Midges Are Mi Amor
When asked about my favorite aquatic insect hatch, my answer may be somewhat surprising. My preferred hatch isn’t mayflies, which are beautiful and captivating as they drift downriver on waves of current like an armada of graceful sailboats. It’s not stoneflies, which eerily creep out of the drink in the dead of night, leaving only a set of clothes affixed to streamside structure as evidence, before mating and fluttering through the sky like belabored Chinook helicopters, dive bombing the river with their precious live cargo. And a breathe-through-your-nose, ripped from the pages of Exodus caddis hatch, like those that made the Arkansas River famous, and now occasionally occur during low water years on the Gunnison and Taylor Rivers, is an awe-inspiring Animal Planet event to be sure. But these are not my favorites. Midges are mi amor.
For those interested in Bug Latin, midges belong to the order Diptera—meaning "two-winged flies"—which include midges, mosquitos, crane flies and houseflies. Almost every midge of importance to fly fishers is of the family Chironomidae, the non-biting flies. Midges are ubiquitous in every fly water that holds trout worldwide. Every single one. No exceptions. In many Western trout streams, midges make up more than half of the aquatic macroinvertebrate biomass available as fish food. While midges are most often associated with spring creeks and tailwaters, they can be hugely important on freestoners, especially in pools, tailouts and eddies. Diptera are a flat-water bug. And during the wintertime (mid-November through March), midges are typically the only aquatic insect hatching and are of mammoth importance to winter fly anglers.
Of the three midge life stages that are parroted with faux flies—larval, pupal and adult—larvae are the least important and pupae are the most important, while adult midges rank somewhere in between. During winter, if midges aren't on the water or buzzing around the stream bank, I often deploy a midge larva pattern (or two). Midge larvae, and midges in general, are found in sizes 18-26, with the larger midges hatching in springtime and the smaller sizes emerging in the dead of winter. Midge larva patterns should be fished close to the stream bottom where they are most often found, with a dead-drift being the most natural and productive presentation, although twitching the fly may trigger strikes as midge larvae do writhe and squirm when adrift in the water column. While natural hues work well, I've found red midge larvae, which mimic bloodworms—midge larvae that contain an abundance of hemoglobin due to living is oxygen-deprived environments—to be the most effective color. A red midge larva is a fantabulous attractor pattern all winter long. When I tie on a midge larva pattern, there is a 90 percent chance it will be red. A trio of my favorite midge larva patterns for winter/early spring include a Zebra Midge, Demon Midge and Pure Midge Larva. And a tiny, thinly-tied thread midge can often dupe trout when nothing else can.
When wintertime midges are hatching en masse, regardless of whether trout are rising or not, I typically throw a midge pupa. Pupa patterns are typically fished higher in the water column than larva patterns, and can be dead-drifted, twitched or ascended towards the surface with a Leisenring Lift (google this essential nymphing technique if you are unfamiliar with it). In a two-midge nymphing rig, a pupa pattern is often trailed by a larva pattern so the pupa remains higher in the water column than the larva, which should be near the bottom. Alternately, a buoyant adult midge pattern (such as a Griffith's Gnat) can sherpa a sparse, lightweight pupa pattern and allow the pupa to ride inches below the surface. This is a lethal technique when trout are sporadically rising to the surface for adult midges, but keying on emergers just below the surface. For midge pupae, my confidence flies are a D-Midge, Top Secret Midge, Jujubee Midge and Rojo Midge.
If trout are religiously rising to midges on the surface, I'll break out an adult midge pattern. (My rule of thumb is whenever trout are surfacing for flies that I can't see, I assume adult midges are the culprit.) Adult midge patterns can be either high-riding (mimicking adults drying wings before lift-off) or semi-submerged in the surface film (parroting midges emerging from their pupal shucks). My experience has shown emerging patterns fished within the surface film greatly outperform higher-riding patterns. Again, my first option is always to dead-drift an adult midge pattern, but if that fails, I'll twitch it at the moment of truth to coax a grab. At the forefront of my adult midge arsenal is a Roy Palm's Special Emerger, Brooks' Sprout Midge, Griffith's Gant and Matt's Midge. If you take away just one thing from this blog, make sure you have a Roy Palm's Special Emerger and use it. You'll thank me later.