Practical & Useful
- By: Dave Hughes
I recently fished a pond that sponsors great midge hatches all year. Those midges come in a couple sizes—tiny and large. The small ones are matched with pupa patterns, and sometimes dry flies, tied on size 22 hooks. The “big” ones are size 16. When trout take tiny ones on the surface, they sip. The big ones are habitual buzzers and trout chase them down and take them with gulps, their big noses poking clear of the water.
But such surface feeding is the tip of the iceberg, beacuse most lake and pond midges get eaten beneath the surface, all day long, in a constant barrage that does a lot to fatten stillwater trout, but does little to reduce the midge population. Such feeding is sometimes visible, the trout cruising and swirling on midge pupae so close to the surface that their takes are visible and look like rises. Most of the time this sub-surface feeding is too deep to be visible. Trout take the midges near bottom, and you can see nothing of it.
That was the case when my wife, Masako, and I arrived at our favorite pond. Its surface was glassy; nothing stirred but a bunch of misbehaving yellow-headed blackbirds in the reeds and rushes along the shoreline. It didn’t look like we had much chance to goose any trout into action.
As we’d driven the dirt road to the lake, however, the fenders of the rig nudged aside sagebrush branches, and clouds of midges burst out of them. By the time we got to the pond the windshield was speckled. They were black, size 16—the big ones. At a glance I knew the size, shape and behavior of the pupae from which they sprang. Learning to make such connections—a cloud of midge adults in the bushes telling about the staging of midge pupae along the lake or pond bottom—becomes one of the essential elements of fly-fishing success.
You don’t need to study entomology to make these connections. You just need to observe conditions on the water, in the air and, in this case, in the sage and on the windshield alongside the still water; and with experience, you learn how to interpret those conditions into actions.
Masako and I tugged on waders, rigged our rods with floating lines, 10-foot leaders, yarn indicators a couple of feet from the line tip and size 16 Zebra Midges, with a touch of putty weight a foot above them. That combination would dangle our pupa patterns eight feet down in water that we knew averaged 10 feet deep. It didn’t take long for those indicators to begin dipping down and our rod tips to begin rearing upward, setting spurs to trout that had grown to two and three pounds on a constant diet of the midge pupae we imitated.
When cruising trout operate so near the surface that you can see their boils, they’re easiest to solve. But it’s key that you notice whether those trout feed: (1) on the surface itself, in which case you want to use dry flies; (2) or just beneath the surface, in which case you need to suspend pupae if you ever hope to catch the trout. Watch for noses poking out. Watch for bubbles left in rise rings.
Those are signs to use dry flies. If they’re absent, simply slip-knot a modest-size fan of yarn into your tippet, a foot or two at the most from the fly; then tie on an appropriate pupa pattern—you’ll rarely go wrong with a Zebra Midge or a Thread Midge in black, red or olive. Be sure to use a loop knot.
If no trout are visible, cruising and feeding on or near the surface, knowing when to suspend a midge-pupa pattern, or more likely a brace of them, and figuring out the depth at which to suspend it—or them—becomes a bit more difficult. One rule you can use is simply this: if nothing is happening on the surface, and it’s a stillwater, try dangling the midge pattern 18 inches above the bottom, because there’s always a very high chance that this method will get you into trout. That finding is based on long experience, plus a bit of knowledge about midge behavior, and also about trout behavior.
Midge pupae, during the long period of their seasonal hatches, tend to leave their larval burrows on the bottom, wriggle a few inches above whatever vegetation extends from the bottom and suspend there, waiting for conditions to become perfect for their exit from the aquatic stages of their brief little lives. If a hatch is heavy—perhaps signaled by a density of adult midges on the windshield of your rig—then the number of midge pupae suspended just above the bottom can form almost a layer in the water column.
I know expert lake anglers who often gaze up in the air, rather than out over the water, when they’re fishing. They’re watching for swarms of mating midges. These swarms are not always easy to see. Sometimes you hear the buzzing; it sounds like high-tension wires over your head. If you look close enough you’ll see the bugs: diaphanous clouds made up of thousands of pale paired wings with dark dots at their centers. These swarms in the air are almost always sure signs that midge pupae are staging along the bottom of the water.
You probably know all about trout behavior. When they get a chance at such riches, they cruise just above the bottom in eager ovals, often in pods, nipping the pupae that get in their paths.
Obviously, what you want to do is to suspend your pupal imitations in that same deep layer to intercept those cruisers.
The first thing you have to do to achieve that goal is find the right depth, almost always just off the bottom. Once, I was fishing with the stillwater guru Brian Chan, out of Kamloops, B.C., and asked him how he found the right depth, without a depth finder. He answered by clipping his hemostat onto the end of his leader, letting it plummet over the side of his boat until it suddenly stopped and then lifting the leader back up 18 inches. He cut the leader there and tied it back together with a blood knot. “That will stop a sliding indicator,” Brian said, as he retrieved his leader onto his reel, slipped a Thill bobber over the point and then tied on a pair of pupa patterns with a pinch of putty weight between them. “They’ll sink and suspend 18 inches off the bottom.”
When Brian cast, his pupae slowly sank. When his leader pointed straight down from his indicator, and the indicator snugged to its seat against the blood knot, he knew he was fishing with his pupae suspended 18 inches off the bottom. In that case, on famous Tunkwa Lake, Brian’s leader was 20 feet, consisting of a single, 4X diameter, on account of the size of the trout he expected to encounter. It could have been 3X; in Brian’s opinion, trout feeding on suspended midge pupae are not particularly leader-shy, but the thinner the leader is, the faster the pupae fly sinks.
A qualifier to that method: midge pupae usually suspend above weed growth, not just the bottom. If your hemostat, or later your pupae, come up trailing green growth, adjust your depth accordingly to suspend your pupal imitations in the clear water above all that interference.
You can fish suspended pupae to shallow cruisers, or to bottom feeders at modest depths, while wading, from a float tube or pontoon boat or from a pram or boat that is not anchored. Just remain as stationary as you can to keep from dragging your flies up in the water column.
If you’re suspending pupae patterns at depths any greater than about 10 feet, it’s wise to anchor whatever craft you’re in, at both ends if it’s possible. That keeps the boat from swinging in the wind. If it does that, your fly is constantly lofted out of the primary trout strike zone.
If you’re sufficiently anchored, and the wind is blowing, always make your cast upwind, and let your indicator, and thereby your pupae, swing slowly across in front of you, as if you were on a river with a very slight current. This has the added benefit of letting your flies drift slowly along, at the right depth, rather than sitting in one place, as they’ll do on a windless day.
Either way, the flies will work, so long as you keep them in that strike zone, where natural midge pupae suspend and where trout cruise and feed on them. If you don’t get any takes in one area after, say, half an hour, pick up and move to another. You’ll soon find trout.
I’ll give you a final warning: You’ve got to focus on your indicator. Don’t expect it to dip under when you get a strike, though it might. If it wiggles, twitches, scratches its nose or shows any signs of even slight discomfort, raise your rod to set the hook. If your leader is of any extended length, by the time a take is signaled all the way up to the surface, there’s a fair chance the trout has moved on.
We welcome Dave Hughes back to our pages after a hiatus of a few years. Formerly, he wrote the magazine’s Fly Fishing Success column. For more on his many books and projects, go to www.dave-hughes-fly-fishing.com.