Photo of the Month: Spring Hepatica Blooms

Photo of the Month: Spring Hepatica Blooms

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tiny Flies

When most people think about fly fishing, they envision a cool mountain stream or a large western river with someone artistically working a fly rod for rising trout. Many fly fishers consider the dry fly as the purest approach one could take to the sport. Casting a dry over a rising trout and watching the take is indeed one of the most exhilarating moments you can experience on the water. However, if you want to be successful as a fisherman, you must be able to adapt to whatever conditions are occurring when you arrive streamside.
Anyone that has fly fished for any length of time has heard the saying that 10% of fisherman catch 90% of the fish and most likely everyone has also heard that trout feed below the surface 90% of the time. Becoming proficient with subsurface flies is critical to success as a fly fisher. While we often focus on the more exciting mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies, there are other insects that are important to trout. Midges are often one of the dominant food sources for trout and carrying a broad selection of patterns to cover these insects will contribute to many successful outings if one knows how to fish them properly.
Some of the easiest flies to tie will often catch the most fish in a trout stream. The only downside to tying midge patterns is their normally small size in relation to other fly patterns. I regularly tie and fish patterns from a #18 down to a #22 but will fish down to a size #28 or even #30 as the conditions dictate. Those that regularly read this blog or fish with me know that I like fishing with multiple flies to increase the odds. Better yet, it helps in determining what the fish are feeding on. I can try one fly at a time or I can try 2-3 flies at a time. Obviously I can try many more patterns in an hour if I tie on twice as many each time I change.
When fishing midges, I like to also fish something larger to serve as an attractor and then drop my small midge pattern behind the larger fly. It is important to either match the larger fly to food that is commonly available in the water you are fishing or to an attractor pattern that normally does well in that particular river. When fishing a tailwater, I will often use a scud or sowbug pattern as the first fly. Other good patterns are Pheasant Tail Nymphs, Copper Johns, and various softhackles. On tailwaters where there is a good population of a specific mayfly, caddis, or stonefly, I'll often fish a nymph or larval immitation of the prevalent insect. Always use the heaviest tippet you can get away with for the first fly in a multiple fly rig. Tying on several flies can take a few minutes if you aren't very quick with knots, and it is always frustrating to lose the whole rig. In most situations 4x tippet is fine and if at all possible, don't go below 5x. People are often shocked at how heavy of a tippet you can get away with even on pressured fish. Using fluorocarbon will allow you to use heavier tippet.
Once you have chosen the first fly, it is time to figure out what type of midge pattern to fish. You want to use a fly that matches the larva or pupa that are most common in the water you are fishing. Before choosing a fly, take a moment to observe the water and see if you can figure out what the trout want. Are they staying right on the bottom, betraying themselves only by the occasional flashing side? Or are they up in the water column moving around as they intercept midge pupa in the drift? For fish that are up in the water column, a pupa will be the best immitation while for those right on the bottom, a larva will often catch more fish.
Whichever pattern you decide upon, once again use the heaviest tippet that the fish will accept. I generally fish 6x fluoro with my midges and often even use 5x. If you are fishing faster water or water that is very deep, you will want a couple #6 split shot to help get it down. Generally it is also best to use an indicator for this type of fishing. You want to find out the zone that the fish are feeding in and then keep your flies there. A strike indicator is a great way to do this. I like to use Thingamabobbers but also use yarn indicators with rubber o-rings. The general rule of thumb is to place your indicator one and a half to two times the depth of the water but in actual practice you'll discover that this is actually very flexible. Don't tie yourself to one exact depth. Let the fish tell you what they want and be willing to change constantly. I'm generally very lazy and often just set the indicator between 6 and 8 feet deep if I'm fishing a larger tailwater. However, laziness will eventually start costing you fish...
When it comes to midges, one mistake that many people make is to fish patterns that are too fat. Traditional wisdom says that midge larva are long and slender while the pupa are short and stout. This is true but short and stout is definitely relative. Most midge patterns that are supposed to be pupa are much too fat compared to the naturals. Often the fish won't seem to care much but at other times, fishing a less bulky pattern will bring a marked increase in the number of hookups. I have several patterns that I like to fish. The zebra midge in various color combinations is a reliable fly that can catch at least a few fish under most circumstances. I tie mine with a slimmer profile compared to those that many people fish. Other favorites include the RS2, WD-40, various thread midges, and patterns made from micro and midge tubing.
Midge larva or pupa tied using midge and micro tubing are easily some of the most realistic small flies I've ever fished. This point was driven home one day while fishing the Roaring Fork River in Colorado. This Gold Medal stream is known for its fine brown trout but the section we were fishing was some of the better rainbow water on the river. In one particular hole, I sight fished to a large rainbow using a tiny gray midge larva dropped behind a Green Drake nymph. After several drifts, the large rainbow ate and upon feeling the sting of the hook, immediately raced to the middle of the river before jumping. When I saw the size of the fish I was immediately worried about everything, the tippet, the tiny fly that connected me to the fish, and the fast water just below the pool. Sadly the fish raced downstream and 10 minutes later the nice rainbow won the battle when the small fly popped free.
I now knew that the fish really did like my midge pattern but I was fully convinced after fishing another pool. After covering all the likely water, I pulled my flies in to make sure everything was intact. When I saw the midge, I was shocked to see a small gray midge larva the exact same color and size as the fly I was fishing. In fact, it looked so identical that my fly could have been a natural threaded onto the hook. It was now obvious why the large rainbow had been so easily fooled in this highly pressured water.
The first time I learned of this fly was from east Tennessee guide Hugh Hartsell. He shared the pattern with me as a good match for blackfly larva. While fishing out West in the nutrient rich tailwaters, I discovered the need for a really good larva pattern and remembered my blackfly patterns. While fishing the Gunnison River I pulled one out and after a small of modification was soon catching lots of large and now stupid trout. The next day my buddy and I headed down to the nearest fly shop to pick up some more micro tubing. Back in camp, I tied around 20 or so of the flies in different colors and headed back to the river. This fly became a staple on the Gunnison and proved itself on several other waters as well.
The pattern is very easy to tie and can be varied to match just about any color that you need to. Midge and micro tubing comes in many colors but will partially take on the color of the thread that you use underneath it. This pattern can also be tied with a small metal or glass beadhead which makes it suitable for matching midge pupa. See my video on tying the bead head version of the micro tubing midge on YouTube HERE. If you want to tie some for yourself you will need the following:
Hook: TMC 2487 (or favorite midge hook) #16-#28
Thread: 8/0 UNI-Thread, color to match
Body: Midge or Micro Tubing (distributed by Hareline Dubbin, Inc.)
Select the appropriate size of tubing based on the size of fly you are tying. I tie most of mine with Micro Tubing but for larger sizes midge tubing is great as well. Midge tubing will work down to a #22 or #24 but the Micro Tubing will cover all situations.
To tie the pattern, tie in your thread about halfway back on the hook shank (#24 TMC 2487 shown with gray thread).
Wind the thread back towards the bend of the hook and tie in the midge or micro tubing on top of the shank (shown with gray micro tubing). After securing the tubing, wind the thread evenly to just behind the hook eye.
Wind the tubing forward keeping the wraps tight up against each other. If you leave the first few wraps a bit loose, it will simulate the slightly thicker half that most larva have. Start putting more pressure on the tubing and it will stretch, creating a nice thin and perfectly segmented body. Once you wrap the tubing to just behind the eye, tie it off with a couple wraps of thread. Give two more wraps of thread and finish the fly in whichever way you prefer. I normally just use 3-4 half hitches and a bit of glue.
While this fly isn't much to look at, the fish will definitely approve of it. Tie up a few and give them a shot the next time you find midging fish...I think you'll be pleasantly surprised...


  1. Hello, my name is Fernando, I am Spanish and I am a follower of your blog. I have learned a lot with your posts and I think this last one is fantastic.
    I have always thought that in USA, people fished with bigger flies than here, but I was mistaken.
    There is a place near my hometown, were I can try this midge larva, but I have to wait to the opening of the fishing season, that begins on April.
    I think you have many more fishing possibilities there, so I don't refuse to organize a trip to America. The problem is that I am not 18 yet. I am 17. Perhaps in the future...
    Very good job, Mr. Knapp. Have good fishing. Greetings from Soria (Spain).

    Fernando Chaguaceda

  2. Fernando, thanks for reading my blog! Glad you enjoyed the post... We often use very small flies depending on the type of water we are fishing. Most of my largest fish have come on small flies throughout the years... Hope you can make it over here to fish sometime!

    David Knapp

  3. Hi David,

    Only just tracked down your post on tying and fishing midges... one of the best articles on this subject I've come across.
    The micro-tubing pattern looks superb, and really enjoyed the shot of the fly/trout - provides a really good perspective on scale.

    Here in Ireland, very, very few folk fish small flies - although they always arouse genuine interest at tying shows. That said, more folk are becoming aware of the US style of midge fishing and maybe experimenting a little. The thrill of catching on small flies is hard to beat, and catching on sub #24 micro patterns is just something else.

    Thanks again for your excellent article and writing. Looking forward to checking back soon.

    Andy Baird
    N. Ireland