FOR MANY ANGLERS, the mere mention of midges coming off makes them think why bother. The thought of trying to match those tiny flies, with 5x or 6x tippets, makes them say, I think I'll stay home by the fireplace. Right now on the Lower Yuba, its probably the midges and micro mayflies that are sustaining the trout and its what they're most likely feeding on. Let's talk a bit about fishing with midge patterns on our local river.
What are Midges?
What the heck is is a midge anyway? Some of us anglers refer to any small bug or fly as a midge. The term is more accurately used to refer to several families of insects in the order Diptera, the two-winged flies. For us anglers, the midges that are most important to us and the trout we're after, are the chironomids, members of the family Chironomidae. As the name midge implies, most midges are quite small, best imitated with hook sizes 18 and smaller. That's tiny! Again we tell ourselves why bother.
Why might Midges be Important to us as Fly Fishers?
Because of their small size, midges must be present in large numbers to make them a viable food source for our Lower Yuba fish. They are present in our system in the slower runs and flats. On our Lower Yuba, now in mid to late December, the salmon run is over, there aren't the eggs tumbling down stream and the fish are fat and getting lazy. Eventually they need to eat again but what is available? One answer is Midges!.
In our specific case on the Lower Yuba River, the midges come into play tactically during the winter when other bug activity is on the decline or just plain old not happening. Trout can feed efficiently on these small food forms in cold winter conditions and when not much else is available. Midges can be targeted in the tailouts, runs, large pools or in backeddy currents. Midges will become less important later in the season as hatches of larger insects start up. On the Lower Yuba that would be the Blue Wing Olives and the Pale Morning Duns and eventually the Skwala Stonefly and March Browns. Until then it's midges and small mayflies on the plate.
On the Lower Yuba most anglers that are presenting midge patterns should focus on surface emerger and cripple patterns. Surface emergers are designed to imitate the adult midge just as it pulls free of the pupal shuck. Although it might sound obvious, the most important part of a surface emerger’s design is the correct amount of flotation to hold it in the surface film.
One of my most respected authors and fly fishers is Rene Harrop. I stop by his shop, the Trouthunter, every time I drive to or from Montana. René Harrop uses CDC in several of his midge emerger patterns. His patterns are very highly recommended by fishermen in Idaho and Montana. He gets a very different effect by varying amounts of this material and applying it in different ways. His CDC Midge Emerger uses a tiny tuft of CDC for flotation. This fly sits very low, and although it can be difficult to see and requires some attention to keep it floating in the film. The Harrop Biot Midge Emerger has a folded wing pad plus sparse outriggers of CDC, allowing it to float a bit higher. The Harrop Transitional Midge combines an ingenious looped wing of CDC with a grizzly hackle tip shuck. These patterns are similar, but each presents a slightly different view of an emerging midge to the fish. His patterns are available online through the Yellowstone Angler. Our local shop The Reel Angler may be able to get some of Harrop's patterns through Solitude Flies. Stop by and ask him.
Harrops Biot Midge Emerger
A key element of a surface emerger is to imitate the pupal shuck itself. As the hatching midge pulls free of the pupal shuck, the whole insect appears to elongate, and there is a slight hesitation just before the midge and shuck separate. This is the stage that the fish prey on most heavily, and imitating the trailing shuck is critical. Various materials can be used, a small grizzly hackle tip (as on the Harrop Transitional Midge) or olive/brown sparkle yarn or Zelon.
Tactics for Fishing Midges
There are two important periods to fish midge pupae;
(1) When the pupae are making there way to the top
(2) When they are suspended in the surface film
Early in the emergence it is best to present pupae patterns close to the bottom and allow them to rise with the current. One of the best ways to do this is a variation of the Leisenring Lift. To do this position yourself and about a forty-five degree angle above and to the side of feeding trout or a suspected feeding lane when searching. Cast far enough in front of the trout to allow the fly or flies to sink. Mend the line to allow the fly to drift drag free into the feeding lane. Lift the rod tip up slightly to allow the current to pull against the line and lift the pupa up and to the side as swings past the fish. This method can be used to approach sited fish rising or when searching.
As the hatch progresses and once the pupae rise to the surface they need to break their way through the surface film. The pupae can drift hanging against the bottom of the surface for minutes to more than an hour. It is during this period that the pupae are the most vulnerable to the trout. This is where the cripple imitations really come to play.
One problem you will encounter when fishing cripples is that they are almost impossible to see. One trick is to use a dry dropper setup. I have had success using a small parachute pattern with a visible post and then trailing a midge pupae no more than ten or twelve inches behind it. Another trick is to grease your tippet.
If you are fishing on a flat or very smooth glide try an emerger or a cripple with a pupa following behind it. Grease the tippet and the portion of the emerger or cripple that is supposed to be out of the water and then the tippet on the dropper to within an inch or so from the pupa pattern.
It is almost always best to present these dry/cripple/dropper rigs using downstream presentations. You want the flies to float downstream prior to your fly line.
How about under indicators?
What about sub surface deep nymphing presentations? Midge larvae are numerous enough to be a significant part of the drift of food in most tailwaters. Drifting a midge larva pattern is an excellent searching technique when there is no hatch, similar to fishing imitations of other common foods like small mayfly nymphs. Also, since chironomid pupae are mobile during pupation, the behavior and appearance of larvae and pupae are similar until emergence actually begins. For this reason, the dead drift techniques for both larva and pupa patterns are the same.
When fishing subsurface patterns it is best to fish them under indicator dead drifting. On the Lower Yuba the period that the midge becomes important is right after the salmon are done spawning and the egg bite is over. With that said I usually continue using a plastic "Troutbead" and follow it with a small mayfly nymph, size 16 or 18 and then trail a midge pupa in a size 18 or twenty. Looking for the elusive 20 on a 20. A twenty inch fish on an size 20 fly.
Harrops Transitional Midge Emerger
So when it gets tough out on the Lower Yuba in the winter season, think about trying some midge tactics. You can target the mid day when it is a bit warmer and just go play for a couple of hours. Who knows you may discover something new.
I fished the Lower Yuba today with a couple of buddies. It's the first really warmer day since our recent snowstorms here in Grass Valley. My driveway looks like a huge frozen slip and slide. The decision as to when to hit the river was based on letting the temperatures warm up a bit. We made it down, dumped the boat in the river and started fishing a little after 11:30.
It had warmed up considerably by then probably in the mid 40's. It was 28 at my house when I left. The sun was shining and not a cloud in the sky. The good thing is that the temps had warmed up, The bad is that the sun is up and mostly overhead so we lost some stealth. Fishing is often a series of trade offs. Today was a great example.
The river has been running at about 850 cfs, and gin clear, winter sustaining flows for the salmon spawning. The salmon spawning has tapered off to the point that we saw about 3 salmon in the course of floating about 2 1/2 miles and over many redd areas and they were really beat up. So the egg bite is done. That doesn't mean that a fish won't take an egg, but they are not hanging out in the buckets and the redd areas especially mid day. The fish we landed all took Troutbeads. They've moved into the runs, dropoffs and flats. .
It's been my observation over the years that the fishing on the Lower Yuba can get a little tough after the egg bite tapers off. The fish go into a little funk for awhile. It's an adjustment period. Trying to figure what the next thing on the seasonal menu, what's the next meal going to be?
What is the next best thing? Well typically this time of year on warmer days you see PMD's out and about, We did see a handful and one fish slurp a dun down. There will also be Baetis on the overcast or drizzly days. We saw a couple. There are also midges. In the late afternoon they started coming off. This is when we started to see a few more rises. So my guess is that right now the best choices are still a eggs as more of an opportunistic attractor, a rubber leg stone for the same reason, small mayfly nymphs, and you guessed it midge patterns.
On December 1st there were still salmon in the system, not a lot, but enough, the fish took Troutbeads, Pheasant Tail nymphs and Baetis nymphs with regularity. Ten days later where the heck did they go. We had a tough time finding them today. Quite a few ratatat takes, a few nice fish on and gone, and a number to the net. Back to the tough, work hard to pick up fish Lower Yuba.
This doesn't mean its time to take a break, it just means we have to work harder and try more things. There's also the Skwala Hatch coming, so start tying!
Here's my friend Peter Burnes who caught this chunky rainbow on the Lower Yuba yesterday. He was using a switch rod and a MOW tip. I've often found myself choosing my 6 weight switch rod out of my arsenal of rods this fall. I'll attempt to explain why.
This has been a very good year for salmon on the Lower Yuba. By latest counts we're about at the 11,000 fish level. Of course this is nowhere near historical numbers but almost twice as many as last year. There are still small pods coming up river so this number will end up higher still. This has meant the fishing for resident rainbows and an occasional steelhead around where the salmon have been spawning has been pretty darn good. One of the characteristics of the type of structure that we have been concentrating on is water that is under 3 to 4 feet deep or areas where the depth drop-offs. Some of that water consists of buckets and rollers where salmon are spawning or have recently spawned.
When fishing these areas there are two problems.
(1) You don't want to wade out and tromp on, over or through the salmon redds and
(2) you don't want to snag salmon as you are fishing your egg patterns among them.
This is where the switch rod really pays off. You can station yourself on the edges in no water or shallow water where it is obvious that the salmon haven't been spawning and use spey casting techniques or just roll cast to your targeted areas. You can in most cases easily reach reach the area. Must easier that a single handed rod. Trust me on this. Sure you need to learn a few basic spey casts, but it opens new doors.
Lining the Rod - I've lined my switch rod with an Airflo Speydicator line which is an integrated line. This line casts like a dream and can easily handle weighted tips and mini tips and heads. I've been using a Rio MOW tip, "Light" weight, which is 10 feet long and has 5 feet of floating and 5 feet of T-8. This setup is perfect for fishing the areas talked about above, through and below the salmon stationed on on near the redds.
Why???- Less or No Snaging - The thing I've noticed is that I like to break my drifts into short 10 to 15 foot drifts, concentrating on the water that is just slightly up stream from where I'm positioned to just slightly downstream. I try not to let my flies swing downstream and through salmon stationed below me. This is where it is most likely to snag salmon. One of the benefits of using the MOW tip is it will get your flies right on the bottom and they will pass under salmon rather than over their backs. This greatly avoids snagging.
How To Rigg - It is important to rigg properly though. So lets go through how I rigg up.
(1) Line - The line I use is a Airflo Seydicator line. They are matched to your rod size. If you are fishing a 6 weight switch rod you match it with a 6 weight Speydicator. Simple.
(2) Mow Tip - I then select a Rio MOW tip. The tip selection depends on the depth and speed of the current you are fishing. I've found that on the Lower Yuba the "Light" Series, 5 foot float and 5 foot T-8 sink is just about right. How do you tell? The tip needs to touch once in a while, you will feel it. You need to experiment and come up with the right combination. I carry the Rio Mow tips in the "Light" series (a) 7 1/2 foot float w/ 2 1/2 foot T-8 (b) 5 foot float and 5 foot T-8 and (c) 2 1/2 foot float and 7 1/2 foot T-8. This is really all you need.
(3) Build Your Leader
Step One. I build a short leader of OX mono, 1x mono, 2x mono, to total about 3 to 4 feet. (Note: This also a good place to use old leaders that have been cut back.)
Step Two - I then add an 18" piece of 3x fluorcarbon.
Step Three - I rigg a Troutbead to this piece of 3x Fluorocarbon, keeping the Troutbead within 1/2" of the hook. This Troutbead wants to be about 14" to 16" behind the knot above.
Step Four - I add another piece of tippet, 4x Fluorocarbon and add a nymph of choice. Typically a Pheasant Tail type or a Baetis nymph. This should be about 18" below the Troutbead. This is attached to the egg hook with a Clinch Knot.
Step Five- Add split shot above the Troutbead above the Surgeons knot. Use just enogh to get your flies down and rolling along the bottom but not hanging up. Experiment.
Beg, borrow or steal a switch rod and MOW Tips and give this a try. It may open your eyes.
The long awaited opening of the Lower Yuba finally arrived on December 1st. I was especially excited because of the amount of salmon that have been in the system this year. It's been a banner year with more salmon in the lower river than we've seen in about 4 years. About 4 weeks ago the researchers that work for Fish and Wildlife stated that there were about 8500 salmon counted at the fish ladders at Daguerre Point Dam. They predicted that the final numbers would tally over 11,000. For the Yuba that's good news. The numbers of salmon spawning above the bridge were supposed to be much more than the previous years. All the reason to be excited to check the river out.
I hooked up with my old friend, Blake Larsen, who I have spent many days fishing with over the years, just not so much in the last year or so. We didn't really miss a beat. Just like old times. The thing I like about Blake is that it's always about getting out and enjoying the day no matter what ends up being in store. No fish, some fish or lots of fish it really doesn't matter. We're kindred spirits in that way. It doesn't mean we don't work hard to make it happen or give up on it it's just not a numbers thing. It sort of like skunked, a few, a number or pretty darn good is our reference system.
One thing led to another and by the time Blake and I hooked up, did our shuttle and got rigged it was almost noon. So not the ideal time to start, but for the most part everyone else that got there at daybreak was about done. We basically had the river to ourselves. This was great!
Our strategy was to concentrate on the sanctuary water, which was anything that had enough depth for the fish to feel safe. We rigged up two rods, one a 6 weight with a deep indicator setup and a 6 weight Switch rod.
The indicator setup was rigged with a 9' - 3x tapered leader, a Thinamabobber, at about 7 feet from the shot, 18" of 3x fluorocarbon to a "Troutbead" and then another 18" of 4x fluorocarbon to a modified Pheasant Tail that I've come up with. The Troutbeads were painted with Peach nail polish. I added one more section of 4x fluorocarbon to a size 18 midge pupa. We used this rig whenever the water was more than 5 feet deep. It worked as I'd hoped.
For all the shallower areas, the areas 4 foot deep or less we switched up to a tightlining rig.The switch rod was rigged with an Airflo integrated Speydicator line. I added a MOW tip. The MOW tip was a Light, 5 foot float with a 5 foot T-8 sink section. I added a short 5 for leader and then added 18" of 3x fluorocarbon to a Troutbead and then another 18" of 4x fluorocarbon to nymph. This rig also performed well.
The key is to keep changing up as the characteristics change. The deep indicator is funky in shallower water, The tighlining rig is not ideal in the real deep water. (Note: This is not true if you change the deep tighlining rig to one with a long leader without the MOW tip and use lots of weight).
As far as the river conditions, the river was running about 830 cfs, crystal clear with not a cloud in the sky. Light shirt and shorts type of weather. This doesn't bode well for midday fishing in shallow water I can tell you that, especially with full sun. The river has changed up a bit, a few more drop-offs and ledges, some areas shallowed up a bit, others more channelized. There are lots of buckets and rollers from all the salmon spawning. Way more than I've seen in years. Lots of good habitat.
As far as bugs, about all I saw was midges and lots of them in the flats and tailouts, I think I saw one PMD, not that I looked very hard as there were so few. We need some drizzle or rain to see if the Blue Wing Olives are around. What I was confident in is that the fish would eat eggs. There's just been too many salmon in the system and the trout are just conditioned to eat them.
So how'd we do, let's just say we had a great day.