The south facing slope of the river’s canyon walls readily absorbed the sun’s warmth and were snow free only a few days after the dark clouds had moved on. With each hour of sunshine trout moved out of their deep holes and positioned themselves in the shallows, following the procession of midges as they hatched and hovered close to the water’s surface to mate. It was then that the steady, rhythmic rises of trout began, sipping in midges as they struggled to become airborne. The quiet, methodical cadence of trout steadily rising to midges was underway.
I pulled off about thirty feet of line from my little Hardy reel and cast a size 22 olive midge pupa towards the closest riser, a respectable 14 inch or so rainbow, typical of the trout of Colorado’s South Platte river. With a singularly deliberate motion the trout rose, sucked in the little fly and leisurely sank towards the bottom. I raised the rod just as deliberately as the trout had taken, tightened the line against his weight and felt it’s surge of panic throb up through the rod tip. Immediately the fish bolted towards the hard current of the river’s main flow, quickly turned and gave me back my leader...sans fly. So goes midge fishing on one pound test tippet. Fifty feet further down the pool there was another telltale ring on the surface - time to move on.
Of all the bugs that end up in trout stomachs each year the diminutive midge is one of the smallest, and the most consumed. For example, in the famous South Platte river of Colorado there are over 300 midges to every mayfly that ends up as trout food, according to studies conducted on the river. Even large trout feed on midges at certain times though a strict diet of midges would hardly keep a big trout big for long. Still, midges are an important staple in every trout’s diet, especially throughout winter and on into spring.
Midges are one of the hardiest aquatic insects found in any water, hatching virtually year round; in fact, some number of them can be seen on almost any day on the water. They may be small but their numbers make up for their size. Most are smaller than size 18. Early season broods are generally smaller still, 20’s to 26’s being the practical hook size limit for all intensive fishing purposes.
Midges (family - chironomidae, order - Diptera) have a complete metamorphosis, egg, nymph, larvae and adult. They’re two-winged insects as adults, hence they’re grouped with Diptera, which means "two wings".
Mosquitoes, gnats, black flies, craneflies and deerflies are all classified as Diptera as well; of them, midges are the most important to trout. In egg form midges are not important as a food source to trout. Once in water the eggs quickly develop into worm-like larvae and grow quickly.
During the larval stage midges have limited mobility and live in the areas of a stream where there is mud bottom, algae, aquatic plants or in rock fractures. Midges live in virtually any water type including water trout cannot physically tolerate because of temperature or other limiting factors. Midges are so widespread that they are present almost everywhere trout are found making imitations of them in their most available forms must have patterns in any trout fly box.
Before actually developing enough to hatch, midge larvae transform into pupal form during which they develop legs and wings. In streams, midges build pupal cases attached to a variety of objects on the bottom. When the time is right, depending on water temperature and other environmental factors, midges enter the most vulnerable stage of their life cycle, the emergence stage.
The word emergence is synonymous with hatching. When most midge pupae are ripe for becoming an adult they rise to the surface and "hang" vertically in the surface film or just below, breaking out of their pupal skin, emerging as a fully winged adult. Midges rests on the surface immediately after emergence to dry out and exercise their wings before flying off. Air temperature and humidity will dictate when they finally take to the air.
Harsh weather conditions will slow the process of getting under way considerably, causing freshly hatched midges to remain on the surface longer - a certainty trout somehow instinctively know about. As a result, fish take their time feeding on a foul weather midge hatch. Some stream dwelling species of midges crawl out of their pupal cases while still on the bottom, swimming to the surface as an adult. While this is less prevalent than emergence at the surface, it remains a vulnerable time for midges as trout can easily intercept them on the way to the top. Once airborne, midges generally congregate in a swarming mass to mate. After mating is complete, female midges go about the task of laying eggs, starting the entire life cycle over again. Midges die shortly after mating. TACTICS
Working over trout sipping in midges in shallow water requires careful, quiet, sneaky presentations of the fly, often from a casting position as far away as 40 feet or more. Any trout will let you know quickly if you’re too close or if your cast is too sloppy - they stop feeding or swim away - fast. Seeing midges on the surface is difficult enough, fake or real.
Even if you’re blessed with perfect vision, knowing when to strike a rising trout is less a prospect involving seeing the fish actually take the fly than guessing when it does correctly. Concentrate on placing the fly in the correct "drift" before all else, one that will carry your offering directly to the fish’s nose. Doing so is relatively simple if you practice and become adept at a few sure-fire tricks. Start by making a longer cast than required, well above where a feeding trout is working. Pull the rod tip back slightly to drag the fly across the surface. When the point of the distinct "V" shaped wake made behind the dragging fly reaches the line of current flow you suspect the fish to be in, drop the rod tip and let the current carry it the rest of the way. Adjustments can be made on subsequent casts once the true path of a given current is known.
When a fish rises near where you think your fly is, strike gently, lifting the rod only slightly. Tiny hooks don’t require arm wrenching strikes and penetrate readily with only a slight tightening of the line. If the fish takes a natural midge instead of your fly, you will usually have several other chances at the fish before eventually putting it down. Still, striking when a fish rises is good midge fishing practice and results in enough "surprise" hook-ups to keep trying the tactic.
Usually, small hooks will barely catch the skin on a trout so fighting a midge-caught trout requires considerable care; only as much pressure needed to tire the fish as quickly as possible should be applied. Attention should be paid to the rate a given trout rises to the surface. When trout are midging they often fall into a measurable pace of rising to the surface to take a fly. Some trout will rise every few seconds, others every ten or more seconds. When rising in rhythm most fish will ignore everything that passes over their heads until they are ready to rise again. So many midges are on the surface at the peak of the emergence that arbitrary selection of which fly they will eat becomes unnecessary. Obviously, if an angler times the rate a given fish comes to the surface and plans his fly presentation to place his fly at the place a fish is expected to be on the next rise, the chances the fish will take an artificial fly is improved considerably. While timing the rises of midging trout may sound like "deep-end techno fishing B.S.", let it forever be known that it is fact and that the presentation strategy based on that fact works.
As any serious anger knows, catching trout consistently any time of the year requires dealing with the realities of stream life and assimilating those truths into practical fishing technique that works for you rather than against. If you aren't’t up to the challenge, you’ll find trout in the meat department at most grocery stores without much trouble...the only thing is...they stopped rising and fighting long ago.
Standard midge flies are usually tied rather sparsely and do not float well, a feature that is by design rather than a result of fly tying limitations. As mentioned above, when midges emerge they usually hang vertically just in or slightly below the surface. To effectively imitate midge emergence an angler needs to have his offering right in there with the real thing. To keep a fly at or just below the surface it is good practice to grease a leader so it floats, preventing a midge imitation from sinking too far during a long drift. The fly itself should be left untreated.
Long leaders, fine tippets and light rods are the rule for effective midge fishing. Fly rods designed for line weights ranging from one to five are the top choices among seasoned midge fly fishers and most prefer rods from six and half to eight feet long. Leaders tapered to a minimum of 6X are the rule. Nine foot long leaders are good to start with but are frequently lengthened to as long as 15 or more feet if the fish are particularly spooky. Usually, a midge angler will add 7x tippet material to the end of a 6X tapered leader to add length and reduce leader visibility at the same time. Adding two or more feet of tippet results in a much gentler presentation of the fly as much of the power of a cast will be dissipated before reaching the fly. The net result is the fly falls to the water like a whisper - just what you need for typical midge fishing situations - any time of year.
During any hatch a number of midges never break completely from their nymphal shuck, instead they wiggle vainly to become free, half in and half out of their protective skins. These stillborn insects are easy pickings for an alert trout. If you find yourself on a stream when fish are feeding on midges in the surface film, a slightly larger fly will sometimes be taken for a stillborn midge. For the vast majority of midge fishing situations however, a pupal or larval form of midge fly will be most effective.
Colors vary considerably because there are literally hundreds of different species of midges present worldwide. Luckily, despite the low sanity factor less devout anglers will attach to midge fishing, only a few fly patterns in sizes 18 to 26 are needed to cover the vast majority of midge fishing situations. Olive, brown and black are the most common colors of midges. Some of the most effective patterns I’ve used have been little more than thread wrapped around a hook with a touch of fur to imitate the head and thorax parts of the fly. In most cases this is as elaborate a fly as anyone will ever need.
Correct size is really the most important factor in selecting a fly for midge fishing. Because midges are so small anyway, choosing a fly that is one size off can make a big difference in whether a trout will take or not. Attempting to force feed them a poor imitation usually results in making an outing turn into a day of casting practice. By all means, take a moment to look closely or capture a sample of the real thing and place it along side the selection of flies you carry to help you judge the right size. Now that you know about midge fishing, try it, you’ll experience some of the most challenging and productive year-round trout fishing the fabled Rocky Mountain trout streams offer.