If there is one thing that stumps fly anglers the most when winter rolls around, it is the transition to focusing on midges to find success. For some anglers, the prospect of whipping a size 22 holo midge around a soft pocket is pure bliss. But for most, its seen as torture. And sure, if you’re a chubby-chucking summertime angler used to big eats on big flies it can be a little daunting. If you’re a nymph angler used to watching an indicator, the idea of tiny bugs you can’t see hovering in the water column with nothing to detect a hit with might seem odd. But it really doesn’t have to be. And with a little change in tactics you’ll find a lot more fish in winter, and a pair of midges is easily the most effective way to get your line tight on the river in winter. Winter midging is less a dark art than an easy system you can start using to bang up some fish next time you are on the water.
|A quiet winter run and a couple of midges and you’re set to go.|
Let’s talk terminal tackle. Midge patterns usually run from a size 16 on the big size down to the 22s and lower. Tippet sizes for flies this small tend to run down to the 7x range. This is where things get intimidating for many anglers who don’t relish the idea of tying on a tiny tippet with numb fingers. So here’s the trick: Don’t. Don’t size down so drastically, and here’s the reason: fish are happy to be eating in winter, and if you find a leader-shy fish in winter consider it a win. I generally start the day with a standard 4x or 5x 9-foot leader. I add a foot or so of tippet to match the leader, and my first fly is no smaller than a size 18, and oftentimes I use a size 16. After that, I tie on my second fly with tippet a size down from my leader, (5x or 6x) and my next fly will be an 18 or 20. Usually an 18. Why? Why don’t I drop all the way to the tiny stuff when most midges are so small? BECAUSE WINTER. Sure, when I fish midges on a technical tailwater in the pressured months of fall and spring, I’ll size down more drastically. But in winter, you’re likely to be the only angler those fish see in a week. No worries about overly pressured fish wary of your flies. And lots of reasons (COLD.) to keep the tackle a bit stouter, and the loss of flies to a minimum. Don’t stress the tiny stuff: A spool of 4x, a spool of 5x, and if you’re feeling bold a spool of 6x tippet and you’re set for the day.
|Your winter midge. They’re out there, and they get eaten more than any other food source in winter.
So drop the bobber for a bit, and get into some fish.
Midges aren’t the most elaborate insects around. So your flies don’t have to be elaborate either. For my purposes, I carry a single small midge box that can fit in a nice warm pocket. For our first fly in our two fly system, I like a midge that I can see and that will hold up another fly simply. This could be a hi-vis griffith’s gnat, a goober midge, or any pattern you like. You don’t need fifty midge patterns, you need one you like. Now, for the dropper. The zebra midge is one of the most effective flies any time of year, and I carry these in different colors and sizes, though red and black are the traditional winners. My go-to dropper pattern is a holo midge, though I think it’s more about my own addiction to flash as a fly tier than it being any more effective than another pattern. For fly tiers, flash is a little like crack cocaine – you try it once and before you know it, you’re tying it into every damn fly you tie for no reason other than it’s shiny and you need it, you just need it! (But that’s a subject for a different time. Stay away from flash.) For winter midging, pick a few nice looking patterns and toss them out there. A dry and a dropper, closely spaced.
|A handful of holo midges and zebra midges will get you through the winter.|
What About the Water?
Is it moving? Good. Is it moving fast? Not so good. Look for edges of runs, soft pockets, slow warm spots, any open water that looks like it might be a good place for a cold fish to settle in and find some food. A lot of this water can get shelf ice on it, and that’s actually a good sign of slower water to miss. You want a bit of current, and a run with some food flowing by, and a nice spot to drift a fly at about a walking pace. Once you start finding fish in a bit of this water, it’s hard not to see it everywhere in a river, and take your time when you find it. Give it a few casts, then add a tiny split shot to your dropper and do it again. If it’s the right water, you’ll find some fish willing to take.
And the Cast? The Actual Fishing?
I don’t like to crank fifty-foot casts in the winter. There’s no point to this other than icing up your guides and tangling your precious rig when it collects some ice. And fish don’t eat frozen midges as far as I know, so a short cast is your friend. I like to find water I can basically high stick and have no more than 10 feet of line out over. Wade in, get steady and make a high stick presentation through the run. If I don’t find takers on my first half dozen passes through the run, I add a tiny split shot above the second fly, and give it another go. If that doesn’t work, I move on. Standing still in winter is no fun, and I want to cover water with a high stick approach to find fish. Keep moving, get your body closer to the fish rather than make that big cast attempt to get your fly further, and find the fish eating the little guy. By high sticking, you’ll be able to detect every strike quickly without the need to really “see” your top fly. Following the leader, holding the rod tip up high, and having the line as straight to the fly as possible will get you into the fish. These aren’t monster gulps, but you’ll get instant response if you high stick rather than make long, beautiful (and frozen) casts.
That’s it. Yep, it can be that simple. Finding the water where the fish are is the trick, and the midge rig is a lot easier than it seems when you’re staring at the tiny bugs in the fly bins. Hit your local fly shop and get some advice on the water to seek out, and you’ll have success. Get out there, stay warm, and get into some fish this winter.