Eye of the Guide


Tom Travis - Jul 11, 2016


Sysadmin Note
Part Three can be found here


Midges, Gnats or Smuts have been the curse of anglers for centuries, early on the knowledge about the insects was lacking or in some cases just plain fantasy and though some anglers were gaining a more complete knowledge of the various insects that the trout fed upon centuries would past before the first knowledgeable volume was published.

In 1836, Alfred Ronalds published The Fly-Fishers Entomology, this was the firsts of its kind in the fly fishing world where scientific names and nomenclature was used. Once the formula of using science was established information about Midges began to appear. However you need to remember that the Mayfly was top dog, so to speak and they were distantly followed by Sedges, Stoneflies and various Terrestrial and finally Midges in the order of importance to the anglers of the day. Furthermore, everything was tied on hook with no eyes, so that either a gut eye was formed or more commonly a length of gut tippet was snelled to the blind eye hook and the hooks themselves were not available in sizes small enough to construct imitations for many of the midges.

Also not the ancient patterns designed for midges, they covered the adult form or the wet adults as the practice of nymphs and nymphs was yet too discovered and that wouldn't happen until the early part of the twentieth century. Also the eyed fly tying hook didn't appear on the scene until 1889 and like all new inventions it did take a while to be fully accepted in the fly fishing world and all of its part.
It was until the mid-twentieth century that small hooks appeared to also us to tied proper midge imitations.

The actual art of nymphing began with the publication of Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream in 1910 by G.E.M. Skues. In this first volume published by Skues he does discuss the nymphs however the main focus of the book is to fish select wet imitations in or just beneath the surface of water and it wasn't until 1921 and the publication of The Way of a Trout with a Fly, which Skues also authored that the full idea of sight nymphing and the use of nymphal imitations was fully codified.

Again I will remind you that nymphing took a long time in being commonly accepted in the fly fishing world. However Midges were finally singled out and information began to appear about the midge and more modern imitations began be developed for this particular insects, next I will discuss the midge and its natural history and importance to both the trout and the fly angler.

I will start out with Midges or as the English refer to them as Smuts, also known at the fly fisherman's curse, long were angler bothered and bedeviled by midge hatches. But once understood they offer excellent angling opportunities for the observant angler. For years midges were described as important on eastern spring creeks, but little mention was found of them on the area rivers, why this is, I am not sure because in any aquatic environment midges account for a large part of the food forms that are available to the trout.

Midges are a member of the Order of Diptera, Suborder Nematocera, Infra-order Culicomorpha, Super Family Chironomidae, Family Chironomidae; this family is broken down into twelve Genera and contains over 2,000 species. There is no need for individual species identification as far as the fly angler is concerned. As it is a simple matter to collect samples on site to check the color of the midge worms, pupa and adults that the trout would eat.

To clear up any confusion and set the record straight we need to have a statement of definitions. When speaking of midges I am referring to an insect that closely resembles the pesky mosquito but doesn't bite. As a matter of fact the midge and mosquito are cousins, so to speak.

In truth midges are a species by themselves and not to be confused with other species in the order of Diptera. Diptera is formed from the words "di" meaning two and "ptera" meaning wings. Diptera are highly specialized, two winged flies including many common insects such as the housefly, mosquito, cranefly, horsefly and black fly. The family group of Diptera we are interested in is the Tentepedidae and the genus is Chironomus (midges). I see no useful reason for the angler to try to identify individual species of midges, but to each his own.

Midges, like the caddisfly, go through a complete metamorphosis consisting of egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Although the adult midges are never aquatic, the egg, larva, and pupa spend their entire existence in an aquatic environment, thus being very available to the trout. Midges have a very wide distribution across the U.S.

They inhabit lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, spring creeks, and springs, those are permanent in nature and will support viable populations of midges.

Some midges require as long as a year to mature, but in many cases only a few weeks are needed. Some species hatch out several generations per year in open water conditions. The larvae are worm like and dwell on the bottom, clinging to rocks or other bottom obstructions as well as inhabiting weed beds. In spring creeks and tailwaters, the trout actively feed on the midge worm.

It is also true in stillwaters that the larvae are often noticed by the trout. Lake dwelling midge larvae are very active, and the trout will often key in on this worm like form. The larvae will vary in size from 2 to 12 millimeters or from size 12 to 28 in hook size. Most of the larger species are found in stillwaters. The angler should be prepared with various sizes and colors of larvae imitations. The most effective colors are red, pale olive, brown and dark olive.

Most anglers are familiar with the Blood Worms they are the Midge Worms (larvae) with hemoglobin, not all midge worms have this. Midge larvae mostly feed on diatoms, small plants and animals and are classed as opportunistic omnivores, the various body colors are often a factor of the chemical makeup of their environment. The larvae swim with an undulating whip-like motion.

Many of the species go through a larvae drift. This is believed to be a movement to new feeding ground. Some free-swimming species are predaceous, at least in part.

Many are herbivorous and some feed on leaf detritus such as decomposing leaves. The imitations can be fished with a combination dead-drift twitch retrieve. The larvae will vary in size from 2 to 12 millimeters or from size 12 to 28 in hook size.

It is when the midge larvae pupates and prepares to hatch that it becomes the most vulnerable and available to the trout. The midge pupa leaves the bottom and slowly drifts along with the currents, working its way toward the surface film to hatch.

From the time it breaks loose from the bottom until it flies away as an adult the midge is very, very vulnerable and the trout will often feed very heavily on one or more of the various phases. During this emergence activity the pupa is at the mercy of the currents and will often be concentrated in back‑eddies, deep quiet pools, major current lines and along the edges of whirlpools. The trout will feed on this pupa from the bottom to the surface film.

Once the midge pupa makes it to the surface film they hang vertically and start to move inside their exoskeletons trying to break free and emerge. The trout will feed on various forms of the emerging pupa. As with the surface emergence of any aquatic insect, there are stillborns, and those adults that are defeated and drowned in the surface film due to waves, currents, high wind, or genetic imperfections.

There are times, when the trout will feed on the adults. Often, when the air is cooler the adult will emerge and ride the surface for a considerable distance before flying off. Other times the midge adults seem to cluster or ball up while on the surface. The angler should keep these various forms of the midge in mind when observing what the trout are feeding on and not jump to conclusions.

One can often see midge adults that appear to glide and skitter over the surface of the water. Do trout feed on them at this time? Only the young and less experienced will. You will see them slashing at these impossible targets.

However, on days when the air is cooler the adults will emerge and ride on the surface for a considerable distance before flying off. Other, during mating, the midge adults will cluster or ball up while on the surface. During these conditions trout will feed on them, now having that the larger trout don't feed on the adults that are gliding and skating over the surface, there are exceptions to that observation.

On rivers like the Delaware River in the east and the Big Horn River in the west I have seen large trout key on these gliding adults and feed on them. The water temperatures are often very cold and the insects are gliding and skating at a much slower pace.

Also, I would like to point out that noting in nature is absolute. Often when we read about the feeding behavior of trout we believe that what we read is cast in Stone and is absolute. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything in the trout's world is in a constant state of change and that is why observation, stream awareness and an open mind are critical to the angler's success. Remember trout do not read books, nor do they write them!

Therefore it is easy to understand that these insect spend at lot of time in the Film Zone and therefore we will discuss this insect and its various forms and how to properly present the imitations in the Film Zone.

Fishing the Bottom of the Film Zone

Once again we will be using our favorite fly rod, floating fly line and a leader about nine or ten feet in length. However if the angler were to encounter strong breezes and find that it is interfering with the accuracy of the cast then I would recommend a seven and a half leader and a shorter rod of seven and a foot to eight feet in length. This system will allow you better accuracy and line handling under the windy conditions that may be encountered. This is just something to think about, almost all fly fishing problems have a reasonable solution. I remember on time when and anglers asked if I have ever fished a hatch in 25 to 30 mile per hour wind and I replied yes, and we were successful and went to say that on other times we have left the stream during extremely adverse winds and tied flies or spent time doing other things, waiting for the chance to return to the water.

These decisions will all be based on the conditions of the day and the common sense of the angler who has encountered the situation, we as anglers can't always plan for everything, sometimes, mother-nature will throw us a curve!

Now let begin fishing the bottom of the film zone with midge imitations and first we will discuss the various times that midges in one form or another will be found in this section of the film zone.

One day I was standing alongside a long weedbed that was within ten inches of reaching the surface of the water as I began to observe the scene I noticed that several trout had move out of the adjacent deep water pocket and began to feed on something which appeared to be about five to six inches beneath the surface of the water.

I moved below the feeding trout and used an insect net with an expanding handle to see what these trout were so actively taking, I was actually expecting to see mature mayfly nymphs of the hatch that should be occurring that day. However, I was surprised to see that the next contained olive midge worms. I quickly tied on a midge worm imitation and greased the leader down except for the last eight inches and moved into position to cast to the trout that was closest to me. The trout were holding just above the weeds and were moving side to side to intercept the midge worms and they were feeding a very steady and aggressive manner.

I placed the cast above the trout about twenty inches and slow gathered my slack line, and watching both the track of the leader and the movements of the trout. The lighting was perfect and I actually could see my imitations, as the imitation began to drift by the trout, the rainbow suddenly turned and took my offering, before I could hardly tighten the line and lift that trout dove in the weed and jumped in the middle of the other feeding trout causing them to spook and promptly dove again into the weed and broke me off.

That was not my first encounter with midge worm over the weedbeds, I have actually seen many times. Sometimes I fish the midge worm using a strike indicator or off a dry fly using either to help me maintain a specific depth for the imitation I am using and for the condition I have encountered.

During a midge emergence as the pupa begin to appear in the bottom of the film zone I will also use a dry-dropper combination with surface midge adult or emerger with the pupa dropped behind, again the length of the dropper will be determined by the speed of the current that you are fishing.

I have done this many times successfully, however dead-drift is not always the answer, sometimes slight twitches will provide more action and the midge pupa often times will wiggle and move during its rise to the surface. To my knowledge and base on the experiment I have conduct by raising midge in tanks, the midges all rises to the surface to hatch and do not emerge beneath the surface of the water as do a certain percentage of mayfly nymphs.

As the emergence begins to fade you will find cripples and drowned adult midge drifting in the bottom of the film zone and suitable imitations will allow you to pick off a few of the opportunistic feeders that are still looking for a meal.

When you encounter the adult midges on the surface laying egg, you will also encounter drowned adult drifting in the bottom of the film zone, therefore you can fish an adult on the surface and a drowned adult imitation beneath the surface as the bottom of the film zone.

Fishing just beneath the Surface Film

As the emergence begin to bring more and more of the pupa towards the surface film the trout rise in the water column to take advantage of this feeding opportunity and the savvy angler can move closer to his target and adjust the length of the dropper and take full advantage of this feeding action. A quick check with a stomach pump on a captured trout will reveal an overwhelming number of midge pupas in the top of the trout's stomach.

Now remember that the adults can hatch out after they have been taken by the trout.

As the hatch progresses you can also find drowned adults and cripples just beneath the surface film and you can use specific imitations during this time period. But to tell the truth I have just as much success with small soft hackles tied to imitate the colors of the naturals.

Fishing in and on the Surface Film

Observation of the emerging midge has taught me that some midge pupa do hang in the surface film to emerge while others will swing up and lay flat in the surface to emerge. Your own observations will allow you to determine what is going on in the surface and allow you to choose the proper imitation. I always have a few floating midge pupa tied on ring eyed hooks with me. If the pupa a hanging in the film I will use one of the parachute emergers or CDC emerging midges and I will grease the entire leader and tippet. Normally during this stage of the emergence I am using a single imitation and I have work in close so my casts are short and I can control the presentation and react properly to the take.

If there are overwhelming numbers of adults on the surface, either as single or balling up in clusters, I will take a moment to observe the actions of the adults.

Many anglers believe that midge adults are fished dead-drift, however observation has shown me that movement is often the key to success, that the trout key on the movement of the adult.

During the time period when you have so many adults on the water, there will also be some drowned adults floating in the surface film, so I often will add a dropper using a soft hackle or a drowned adult imitation fished in the film.

Notes on midge hatches, there a time periods throughout the season when the midge hatches are massive and very noticeable however there are also times when the midge emergence will show up at dawn or in the evenings as secondary hatches or they may happen during the hatch of another insect species causing a much more confusing problem for the anglers.

Always be aware of what is hatching,  my son relate a story of how the trout were totally ignoring a larger dun which was sporadically hatch and instead were actively feeding the steady stream of midge pupa in the surface. The anglers in the area were sorely frustrated as was he until he figured out what the trout were doing!

As the hatch begins to fade the angler may search with an adult or drowned adult imitation in the film and still pick-off, an occasional opportunistic feeders. Some anglers are very aware of the midges in their areas, while others seem to ignore the midges unless they encounter them during massive hatches at specified time, I have even eastern angler say that midges are more importance in the west, than they are on eastern waters. However nothing could be further from the truth they have a very wide distribution and are important to both the angler and the trout where ever they appear.

Enjoy & Good Fishin'

Sysadmin Note
Part Five can be found here



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