Stillwater Fly Fishing & The Mighty Midge
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Stillwater Fly Fishing & The Mighty Midge

Bobbers and chironomids on stillwater can make for an epically successful or epically boring day of trout fishing.  Staring at an unmoving indicator as the sun beats down, slowly roasting you in the middle of a lake is no fun. I have been there and probably you have been there also if you have fished on lakes or ponds much at all. Most fly fishermen who haven’t fished floating lines and indicators in stillwater think that this type of fly fishing is a tiny step above the guy fishing with the Rainbow Glitter Powerbait and a red and white bobber the size of your fist. To be successful there is much more to this fly fishing technique than dangling a fly under an indicator. Here are a few hints.

Know Your Midge

I am not going to bore you with Class, Order and Family stuff. But I am going to tell you that trout in most lakes eat a lot of these prolific insects. In some cases over half of their food comes from these little tasty morsels. They live in the mud and underwater foliage within the photosynthesis zone the depth varies depending on water clarity. These little bugs aren’t actually that little until they turn into the tiny adults that we see buzzing around in swarms.

Bloodworms are one of the most common larval forms of Chironomidae

Larvae can be up to an inch long and have segmented bodies that appear in various colors from red to olive to brown. Red is the most prevalent in many places. Remember the red larvae because I will come back to it later.

Chironomid pupae tend to look more like an insect, not the squishy worm look of the larvae. They have developed antenna and legs that dangle under a large, round thorax that has a slender body stretching beyond it. Once again colors run the gamut from green, olive, and black to maroon and brown and hues of all these colors. The air that the midge pupae traps around its body to help it ascend to the surface greatly impacts the bug’s coloration. After emerging from the water, they transform into the buzzing swarms that are often mistaken for mosquitos.

Bottom to Top

If I could know what was going on under my boat when I put it on the water I would be a rich man. But I never will, so some assumptions have to be made and tested. My first assumption is that there are midge larvae and/or pupae present. I usually look for shucks and adults on the water, if there are some present then it is a pretty good bet that there are some active larvae and pupae below.

The second one is that the larvae are going to be red. Why? Because in my experience, there are Blood Worms (red midge larvae) in the mud of almost every lake. If the bottom is rocky, they tend to lean toward a translucent brown or olive color. But these are assumptions so the body of water you are fishing might have different colored chironomids.

The last assumption is if light can’t reach the bottom then there are going to be no midges present or other bugs for that matter. Insects are dependent on plants and plant matter for food, chironomids are no different so light for photosynthesis is a must. My general rule is that if the water is over 25 feet deep then it isn’t a prime indicator fishing territory.

Rig Things in Your Favor

Fishing midges are relatively easy, you cast the flies and indicator out and wait for the bobber to go down. The set-up and configuration of your flies is the part that will have a large impact on your success. Patterns don’t seem to play as much a role as color and size do for fly selection. That is why I lean towards the simplest patterns to tie; i.e. the Sno Cone and Randy’s Liquid Lace Chironomid are two of my favorites. Slender silhouettes are the main body feature of my flies, not intricate designs with legs and gills.

I fish three flies at a time. The fly closest to the lake bottom is always, no exaggeration, a #8 or #10 red Sno Cone.

Red Sno Cones can be used for chironomids in larval and pupal stages

This is because of its similarity to a Blood Worm and a majority of pupae are red or black as they begin their journey to the surface to emerge. I try to fish this fly no more than 6 inches off the bottom.

The distance between my flies depends on the depth and temperature of the water I am fishing. As a rule, I start with my flies about two and a half feet apart. Fluorocarbon leader and tippet material are a must-have for chironomid fishing for a multitude of reasons. Using fluorocarbon will improve your fishing dramatically because it sinks, you can use a much thinner diameter than traditional monofilament and it is much less visible to the fish because of how it refracts light.

The second, or middle fly, is usually a #14 black, olive or bronze with red ribbing to start. This is where trial and error starts to come into play….

Hit or Miss..

The top fly of my daisy chain of chironomids is the wild card. If I am fishing in over 12’ of water it will be a #14 bronze or brown Sno Cone. The fly will usually have some sort of flashy material tied to the body to give it the glow naturals have as the gases in their translucent thorax cavities accumulate as they rise towards the surface.

This is my starting point. There are some days when the underwater swarms of midges are in a different color phase or phases. Often it takes multiple fly changes to find the appropriate patterns and sizes that work consistently. The only rule I have is that the #10 red Sno Cone that I fish at the bottom is always the last to be changed. This is because there are always bloodworms in that water strata.

Now you have the basics of the bugs and some setup info but there are a bunch of little things that will increase your success or at least seemed to have helped mine. Most of them are common sense, some not so common and some are just quirky things that I do that seem to work for me. As with all fly fishing, there are some basic rules, but don’t be afraid to experiment. So here is a very random list of gear, techniques, and hints (in no particular order).

A Short List of Chironomid Fishing Gear, Techniques, and Random Stuff

  • Be Observant

    – If you see no adult midges or shucks on the water’s surface when you hit the water then you might want to rethink your strategy.

  • Slip Strike Indicators

    – Use one! There are two reasons. The first is that it is easier to set the depth of your flies than with other indicators. The second reason is simple; it makes landing a fish on a 15-foot leader possible

    Slip Indicators – Don’t leave home without them!

    because the bobber slides to your top fly when you set the hook. This makes landing and a fighting fish better for the fish and angler, particularly if you are fishing from a pontoon or float tube.

  • Bobber Color

    – Dark red or dark orange is what I suggest. You can lose light or fluorescent hues in the glare on the water from the sun. I also like to color the bottom of my bobbers black. This may or may not help keep from spooking skittish fish but I still do it.

  • Go Light

    – I have seen trout swim up to a chironomid fly and stare at it for 15 seconds and then swim away. This is not moving water, fish don’t have a millisecond to decide if they are going to eat your fly, they have literally all day. I never go heavier than 4x fluoro but usually use 5 and 6x leader and tippet material. In my opinion, this is one of the most important things for success.

  • Know Your Depth

    – In some bodies of water, you can set your flies at random depths and it works sometimes but not in most cases. Fish eat chironomids usually near the bottom. That is why I like my bottom fly, the big red Sno Cone, no more than a foot off of the bottom. This means long, long leaders and a slip bobber. To find the bottom take a pair of forceps and clip them to your bottom fly. Lower them into the water until your leader goes limp and then peg your indicator 6”-12” towards your flies. Simple.

  • Keep Moving

    – I put a clock on my flies when they are in the water. If I go more than 15 minutes without my bobber going down then I move. Midges hatch in clusters under the water. If you aren’t getting hit, then there are probably is no bugs present. Try that spot later.

  • Know Your Water

    – Armies don’t go to battle without good maps or scouting the terrain. The same goes for fishing with midges. Knowing the geography of the land under the water’s surface of where you are fishing will influence your success more than anything. Midges like mud and foliage. Trout like cool water with plentiful food sources. Think like the bugs and fish and the lake will be less formidable. Marking a good spot on your GPS or by landmark is very important.

  • Change Your Bait

    – I also put a timer on how long I fish flies. If I go 5 minutes without a take-down I will change one of my flies. Usually, I change my middle fly from black with a red rib to bronze with a copper rib #12 or #14. This varies a bit from lake to lake but not much. Vary your depth also. I always leave a red Sno Cone near the bottom. But start moving the middle and top flies up if nothing else is working.

  • Everyone Is Different

    – Everyone starts with different flies in my boat, except of course the bottom one. If someone is more successful than the others then we can change accordingly.

  • Chop, Chop

    – Hatching Chironomids don’t bounce up and down underwater, they only go one direction – up. That is why chop and waves on the lake’s surface are detrimental to using an indicator and chironomids. Calm weather periods will be more successful for the most part but think about fishing in the lea of the b

    Calm water and bobbers

    oat if fishing in windy conditions. I have even taken #3 split shot and used them to anchor my bottom fly with a small indicator when the water has gotten rough. If you try this make sure the indicator is just under the water beneath the troughs of the waves. It can be an effective drastic measure.

  • Anchor Up or Not

    – If you are anchoring make sure your craft doesn’t swing in the wind. There is nothing more frustrating than the boat dragging your lines around as it swings. This reduces productivity considerably.

  • Fish Close

    – Some takes are very subtle and some aren’t but if you are fishing 60’ from your boat or tube getting the hook set can be difficult. Fishing within 30‘ from the boat or tube makes getting the hook set much easier and makes casting 3 flies on a 15’ leader with a bobber much more manageable. This is particularly true if you are using a medium to soft fly rod because of the light tippet. I suggest a Winston BIIx LS or a glass rod like the Butter Stick, although I fish my old Sage 490 LL most of the time.

  • Experiment

    – Try new things. I try a new pattern almost every time I go midge fishing. The split-shot anchor technique came out of experimentation(and desperation).

The list ended up not being so short but there is a lot to think about when fishing chironomids.  Learning to fish midges in stillwater effectively takes time and patience. It can be dull with a heavy dose of boring when you aren’t catching. After you master fishing the Chironomid, slow times will be few and far between. Just remember that upwards of 50% of most trout diets in lakes are midges and have fun from there.

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