Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Zebra Midge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Zebra Midge. Show all posts

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Winter Is For Fly Tying

During the cold months, when I'm not out fishing, I'm usually getting caught up on my tying for the year. That doesn't mean I won't tie throughout the season as well. Normally I have to tie at least weekly and sometimes more. If I'm fortunate, however, I can get far enough ahead now that I won't have to tie large quantities until next winter. That opens up more time for fishing and of course doing other important things.

I like to pursue my winter fly tying in an orderly fashion. Typically, I focus on the flies that I go through the most in a normal season. That means lots of midges for the tailwaters and the usual nymphs, dry flies, and terrestrials for the mountains. As a guide, I tie the vast majority of the flies I guide with. There are some exceptions though. While I really enjoy tying stimulator and parachute style flies, I will often buy a good supply of those in bulk because of how many I go through in a season. Nymphs and midges, on the other hand, are flies that I can produce quickly in bulk and make sense to tie my own. This is especially true because I tie some patterns that you cannot purchase commercially. 

And that is at the root of my fly tying. I like to experiment. Tweaking existing patterns and also coming up with my own flies is part of the excitement of the sport of fly fishing. It is said that there is nothing new under the sun. Thus, most of my supposed inventions are ones that someone else is tying somewhere else. In fact, most of my inventions were motivated by flies that I've already seen or been told about. However, when there are more and more anglers out on the water than ever before, sometimes the difference between a slow day and a good day is just a subtle variation on a standard pattern. The fish see the same "shop flies" over and over again every day on some rivers. Sometimes, those shop flies work great, but you have to think outside the proverbial box.

This last year in the Smokies, I had a late season epiphany that really changed the success we had one day on a brook trout stream. The common wisdom is to fish yellow well into the fall. That is because of the availability of a vast array of yellow bugs in the warm months, perhaps the most important of which are the little yellow stoneflies found so plentifully on our southern Appalachian streams. In other words, the conventional wisdom is there for a reason and usually yellow works. However, when you are on a fairly pressured stream, never mind that you're fishing for brook trout, there comes a point in the season when the fish start to get finicky. That's a good thing and just means that the vast majority of anglers are releasing their catch which is as it should be with these native jewels.

Anyway, back to my story, there we were on this brook trout stream and the fish are only half-heartedly inspecting our standard yellow dry flies. Going smaller in size got a bit more interest, but it was clear that the fish were onto the game at this late point in the season. So what did we do? Small, dark, and subtle. I didn't notice any dark bugs on the water, although in the Smokies anything is possible at almost any time of the year. What I did notice, though, was that the brook trout were no longer shy. Even with brook trout, showing them something they aren't used to seeing can be the ticket. 

On the tailwaters, that means carrying a large variety of color schemes on my midges. In particular, I carry a wide variety of colors with my Zebra Midges. It is no coincidence that my old article on fishing the Zebra Midge is one of the all time favorites on this blog. This is one of the most fish catching flies that I know of. I mostly use it on the tailwaters, but it also catches fish in the Smokies. There are so many possible combinations of bead color, wire color, and thread color, that I couldn't begin to list them all here. I will say that some of my favorites include black and silver, black and copper, olive and copper, and chocolate and copper. Most of my most successful midge patterns are darker, but sometimes lighter colors are the ticket.

Recently, I decided to share a quick video of tying the Zebra Midge over on YouTube. If you haven't already, check out my channel there. My goal is to share a lot more content via video in addition to the usual blog posts here. While you're there, make sure and subscribe to the Trout Zone Anglers channel. There is another midge pattern that I have shared there that I probably fish even more than the Zebra Midge these days. It has accounted for more fish over the last few years than any other fly and also plenty of big fish. For those of you who are experienced fly tiers, these videos probably won't provide much new info, but I'm mostly trying to help out those who are just getting into fly tying. 

The recent explosion in popularity of fly fishing is bringing more and more people into the sport. Not everyone will decide to also take up fly tying, but the satisfaction it brings is well worth considering. Because our good friends at Little River Outfitters are not able to do tying classes right now because of COVID, I'm going to try and share tying videos more often over the next couple of months. If you have a specific pattern you would like to see (or other content), please let me know in the comments below OR send me an email.

Back to my fly tying, I'll work on midges and streamers for now. I have several tailwater guide trips lined up and those are the most likely to be needed over the next couple of months. As we get closer to spring in the mountains, I'll be tying quill gordon and blue quill imitations in anticipation of the first hatches of spring. I also need to replenish my little black caddis imitations. This is an overlooked hatch that can provide surprisingly good fishing.

Before late spring, I also need to replenish my terrestrial box. Mostly that means making sure I have plenty of green weenies and barbie bugs along with some beetles and ants. What I really need to do is get out all my fly boxes and start working on refilling them in an orderly fashion. This guarantees that I won't forget something important. One of the worst feelings is getting out on the stream only to discover you don't have the right pattern.

If you carry a tying kit with you, then you could quickly spin up a couple. That doesn't work very well when you're guiding unfortunately. To be fair, who carries a tying kit with them on regular fishing trips? I take one with me on big trips. I have many good memories of sitting at a picnic table in the evening in Yellowstone or Colorado and whipping up some bugs for the next day. Nowadays, I try to prevent this from being necessary by planning ahead though. If you haven't gotten into fly tying yet, consider giving it a try so you can be prepared as well. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Fishing For Fun

Anyone who has fished the Smokies knows that you don't come here to catch big fish.  Yes, there are big browns around, even some true monsters, but few people ever see them much less catch them.  The rainbows, on the other hand, provide the bulk of the entertainment unless you travel up high in elevation searching for brookies.  This year, I've been privileged to catch some really nice rainbows.  In fact, within the last month I've caught personal bests for the year twice!

The first one was 12 inches almost exactly.  I know, that doesn't sound like a very large rainbow.  Everything here is relative.  On the Caney Fork which I also frequent, a 12 inch rainbow is normal, one of the standard put and take rainbows that are constantly being dumped in to keep the catch and keep crowd happy.  In the mountains, well let's just say it doesn't happen every day.  That's why I was so surprised when I caught an even larger trout just last week.

The story actually begins the day before with me waking up at an unearthly hour to head over to Little River Outfitters for a couple of days working in the shop.  As I headed out of the house and down the mountain towards Knoxville, I started contemplating my options for fishing after work.  Each week, I've attempted to scratch a different itch.  Once or twice I've chased brookies up high, and once I even made the dreaded drive into Cades Cove to fish Abrams Creek, not because it is the best place to fish, but more for old time's sake.  I used to fish it often many years ago.  Lately I just can't stomach the traffic getting there.

By the time I got to work, I was still trying to decide where to fish, but did have it nailed down to one of two stretches on Little River.  The evenings are arriving earlier than ever with the changing seasons and I didn't want to waste time driving up the mountain for brookies or hiking up high above Elkmont.  Fast forward a few hours and it is nearly time to get off of work.  I've made a major strategic decision regarding my evening fishing.  Normally I'll get to the stream and evaluate what is happening stream side before determining how I want to fish.  Without rising trout and an obvious hatch, I'll usually go with a nymph rig of some sort to maximize my success.  On this particular Thursday, I decided that I just wanted to have fun.

Right now you're probably scratching your head.  Isn't all fishing about having fun you ask?  Yes, but there is fun because I'm catching fish and then there is fun because I enjoy how I'm fishing.  The two often go hand in hand but not always.  For my fun on this day, I decided to fish a dry fly.  While I hoped that would be enough, I was still hedging my bets by dropping a small bead head behind the dry.

On my way up Little River, my car just sort of eased itself off at the first place I was thinking about fishing so I took that as a sign that I should fish there instead of heading further upstream.  My preparation was fairly simple and before I knew it I was down on the stream casting.  There were some small trout rising in the pool in front of me but they seemed unusually wise for their size.  Moving up into the pocket water, I soon found more willing candidates.


The rainbows on Little River are gorgeous.  This time of year their large pink stripes seem to stand out more than ever, like they are dressing up for the fall season along with the browns and brookies.  Colorful trees around me made the moment even better.


Moving up the creek, I found good numbers of willing trout, although nothing of any size.  The dry fly was a big orange Elk Hair Caddis I tie that mimics the big fall caddis that we have in the Smokies.  The dropper was a #16 Zebra Midge.  Both caught fish, although the larger fish did seem to have a preference for the dropper.  The leaves continued to awe me with their colors as well so my camera saw a fair amount of action.


Climbing out of the river before it got too dark, I was soon back at the car.  Instead of breaking down my rod, I just left everything strung up to fish the next morning on my way in to work.  After a pleasant evening in camp at Elkmont relaxing, I hit the sack a bit early and before I knew it morning had arrived.  Throwing all my gear in the car, I was all packed and ready to fish before I knew it.  Noticing the dry/dropper rig from the previous evening, I decided to leave it on not knowing what a great choice that would end up being.

There is a pool, somewhere on Little River, that is a favorite of mine.  This is more due to the fact that you can see into it so well than anything.  It may get fished more than any other pool on the entire river so the fish are often skittish.  If you arrive first thing in the morning though the fish can be caught with a healthy combination of luck and skill.

With limited time before I had to arrive at work, I started in the middle of the pool and worked my way towards the head.  Before long I was admiring a seven inch rainbow and was pretty content with my morning.  By the time I had tricked another fish, slightly smaller at six inches, I was getting concerned about the time.  A quick check revealed that I still had twenty minutes to fish so I moved all the way to the head of the pool and started working the bubble line with my offering.

When the dry darted under and the line came tight, I quickly realized it was a nice fish.  Expecting the golden hues of a brown trout's side, I was surprised to see a big pink stripe.  Thankful I had a net with me, I quickly worked the fish away from all obstacles and into open water.  When the fish finally gave up the fight and allowed me to slip the net under it, I was one happy fisherman!


The nice rainbow definitely made my morning and measured between 13 and 14 inches.  Not the largest rainbow I've caught in the Park, but easily in the top 5 for wild rainbows I've caught in the Smokies, the trout was a perfect way to start my morning.  I still have a nagging suspicion that if I had been fishing my usual deep nymph rig the fish would never have been caught.  I guess it is good to just go out and fish for fun sometimes instead of taking things too seriously.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Silver Ribbons and Red Stripes

As my last day in Colorado rapidly approaches, I was wondering if I could squeeze one last day of fishing in.  A short hike combined with fishing seemed ideal.  South Boulder Creek (SBC) just below Gross Reservoir is the perfect place for this type of trip so off we headed for another adventure.  The stream was still running ice free thanks to the recent warmer weather.  The winds that brought the warmer temperatures had me concerned but were forecast to die down in the afternoon.

Reaching the parking lot and seeing only two other cars, I quickly rigged up with a small caddis pupa and a Zebra Midge.  A small pinch-on indicator above seemed appropriate and then we hit the trail down.  As the stream came into view, I was amazed out how much ice had melted since my trip last Wednesday.  Of course, the first section you see gets a lot of sun exposure so that explained the lack of ice.

Staying high above the creek, we turned downstream. I was heading for a section of nice pools that should hold plenty of fish in the winter.  Looking back upstream, I paused to take in the beauty.  The stream looked like silver ribbons running down over the rocks as the afternoon sun through light across the bottom of the canyon.


Eager to fish, I quickly continued downstream.  The pool where I had caught several fish last week already had another angler in it, but the pool just below didn't.  After several drifts with only one small rainbow striking and missing the hook, I decided to continue downstream.

The next pool was another favorite.  Last fall I spotted a 16 inch brown spawning in the back of it so I suspected that there were good fish somewhere nearby.  The fish were holding tight to structure and under the fastest water in the deep holes so my luck was not the best...yet.  As I fished, my girlfriend had fun with her camera.  I'm fishing somewhere here...

Photo by Catherine McGrath

I really like how this stream shot came out that she took. Notice that in this more shaded section the ice was still holding on along the edges.

Photo by Catherine McGrath

As I fished up around the bend, a nice slow pool looked like the perfect hiding spot for a trout in the winter.  I tossed the flies and indicator in and then crouched behind a boulder to keep from spooking the fish.  The indicator swirled around a couple of times before being pulled under.  I set the hook and was happy to discover that I had finally hooked a fish!  The rainbows here are incredibly beautiful.  They all have these magnificent red stripes down their sides, even the little guys.  It can be hard to believe that some of the stocked specimens I have caught in my life are even in the same family as these wild rainbows.


With that first fish out of the way, I now wanted to catch one or two more before calling it a day.  The next pool upstream seemed like just the place to do that.  As I fished, I had lost track of where my girlfriend had gone with her camera.  It turns out she was getting some more cool shots that I can't get on my own.

Photo by Catherine McGrath

Right after this shot, on the next cast, I tossed my fly over next to the boulder against the far bank.  There just had to be a trout under that rock.  Sure enough, the indicator dove and I quickly realized that the fish I was now fighting was in a different class from the first trout.  As the fish ran around the small pool, I just let it run and tire itself against the spring of the rod.  I didn't have a net and was taking no last second chances on losing this beautiful trout.

After a couple of pictures, I released my new personal best rainbow from SBC.  Even on a day when the flows are low, a few fish can be caught and a good time had.

Photo by Catherine McGrath

This fish was the perfect way to end my last fishing excursion here in Colorado for this trip.  I was thankful for the two fish that had graced the end of my line.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Fishing The Zebra Midge


Hands down the best tailwater fly here in Tennessee for me over the last year and a half, the Zebra Midge is one of the easiest flies to tie and also one of the easiest to fish. I fish it quite often and mention it many of my fishing reports both here and over on the LRO board. People often ask me exactly how I fish it so I decided it was time to address this question. I'm sure different people have different preferences and many different methods will work with this fly so don't just stick to the method I'm about to share.

First, it is important to understand exactly what the Zebra Midge represents. The last section of an excellent article, "Midge Tactics for Tailwater Trout", gives an good explanation on the life cycle of midges. The Zebra Midge is designed primarily to imitate a midge pupa ascending to surface to emerge. Thus, it is most effective to use when you see fish feeding up high in the water column. You will often see rises which are actually trout taking the pupa just under the surface as the bugs drift upwards. Occasionally, fish will break the surface as they pursue the tiny insects.

Whenever you see the fish feeding like this, it is time to try the Zebra Midge. Some type of strike indicator is generally very helpful with this type of fishing. I personally use a dry fly such as a parachute Adams because I feel it gives the fish another option and I'm always surprised at how often nice fish will take the dry. After you tie on the dry, use anywhere from 6-24 inches of 6x or 7x tippet and tie it to the bend of the dry fly. The height should be determined by how near to the surface the majority of the fish seem to be feeding. It also important to remember two other things about the length of the dropper. First, fish will move upwards to take the fly so when in doubt, go shorter. Also, the longer the dropper, the more takes you will miss. I generally start with my dropper at around 12-16 inches.

Now that you are rigged up and ready to fish, you need to find some fish. This rig will work to fish the water blind but you will be a lot more successful casting to specific fish or specific holding lies whenever possible. I like to locate a fish before casting. When you cast to the fish, you want the dropper to land up current of the dry or indicator to make it easy to detect the strike. Sometimes the take will be subtle. In fact, fish will often take the dropper without moving the indicator. This brings up my favorite method. When you find a specific fish working, cast above the fish and watch the fish closely as the indicator/dry nears the vicinity of the fish. Any side to side movement or quick darting to the side will mean that the fish likely took your fly. Often, fish will see the fly as it is passing and dart downstream. WAIT TO SET THE HOOK until the fish makes a sudden turn to face back into the current or to the side. The turn will indicate that the fish has taken the fly. This nice brown moved a couple of feet to the side to take the Zebra Midge...


Finally, once you have hooked the fish, be very gentle. When using light tippets, it is easy to break off the fish if you use too much pressure. However, don't overplay the fish. With practice, 6x tippet will take a lot more abuse than most people think, allowing you to land the fish without exhausting it.

Fishing this fly can be a lot of fun. You will quite possibly catch more and better fish, particularly on waters where midges are a predominant food source. You might even be surprised at some of the fish that will eat this fly, I know I was when this nice bass ate mine...
This is a very simple fly to tie, but if you need help on tying the Zebra Midge, check out this video that I shared on YouTube. I also go over some specifics on fishing this pattern in the video.