Earlier today, I was sitting at the fly tying bench catching up on tying some of my ever-present backlog of flies.
I had been out on the river 2 days before and realized how short I was on a fly that I use often, especially in the winter months.
Of the thousands of fly patterns used for trout, the zebra midge is one of the easiest to tie. From start to finish, I can turn them out in about 3 minutes, which always makes me wonder, “Why am I always running out of zebra midges?”
The answer actually is simple, it is because I use so darn many of them.
When I teach folks how to fly fish, especially if they come from a background of bass fishing with big lures, the tiny midge flies are the things that astound them.
Midges are tiny, and the flies that imitate these insects are equally tiny.
“How can you ever catch a trout on a hook that is so small?” they ask. The answer is, not only can you catch a trout on that hook, but also you can catch big trout, and a lot of them.
If I were asked, “If you only had one fly to fish year round on the Arkansas River, what would it be?”
I most likely would say a zebra midge. There would be many times during the year that I might make a different choice. If I were on the river in April, and saw a splashy rise to a caddis, I’d be quick to put on a caddis pattern.
Likewise, if I was fishing in Hayden Meadows in July and saw a gray drake mayfly fly by, a big Adams dry fly would be tied on posthaste. But most insects on the river hatch into adults for a relatively narrow window of time.
On the Arkansas, I think that I could catch a trout on a zebra midge on any given day throughout the year. The fly might not be my first choice, but it would usually be a good choice.
Midges have a very quick life cycle. Where most other aquatic insects have a life cycle of egg to adult of as much as a full year or more, midges go from egg to adult in a few weeks.
Because they have several generations a year and hatch 12 months a year, midge patterns are always a good choice. While there are many different midge patterns, the reliable zebra midge just seems to work here.
I leave the rest of the myriad of midge patterns for when I’m fishing still waters or tail waters. Midges are usually abundant in most aquatic environments.
You can tie the zebra in a bunch of colors, and of course different sizes, from a size 16 hook, down to a size 26! But here, the Arkansas River grows a pretty big midge, so a size 16, 18 or maybe a 20 will do the trick.
Related to houseflies and mosquitoes, midges are members of an order of insects called the Diptera.
They are diminutive flying insects as adults, and they spend their sub-adult life underwater, on rocks and logs.
Diptera literally means two wings. Most insect groups have four wings, arranged in two pairs. The flies, mosquitoes, and midges only have two, one pair.
The second pair of wings has been replaced by tiny structures called haltares.
These are behind each of the wings, and are a tiny stem with a little ball at the end.
A close look on bigger flies, like a horse fly or crane fly, you can actually see the haltares.
Midges and the other Dipterids also have complete metamorphosis.
Complete metamorphosis is one of those terms that you probably had to learn in high school biology and probably never thought that you’d hear again.
Complete metamorphosis means that the insect goes from an egg to a larva, to a pupa and finally emerging from the water as a flying, sexually mature adult.
The insects with incomplete metamorphosis skip the pupa stage, going from egg to a nymph to an adult. That’s why some fishing flies are called nymphs, some are larva and some are pupae.
The zebra midge is a larval pattern. Each day, larval midges drift in the water column and trout are looking for them to drift by.
Some get knocked off of their home rock or log catastrophically by accident, and some actually behaviorally make the leap into the current to make their way to the surface to hatch and become adults. Either way, the trout are ready.
As they drift, the larva change into a pupa, and eventually make it to the surface to emerge as an adult. Usually tied with a silver or glass bead, the zebra midge is a simple affair, a base of black or other colored thread, ribbed with fine wire.
There is logic to this. The ribbing represents the segmentation in the abdomen of the insect.
The bead though, also makes sense.
Many larval aquatic insects emit a tiny bubble of gas under their shuck.
The bubble helps them suspend in the water column, and helps them make their way to the surface, with their own little PFD.
In the light, the bubble looks silvery or white, and hence the bead. From the fly fishers point of view, the bead is made of glass, brass or tungsten, and helps the fly get down to where the fish are.
While they are small, their numbers are huge, and they make up an incredible amount of biomass in the river on any given day.
The trout are keenly aware of this and are well adapted to seeing such tiny food. Especially in the winter, midges make up a significant portion of a trout’s diet.
It always amazes me that so many fly fishers stop fishing come winter. I have many days throughout the winter where I can catch a surprising number of big trout in the warmer middle of the day, especially if the night before was mild.
The takes are light, and you really have to be focused on the indicator.
European nymphing works well this time of year as well, but you really have to be tuned in to takes that are almost imperceptible.
Use a midge larva, and instead of a split shot, weight your rig with a heavy stone fly nymph. Big stonefly nymphs are also on the move on warm winter days, so the combo will be hard to beat.
Follow the sun – biologic activity increases as water temperature increases, so finding water that is warmed by the sun is imperative.
You’ll find rainbow trout are more active than browns in colder water, so even tough they are only about 10 to 15% of the trout population, you’ll find that you might catch more rainbow trout than brown trout on some days.
Finally, trout this time of year are going to be found near deeper, slower runs. As the water warms, they may move into shallower water, but the deep water is always close by.
Once you find it, you may find that there are a lot of trout feeding in the same general area.
Play with the depth, and remember to watch for those subtle takes, and set the hook.
Larimer has been an avid fly fisher and fly tier for almost 40 years. He has an advanced degree in Wildlife Science and taught college and high school environmental science, marine ecology and biology for many years. In addition to fly fishing, he is a skilled naturalist and birder. He and his wife own Rock Run Gallery in Buena Vista, and he is a full time guide for Ark Anglers.