Winter Midge Fishing
Adam Robinson
Many fly fishermen refer to all tiny aquatic and terrestrial insects as midges, but, strictly speaking, midges are aquatic insects. In many areas midges constitute a major percentage of the trout's annual diet. Anglers often miss out on significant midging opportunities because they quickly become frustrated by the problems of limited tackle, flies or techniques.

Many anglers fail to appreciate how much most trout depend on midges. From the first time they feed on insects as tiny fry, through the remainder of their lives, trout in both streams and lakes learn to rely on midges as a food source. Midges often are the most abundant and most accessible of the annual aquatic trout foods, especially in stillwaters and slow- to medium- speed flowing streams. Winter fishing and midging are inseparable elements of a day afield.

In Colorado we are blessed with some of the best winter fishing in the West. If you have the inclination to get through the rigors of cold weather fishing -- frozen digits, biting wind and iced through guides -- you can have a chance at catching some big fish in relative solitude. The crowds of summer and fall are usually a dim memory come the end of November, and the river seems to regain that special feeling of calm and aloneness it loses with the summer crowds.

The best places to find the fish of winter are the great tailwaters of the state. The Frying Pan near Basalt, the Blue in Silverthorn, the Williams Fork near Hot Sulfur Springs, and the South Platte in Cheeseman Canyon and Spinney Ranch are just some of the streams available. These locations are special because the water comes out of the bottom of dams at a relatively warm temperature. With this warmer flow (usually around 40 degrees) the river will stay ice free for a certain length and will have a greater concentration of food for the trout. As such, the fish will feed regularly and generally grow year-round.

Midges are the most prolific insects in the water during the winter. As previously noted midges are important all the time, but on tailwaters in winter, they can be the only food source. Fish will concentrate on the larva and pupae stages of this tiny bug and will rarely move very far to eat. On warmer days there can actually be hatches of the adults, making dry fly action in the dead of January possible.

To be successful in midge nymph fishing you first must be able to spot the fish. This is not to say you will catch nothing by blind drifting through probable spots, but your chances are greatly increased if you can concentrate on your quarry and observe their habits. Once you spot your prey, usually in slow moving pools and eddies, find the closest spot you can get without being spotted by the trout. Watch how he takes naturals. Try to see the moment he opens his mouth; there will be a slight movement and a white flash of his mouth closing. Locate where your fly needs to land in order to get within an inch or two of the fish's head at about the same spot where he just took the natural. Some times you can be off the spot by mere inches and the trout will never even see your offering, much less take it.

Now that you have figured out where to cast, it's time to pick the fly. Seining is usually helpful, but with midges there can be different colors and sizes in the water at the same time. Sizes will be from an 18 to a 28 with the best colors being brown, black, white and shades of green. Simple patterns such as the Miracle Nymph and WD 40 are good, although a nice selection is needed to match what each individual trout would like to see. But remember this, if your selection is anywhere near close to the natural, and the fish sees it where it needs to be before he has any idea you are around, he'll more than likely take it. You will need to adjust weight as needed and to move your strike indicator to help keep the fly where you want it to drift. This is a trial and error procedure, but once figured out it pays big dividends. The indicator usually doesn't tell you when to set the hook; the fish will take and spit out the fly too quickly, so it's a good practice to watch the fish and react to its movements and the flash of its mouth.

A 3 to 5 weight rod is best, something you can make very precise casts with. It should cast and deliver line, leader and fly softly and precisely from 20 to 60 feet. It must mend and handle line on the water as well. On the strike it should set the hook without shearing the leader tippet or tearing the hook out. As the trout lunges against the line and the rod's pull, the rod must dampen this shock while maintaining a constant but delicate tension. For these reasons, I prefer a rod with a much softer or more supple action than I use for regular trout fishing. The rod's length should seldom be less than 7-1/2 feet and not over 9 feet. The midge rod can be made from bamboo, glass, graphite or boron, as long as its overall action is soft and it casts a relatively tight loop at slower line speeds. The tight loop is necessary for precise presentation and the slow-moving, small line size allows delicate presentations. I think the Sage SLT 490 may be the perfect choice. I prefer small fluorocarbon tippet (6 and 7X). It sinks more readily and is less visible to the fish. Leaders of 7 ½ to 9 feet are best, but a longer, finer leader might be necessary in the thinnest water. A quick and soft hook set is necessary as is playing the fish with a very light touch. The ideal single-action midge fly reel must have the capacity to carry the line and adequate backing. A reel with a velvet-smooth drag is very helpful - learn to use the drag and you will land more fish. When landing these trout on fine tippet and small flies, a net is very handy. It allows you to land the fish quicker and not strain on your terminal tackle.

With a little forethought, a thermos of hot coffee, and thick wool socks, a winter outing can be the most rewarding of the year. You can find yourself alone in some of the state's best spots with big trout all around. By being quiet and stealthy you can observe these fish's habits and become more in tuned with your favorite prey. Get good at the finer points of winter fishing and you will be a better angler come spring. Bundle up, stay dry and enjoy the peace and thrill a cold day on the river can offer.