Sunday Classic / Winter Fly Fishing – Midges 101

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Louis Cahill Photography

Winter Fly Fishing – Midges 101. Photo: Louis Cahill

There’s no doubt there are times when big flies are the ticket for catching big fish.

However, when you find yourself fly fishing on technical trout water and the bite is extremely tough, in many cases, it can provide you with big rewards if you put up those big gaudy fly patterns and break out your midge box. This especially holds true during the cold months, when you’re fly fishing to educated trout on technical spring creeks or high-pressured tailwaters. As fall passes, and we find ourselves smack in the middle of winter, most of our larger bug hatches will have long faded. This time of year, most trout will transition into consistently feeding on the most abundant food source that requires the least amount of energy to consume. On many of our trout waters during the winter, the most predominant aquatic bugs available for trout to eat, day in and day out, are midges.

Now, it’s true that the colder the water, the lower a trout’s metabolism will be. It also is true, that the lower a trout’s metabolism is the less calories it is required to consume daily to survive. That’s because a lower metabolism burns off less calories. But what’s not true, and a very common misconception among trout anglers, is that all trout feed in less frequency when their metabolism is lower in the winter. What many anglers don’t realize is there’s a direct correlation between the feeding frequency of a trout and the food value of what it’s foraging on. For example, one could argue that big mature trout that primarily feed predatorily on large food sources (crayfish, sculpins, baitfish, mice, and juvinille trout), do feed in less frequency during the winter. However, that’s probably because the food sources they are targeting and foraging on have a much higher overall caloric value, which in turn, allows them to meet their food requirements faster. All it takes for the predatory feeding trout to meet their survival food requirements during the winter is to eat one or two big ticket prey items a day.

Small trout however, and even most mature rainbow trout for that matter, spend most of their lives as drift feeders (eating food that drifts downstream in the current–mostly aquatic bugs), not predatory feeders .

The food sources of drift feeders are much smaller in size than the predatory trout food sources, and also worth far less in food value. This requires them to feed on a much high number of food items over longer periods, so they can meet the same caloric requirements of the foraging predator trout. Furthermore, during the winter, the most abundant drifting food sources, in most instances, are midges. The caloric value of a single midge is only worth a tiny fraction of an average sized aquatic bug, and those larger aquatic bugs are still only worth a small fraction of what a large predatory foot item is worth. This unfortunate fact, gives drift feeding trout no choice but to search out water that provides them shelter from the excessive current and look for opportunities to regularly feed on midges and other bugs until they can meet their daily food requirements. It takes a crap ton of midges to equal one sculpin, believe me. That being said, drift feeders will be opportunistic and jump at the chance to eat a larger aquatic bug if it happens to enter its feeding lane. Chances are though, there just won’t be enough of them coming into the kitchen for the drift feeding trout to sit around and wait on them. That’s why midges are always on the mind of winter trout. I guess you could say they’re the appetizers that hold the trout over until their entree arrives. Problem is, sometimes that entree never shows up, and that’s why quite often, during the winter months trout can get blinders on and will key in on feeding exclusively on midges. This particularly holds true on trout waters that are infertile. That may not be the case on super fertile limestone spring creeks, where there are several species of bugs constantly floating by trout.

At this point, I’m sure I have some people that are disagreeing with me on this. It’s important to understand that I’m not claiming the drift feeders are actively feeding 24 hours a day. I’m just stating, that when midges are the primary food source being eaten by trout, they have to maintain a higher frequency of feeding activity than most anglers would think. If you’re not catching fish during the winter, don’t automatically assume it’s because the majority of trout aren’t feeding. Chances are, you’re probably just not fishing the correct water, the right time of day or your fishing fly patterns that do not imitate what the trout are keying in on. There are instances where weather can shut down trout from feeding almost completely, but it’s not a viable excuse you can use every day of the winter when you’re not catching trout.

Remember that midges are available year round to trout, and will make up more of a trout’s overall diet during the winter months.

Fly fishermen wanting to consistently catch trout during the winter, better make a point to keep a fly box stocked with a nice selection of midge patterns representing the entire life cycle. Keep in mind also, that midge fishing can at times, be some of the most technical trout fishing for fly anglers. Demanding super accurate presentations and drifts, and calling for almost exact midge imitations in color, shape and size for success. Since midges are so small, trout usually aren’t willing to move very far to eat them. In many cases, it will take many casts to land and drift your flies through the trout’s tiny feeding lane. It’s also important to realize that there are usually many more midges floating down the river than you think, some water more than others. Sometimes it can be extremely difficult to get your tiny midge patterns noticed by the trout among all the naturals. Fish multiple patterns at a time to increase hookups. Being persistent and keeping your patience is some of the best advice I can give anglers.

Search out water that you can confirm has a decent number of trout and then position yourself within their casting range. Then pick out a single fish and fish only to that fish. Instead of making presentations to numerous fish in a group and casting all over the place, fly fish to singles, and you’ll generally spook and put down less fish. This also will allow for you to be able to effectively observe and read the fish your fishing to, so you can eventually decipher what the correct fly pattern you need to use to catch it. That in turn, will get you dialed-in, so you can hopefully continue to catch fish the remainder of the day. If you can’t confirm trout visually, target soft runs, pools, tail-outs, drop offs and structure along the bank. These places provide trout the best opportunities to stay out of the current so they can conserve their energy and feed. Unless, there’s an epic hatch or nice soft seams adjacent to fast foam covered current, I’d stay away from fast flowing riffles. Deep riffles that have cobblestone bottoms are a different story though. These riffles will provide the same slow current sanctuaries for trout and a steady flow of food. Lastly, fish slow and methodically in the winter. Change patterns and adjust your rig regularly if you’re not catching fish. Your objective should always be experimenting with different tactics and types of water until you can figure out where and what the trout want.

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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