Midges in Lakes and Rivers

By Rick Hafele and Dave Hughes

There are three major factors to consider when imitating midges on lakes (and most streams as well). The first factor is what stage to imitate. Midges (Order: Diptera, Family: Chironomidae) pass through egg, larva, pupa, and adult stages. The larvae live on the bottom. Fish feed regularly on them, but it is difficult to know when and where.

The pupae develop on the bottom, then swim slowly to the surface for emergence to the adult stage. Pupae not only show themselves to the fisherman, but also to the fish. During a heavy emergence, fish gorge themselves on rising pupae. Adults are taken also, either before flying off the surface during emergence or when they return to lay their eggs, but the pupa is normally the best stage to imitate.

The second major factor to consider is the color and size of the natural pupa. Though trout feed greedily on the pupae, they also feed selectively. Also, midges come in many sizes (1/16 to over 1/2 inch long) and colors (red, gray, brown, tan, and black are common). This means you can't be sure of a pupa's size and color until you see the real thing. A small aquarium net is usually sufficient for dipping a few pupae out of the water for close inspection.

The third factor is depth. You must determine how deep the fish are feeding. Depending on conditions, such as light, temperature, and stage of the hatch, trout may feed anywhere from the bottom to the water's surface. If your fly is at the wrong depth, a limp line will be all too common.

The depth you want to fish will directly affect the technique that is best to use. The four techniques described below cover the full range of depths. Since all midge pupae swim slowly, the retrieve for all of the techniques should be slow-- the slower the better in most cases.

Dead Drift or Wind Drift

This technique is excellent for fishing a pupa near the surface (less than five feet deep). The basic setup is a floating line, 8 to 12 foot leader tapered to a 5X or 6X tippet, and an unweighted pupa pattern.

Whether you're in a boat, float tube, or on the bank, position yourself so you can cast perpendicular to the wind. After casting, simply let the line and leader drift with the wind across the surface. Retrieve only enough line to take up slack, so you can better feel or see the strike. Strikes will be very soft. A strike indicator--a piece of yarn for example--can be used to help detect strikes.

Naturally, this technique doesn't work if there is no wind.

Slow Retrieve

This technique can be used when there is no wind or for fishing at mid-depths (5 to 15 feet). A floating line is still used, but the leader should be 10 to 15 feet long. For fishing deeper than ten feet, a weighted pupa should be used. After casting, let the fly sink to the proper depth. Now retrieve with a slow, short (2-inch) hand-twist followed by a pause of five to ten seconds. Continue with a short retrieve, then pause. Strikes will again be soft, and a strike indicator can be used. Experiment at different depths until you find the fish.

Deep Retrieve, Floating Line

This technique works well for fishing near the bottom along drop-offs. A long leader (18 to 25 feet) is used with a floating line and weighted flies. Cast out over the drop-off, then allow enough time for the fly to just reach the bottom. Practice by counting down until your fly snags bottom weeds. The retrieve should then proceed as above: a very slow hand-twist or a strip followed by a pause.

Go slower then you think you should. Watch the end of the line carefully. Normally you won't detect the fish until it swims away with your fly and moves the line. Because of the long leader, a strike indicator is not practical.

Deep Retrieve, Sinking Line

This technique works best in water over 20-feet deep or when you want to make sure your fly stays along the bottom. On bright sunny days or warm days during the summer this tactic will often prove best.

A slow-sinking line will normally give the best control. Use a short leader (6 or 7 feet) and an unweighted fly. Again use the count-down method to find the bottom. A slow hand-twist retrieve will again keep the fly along the bottom and moving slowly.

Strikes will be felt, not seen, so keep the rod tip pointed directly down the fly line at all times.

One last note: Set the hook by slowly raising the rod tip rather than a sharp twitch of the wrist. This will reduce the number of broken tippets and lost fish.

--Rick Hafele

Midges on Rivers

Though we normally think about lakes and ponds when we think about midging, it's wise to remember that trout in streams take midges as well. When the naturals are the most abundant food source around, trout will feed on them selectively, even though they're tiny.

A season or so ago, I was on Oregon's Crooked River during March. The weather was still nippy, and ice covered a few puddled backwaters. Trout began rising in late morning, and continued until late afternoon. I had to get my nose next to the water to notice they were taking size 22 dark midge pupae hanging in and just under the surface film in water that was moving fairly briskly.

I'd been fishing size 18 and 20 blue-winged olive imitations (Baetis) because that's normally what works this time of year. Once I noticed the midges and made the switch to pupa patterns, the fishing became easy. I rigged with a 4-foot 6X tippet, tied a black Sangre de Cristo emerger to the point and a small yarn strike indicator to the butt.

I fished the fly upstream just like a dry fly, floating flush in the surface film. If I saw a rise near the indicator, or saw it hesitate or dip under, I set the hook. By the end of the day I'd managed to get the hook into a couple of dozen trout. That's not a fast day on the Crooked, but it's a better day than I'd have had if I'd failed to notice those midges hatching.

--Dave Hughes

Larva Patterns

  1. Blood Midge
  2. Yarn Midge

Pupa and Emerger Patterns

  1. CDC Midge Emerger
  2. Chans Chironomid Pupa
  3. Chironomid Pupa
  4. Herl Midge
  5. Syl's Midge

Adult Patterns

  1. Griffiths Gnat
  2. Sprout Midge (Sangre de Cristo Midge)

Rick Hafele is a professional entomologist and fly fishing writer living in Gresham, Oregon. His most recent book is Nymph Fishing Rivers and Streams. Rick's good friend Dave Hughes is fly fishing's most prolific author, with over 30 books to his credit including Trout Flies. Together they are the authors of Western Mayfly Hatches.