Midge Fly Fishing: Why, When, and How

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Article Categories: Fishing | fishing tips
Article Tags: Fishing Tips | Fly Fishing

Midge fly fishing is one of the most effective ways to fish for trout. You can go midge fly fishing on virtually any body of water at any time of year. The small but mighty midge patterns are useful to have in any fly box– but why are midges so effective, and how do you fish with them? Read on to find out everything you need to go midge fly fishing.

 

Why Is Midge Fishing Effective Year Round?

Midges hatch, rise, and swarm at all times of the year. This means that you can fish with flies that match the larvae, pupae, and adults– even when there’s snow on the ground. Midges make up to 50% of a trout’s diet, so they will nearly always be willing to strike these flies.

One of the most important elements of fly fishing is choosing the right fly. You need to choose flies that mimic what the local trout are eating. Trout are very wary and visually oriented animals, and a fly that looks out of place is a fly that will not attract bites.

In order to entice the fish, you usually need to match the hatch– that is, you need to know what insects have hatched recently and choose flies based on that. However, this can be a challenge in winter. The life cycles of most insects include a period of winter dormancy, during which they are not active and they are certainly not hatching. But this is not true for midges!

 

What Are Midges?

Midges are tiny insects that look a bit like mosquitoes. While they are related, they do not bite. In North America alone, there are nearly 1,100 species of midges, and for the most part, they look quite similar to each other.

Midges are small; none of them get over ⅜ of an inch long. As adults, they are drab in color; the larvae can be different colors, including black, red, and olive green. Red midge larvae are often called bloodworms.

If you want to learn more about midges and other insects that trout feed on, read our full guide on fly fishing entomology.

 

Midge Fishing Rigs

While midges have a four-stage life cycle, the eggs are so tiny that they do not make useful fly patterns. Instead, midge flies mimic the larvae, the pupae, and the adults. All midge patterns should be tied on small hooks (generally 16-28).

 

Understanding Midge Flies

Midge Life Stages And Flies

Stage Typical Sizes Basic Description Example Patterns Water Placement
Larva
(Nymph)
18-24 Simple, curved fly that resembles a small segmented worm Zebra Midge, Pale Olive Midge Larva Near the bottom
Pupa
(Emerger)
18-24 U-shaped with extra dubbing or flash near the head CDC Transitional Midge, Root Beer Midge, RS2 Rising in the water column or at/just below the water’s surface
Adult 16-24 Sometimes mimics several adult insects instead of just one; dubbing mimics wings and legs Griffith’s Gnat, Matt’s Midge, Zelon Midge On top of the water

 

Midge larvae, or nymphs, live in the sand and rocks on a streambed. Fishing rigs with larval patterns may need to include split shot or another kind of weight to keep the fly low in the water. Midge larva patterns should be tied on very small hooks, usually in the 18-24 range. These patterns are simple but highly effective.

When midges pupate, they rise through the water so that the adult insect can emerge on top of the water. This is why they are more commonly called emergers or emerger patterns. The patterns for emerger midge flies are a little more complex than the larvae. This is because as midges pupate, their shape changes.

Wings and legs form, and the thorax swells. The pupa also has a small air bubble that assists it to the surface. This bubble catches the light and can make the pupa look larger and more attractive to fish. This means that emerger midge patterns can have a little extra flash or dubbing to mimic the changing shape and the bubble.

Rigs for midge emerger flies should be set to place the fly where the fish are feeding. Emergers rise from the bottom, through the mid water column, and all the way to the surface. They therefore can be effective at any depth. If you can’t tell where the fish are feeding, the depth can be changed to test and find the most effective depth for your emergers.

Some anglers like to run a larva and an emerger together when midge fly fishing, which can work well. A common way to do this is to have a waited larvae with a tailing emerger that floats freely above the larvae (image below of this rig setup).

Midge adult patterns are dry flies. Because adult midges are rarely seen alone, these patterns often mimic several individuals or a mating pair of midges. These flies need to be fished on top of the water. Because they are small and hard to see, you may want to consider adding a parachute or a bit of color just for visibility.

 

Types of Midges and Midge Flies

With over 1,000 species of midges, it would be virtually impossible to memorize all of them and their appearances– and it wouldn’t be very useful. Instead, having a general idea of what species live in the area

This is perhaps most important for the larvae, which have more color variability than adult midges due to their diet. You should ask at a local fishing shop what midge patterns are most successful. Also, since midge patterns tend to be so small and so common, it doesn’t hurt to simply take several color variants with you.

There are a few midge flies that every fly angler should always have in their fly box. No angler should ever be without some Zebra Midges, RS2s and Griffith’s Gnats.

Griffith’s Gnat is a very good midge pattern to keep on you. It mimics clusters of midges; when you dead drift a Griffith’s Gnat through slower eddies, trout will not be able to resist it (hopefully).

For emergers, we love the RS2. IT is a fly that works in almost any body of water, and can be tied in various smaller sizes and have color variations.

Zebra Midges are a larva pattern that is one of the easiest flies to tie. If you want to learn to tie your own flies, this is a great place to start. They are easy to make in different colors to match the local species.

Generally, you should carry larva patterns in black, olive, and red. Most midge larvae are one of those three colors.

 

When To Fish Midges

There is no best time of year to fish midges; trout will always accept them! However, winter is a particularly good time for midge fly fishing, as midges are what the trout will be looking for when the weather gets cold.

The time you need to pay attention to is the time of day.

  • Morning: Emergers, nymphs
  • Midday: Nymphs, adults if you see them swarming
  • Afternoon: Adults, nymphs, emergers
  • Evening: Emergers

The above is just a general guideline. Sunlight and temperature changes can cause the insect behavior to change, or even the trout behavior to change, which often makes it necessary for anglers to adjust in real time.

A popular setup is to start in the morning with a double rig that has an emerger on top and a larva below, and then switch to an adult pattern on top with an emerger below as the day goes on.

 

Midge Fishing Techniques

The most important thing to remember when fishing with midges is that you need to fish where the fish are. Fish won’t eat what they can’t find, and when you’re using flies this small, you often need to present them right to the fish. If you try casting a midge in areas with fast-moving currents, fishing these tiny flies is very difficult because they won’t flow right in the water. Instead, look for slow channels or deep pockets of still water.

Another important thing to remember is that you really do need an indicator when midge fly fishing. The indicator will help you get your timing down and help you see when strikes happen. A good rule of thumb is to keep your strike indicator adjusted to 1½  to 2 times the depth of the water, measured from your split shot or other weight.

Casting is key when fishing midges, especially adults. You will want to target a specific fish when trying to entice them with an adult; because midge populations are so large, fish typically won’t work very hard for them.

You also absolutely must keep your flies in the right area of the water. Greasing your leader can help keep your emergers in the right place if you find that they want to sink. Using a double rig with two life stages can also be helpful. Once you know what the fish are eating, you can cut off the dropper or switch out the top fly.

 

Tips for Fishing Midge Flies

Fishing with midges isn’t a particularly strict science; there’s a lot of room for flexibility and preference. Here are a few of the optional things you can try to make your midge fly fishing more successful.

Midge Fishing Rig

This is one of our favorite ways to set up a double midge rig. This type of setup has success year round in nearly all bodies of water.

 

Double Up On Dry Flies

Midges are small, dark, and difficult to see on the water. To make your life easier and to lose fewer fish, use two dry flies on your line. You can add a larger midge, a parachute mayfly, or another dry fly that’s easier to spot. The midge will attract the fish, while the other fly will act as a strike indicator.

 

Use Thin Tippet

Midges are tiny, and a thick tippet will be too stiff for natural movement. Use tippet in the 6X to 7X size range; you don’t have to go down to 8X, but larger sizes like 4X or even 5X might be too big for your midges to move easily.

 

Fix Your Split Shot

If you’re using split shot sinkers for midge nymphs, you may find that your shot wants to slide down the fine tippet to the fly. You do not want this to happen, but fortunately, there’s an easy way to fix this.

All you have to do is cut the leader where you want the shot to stop sliding, and then tie it back together with a double surgeon’s knot. Crimp the shot above the knot; the knot will keep it from sliding any further.

 

Choosing Nymph Colors

If you can see nymphs or you know what color the midge larvae are, great! But what color should you choose if you don’t know, or if you don’t have anyone to ask?

Red. You should choose red. Why? If the bottom of the lake is rocky, some midge larvae might be black, brown, or olive. But red midge larvae can be found on the bottom of almost every lake or stream. These larvae have a high concentration of hemoglobin from low oxygen concentrations at the bottom of the water. If the stream you’re on has a sandy or muddy bottom, or if you’re fishing in a lake, red midge larvae are virtually always going to be present.

 

Keep Moving

Midges hatch throughout the day, but they typically hatch in clusters. If you go for more than 15 or 20 minutes without a strike, either the trout aren’t there, your presentation is off, or the bugs aren’t hatching. Move on and try that spot again later if you know your presentation and depth is correct.

 

Midge Fly Fishing Gear

A 4-weight or 5-weight rod is perfect for most midge fly fishing applications. You will want to have an assortment of tapered leaders with you, as well as a few spools of tippet. You will want several types of flies, of course, and you’ll want to bring plenty of split shot, strike indicators and floatant.

When choosing leader length, look at your water conditions. Smooth, glassy currents require longer leaders in the 9-12 foot range. If your water is full of riffles and shorter currents, you can get away with shorter leaders and heavier tippet, since the visibility is reduced.

Even if you’re only fishing adults, you will probably want to have a split shot for weight (for a dropper rig)– and if you’re fishing nymphs, you’ll definitely need it. Bring various sizes of split shot so that you can make adjustments on the fly.

 

Fluorocarbon Vs. Monofilament Tippet

The tippet type you use depends on the application. Both fluorocarbon and monofilament tippet have their pros and cons, and both will work for nymph fly fishing. Here’s how the two compare to each other in a few key categories.

Type Price Behavior in Water Flexibility Responsiveness to Strikes
Monofilament Cheap Floats Stretchy Less responsive
Fluorocarbon More expensive Sinks Stiff Highly responsive

 

So what situations call for each type of tippet?

If you are fishing emergers or nymphs, fluorocarbon is preferable. This is because it is virtually invisible underwater. It is more abrasion-resistant than monofilament since it does not absorb water like monofilament line does. It also sinks, which makes it ideal for nymphs. If you want to fish emergers, you may want to add floatant or silicone grease so that your fly won’t sink to the bottom.

Monofilament is better for dry flies. The floatation mono is helpful when fishing dries. Your knots are less likely to slip, and the line is very forgiving as you hook into a larger fish.

The situations that call for each kind of tippet are so different that it’s just easier to have both kinds in your tackle box, ready to go.

 

Indicators

Midges are tiny, so don’t be afraid to use strike indicators. As we mentioned before, a dry fly can be a great strike indicator. Yarn indicators are also very popular; while they do need to be treated with floatant, they’re great for spooky fish because they sit nicely on top of the water and do not cause disturbances.

Bubble rigs and stick-on foam indicators are also fine for midge fly fishing. Stick-on foam indicators don’t always perform the best in rough water, since they can fall off your line. Fluorescent floating putty also works well.

 

Small Flies

We’ve mentioned this before, but midges are small. These little flies are actually even smaller as adults than they are as larvae, and the only time they’re ever more than an inch long (sometimes) is when they are trailing their chrysalis (called a shuck) before it falls off.

Having the right size of fly is especially important when midges are the only insects on the water. Remember that trout are visual predators and they know what should be “on the menu.” Presenting the trout with something unseasonably large often won’t work.

However, if you want to make your fly stand out, you can add a little flash or color. Midges hatch en masse and swarm in the thousands; a little visual difference might be just the thing to get the fish biting.

As winter weather fast approaches, many anglers are putting away their rods and reels. But you don’t have to! Just get yourself some midge flies, some fly fishing gloves, and head out to your favorite stream. The fish aren’t hibernating, and you don’t have to, either. Midge fly fishing is a great way to enjoy the outdoors, even in winter.

Max DesMarais
Max DesMarais

Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about