If you’ve ever been out on the water and seen a cloud of mosquito-like insects that don’t seem interested in biting you, the odds are that you saw a swarm of midges.
Midges are closely related to mosquitoes and look like them, but they don’t bite. More importantly, they make up a huge percentage of a trout’s diet. This is for a few reasons. Midges are pretty universal, being found in large numbers in many bodies of water. But, one of the biggest reasons they’re so important for fly fishing is that they’re one of the few insects that can hatch year-round.
This means that midges are one of the most effective flies to use. Many anglers are skeptical of tiny midge patterns since it’s hard to believe that trout can even see something so small. Yet, midges continue to be one of the deadliest flies in a box.
Rigs and fishing techniques
In order to understand midge rigs, it’s important to understand the life cycle of a midge, as each stage has its own setup and fishing style. Midges have four life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The three that are frequently mimicked while fishing are the larva, pupa, and adult.
Midge larvae are very small (often hook size 18-22). They look like tiny worms and come in a variety of colors like black, olive, and red. Midge larva flies are very bare-bones, often not much more than a few wraps of thread on a hook.
These flies should be fished deep, since midges often live toward the bottom, in and around the silt and substrate. Thin tippets and a little splitshot around eight inches above the fly will help you get down in the water quickly. Use a small, lightweight indicator or a dry-dropper rig to ensure a delicate and sensitive presentation. In lakes, midges can be suspended in deep water from an indicator. You can also strip them through the water, especially in shallower lakes.
The pupa stage is the transitional stage where midges start to rise in the water column on their way to the surface. In this stage, the thorax starts to swell as the wings and legs start to form. The pupa creates a small bubble to assist it to the surface, and this can also make it look chunkier to fish. Pupa patterns usually have more material than larval patterns, often with extra dubbing and flash toward the head to mimic the swelling thorax and bubble.
Pupa rigs should be set up to keep the fly near the surface, either just below the surface or in the film. Take off the splitshot and consider greasing your leader if you’re having trouble keeping the fly up. You can also fish a pupa in conjunction with a larva by running a larval pattern off the back of a pupa fly. Don’t reverse this order, as you want the larva to stay low and the pupa to stay high.
The final stage of the life cycle is the adult, which looks very similar to an adult mosquito. Adults sit on the surface after emerging to dry their wings and often get picked off by hungry trout. Adult midge flies can mimic a single insect, but also sometimes mimic a small cluster of them. Rigging up for an adult midge is fairly straightforward. A dead-drifted dry fly is the way to go, often in slower water where midges tend to hatch. These flies are usually pretty hard to see, so a parachute or spot of color is helpful for visibility.
Types of midges and their flies
There are over 1,000 species of midge. Luckily, there’s no need to try to identify midges down to species. Instead, just match the size, color, and stage of the particular midges in your area. Even if you can’t figure out the characteristics with exact science, simply keeping an eye out for the stage changes throughout the day and matching your rig accordingly can put the odds in your favor.
Midges aren’t rocket science to imitate, but making sure you’re offering the right stage at the right time makes a difference.
In the morning (and throughout the day, as well), midge larvae are very effective. One of the most popular general midge patterns is the zebra midge. In small sizes, this fly can be deadly in nearly any trout water. If you tie your own flies and notice the midges in your area aren’t pitch black, you can tie a zebra midge in whatever color you want.
Midge pupa patterns sometimes look similar to RS2s, with a thread body and a bit of flash, dubbing, or feather near the head. Some are bare enough to be almost nymph-like, while others are gaudy enough to be close to an adult. Depending on the timing and location, either one can come in handy.
Midge adults come in a variety of styles, but if there’s one pattern every angler should have, it’s the Griffith’s Gnat. Although it could mimic a single adult midge, Griffith’s Gnats are better at conveying a bundle of insects. This works especially well in slower eddies that tend to gather clusters of midges.
When to fish midges
Possibly the best thing about midges is that they can be fished year-round. Especially on tailwaters or spring creeks with consistent temperatures, it’s not uncommon to see insects hatching while snow is falling.
Pupae often emerge during the morning and evening, and on cooler days hatches can last nearly all day. Start with a midge nymph in the morning (and a nymph can be an effective dropper throughout the day). As the day goes on, you may switch to a midge emerger with a nymph below, and then an adult pattern with an emerger below.
In colder months when hatches can happen all day, it’s hard to go wrong with any midge pattern. Keep an eye out for flying adults or rising fish to verify when it’s time to throw on a dry fly.
Tips for fishing midge flies
1. Light tippet – midges are tiny, and that means matching them with thin tippet is important. A thicker tippet is too stiff for delicate midge flies and makes them flow unnaturally. This doesn’t mean the tippet needs to be hair-thin, but going down to 6x or 7x makes a big difference. The new Absolute Fluorocarbon Tippet from Scientific Anglers is the best on the market.
2. Use two dries – Since midges are small and often black, midge dry flies are some of the hardest to see. In addition to a pop of color or a parachute, an easy way to improve visibility is by using two dry flies. Tie on one fly that’s easier to see. This could be a parachute mayfly pattern, a much larger midge pattern, or something else. Then, tie on the smaller midge fly 12-18 inches behind the first. Use the first fly as an indicator of where your second fly is. If you see a fish rise in the vicinity, set the hook.
3. Find midges in the water – Choosing a midge nymph isn’t too complicated. They’re so minimal that there’s not a ton of variety among types. However, different water qualities lead to different midge characteristics. For example, low-oxygen streams often hold bright red midge larvae, sometimes called blood midges. Doing a quick search through your local waterway to see what color and size the midges are is a good first step to choosing a nymph.
4. Focus on slack water – One of the best places to find trout feeding on adult midges is the slack water around rocks and banks. These eddies collect big clusters of adults and trout cruise through and gorge themselves. The one downside to these areas is that it can be hard to set your fly apart from the masses. Using a slightly larger fly or adding a tiny bit of flash or color may be worth a try if you can’t get the fish to notice your presentation the first time.
Midges are some of the most versatile and effective patterns in an angler’s box. Next time you’re out and aren’t sure what they’re biting on, consider trying a midge and you might be pleasantly surprised.
This article was developed by Flylords’ content team member, Katie Burgert.