It’s hard to be a fly angler in the winter. The weather is bitterly cold, the rivers are clogged with ice, and the days of casting to rising trout seem farther and farther away. During early winter with the distractions of the holidays, you hardly notice not being on the water. But as time marches on, you begin to feel the craving.
It starts as a slight twitching of the eyebrow whenever you hear running water, followed by a flicking of the wrist in your sleep. Eventually, these small symptoms manifest into full-on withdrawals. Before you know it, you’re using all your frequent flyer miles for fishing trips to exotic destinations around the world and find yourself standing in the living room practicing your casting technique or trying to net the cat.
A lot of fly anglers find healthier ways to cope with winter by tying flies for the spring and or going ice fishing. As fun as they can be, these activities don’t always scratch the itch. Thankfully, there is a way for those truly dedicated to the art of the long rod to get their dry fly fix during the coldest season—fishing the winter midge hatch.
What Are Winter Midges? Midges are tiny, non-biting flies similar to mosquitos. Members of the Chironomidae family, these petite bugs have some of the longest-running hatches of the year, emerging from eggs as small, worm-like larvae before rising and floating above the surface of the water from October through May and sometimes longer, depending on the area. Trout feed on midges throughout the year as they are almost always present in the water, but they become especially important to a trout’s diet during winter. During this time, other aquatic insects like caddisflies, mayflies, and stoneflies are far less active, so midges often become the most readily available food source.
There’s a menagerie of different midge species, many of which go through an entire life cycle—from egg to larvae to adult—during the winter months. Most of these winter midges are tiny insects that never grow larger than a few millimeters long. But because these bugs hatch in such prolific numbers, their small size is completely negated. Trout feed voraciously on winter midges, consuming thousands of them each day. Often the bugs will completely cover the surface of the water in mating clusters, allowing trout to devour mouthfuls at once. This gives fly anglers ample opportunity to catch them so long as they are using the right equipment.
Fly Patterns and Equipment for Winter Midge Fishing The biggest reason why midge fishing isn’t more popular is because it often involves long leaders, spiderweb-thin tippet, and tiny fly patterns that can be extremely frustrating to see on the water. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve had a lot of great winter days on the water using minimal equipment and only a few simple fly patterns. It all comes down to using the right gear.
While you can fish midges on any standard trout fly rod, like a 5- or 6-weight, it’s best to do it on a lighter rod like a 3-weight. These lighter rods usually offer a slower, full-flex action and are perfect for casting tiny flies accurately and detecting what are often subtle strikes. Your leaders should be about 9 feet long and somewhere in the 5x to 7x range with 6x to 8x fluorocarbon tippet—which is necessary in the low, clear water of winter.
There are thousands of midge fly patterns out there, but you don’t need them all to be successful. One of the best things about winter midge fishing is that multiple species hatching at the same time and the fish aren’t too particular when targeting them. Fish a few basic midge patterns in a few different sizes and colors and you’re pretty much covered. For nymphs, I like to carry a couple larger bead head midge patterns like a red or black Zebra Midge in sizes 16 to 18. I’ll usually use these as a dropper fly with smaller non-weighted patterns like the Disco Midge or WD-40 in sizes 20 to 26 above it.
Your dry fly midge patterns should be fishable in all different water types that trout feed on midges, from slow-moving pools to fast, bubbly seams. You’ll want to use large patterns that represent midge clusters and pair them with smaller single dry flies as droppers. My favorite larger midge patterns include the Grizzly Cluster and the Griffiths Gnat in sizes 18 to 22 which are very buoyant and easy to see. I’ll pair these with smaller individual patterns like the Birchells Hatching Midge or even tiny versions of classic patterns like a Parachute Adams or Purple Haze in sizes 22 to 26.
How to Fish Midge Nymphs Nymphing with midge patterns will be your number-one fish producer during the winter months. They can be fished at a variety of depths and speeds and allow you to target trout wherever they are in the water column. Your best places to find fish are in the deeper, slower water downstream from fast currents or along the outer edges of where slow-moving eddies meet faster water. These are prime winter trout lies and are the best places to fish your nymphs.
Set up your nymph rig by first tying a length of fluorocarbon tippet to the end of your leader. Once you tie the knot, trim off the tag end of the leader but leave the tag of the tippet in place. Tie a lighter, smaller midge nymph pattern to this tag of tippet and add a larger bead head midge nymph to the terminal end of the tippet The two nymphs should be about a foot apart. This will usually work for most water conditions, but if you’re fishing especially deep or fast water, add a small BB split shot to the line 6 to 8 inches above the top fly so it can get to the proper depth quickly.
Though you can fish this nymph rig by simply dead-drifting or high sticking it, I’ve found it’s best to use a small strike indicator on the line. This helps in detecting the subtle strikes. You’ll want to place the indicator on your leader at roughly half-again the depth of the water you’re fishing. If you’re fishing 6 feet of water, set the indicator at 9 feet. If you’re fishing 4 feet set the indicator at 6 feet.
Having a good winter fishing day is all about accurate casting and long drifts. You want to try to cast your flies far above potential spots where trout are holding, mending sufficiently so that the minuscule flies sink and arrive in the strike zone by the time they reach the fish. On days when the fish are active, this can be mere feet below the surface. But when the fish are holding close to the bottom, you must get your nymphs to drift as naturally as possible within a few feet of the trout’s nose. Don’t be afraid to drift the same fishy-looking stretch of water several times until you get a strike. With such small presentations it’s very unlikely that you’ll spook the fish, and it may take a few tries before you find the sweet spot.
How to Fish Midge Dry Flies Unlike other dry fly situations where you can tempt a trout into rising by simply drifting a fly over them, there is almost no point in fishing midge dry fly patterns unless you see fish rising. The bugs are so small that they won’t tempt trout to come up in the cold winter water unless they are already keyed in on a hatch. However, when the fish are rising to midges, the fishing can be ridiculous, so it’s worth having the dry flies handy when the moment comes.
During winter, the best dry fly midge action often comes on calm, slightly overcast days when the temperature is in the mid-30s or warmer. On days like this, concentrate your efforts on longer sections of smooth flowing water near the tailouts of pools. When you find a likely-looking spot, hang out and watch the water for a time until you spot rising fish. When trout are taking midges, the rises are subtle, usually little more than a tiny dimple on the surface, so you have to be vigilant to spot them. This may mean freezing your butt off on a rock for a bit, but the suffering will be worth it.
Once you’ve found a good pod of rising trout, cast your dry flies slightly upstream of where they are feeding and mend so the bugs drift at the same speed as the current when they pass over the fish. I like to fish my larger midge cluster patterns as my top fly, tied directly to a light leader, with a smaller single midge pattern tied to the hook shank of the larger fly as a dropper. Most of the time trout are concentrating on eating midge clusters and the larger pattern will get the most action. However, even if the trout are picking out the smaller single midges, the cluster pattern can act as a strike indicator because it’s easier to see. Its sudden disappearance will let you know that a fat winter trout has eaten your dropper, even if it did so too softly to notice.
Get Your Fix Most fly anglers simply suffer through the winter by spending long, cold, troutless days staring out the window, watching fish porn, and marking off the days on the calendar until spring. But if you’re a midge fisherman, the winter can be a thrilling time to enjoy cold, crisp, beautiful days on the water doing what you truly love to do.