When I close my eyes and think of fly fishing, one of the most immediate images that comes to mind is a long, glassy pool. Across the surface there are intermittent dimples – sure indications of feeding fish. These riseforms come quickly, and sometimes in successive clusters. Some are larger, but most are smallish. The season of this scene is inconsequential, because the trout are rising to midges.
I am not sure if there is a certain size that a fly has to be to fall into the “midge” category. Some people think that a size 20 is small, but that is hardly a legitimate midge. Certain patterns are actually called midges, but tying that fly on a size 8 hook doesn’t keep it under that classification. Furthermore, I struggle with lumping chronomids and miniscule nymphs that are essentially tiny hooks wrapped in wire in with some of the more noble midges.
Again, this isn’t a very scientific observation. Truth be told, it probably isn’t even a good taxonomical approach to fly box sorting.
But there is just something about a delicate cast, a drag-free length of 7X tippet, and a microscopic dry fly being eaten by a trout.
There is a lot more to it than that, of course. “Yeah, like finding the **** things in my fly box!” you might say. Or, “giving myself an aneurysm from squinting and trying to get the spider-web-thin line through the microscopic hook eye!” I won’t argue that there are some real challenges in simply getting to the point of being able to fish size 26 or 28 flies. The tips-n’-tricks advice I have it to invest in a threader box. I don’t use one (yet) but they work like a charm.
Tying the knots and dealing with the strength of fine tippets also requires and adjustment. Being deliberate and taking your time is all that is needed. 7X is pretty strong, as long as you make sure it doesn’t get knotted or nicked up. Your rod selection matters a little here. Anything too fast is going to require a lot of care in hooksets and fish-fighting. Line weight doesn’t really matter – I’ve used 2-weights for spring creek trout and an 8-weight for carp.
As is the case with any and all flies, there are a lot of patterns that you can choose from. I fish midges a lot, and I stick with three basic dries: griffith’s gnats, I.C.S.I (I can see it) midges, and plain old midges. The last of the three is a simple hackle, thread body, and tail fly that I carry in black, cream, white, and grey. The I.C.S.I. midges have a bright post, and generally ride a little lower. Griffith’s gnats, well, are about the most versatile dry fly you can have. Also, once you find the right hackles and thread, minute gnats can be tied by even beginner tiers.
Carrying a few (or a half-dozen) of each of these patterns in 24, 26, 28, and (even) 30 will all but guarantee that you will have a fly that midge-eating fish will eat.
I have a small, molded compartment box that I think is perfect for midges. The sloped sides allow for easy removal, and the section-specific lids prevents a gust or sudden movement from sending dozens of near-invisible flies flying.
Fishing the Midge
Techniques and tactics for dry midge fishing are as nuanced and prolific as any other type of fly fishing. At the same time, you’re basically fishing a tiny dry fly. What you would do when fishing a size 12 Hendrickson holds true if there is a size 26 fly on the end of your line. There are, however, some basic midge-specific principles that should be kept in mind.
- Fish might be moving. The way that trout feed on midges can sometimes be erratic and unpredictable. Dropping the fly right after a rise isn’t bad with midges. These tiny meals usually come in series of rises to make up for the quantity of each bug. Don’t be afraid to put a fly on a fish’s nose – if you can be delicate about it.
- Learn to see. Learn how to watch might be more appropriate. Any sort of glare is going to render your midge impossible to see. Knowing where your cast landed and consistently rolling your leader over will go a long way in helping you identify where your midge is in the water. The last thing you want to do is prematurely set the hook and have that little fly schloop! through the water in front of a feeding fish.
- Read the rises. There is real skill in reading riseforms. If there aren’t any other bugs on the water and you know that they aren’t feeding on emergers, you can discern a few things about the fish before you. It might be a splashy, smallish trout. A cluster-feeder might be moving horizontally to chase down midges. The protruding nose of a big fish will send your heart racing. Which leads me to…
- Be prepared for anything. I’ve caught 20-plus inch browns on tiny midges. I’ve also had days where I caught lots of fish on midges, but they were all less than a foot in length. Small flies catch big fish, because big fish eat little bugs. It might not be as much of a sure thing as 2/0 streamers, but midges can and do produce.
Most importantly, give it a try. Like Euro-nymphing or chucking meat, midges aren’t for everyone. Some of the reasons people steer clear (“they’re too small!) can be overcome. Midges are always hatching. Mastering, or even becoming moderately functional in, the technique will open up opportunities.
There really is something about landing a decent fish on a small midge. Seeing that a speck of a hook penetrated into the jaw and held strong is pretty amazing. Knowing that you fooled a fish into eating a Lilliputian fly is pretty rewarding, too.