MIDGES ARE TOUGH
I was first introduced to midges when I was fishing Michigan's Au Sable River. It was in the mid-60's and the regular mayfly hatches had been reduced to a scattering of Trico's in the early morning. We noticed that there were some very small insects buzzing around the surface of the water and the trout seemed to be feeding on them. A quick trip into Jack's Fly Shop in Roscommon produced some suitable imitations; small black flies that consisted of nothing more than a black thread body and a couple turns of hackle. As I recall they were tied on size 18 and 20 hooks. I don't remember that we caught any big fish on those flies, but during the mid-day when nothing else would produce a trout of any size these 'midge' patterns produced a steady supply of risers; most small brook trout and an occasional brown back in the shade. Such was my first introduction to midges.
When I moved to Montana in the winter of 1974 I was reintroduced to midges. I started fishing the Yellowstone River shortly after I arrived and immediately I noticed that fish were rising to small black flies. I collected a few and discovered that they were midges, and the locals called them "Snow Flies." Watching those midges hatch out of water that was flowing with slush ice it seemed appropriate that they were called Snow Flies.
Since those days back in the early 70's midges have become super stars in the fly fishing world. It's hard to pick up a book or read a magazine that involves fly fishing for trout without encountering an article or a fly pattern that relates to fishing midges. Midges have long been recognized as important in Europe and the United Kingdom, and they coined the term "Angler's curse." Much of the recent popularity can be traced to increased awareness of their importance, and technological improvements in terminal tackle that allows anglers to fish the often very small imitations.
I think that midges really come into their own during the colder months of the year when, if you are looking for dry fly action or fishing too visibly feeding fish, they are usually the only show in town. When I discovered trout feeding on midges in the slush filled Yellowstone River back in the 70's I realized that I had stumbled on some great fly fishing opportunities.
Winter midges are the perfect winter insect. They hatch in extremely cold water when any respectable trout stream insect is hiding under a rock on the bottom of the stream. Like proper gentlemen, they wait until later in the day to begin to hatch so the angler can sleep late and enjoy an extra cup of coffee before bundling up and heading for the stream. Once they begin to hatch they normally make a good showing, rarely sputtering along like other hatches.
One of my favorite methods of fishing winter midges is to find a foam slick that commonly form below heavy riffles or in pockets formed by the riprap along the shore. Hatching midges and midge pupa become trapped in the foam and trout and whitefish hold under the protective cover provided by the foam and feed at their leisure. While I have found trout feeding when the water temperatures was in the mid-30's the feeding activity increases markedly as the water warms into the 40's. On warm sunny days in late February and March the feeding can be intense.
Since big rivers, like Montana's Yellowstone, changing from year to year places that produce great fishing one year may disappear because of changes brought about by high water. One of my favorite memories centers around a large foam slick that appeared in the middle of a large pool on the Yellowstone River just a couple miles south of my Montana home. The only way to get to that pool involved a long walk and required that you wade across a side channel of the river. Once you made the hike it was always somewhat of a crap shoot since the location of this particular foam slick was located in a place on the river where the famous Yellowstone winter winds often appeared without warning. However, on that perfect winter day when there was no wind, when the low winter sun had warmed the air and water to a balmy 40 degrees you could be guaranteed some excellent angling to big fish using small flies. In those days I often used a Prince Nymph fished right in the film when the fish were feeding on the emerging midges and I would use a Griffith's Gnat when they were feeding on adult clusters. On a good day you could count on hooking at least one fish 18 inches or larger, and when they were feeding there was always a good supply of 12 to 16 inch fish. Unfortunately, that particular pool disappeared during the record floods of 1996 and 97.
If you're suffering from the winter doldrums or the shack nasty's check out your local trout water. You might just find some tough winter midges causing the local trout population to wake up and take notice.