Tying Midge Pupa Patterns--Part 1
Spring-time is midge-time. The right patterns can give you the most productive fishing of the year. But most commercial patterns don't measure up. How come? And what can you do about it?
(See the entomology page for photos)
he poet says that spring is that glorious time of year "when a young man's fancy turns to love." Forget love. If you're a stillwater fly fisher--man or woman, young or not--your fancy should turn to chironomids.
When cold waters restrict most aquatic life to a Homer Simpson-esque sedation, the chironomids (midges) frolic and emerge in the warming shallows, providing trout with a consistent source of food.
So spring fly anglers who learn how to effectively tie and fish chironomid patterns can see some of the best action of the season. Chironomids are everywhere, so if you have a well-stocked box of flies that match them, you can see success anywhere, anytime.
This two-part article will focus on the most important stage of chironomids, the pupae. While a stillwater trout may occasionally take a chironomid larva or adult, more than ten times as many pupae are consumed than larvae and adults combined.
Problems with Standard Patterns
Looking at many standard patterns today, you would think all you need is a fur body, wire ribbing, peacock thorax, and white head--and, shazzam, you've got yourself a chironomid pattern. This couldn't be further from reality.
Because trout have plenty of time to look at the pupae, and because the pupae have little or no movement, imitations need to be realistic and cannot rely on motion to suggest life. But don't despair! By looking at four characteristics-- shape, thickness, flash, and color--you can imitate any species of chironomid anywhere in the world.
When a pupa rises towards the surface--the time when it is most vulnerable to trout--its body can be straight or curled, though most are slightly curled. As they move to within an inch of the surface, their body will lie parallel with the surface. Here, only straight-shanked imitations do well.
However, it is quite difficult to tie realistic patterns (without CDC, hackles, etc.) that lie flat in the surface. Here is where creative tying really can pay dividends. A foam-backed fly like Maggie's Midge, which I'll discuss in part two of this article, is one of many creative ways to approach this problem.
The standard rule for tying nymphs is to make the abdomen 50% of the body length, while the thorax is about 40% (with the head composing the last 10%). With chironomid pupae, however, the thorax and head combined are at most 20% of the total body length. The thorax is also not much thicker than the rest of the body. Too many standard patterns make the thorax too thick and too long.
The most common failing of commercially-tied chironomids is that they are too thick. If you capture some naturals, you'll see this at a glance. It's critical to keep your chironomids from looking like bloated summer sausages amongst the naturals.
Guessing the diameter of chironomid pupae is relatively simple, since most species have length-width ratio similar to that of hooks. On a given size dry fly hook (1X fine), the body diameter of a chironomid pattern should be a shade under twice the gauge of the wire.
Many people have trouble dubbing thin bodies, but new synthetic materials such as Frostbite, Superfloss, Krystalflash, Flashabou, Lurex, Nymphskin, and Thinskin can give your fly both flash and a slender profile. Traditional materials like V-rib or Larva Lace can also be used to give thin, segmented bodies.
All chironomids gather gasses under their pupal shuck. This helps them rise to the surface when they emerge. Therefore it is essential to incorporate flash on your fly. I proved this to myself when I fished traditional, no-flash patterns on the same line within eight inches of patterns that incorporated flash. The flies with a Flashabou ribbing (instead of gold wire) caught four times as many fish.
If you use standard wire or tinsel ribs, use a silver color, for it better imitates the gasses. These gasses can also be imitated by using CDC; the CDC traps a bubble of air next to your fly. The bubbles can also be imitated by soaking a dubbed pattern in a liquid floatant, such as Gorilla Proof.
Midges come in more colors than crayons, so to keep it simple let's assume that they only come in black, olive, and red. My rule for picking colors is: muddy bottoms-red, sandy/rocky bottoms-black, weedy bottoms-olive. These are the colors I start with, but the great thing about chironomids is that they are most effective when fished in tandem, so you can experiment with various colors. When these three won't produce, I turn to maroon or orange-brown. There are also some chironomid pupae that have pearly-white bodies, and are aptly named "Phantom Midges."
About 80% of your flies should be red, black, or olive, but tie up a few in unusual colors for those times when fish won't fall for the old standards.
Because of the gasses trapped under the pupal skin, many chironomids appear to be banded in color, such as an alternating red and black. I always carry some banded patterns; I have a little more confidence in them when fish are being snooty about standard patterns.
All chironomid pupae have a tuft of white gills at the head of the insect. I prefer to imitate this with a short tuft of white CDC, because in addition to the color, it gathers a gas bubble like the natural. If you don't want to use expensive CDC, try some white Anton fibers. White foam adds buoyancy and color, but it doesn't give the "fluffy" look of CDC and Anton. I use a white gill on 80% of my chironomid patterns, though occasionally fish prefer flies without them.
If you seine a few chironomids from the water, you'll notice that quite a few of the black larvae you come across will have red butts. This coloration occurs among certain species of "bloodworm" midges. A butt of red Flashabou or dubbing can be easily incorporated into any standard chironomid pupae pattern.
Another thing that most Western tiers miss is that the wingpads of many chironomids turn an orange hue prior to emergence. This sometimes can make a huge difference, and other times the fish couldn't give a rat's ass. So I always tie up some of my standard patterns with an orange Raffia or orange Anton wingpad. Stocked trout, whether they appreciate the added realism or not, seem particularly vulnerable to the orange-enhanced patterns.
Coming Up Next
I hope these concepts will help you with your chironomid tying. In the second part of this article I'll show how to tie--and fish--five favorite chironomid patterns.
Jeff Morgan has written many articles for Westfly, mostly on entomology and fly tying. He is the author of An Angler's Guide to the Oregon Cascades and Small Stream Fly Fishing..
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