Go into any fly shop in the country and ask them “What are they hitting on?” There is a pretty solid chance fly shop employees and guides are going to say, “midges.”
The non-biting cousin to mosquitos, midges, are one of the most prevalent food sources on streams across North America. They are small, abundant, and available year-round. As we progress through fall into the colder months midges will be a large portion of the trout diet as they are one of the only constant food sources that they have available to them. As such, it is critical to understand each stage of the lifecycle to help you catch more fish as temps decrease. When temperatures start to decrease, air temperature and water temperature combined, you will start to notice the productive fishing times we normally target fish throughout the summer months change once we reach late fall and early winter.
During the fall months the activity starts to shift from early morning to mid-morning, then to midday in the heart of winter. So as fall moves on, and the temps drop think about changing your strategy from fishing mornings and evenings to the warmer parts of the day.
For the purposes of fly fishing there are three important stages of the midge lifecycle; Larvae, Pupae, and adult.
The first stage is the Larvae. This is the stage many trout fishers think of when you say “midge,” it’s a tiny worm like bug that comes in a variety of colors, from tannish to red. These bugs are fished sub-surface from middle to lower water column. They come out of the muck bottom where they hatch from eggs and are washed down the river where they become trout food. There are so many different types of midges, the only thing you really need to pay attention to are the size and color of what is going on in your home water.
Practical Midge Larvae Fishing Tips:
- A net seine can be an effective way to filter the water to effectively choose the best midge larva based on color and size.
- Start with midge larva in the mornings, you can switch or add an emerger as the temps warm. Try a couple of different sizes and colors to help narrow it down. Here is an example of one variation.
From there they move to the Pupae phase where they will emerge and head to the surface. Typically, a midge pupa will develop a little air bubble they use to move from the bottom to the surface. As such the emerger patterns of midges will often have a clear bead head to imitate that bubble. Trout really key in on this phase because there is movement involved; moving up the water column towards the surface makes for high visibility and easily accessed food.
Practical Midge Pupae Fishing Tips:
- You may see fish rising and think they are eating adult midges, but there is a decent chance they are taking emergers or (pupae) that are sitting in the surface film, or just below the surface. Try a CDC midge or another pattern that is meant to sit just under the water’s surface.
- Try pairing an emerger pattern with a larva to cover both stages. If you notice trout keying on one or the other, change your rig to focus on that stage. Please note some states have a one hook rule, so be sure to check your local state rules before setting up a double-nymph rig.
The final stage, the adult version of the midge is what closely resembles a mosquito and is often black in color. Midges frequently undergo hatching at various times throughout the day, and even in the fall and winter you will find some good dry fly activity with midges. Midges, even in their adult stage, are often still extremely small, seldom larger than a 16, and more often 20 to 22s depending on your water.
Practical Adult Midge Fishing Tips:
- They will often be found in clusters of multiple midges together. You can use this to your advantage using and use a cluster pattern like a Griffith’s Gnat. This presents a larger meal for a trout and may just be worth their time for a rise.
- Because they are so small and dark in color, they can be pretty hard to see on the water. There are a couple of things you can do to improve the visibility. 1) Pair it with a larger fly (size 16 or 18) with your midge behind it. 2) Use a midge with a high-vis material on the top (like a Sprout Midge).
- If you find your fly is still too big, but you’re down to your smallest pattern, try trimming some hackle, leaving just enough so it still floats. Often a very low profile, low sitting fly is what they are looking for when keying on adult midges.
In many rivers, midges are the most important part of a trout’s diet throughout the year. As such if you want to be successful year-round, its one of the bugs you need to have the most confidence in identifying and fishing.
If you want to learn more about the midge lifecycle head over to Broder Fly Fishing and download this handy “Simplified Midge Lifecycle Chart” to help you learn more. Article written by Chris Solfelt, be sure to follow @broderflyfishing on Instagram.