It’s hard to be a fly fisherman in the winter. The weather is freezing, the rivers are clogged with ice, and the days of rising trout casting seem increasingly distant. At the start of winter with the distractions of the holidays, you hardly notice that you are not on the water. But as time passes, you start to feel the urge.
It starts with a slight twitch of the eyebrow each time you hear water running, followed by a flick of the wrist while you sleep. Eventually, these small symptoms manifest as complete withdrawals. Before you know it, you’re using up all your frequent flyer miles on fishing trips to exotic destinations around the world and find yourself standing in the living room practicing your casting technique or trying to catch the cat.
Many fly anglers find healthier ways to cope with winter by tying flies for spring and/or ice fishing. As fun as they can be, these activities don’t always scratch the itch. Luckily, there is a way for those who are truly dedicated to the art of the long rod to get their dry fly fix during the coldest season – by fishing the winter midge hatch.
What are winter midges?
Midges are tiny, non-biting flies similar to mosquitoes. Members of Chironomids family, these tiny insects have some of the longest hatches of the year, emerging from the eggs as small, worm-like larvae before rising and floating above the water’s surface in October to May and sometimes longer, depending on the region. Trout feed on midges throughout the year as they are almost always present in the water, but they become particularly important to a trout’s diet during the winter. During this time, other aquatic insects such as caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies are much less active, so midges often become the most readily available food source.
There is a menagerie of different midge species, many of which go through a full life cycle – from egg to larva to adult – during the winter months. Most of these winter midges are tiny insects that never exceed a few millimeters in length. But because these insects hatch in such large numbers, their small size is completely negated. Trout feed voraciously on winter midges, consuming thousands each day. Often the insects completely cover the surface of the water in mating groups, allowing the trout to devour mouthfuls at a time. This gives fly anglers plenty of opportunities to catch them as long as they use the right gear.
Model flies and equipment for winter midge fishing
The main reason midge fishing isn’t more popular is that it often involves long leader lines, a fine cobweb tip and tiny flies that can be extremely frustrating to see on the water. . But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve had many great winter days on the water using minimal gear and just a few simple fly patterns. It all comes down to using the right equipment.
Although you can fish for gnats on any standard trout fly rod, like a 5 or 6 weight, it’s best to do so on a lighter rod like a 3 weight. These lighter rods generally offer a slower, more flexible action and are perfect for casting tiny flies with precision and detecting often subtle strikes. Your leaders should be about 9 feet long and in the range of 5x to 7x with a 6x to 8x fluorocarbon tip, which is necessary in low, clear winter waters.
There are thousands of midge fly patterns out there, but you don’t need all of them to be successful. One of the best things about winter gnat fishing is that multiple species hatch at once and the fish aren’t too particular when targeting them. Fish a few basic gnat patterns in a few different sizes and colors and you’re pretty much covered. For nymphs I like to wear a few larger pearl head midge patterns like a red or black zebra midge in sizes 16-18. I will generally use these as a dropper fly with smaller non-weighted patterns like the Disco Midge or WD-40 in sizes 20 to 26 above.
Your dry fly models should be able to be fished in all types of water that trout feed on gnats, from slow pools to fast, bubbling seams. You will want to use large patterns that represent clusters of gnats and pair them with smaller single dry flies as droppers. My favorite larger gnat patterns include the Grizzly Cluster and Griffiths Gnat in sizes 18-22 which are very buoyant and easy to see. I will pair them with smaller individual models like the Birchells Hatching Midge or even small versions of classic models like a Parachute Adams or Purple Haze in sizes 22-26.
How to catch midge nymphs
The nymph with gnat patterns will be your prime fish producer during the winter months. They can be fished at different depths and speeds and allow you to target trout wherever they are in the water column. Your best places to find fish are in deeper, slower water downstream from fast currents or along the outer edges where slow eddies meet faster water. These are the main winter trout lies and are the best places to fish for your nymphs.
Set up your nymph rig by first attaching a length of fluorocarbon leader to the end of your leader. Once you have tied the knot, cut the end of the leader tag but leave the tippet tag in place. Attach a lighter, smaller midge nymph design to this tippet tag and add a larger pearl-headed midge nymph to the terminal end of the tippet. The two nymphs should be about a foot apart. This will generally work for most water conditions, but if you are fishing in particularly deep or fast water, add a small split BB shot to the line 6-8 inches above the top fly so it can reach quickly the appropriate depth.
While you can fish this nymph rig just by drifting it or sticking it high, I found it best to use a small strike indicator on the line. This helps detect subtle keystrokes. You will want to place the indicator on your leader at about half the depth of the water you are fishing. If you are fishing 6 feet of water, set the indicator to 9 feet. If you are fishing from 4 feet, set the indicator to 6 feet.
Having a good day of winter fishing is all about precise casting and long drifts. You want to try to cast your flies high above potential spots where trout are hanging out, fixing enough that the tiny flies will sink and come into the strike zone just as they hit the fish. On days when the fish are active, it can be a few feet below the surface. But when the fish are hanging out near the bottom, you need to drift your nymphs as naturally as possible within a few feet of the trout’s nose. Don’t be afraid to drift the same body of fishy water multiple times until you get a strike. With such small presentations, you are very unlikely to scare the fish away, and it may take a few tries to find the right spot.
How to Catch Midge Dry Flies
Unlike other dry fly situations where you can trick a trout up just by drifting a fly over them, there’s almost no point in fishing dry flies unless you see some fish go up. The insects are so small that they will not entice trout to come into cold winter water unless they are already seized on a hatch. However, when the fish become gnats, the fishing can be ridiculous, so it’s worth having the dry flies on hand when the time comes.
In winter, the best action of the dry fly midge often occurs on calm, slightly overcast days when the temperature is in the mid-30s or warmer. On days like this, focus your efforts on longer stretches of fresh water near the ends of the pools. When you find a spot that looks likely, hang around and watch the water for a while until you spot some rising fish. When trout take gnats the rises are subtle, usually little more than a small dimple on the surface, so you have to be alert to spot them. It might mean freezing your butt on a rock for a while, but the pain will be worth it.
Once you have found a good group of rising trout, cast your dry flies slightly upstream of where they are feeding and fix them so that the insects drift at the same speed as the current as they pass overhead. above the fish. I like to fish my larger midge cluster patterns as my top fly, attached directly to a light leader, with a single smaller midge pattern attached to the larger fly’s hook shank as a dropper. Most of the time trout focus on eating midge clusters and the biggest model will get the most action. However, even if trout select the smaller single gnats, the cluster pattern can act as a strike indicator because it is easier to see. Its sudden disappearance will tell you that a large winter trout has eaten your dropper, even if it has done so too gently to notice.
Get your fix
Most fly anglers simply suffer through the winter by spending long, cold, troutless days staring out the window, watching fish porn, and marking the days on the calendar until spring. But if you’re a midge angler, winter can be an exciting time to enjoy some nice cold, cool days on the water doing what you really love to do.