I have a strange enjoyment of fishing small flies. Of course, everyone may prefer to fish large patterns that are easily visible, but those are not always your best option, particularly in winter months.
In general, one of the primary food sources trout have in colder months are midges (chironomids). For this reason, midges are one of the most effective insects to imitate this time of year.
The first thing you must realize is, midges are small- oftentimes, they are incredibly, unbelievably, small. The first common misunderstanding with midges is, trout can’t see these tiny bugs and therefore don’t focus on eating them. That notion is false. Trout love midges.
For example, while I was out on the river the other day there was a decent hatch of midges that seemed to be around a hook size 26 and some even smaller. From a distance I could see the splashy ripples of a fish that I thought may have taken a midge. I kept watching, and sure enough the medium size trout was crushing the little guys as they drifted down over his smooth surface holding location.
When my family came in for the holidays they saw the size flies I was tying for a recent order, and they thought it was a joke. It took a lot of convincing to prove to them trout eat these things. They finally came to the light when I reminded them humans eat small things like M&Ms and the Wonka candy, “Nerds.” Some of the Nerds are even smaller than some of the midges I have seen! If humans can see and eat those candies, of course the fish can see insects of the same size, especially when it’s the only food source floating down the river!
Now, I’m not going to focus on midge fishing tactics or techniques. Rather, I want to talk about tying your own sub-surface midge patterns.
The first thing you need to understand is, midge patterns are some of the easiest patterns you can possibly create. In its most basic form, a midge can simply be a hook with colored thread and a small dab of dubbing for a little noggin’. Some of the more popular patterns include a bead head either of glass, brass, or tungsten, and a few wire windings. You can make them as elaborate as you like (just look at some of the European “buzzer” patterns), or you can make them as simple as possible- the choice is yours.
There are certain properties that make or break a midge hook. I almost exclusively use wide-gap short-shank hooks such as the Dia-Riki #135. On a size 20 hook you are actually tying a slighter smaller midge, and the wider hook gap helps keep fish on. This is a great benefit for the angler because you will lose more fish when midge fishing than any other method; at least that’s what I’ve found for me.
You can use typical straight shank dry fly hooks, I’ve landed fish on these style hooks down to sz. 24, but after using the wide gap hooks I don’t plan to go back to these. I would land 1 in 3 fish, and in winter months I don’t like those odds I want the best chance possible to land each fish.
When it comes to beads you have three options: glass, brass, or tungsten.
In regards to weight, here is your simple breakdown:
Glass beads - Light
Brass Beads - Medium
Tungsten Beads - Heavy
Figure out how deep you want your fly to be then choose your bead accordingly. If you want to be scraping the bottom of the river use a tungsten bead, if you want it to sink really slowly use a glass bead.
Bead Sizing Chart:
For glass beads I typically go with a sizing of 1.5 mm for midges. I purchase my beads from a local craft store, but I also use “Killer Caddis” glass beads which are available online. You don’t get anywhere near as much with the Killer Caddis glass beads compared to the craft store, but they are good quality, and if you are just trying to order stuff online it’ easy there. Glass bead colors are near endless from red to florescent orange you can use whatever works best on your local waters.
For tungsten or brass the size you use will depend on how quickly you want the fly to sink. A typical bead size that works well on size 18-20 hooks is 5/64” (2.00 MM), if you want some that are a lot smaller go with 1/16” (1.5 MM). The choice is yours!
I fish a lot of beadless (weightless) midges. The reason for this is, I fish a two-fly rig. My first fly will have a lot of weight on it, it’s the fly I want to get my rig down to the bottom. My second fly, the midge or other light pattern, I want to float behind the heavy fly, but not sink. I like the trailing fly to swim freely in the micro-currents of the depths, and move as natural as possible.
Another benefit to beadless patterns is, when fishing a weightless midge I won’t catch as much moss, sticks, and stones on the midge. I have had situations where my anchor pattern gets stuck on something and in those few seconds where the midge floats on a fish takes the midge! It’s worth it to tie and carry several midge patterns that have a bead, and tie some that are unweighted - you never know what they day may hold!
I remember when I was 13 or 14 trying to tie a small Zebra midge pattern, and I could NEVER get the thing to look right. The body of the fly was always incredibly thick. When finished the fly looked more like a small yarn marble with crooked wire stripes.
I recently found the old spool i used back then and remembered my frustration with midges. I was using thick Danville thread that was 210 denir. This is thick thread used commonly for tying streamers or spinning deer hair. Because I didn’t know any better I thought any old plain thread should work just fine. This is not the case.
Some thread is a cut above when it comes to tying midges.Typically, the thinner the thread the better. You walk a balance trying to get the thinnest thread possible that doesn’t break every other wrap. Midges have incredibly thin bodies, and if you try to use thicker thread you will have an unnaturally large body.
Here are some popular sizes of thread that I use most commonly on midge patterns:
When tying sz. 18 - 20 nymphs I most commonly use UTC 70 denir thread (this is the thread I use for probably 80% of tying I do). It’s relatively strong and can be flattened by a quick counter-clockwise twist of the bobbin. This is great for keeping a slim profile on a tiny bug.
When tying sz. 22, 24, and smaller, I almost exclusively use Veevus 16/0 thread. This thread is unbelievable thin, and impressively strong. Veevus thread is a little more expensive than plain UTC thread, but it’s worth the cost. The thin diameter allows you to tie ultra-thin flies. Keep in mind, just because I use it on the small stuff doesn’t mean you can’t use it on bigger hook sizes too if you want to. In fact, I use this thread on all of my dry fly midge patterns and many other thin dry fly patterns (spinners, small caddis, etc.).
Wire size will depend somewhat on the pattern you are trying to tie, but I most often use size small UTC Ultra Wire. UTC makes extra small wire, but I have never found a consistent need for it. Extra small is good when you want a lot of ribbing or when you want to make the entire body out of wire to give some extra weight/sparkle to a pattern because it allows the body of the fly to stay relatively thin.
Typically, when using wire I wrap the midge 4 times on size 18 hooks, and 3 times with sz. 20 or smaller. I think using more sparse, but even wraps makes the fly look a little better. It also permits a hint of flash, but allows the body color to be highly visible.
I’ve seen some guys that on a typical sz. 18 Zebra Midge have 11-12 wire wrappings up the shank of the hook. It looked excessive to me, but the tier claimed more wire caught him more fish. I haven’t bought into that completely, but the bottom line is, tie the way you like it. I’m not fishing with your stuff so make it however you want!
Don’t be afraid to tie and fish midge patterns! I confess, it’s not for everyone, and could be difficult for those who aren’t able to see well (though I do have some tips below that may help!). Remember, in fishing with small flies, technique is far more important than many other styles of fly fishing. Catching large trout on tiny flies is a really rewarding/challenging experience!
ADDITIONAL TIPS AND TRICKS FOR TYING AND FISHING MIDGES
Tie your flies on a larger hook, but with a shorter body. This means, grab a size 18 hook, and tie the fly as if you are tying the proportions to a size 20 fly. This will help you better see the fly, and if you are trying to imitate a size precisely, it will help you fish with flies that you have a better chance of landing the fish!
Try different colors. To my knowledge there are no purple colored midges out there; nevertheless, a purple midge has been a great pattern on my local waters! Try all kinds of colors - blue, yellow, white, rainbow, silver - you never know what may be a big hit!
Pre-tie your midge rigs. With adequate light, and maybe even a magnifying glass you can tie your tiny midge patterns on with whatever nymphing rig you may plan on using that particular day. You can leave them on foam spools in your bag so you don’t have to tie on incredibly small patterns with completely numb hands in the dead of winter!
You don’t HAVE to imitate the insect exactly. As I mentioned before, yesterday on my waters was a good hatch of sz. 26-ish midges. I was fishing with a sz. 20 midge to start the day and the other guy I was fishing with had a sz. 18 midge on. We both caught good amounts of fish on both sizes without having to go all the way down to a size 26. Though, I have caught and landed fish on hooks that small.
Fish will come off. This is the reality when fishing with hooks that are incredibly small. Don’t get too upset. Accept it. Learn your rod and apply firm but not over zealous pressure while playing the fish, and be soft with your hook-sets. If you make sudden quick jerks you will likely rip the tiny fly right out! It’s amazing how little pressure is needed to secure the tiny fly into the jaw of a fish. It does not require the same amount of force a 2/0 hook needs into a largemouth bass. Just a soft twitch of the wrist is often all you need.