Midges Redux

By Jeff Morgan

When most Northwest trout anglers plan their winter fly boxes, they turn to cold-weather reliables: Egg Flies , San Juan Worms , stonefly nymphs, and small mayfly nymphs. These are excellent choices for streams which are often spate-bloated.

Sure we may get lucky with a midge hatch, but the odds are against us. Even if we find a hatch that brings trout to the surface, we have serious obstacles: midges are small; trout tend to feed on them in slower water; those same trout tend to be lethargic in cold weather; and adult midges spend the shortest time on the water's surface of any aquatic insect except black flies.

Yet, expanding our pattern spectrum for winter trout enables us to maximize those choice moments when trout dimple the surface in search of midges.

Three Things to Match

While size and color are important when matching any insect, you should consider the three most important factors for midges. First is flash. Emerging midges travel to the surface loaded with trapped carbon dioxide, then hit the surface to warp the meniscus with their newly-formed adult legs. The gas, combined with the legs touching the surface, create more sparkle than a tinsel-laden Christmas tree. With the exception of the rising black fly, no insect is more worthy of "flashy" imitations than an emerging midge.

The second factor is motion. Midges have the fastest emergence in the insect world, moving from an inch below the surface to flight in less than five seconds--a fraction of that for caddis and mayflies. So we should remember that static patterns are recipes for disaster, no matter how realistic they are.

The third factor is distinction. For example, midge hatches in rivers should never be truly "matched." With hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of naturals emerging over the course of an afternoon's hatch, your fly must look different--not only so that you can see it, but so that the fish distinguish it and target it over others. That is why cluster- style midges, such as the Griffiths Gnat , have proven extraordinarily effective.

Two Imitations

My first attempts at imitating midges simply added a CdC Wing to the Griffiths Gnat. It worked great 75% of the time. However, I found that many fish repeatedly rejected it, even with my best presentations. Something more than the increased volume which the Griffiths Gnat represented seemed to matter to certain fish.

The first break from this style added a flashy butt of pearl holographic tinsel to a Griffiths Gnat. Later, I changed the CdC wing to a CdC collar hackle. This made the fly lighter and easier to dry, which is an admirable characteristic when one is in the midst of a short, hot rise. This fly--the Flashy Gnat --also complimented the palmered body hackle, rather than weighing it down. Sometimes a CdC hackle over a soaked palmered hackle body will make the body ride like a keel through the water. While "half-in/half-out" is a good rule for emergers, this theory applies to the vertical axis of the pattern, not the horizontal one. Few aquatic or terrestrial naturals ride with their backs above and bodies below the surface.

The second attempt to create a new adult midge was the CdC Buzzer . An example of the hyper-simple technique that I have experimented with lately, this pattern is nothing more than thread, a strand of Flashabou, and a single CdC feather. The final pattern is a light, billowy adult midge imitation, with sufficient flash to replicate an emerging midge or a floundering terrestrial.

The key to the CdC Buzzer is selecting a long CdC feather with thick barbs. I normally use natural CdC from ducks I shoot myself, but in the early season the wild CdC is often too fine, and the fly looks like it was tied with standard hackle.

In the summer and in larger sizes, the CdC Buzzer also functions as an effective wet fly. Wrapping a partridge or English grouse hackle at the head creates a reasonable imitation of a small caddis pupae, while also serving as a general attractor. I normally tie this pattern on a larger wet fly hook so that the weight of the hook overwhelms the buoyancy of the CdC.


In winter, I present both these patterns almost exclusively with a downstream presentation. Trout that rise to surface midges in the winter do so with a tremendous thermal disadvantage. If anything goes wrong with the presentation, a wintertime trout will turn off much faster and for a longer time than trout feeding on a sun-drenched pale morning dun hatch.

In the summer, midges offer anglers far more options. The sparse profile of these patters allow the angler to skate the flies for aggressive, terrestrial-feeding trout. Unlike the simple V wake of a basic CdC midge or a generic emerger, these flies leave a textured multiple-V wake with the fly gently hopping side to side, which better matches the stumbling, bumbling, fumbling takeoff of the natural, whose abdomen, legs, and wings all hit the surface when trying to escape.

These are small details, ones that don't matter to the fish we can catch with anything. But they matter to experienced fish, and those are the big guys you want the most. Remember that if the fish you target refuses particular shades of size 20 flies, they might just apply that same strict judgement to motion.

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.