For many fly anglers, late winter and early spring is a time of dreaming about fly fishing during warm summer days. For those who might want to get an earlier start on their fishing season, midges provide a great fly-fishing opportunity. Midge fishing can be productive as early as January on the spring creeks of Paradise Valley just south of Livingston. This is because the water temperatures in these creeks are warmer than area freestone rivers and tailwaters.
Late February is the time to start looking for midges on freestones and especially tailwaters such as the Missouri River. Deuces are wild regarding weather and how strong midge hatches are in January and February. It can be sunny and 50 degrees or snowing sideways, so being prepared for the weather is key. The strongest hatches tend to run from Late February through early May. There are many different species of midges and they remain an important food source at other times of year as well.
Midges are closely related to mosquitos and are on the water year-round. Because of this, midges are a staple item on trout’s diets. In many waters midges make up half of a trout’s annual calorie intake over the year. In late winter and early spring, midges are sometimes the only aquatic insect emerging at the time. Hungry trout with limited aquatic insect activity will focus on midges for their daily food needs. With that said, midge hatches are dependable and sometimes heavy. They can produce great fishing for those wishing to scratch their late winter or early spring fly-fishing itch.
Midge life cycle
Midges are small insects in the order Diptera. They have a complete life cycle and can fulfill their life cycle in just a few weeks. Midges start out as an egg then hatch into a larva. The larva then transforms to a pupa where it rides an air bubble to the water’s surface. The adult sheds its exoskeleton at the water’s surface producing the adult midge.
After drying their wings, midges fly off to streamside vegetation. Males and females mate in clusters either in the air or on the water’s surface. After mating, the females deposit their eggs on the water’s surface and the adults expire ending their life cycle.
Midge larvae are poor swimmers at best and attach themselves to rocks, aquatic plants, submerged woody debris or burrow into the mud. They are small wormlike creatures ranging from four- to 12-millimeters in length. They come in a handful of colors including red, olive, tan, brown and black.
Midges are a constant food source throughout the year. They are of particular interest to anglers during the late winter and early spring because midges are often the first, or sometimes the only aquatic insect emerging to complete their life cycles during this time. Warming waters triggers feeding behavior in trout and they look to these small but abundant meals to meet their calorie needs throughout the season.
Midge pupae are slightly more robust than the larvae. This is because on the thorax region of the insect. Its legs and wings are developing under their exoskeleton. Gases are also entrained under the exoskeleton, so fishing an imitation with some flash or a clear bead can be very effective. These entrained gases give the pupae increased buoyancy which make the pupae drift in the water column before emergence.
When the pupae reach the surface of the water, they rest below it for a time before emerging. While resting here, the larvae are an easy meal for trout. A midge pupae pattern in applicable size and color fished in the surface film can yield great results just prior to their emergence as an adult. After this resting behavior, the pupae sheds its exoskeleton while emerging through the water’s surface to become an adult midge.
Midge adults provide great fishing, especially during or just after their emergence. After adult midges break through the water’s surface their exoskeleton is often still intact, trailing off the tip of their abdomen. Many emerging midges are not strong enough to break through the water’s surface. They die in the surface film with their exoskeleton dangling off their abdomen. Trout key in on these midges as they are helpless and can’t fly with the still attached exoskeleton. Selecting a midge imitation with a trailing shuck mimics these midges can produce great results.
Another behavior of adult midges after they shed their exoskeleton is clustering in large groups. Since midge hatches can be prolific in the right conditions these clusters could hold dozens of midges. Trout will seek out these clusters and get a better meal with one rise instead of feeding in a piece-meal fashion on single midge adults.
Midge tactics: Fishing with midge larvae
Midges are in play all year long but hold special importance to fly-fishing success in late winter through spring. Like all aquatic insect hatches, water temperature plays a role. Fishing with larvae imitations in the morning will be the most productive method for fly anglers. During the warmer parts of the day, from 11:00am through the afternoon, focus on using midge pupae, emergers and adults.
Because of the small size of midges, anglers will often have to resort to 6X or 7X tippet. Regarding fishing with flies that imitate midge larvae, typical nymph fishing rules apply. Set your fly about one-and-a-half times the water’s depth under a strike indicator. Use a split shot applicable to the water speed and depth pinched onto the leader about 12- to 15-inches above your fly. You want to try to get your fly close to the bottom, because this is where the larvae live. Midge larvae have a tendency to frequently let go and drift downstream. Because of this behavioral drift, using a midge larvae pattern fished near the bottom can produce good results.
Midge tactics: Fishing with midge pupae
When fishing midge pupae, observation to a trout’s feeding behavior is key. It is important to look at the depth at which the fish are feeding. Fishing your fly too shallow, too deep, or too far outside of the trout’s feeding lane can result in frustration. It might take a little trial and error to get your depth correct. Once that sweet spot for the placing your indicator is found, more eats on your fly will occur.
So far as the strike indicator, choose a small one because midge pupa imitations are fished usually in the top half of the water column. A large indicator fished close to your flies will often spook the trout you’re targeting. Fishing a dual rig of midge pupae can also be effective because it puts your offerings at different depths. For this scenario, you can drop a second fly off the bend of the hook or add about 12 inches of tippet to the leader for your second fly. A small split shot can be added to the leader to get your flies to the appropriate depth for feeding fish.
A dry dropper approach can also be used. Choose a visible dry fly that is in play like a blue-winged olive, Griffith’s Gnat or other midge adult pattern, and set the dropper depth accordingly. If trout are feeding in the surface film on midge pupae, a greased leader approach works well. To grease your leader, apply floatant to the leader and tippet a few inches above the fly.
Fishing with midge emergers and adults
When trout switch to eating adults and emerging adults, it is time to switch from subsurface patterns to dries. Midges tend to prefer cloudy days and midges tend to emerge around lunchtime in the strongest numbers. They continue through the afternoon hours in the right conditions.
For the emerger, as mentioned earlier, choose a pattern with a trailing shuck. Trout will key into this physical characteristic and fishing this type of fly pattern will increase your success. When fishing these dries, observation and accurate casting is very important. Since there are often so many midges in the water fish do not have to move far to get them. Locate actively feeding fish and target them.
Stealth is key as well. We all know it easier to cast 30 feet than 45 feet, so try to get closer to your targeted fish in a quiet way. Shorter casts are easier in the wind, and mending line is easier. While fishing adult midge dry flies you can use the same tips as above. A midge pupae dropper can also be fished in tandem with a midge dry-fly pattern.
Every fly shop has their own tried and true patterns so be sure to ask locally for the hot fly. For the larvae you can keep it simple with a zebra midge. This fly works and is a staple in Western fly boxes. Be sure to have black, red and gray in sizes 16-20. Other flies include small parachute Adams, Griffith’s gnat, renegade, CDC transitional midge, smokejumper, root beer midge and skittering midge. Use shorter leaders in swifter water and longer leaders in slower water. A leader of 9- to 12-feet with 18- to 24-inches of 5X to 7X tippet (depending on water conditions and fly size) should work well.
Where to fish
In Southwest Montana all waters hold midges, but some stand out. The Missouri River, Madison River, Jefferson River, Gallatin River, Yellowstone River, Boulder River and the spring creeks just south of Livingston all provide great midge fishing.
Midge fishing is a great opportunity in Southwest Montana when winter turns to spring. Small flies, light tippets, weather, and accurate casting and presentation are the name of the game for success. With that said, midges are often always the abundant food item available during this time and the trout key in on them. Trout feed consistently and vigorously on these tiny insects and can provide some great fishing. So, grab some midges, some light tippets and maybe an extra layer or raincoat, and get out there for some great early-season fishing.
by Matt Wilhelm, Yellowstone Fly Fishing School