June 23, 2021
By Craig Mathews
I am a lucky fly fisherman. I live in Yellowstone country, and I fish the waters surrounding the park more than 150 days per year. Most fly fishers are not clued into midge fishing, which is too bad. Year in and year out, midge activity provides the area’s finest dry-fly fishing, and it happens over a longer period of time than any other insect emergence.
Most fly fishers fail to notice fish feeding on midges at the surface. Instead, they knot on a heavily weighted nymph or streamer and begin thrashing the water. I’d rather patrol likely small pools and pockets adjacent to heavy flows, searching for fish that have moved in there to rise to emerging or mating midges.
Most of the time I sit on a boulder and present midge flies confidently with short, pinpoint casts to rising fish. As I sit, I watch others struggle—wading through deep, heavy flows while blindly casting heavy flies. I’ll take rising trout over blind casting and hope any time.
When visiting fly fishers are absent from Yellowstone Country—from late fall through early spring—I have the Madison River to myself. This is when midges emerge daily, bringing trout to the surface to feed. During this season they are the only aquatic insects hatching.
During the more popular fishing months, midges are often a “hidden” hatch. They emerge along with more numerous and larger mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies, yet big trout often feed selectively on these tiny two-winged flies.
Even the best angling entomologists and authors give little help with this huge order of true flies. This is probably due to the sheer number of midge species, which is far greater than any other order of aquatic insects such as mayflies and caddis.
All serious students of fly fishing agree that these members of the Chironomidae family should get more attention than they do, but no one wants to write much about them. Perhaps it is their scale and diversity—they inhabit most Yellowstone region waters and come in sizes ranging from #10 in Montana’s Hebgen and Earthquake lakes to the tiny #20-#26 olive and black midges emerging six months of the season on the Madison, Yellowstone, Henry’s Fork, and Paradise Valley spring creeks. Whatever the reason, midge emergences provide some of the finest dry-fly fishing of the year, and over a longer period of time than any other insects on our rivers and streams.
Because midges emerge all year, you need to be prepared to find fish feeding on them, and have properly designed fly patterns on hand. To be successful, your observation skills also have to be on point. Beginning in mid-October and continuing through mid-May, big trout feed on midges all day, lying just under the surface quietly sipping in emerging midges. These conditions make for incredible selectivity as fish concentrate on emerging midge pupae.
Midges are subject to many emergence difficulties, so crippled and stillborn naturals are common. Trout recognize these defective adults and feed eagerly on them. With this in mind, it’s important to use fly patterns with trailing shucks. These are fished dry and are easier to see than pupal patterns.
When mating midges are on the water, trout often ignore single emerging midges and concentrate on entire mating clumps or clusters of midges—they are bigger mouthfuls. It is not unusual to observe mating clusters made up of dozens of midges. My old friend Datus Proper, in his fine little book, What the Trout Said (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1982) wrote, “Black Gnat midges have orgies that would shame the Romans.”
When midges gather in mating clusters, observant anglers watch as big trout key on clusters sometimes as large as size 10. I’ve seen trout, especially large browns, bite into these large clusters like wolves and break them into smaller clumps. The big trout follow the midge masses downstream, greedily inhaling the smaller clumps as they chase them down.
Recognizing Rise forms
Midges can emerge anytime of the day and any day of the season. In the summer, when there are other insects hatching, midges are at the bottom of the list of likely trout foods. This does not mean that fish aren’t feeding on them—it just means you should rule out other insects before tying on a midge pattern. From fall through spring, midges are usually the only aquatic insects coming off, so when you see rising trout, midges are at the top of the list of trout foods.
When trout are coming up for single emerging midges, old-timers refer to their rise forms as “smutting rises” or an “angler’s curse.” It’s easy to see why. Their subtle sips leave the slightest rings on the surface. Patiently sitting on a boulder observing smooth water adjacent to rough, heavy holding water—or a deep pocket or pool—pays dividends when you’re midge fishing. Close observation reveals quietly rising trout as they subtly take midges emerging at the surface.
In late February last winter, I met a couple who had moved to the Madison River Valley to cross-country ski, create software, and fish. They stopped to talk as I rigged up to fish. Both of them had fished our rivers and streams in summer, but had no idea about the off-season fishing. It was apparent they both wanted to try winter midge fishing. Even though they did not have their fishing gear, I trudged with them 50 yards through thigh-deep snow to the river to give them a taste of fishing in winter.
It was perfect dry-fly midge conditions—calm, overcast, and mid-30s. They stood behind me as I sat on the bank and tied on a #20 Scotty’s Midge. This is a pattern designed to imitate an impaired midge, caught in its pupal shuck, skittering on the surface in an attempt to fly off. While knotting on the fly, I took a risk and peeked at the smooth flow behind a couple of huge boulders just inside the river’s heavy currents. This is a perfect place for big trout to use the easy-slowing moving currents and take advantage of emerging midges.
While tying on tippet and fly, my rule is to never look at the water—not even a peek—and especially not where I know big trout will likely be rising to midges. Distractions caused by rising trout cause bad knots.
There were heads coming up as trout rose to midges 15 to 30 feet from my perch on the bank. When I see rising trout I still get buck fever, and I had a hard time bringing the 5.5X tippet through the eye of the hook. Even though I’ve done this 1,000 times, I still shake with anticipation.
My friends noticed my dilemma and remarked, “Why don’t you use your magnifiers to thread your fly on?”
I replied, “You see all those risers, don’t you?”
“Sure, rising fish everywhere.” I took a sideways glance at them as they smiled and winked at each other in sarcastic disbelief. I grinned, knowing they did not see the rising fish, typical for first-time midge enthusiasts.
“Okay you two, sit down on the bank with me,” I said. When they sat closer to eye level with the surface of the water, I asked them to concentrate and closely look at the water between us and two big boulders a just few yards upstream. It took only a few seconds before their eyes widened and they developed huge grins. Before long they were taking turns with my rod, catching big, wild Madison River trout, and I had two new midge-fishing friends, for life.
Observing a trout’s head slowly and completely coming out of the water perpendicular to the surface is a solid clue that the fish is taking single emerging midges. Rise forms made by trout feeding on mating midge clusters and clumps are easier to recognize. The mating clusters are usually large (#14-18), and visible on the surface so you can easily observe and follow them downriver. Fish rising to clusters are more hurried and greedy than those casually sipping emerging midges. Midge clusters move in the currents as the insects in the cluster beat their wings and kick their long legs, causing the mass of midges to move erratically atop the flowing current.
Techniques and Strategies
Most midge patterns tied and sold in fly shops are too overdressed to successfully imitate the natural insects. These types of flies are tied to impress humans. To me, the purpose of trout flies is to catch trout. Simple flies tied sparse to represent drifting midge larvae and pupae, a single impaired-emerging midge caught in its pupal shuck, or a mating cluster of several midges drifting in the currents are easy to tie, and deadly to use.
I prefer a slow-action rod that forces me to slow down my casting between presentations, and concentrate on the drift of the fly, the rising rhythm of the trout, and the insects on the water. Since most of my presentations are within 10 to 20 feet, I need a rod that loads with a short line. Most importantly, I look for a rod that protects the fine tippets required for tiny midge patterns. My favorite midge rod is Tom Morgan Rodsmiths 8'6" 4-weight graphite.
For a leader and tippet I knot on a 9-foot leader tapered to 4X. To this leader I tie on a “wear section” of 12 inches of 4X. Finally, I use a double surgeon to attach a final 3 feet of 5.5X Trout Hunter fluorocarbon tippet.
Winter fishing in Yellowstone Country demands tippets that can provide extreme abrasion resistance due to drifting ice and frozen shorelines. This tippet is abrasion-resistant so I don’t break off, and if I do it is right at the fly, so I seldom leave tippet in or along the river.
I require waders with built-in kneepads since I spend a lot of time fishing on my knees to get close to trout rising to midges and keep track of my fly, so I wear Patagonia Swiftcurrent waders. By walking on my knees or scooting along on my butt, I can sometimes get within a rod length of rising fish. This is important because big trout rise in narrow feeding lanes when they are taking emerging midge pupae. Fish rising to midges in slow, shallow water are extremely wary, and a bad presentation can put them down for the day.
By getting close, I can deliver an upstream, short-line pinpoint presentation, and keep track of my fly at all times. A short line is really the only way to completely defeat drag in these circumstances.
I never flock shoot. Even though it is sometimes tempting when several fish are rising in the same pool or pocket, it always pays to single out a target and present an accurate cast. Flock shooting usually results in a pool filled with spooked fish.
Trout rising to midge clusters are easier to approach because greed enters the equation. Big fish throw caution to the wind as they search for clumps of mating midges. If they don’t take a dead-drifted cluster pattern, I drag, skitter, and skate my fly across the current in front of the rising fish.
Sometimes the fish key on moving clumps of midges and will not take a dead-drifted pattern. I do whatever it takes to bring these fish to my fly.
There are times when adult midges even attach themselves to my tippet and crawl onto a drifting fly. The fly becomes coated with natural midges attempting to mate with my fly pattern, increasing the size of my cluster fly by a size or two. The entire cluster is often scarfed down by a big, wild trout.
While this might be looked at as “cheating,” there’s nothing you can do to avoid it when hundreds of midges coat your fly and tippet. Sometimes I need all the help I can get!
I prefer dry-fly fishing so I usually arrive on Yellowstone-area spring creeks and rivers like the Madison, Gallatin, Yellowstone, and Henry’s Fork just when I expect midges to be hatching. From fall through late spring, noon to 2 P.M. is prime midge time, although I’ve had great dry-fly midge activity from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. on warm, overcast days. This is not a case where the early bird gets the worm. Sleep in, enjoy the morning, and plan to be on the rivers for a few of the warmest hours of the day.
About the Author: Craig Mathews
In 1979 Craig Mathews was the police chief of West Yellowstone, Montana. In 1980, he and his wife Jackie founded Blue Ribbon Flies. Craig has created many popular fly patterns for both fresh and salt water and is the author of several books. He lives near Cameron, Montana along the banks of the Madison River.