Itsy Bitsy Flies

By Beacon Staff

I fished in a blizzard the other day, only for an hour or two. It was cold, but the fishing was good.

I landed a fish on a dry fly, my first in months. It wasn’t huge, but even a 12-inch cutthroat is a trophy when it slurps your emerger while February snow falls on the river. Trout No. 2 was a fine fish by the standards of any season: an 18-inch Yellowstone cutthroat that couldn’t resist a No. 18 Klinkhammer.

I hadn’t planned to work surface flies. I got on the water late in the afternoon, and only had a short time to fish before the cold chased me back indoors. I tied on my usual winter rig, which consists of a bobber with a couple of AB tin shot dangling about three feet beneath. Eighteen inches below that I tied on a rather gaudy Beadhead Purple Prince Nymph. This is my attractor fly and I like them with rubber legs. They give the fly a larger, seductive profile.

But the money fly on this rig drops below the Prince. It’s a simple midge larvae pattern. And when I say simple I mean it. The fly is nothing more than a No. 16 hook wrapped from bend to eye with red floss. Hooks with a continuous bend in the shank such as a scud or Klinkhammer look wormier and work best for this pattern.

Midges are small, mosquito-like flies. If you’ve ever cursed annoying gnats flying up your nose during a lakeside picnic you know midges. They’re a key trout food during winter, especially on tailwaters. The bugs hatch year round and deal with silt better than mayflies or stones. The dams that create tailwaters puke up a lot of silt.

I’ve watched as fly tiers have developed scads of midge imitations in the three decades I’ve ben fly fishing. Probably the most famous is the San Juan Worm, a pattern developed on the New Mexican tailwater of the same name. It’s another simple fly, just a length of chenille tied to a hook, sometimes with a beadhead. The Worm is usually tied a little larger than even the biggest midge larvae, so the fly does double duty as an aquatic worm imitation.

The WD40 is another solid midge emerger pattern, as are Disco Midges and RS2s in smaller sizes. All of these flies are tiny, No. 18 or smaller, when matching midges. The Griffith’s Gnat is the classic adult midge pattern. In bigger sizes it imitates clusters of smaller flies gathered in little orgies on the surface.

I was fishing a long pool in that snowstorm, a place where the water slows and deposits its load of silt. It can be a little tricky wading in the muck, but that run is midge heaven.

I picked up a nice fish high sticking that nymph rig, and missed another as I was late on the swing when my bobber dipped. I noticed an occasional rise here or there in the pool, but it didn’t seem worth bothering with, yet.

Winter fishing can be a chilly challenge. When the temperature drops into the 20s bad things start happening to your gear. Your guides begin to freeze up and the line sounds like its dragging across 80-grit sandpaper as you false cast. At some point I dipped the reel into the water and it began to freeze up as well. Both problems were dealt with, at least temporarily, by sticking them back under water, which was a relatively warm 45 degrees.

But the nymph fishing was slow, and the surface commotion near the head of the pool relentless. I could take it no more and leaned over to get a good look at what was drifting by in the film. Midges, not too small. Black bodied flies with clear wings. Many were struggling to pull themselves out of the surface tension. The brown Klinkhammer with a peacock herl body in my fly box seemed a good match.

I momentarily forgot about the weather as I played that foot-and-a-half cuttie. But once I’d released it, winter reasserted itself and I escaped to the pub.

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