I thought. My pistol was in the truck but I thought I could smash its head in with a rock. I found a jagged hunk of granite and got my back into it, lifted it and staggered toward the fish. I dropped the big rock on its misshapen head. It landed with a satisfying crunch. The mutant jerked, flopped wildly for a few seconds then lay still, but its gills were working, trying to breathe. I looked across the river at my truck parked about fifty yards away. I was still bleeding and my leg was beginning to hurt. I was afraid to cross. What if there were more mutants in this deep pool?
Go, get the Smith and blow six dark holes in the bastard’s head, I thought, but dark thoughts and the dark water stopped me. Suddenly, the mutant came to life, with a convulsive heave, freed itself from the rock and slid into the river where it sank and disappeared. As it drifted away in the current I thought I saw it begin to swim. I couldn’t be sure.
After the medicos had stitched the gashes in my leg, I sat around my dismal apartment for two days, then I called John Hightower. We met on the patio at the Streamside Inn. John had heard from mutual friends about my encounter with the mutant and my trip to the emergency room. He was nervous, his eyes large and restless. He was chain smoking Players, sucking each cigarette down to a long, glowing coal, stabbing it out and quickly lighting another.
“Look, you can’t avoid the question forever,” I said. “That mutant came from your little experimental lab on the river. Couldn’t have been from anywhere else.”
“You don’t know that. Could have been a resident, left over from last year,” he said.
“Bullshit, John. You told me yourself that they can’t breed, can’t produce viable offspring. How could one be ‘left over’ as you call it unless it escaped from your little play pen?”
“Keep your voice down,” he said, looking at the party seated near us. “You know how people are around here. Hell, they think GMOs cause cancer and birth defects. Fucking acupuncture, crystal vibration freaks. Wouldn’t know real science if it bit them in the ass.”
“Your damned piece of science almost did bite me in the ass. Want to see my stitches?You don’t keep those things under control, somebody is going to get hurt, or worse. What the hell, John. What happened?”
Our waitress slinked over and stood close to John. She was dressed in a miniskirt, spike heels and a body-hugging t-shirt. “You boys ready for another round?” she said, her hip brushing John’s elbow.
“Sure, and cold glasses too,” I said. John was running a tab.
Johns eyes were locked on her as she threaded her way through the tables to the bar.
“Snap out of it, man,” I said, “what do you have to say to me?”
“Look, I’m sorry you got hurt. I don’t know how it got into the river. We checked the fences and there isn’t any way it could have gotten out,” he said quietly, casting dark glances at the nearby table.
“No, John, there was a way. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here with twenty seven stitches in my leg.”
“I’m sorry about that. I truly am,” he said. “What do you want me to do?”
Before I could answer our waitress reappeared.
“Ah, thank you, my dear,” he said as she set the glasses on the table. “Say, you wouldn’t like to go fishing with an overpaid government scientist, would you?”
She stood there, hip-shot while she added the drinks to John’s tab. She tucked the bill into her apron, bumped him with her hip as she moved away and said, “I like to night fish, honey. I get off at one.”
“Fine. Fine. You might even get laid tonight, providing she can find someone to keep her grandkids on short notice,” I said.
“You heard me,” I said grabbing one of the glasses.
“Bullshit. She’s too young to have grandchildren,” he said.
“She’s actually fifty-three, but she used to live with this plastic surgeon over in Aspen and he likes them young looking. She’s been under the knife more times than Michael Jackson.”
“God,” he said.
“Get a grip, John. Now, tell me what’s going on in your little monster lab.”
He had both eyes focused on me, glowing red-rimmed orbs shuttered against the acrid smoke from the stub of the Players jammed into the corner of his mouth. He took the cigarette from his lips, looked at it, lighted another from it, leaned close and said, “OK, James, since you put it like that. If you are sure, if you are absolute certain you want to know what’s going on then I’ll tell you. But before I do, consider this.
“There’s a lot of money behind this project, more than you can imagine. We have private investors now and more are seriously interested. Everyone who works for me has a security clearance and they’ve signed non-disclosure agreements that will send them to jail if they ever talk about what they do. This is some serious shit. Are you ready to sign up for that?”
“Hell, John, I’d never pass a security clearance and I’m not signing your damned agreement. I don’t want to know your secrets, I just want to know how that mutant got into the river and if there are any more I have to worry about.”
John took a long swallow of ale, stubbed out his Players and began stuffing his pockets with the cigarettes, lighter and spare change from the table. He stood, put his hands on the table, leaned close and said softly, “Listen, I’ll make damn sure everything is wired tight and that it doesn’t happen again. I suggest you forget about it and find a real job somewhere. Bumming around the river scraping up guiding work doesn’t seem to be paying your bills.”
On his way out, he stopped to chat with the waitress, bending low to whisper something that made her laugh. He patted her on the ass, looked over at me and pointed his finger at me like a gun, mouthed “Bang!”, blew imaginary smoke from the end of his finger and slipped out the door.
“Tell you what we’re gonna do,” Larry said, poking his finger at my chest. I watched his finger. I promised myself that if he actually poked me with it I was going to break it off and feed it to him.
“We’re gonna give you one more chance to put us on to some big fish. B-I-G. None-a these goddamn sixteen-inch pissants we’ve been catching. I want something I can hang on the wall back home to show what I got for my expensive fly fishin’ trip out west.”
Larry tossed his thousand-dollar bamboo fly rod on the ground, shrugged out of his vest and flopped down on a rock. He dug a pack of Three Castles cigarettes from his shirt pocket and lit up. He didn’t offer me one. He cracked a genuine smile. Tobacco-stained teeth caught the sun, the wrinkles guarding his little eyes grew deeper. Grating, strangling sounds escaped his throat. He spat something yellow into the stream.
“You said this was the best river in the state, big fish, lotsa dry fly action but so far it ain’t showed me shit,” he said.
I did not answer. I was so fed up with this asshole and his big-time buddies that I was afraid I’d lose it and do something really stupid. More stupid even than hiring on with Larry and his cronies in the first place.
“You get us into some big fish today and you’ll get the rest of your fee and a hefty bonus besides.”
He opened his wallet and showed me a small packet of hundred-dollar bills. Looked like three or four thousand dollars in there.
“Well, what do you say?” Larry asked.
I looked at those hundred dollar bills and thought about that long overdue valve job for my truck. I thought about moving out of my rat-hole apartment and living in a place with windows and a decent stove. I thought about a new rod and maybe a new reel. I thought about getting away from Nadine and just bumming around Montana for the rest of the year.
Larry took five of the bills out of his wallet and handed them to me.
“Here’s the rest of your fee, plus a little extra. Now, this,” he said as he handed me another five bills, “is half of what you’ll get if you can put us on to some a those mutant trout we heard about down in town.”
Curly nudged Joe with his elbow. They sniggered. I looked at the thousand dollars in my hand.
“Where did you hear about mutants?” I asked. I’m often witty and brilliant when I know I’m about to do something I shouldn’t.
Curly just smiled that brown-toothed smile again. The smile said he felt sorry for someone so slow; his eyes said nothing.
“Why, we ran into a friend of yours last night, a biologist feller, right, boys?” Curly said. The boys were smiling too.
“Listen, I don’t know,” I said. “Mutants are dangerous. People have been hurt by these fish. One guy was…”
“How big?” asked Larry. His eyes were shrewd.
“Yeah, how big do they get?” chimed in Joe.
“Pretty damn big,” I said. “There was a mutant last year, below the dam, went fifty-seven inches. It weighed a hundred and thirty-eight pounds. It was an alligator with red stripes.”
“How’d you catch it?” Larry asked.
“We didn’t catch it. We lured it into the shallows with bait and shot it in the head. Then we took it into the woods and dug a hole and buried it.”
“Well, I’m not gonna shoot mine,” Larry said. “I aim to to catch it on a fly, have it stuffed and hang it on my wall. And you’re goin’ to find it for me. Right?” He peeled off more bills and stuffed them into my shirt pocket.
“Right?” he said.
His teeth were yellow but his eyes were merry.
We crossed the river well below the lab’s warning signs and stayed back in the trees until we were out of sight of the road. The sun was below the hills and the shadows were long and dark. We saw and heard nothing in the woods. No birds, no squirrels, no little animal sounds in the bush. Steel mesh fences stretched across the river, anchored to the stream bed. The fences were posted with large red and white signs that said KEEP OUT and detailed what would happen to you if you didn’t. Here the river ran through deep runs and pools and long, wide riffles. As we stood on the bank and the boys geared up I saw two hard, slashing rises.
“Did you see that?” Joe shouted, pointing at the disturbed water upstream.
Larry looked at me and grinned. “Looks like this might be the spot. Yeah. Looks good,” he said.
“You sure nobody’s going to find out we’re fishing in here?” Curly asked. The savage rises had put an edge on his voice.
“Gettin’ a little nervous, partner?” Larry shot back at him. “You can always go back and wait in the truck.”
“No problem. I know the guy who owns this water,” I said.
“A friend of yours?”
“A drinking buddy,” I said. “He’s a biologist. Knows a lot about the trout around here.”
Something on the water screamed, a bone scraping noise, suddenly cut short.
“What the hell was that?” Curly asked. He looked up and down the river.
“Sounded like a bird,” I said. “Probably a mutant snatched a duck off the water.”
“A duck?” Joe said. “Holy shit. A duck.”
Joe hooked the first one. It wasn’t big for a mutant, but it fought like a thirty pound shark, which in a way I guess it was. Somehow the leader remained intact until Joe horsed it into his net. Before I could stop him, he tucked the rod underneath his arm and reached into the net for the fish. He screamed and jerked back his right hand. The mutant had bitten off two of his fingers. Joe dropped the net, fish and all, into the river and held his right hand in front of his face. Blood flowed from the stumps, impossibly red, streaking down his arm and soaking his shirt. He moaned and sank to his knees.
“Joe? Joe? What the hell?” Curly shouted, splashing through the water toward Joe’s bent, weeping form.
“Goddamn!” Larry shouted as his rod strained into a quivering bow and a giant form cartwheeled out of the water. “Lookit this big bastard jump!” he yelled.
“Larry, Joe’s hurt,” Curly said.
“Fuck Joe,” Larry shot back as the big mutant ripped off yards of his line.
“I gotcha now, you bastard,” Larry shouted at the fish. The big mutant had stopped its run in the shallow end of the pool. Its back was a humped, black thing; its dorsal fin stood a foot out of the water. The fish rolled to its left, and fixed one dark eye on Larry, an eye as black as the gates to hell.
“Jesus Christ,” Larry whispered, “look at the size of the son-of-a-bitch. It’s huge.”
The mutant charged. Larry stripped line frantically, still not understanding what was about to happen. I grabbed the back of his waders and began pulling him out of the water. He turned and punched me hard in the chest saying, “Get off me you son of a bitch!”
His blow knocked me off balance. I stumbled backwards over the rocks and fell hard, then rolled to my knees as the mutant launched out of the water and slammed into Larry, knocking him over into the river. The fish shook convulsively, tearing at Larry as they both went under.
“Holy shit, holy shit. Did you see that? God. Joe,” Curly said, frantic now, “Joe, get up. Get up damn you. Move! We’ve got to move, get out of the water.”
He pulled and yanked at Joe’s waders, dragging him by main force toward the bank. He looked at me, still on my knees in the rocks. “Help us,” he said. “Help us.”
I didn’t move as another mutant slammed into Joe, ripping away a chunk of his neoprene waders, opening his rib cage. The water foamed deep crimson, like the churning red pool that held whatever was left of Larry. More mutants moved in on Larry and still more streaked toward Joe and Curly.
“Ahhh…”, Joe moaned as another mutant struck him. I scrambled to my feet and ran floundering through the water toward them but Curly had seen enough; he cut and ran. He tripped and went down not five feet from me. I grabbed him and dragged him out of the water. I turned back for Joe, but the mutants were working on him like giant piranhas, smacking and tearing at him, their bodies humping and quivering in their feeding frenzy.
We were careful to cross the river below the fence. Curly was in a zombie-like trance, and I was numb and in shock. I saw Joe’s Battenkill rod washed up against the wire. I took it, even though as I reached for it I was afraid a mutant would lunge out of the dark water and take my hand off. I got Curly into the truck then I got the bottle of whiskey and the big magnum from under the seat. I don’t know what I expected to do with the pistol. We had a couple of long pulls from the bottle and then I put the gun away and drove to town.
There was an an inquest. It wasn’t easy, but I got loaded enough beforehand so I got through it. Curly told it just the way it happened. Larry badgered them into it, except for me, Curly said. He made it clear I wasn’t badgered; I was bought. The judge decided that what happened was stupid, pig-headed machismo, and no one was criminally liable. I suspect that Hightower and his investors had something to do with that. But she didn’t like it. I didn’t have a guide’s certificate she could take away but she made it clear what would happen to me if I stayed in the guiding business.
Curly got himself back together pretty quickly. He and a group of Houston investors bought the biologist’s river property and put up a big fence all around it, with barbed wire and a gate guard. It’s lit up at night, much to the disgust of the neighbors. Nobody sneaks in there anymore. After they lock the gate at night they turn the dogs loose.
Trout Safari, they call it. For a fee and a liability waver, they put you in a chain-mail anti-shark suit, give you a heavy rod and line with a braided steel leader, and a guide armed with a 12 gauge shotgun. Then you go hunt mutant trout. They made a pile of money last year. The place is immensely popular with the out of state crowd and some celebrities are starting to come drive down from Aspen. Curly and his partners expect a booming international business. You can’t get in anymore without a reservation.
I went out there right after I got the truck out of the shop. Had the motor rebuilt in Glenwood Springs and bought a nice used shell for the back. I had it packed with most of my stuff. I thought I would cruise around Montana and fish the year out since Nadine packed up and went back to Denver. I thought maybe I would just say hi and goodbye to Curly, maybe see if they had a guide spot open or something.
Strange though, when I gave the guard at the gate my name, Curly told them not to let me in.
Didn’t seem right after all we had been through.