Winter Fly Fishing – Midges 101

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Louis Cahill Photography

Winter Fly Fishing – Midges 101. Photo: Louis Cahill

Sometimes smaller flies mean bigger rewards.

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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16 thoughts on “Winter Fly Fishing – Midges 101

  1. Kent,

    Great blog with a lot of useful info, variety, and good writing. in the spirit of Tom Rosenbauer what are your top 10 midge patterns. I mostly fish the Davidson and thereabouts. I have fished with Walker several times. Thank you for all you and Louis do to keep fly fishing mojo going in the winter.


      • Awesome. I am pretty sure your posts are changing my boxes for the better. During the tying season I will basically tie anything from this blog, and definitely some Midcurrent stuff too. I already have a dozen of your steamers recommendations in the box. Thanks.

  2. Just to mention for any new flyfishers out there two very serviceable midge patterns are the zebra midge, it a couple of colour combinations, and tiny loop emergers. Rather than have a midge box, I just have a half a row but I am much more recreational than a guide.

    Thanks for the tips on becoming dialed in to the trout. I have a large school of creek chub which are midge fanatics and sometimes hard to figure out. I think fishing more technically will help me figure out the midge du jour.

  3. An excellent article as usual!
    I spent some time in England a couple of years back and their ‘buzzer’, read midge, patterns were all at least size 14 and sometimes up to 12, despite the fact the little beasty itself was tiny. The thinking was that in a midge hatch which tended to be massive, not only did the fly need to be in the right place it had to stick out like dog’s testimonials, hence the bigger size.
    Seemed to work often enough to keep doing it.
    Any thoughts?

    • Tony,

      Glad you brought this up. On still-waters, midges tend to be larger in size than on the tailwaters and spring creeks I was talking about in the post. So yes, matching the size for the water you are fishing or going slightly bigger if you are wanting to get your fly noticed in the crowd is a good tactic.


  4. You just can’t go wrong with fishing a midge. On tougher days on the water, I’ll often try a #20 red or black zebra midge and a lot of the time it will make a difference in how many fish I bring to hand. Especially on our tailwaters.

  5. Great stuff man. Once winter comes I don’t tie a tandem rig without a midge pattern up top! I caught my bigget rainbow ever on a size 20 black midge pattern. Keep up the good work!

  6. Good stuff, Kent.

    In my experience, some surprisingly big fish will fall to midge patterns. Zebra midge is also my favorite under the surface; Griffith’s Gnat on top. The Griffith’s Gnat is perceived more as a cluster than a single midge, I believe. I find that a red thread “head” on the Griffith’s Gnat is slightly preferred in our waters. I am not sure why.

  7. Thank you for the insight regarding Winter midge fishing, Kent. It’s starting to warm up here in Northern Utah, so it’s time to get out and fish the Buffalo midge hatches on the middle and lower sections of the Provo River.


    Mark Greer
    South Jordan, UT

      • I was thinking about midging. The guide, that I seen up at Crowley lake in California, was midging with 3 clients. They caught, my guess, about 30 brown and rainbow trout in 2 hours. When I asked about how they were fishing, in the tackle store, they said that the guide was probably midging. I would like to learn how to midge. What type of pole, reel, and type of line would you recommend? Thanks

        • Mike,

          Ideally if you know you’re going to be fishing tiny flies and fine tippet you want a fly rod that can lay out delicate presentations and has a soft enough tip to help you cushion your hook sets and hard pulling fish. Too stiff of a rod and you’ll find it harder to fish the fly patterns effectively and fight fish on these tiny flies. Can you do it yes, but if you think you’re going to get into finesse fishing with really tiny dries, emergers and nymphs, you’ll find a niche rod designed specifically for this to be really nice to have and fish with. I suggest you making a trip to your local fly shop and asking them for recommendations on rod they carry that would fit the bill. You then can cast a few and figure out what rod suits you the best. Lastly, longer rods like 10′ in length are really nice for fishing midge patterns. The longer length makes the tip a little softer than shorter rods which allows you to go with a lower weight rod without sacrificing the backbone. Your mending capabilities are also increased with the longer rod.


          • Thanks for the info, Kent –
            I am looking forward to finding a good usedd niche rod for my next trip.

            Mike lanska

          • I’m hooked. My brother and I went fishing with a guide at Crowley lake, here in California. I was introduced to Midge fishing, and we both had one of the best fishing trips, we’ve ever took. Were going to use this guide again, in Sept, when the big boys come out. We caught rainbows & browns up to 6 pds, (all released) I’m hooked !

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