On The Swing: Winter Midges

It was a cold, calm and frosty winter morning, An uninviting ice shelf clung to the bank of the rive as steam rose from the currents. It was early, but despite wearing enough layers to clothe a small village, and boot-foot waders, I was still cold to the center of my bones. Soon, the sun would peek over the canyon walls and the air temp would start its rise to a balmy 39 degrees. 

Perfect conditions for a massive hatch of tiny midges that would bring all of the river’s trout to the surface to feed. Finally, I see the first rise, followed shortly thereafter by another. Within no time there is a pod of gently sipping trout feeding in the pool in front of me and it’s time to wade in. At the top of the run I ease into the water well above the feeding fish, strip out a little line and make a short single Spey cast.  I pull out a couple more feet of line and make another cast, and repeat. My fly should now be near the closest feeding trout as it slowly swings in its arc. I see the boil on the surface, feel the pull.

It’s going to be a great day. 

Anyone who has fished winter midges can attest to the great challenges involved. For instance, accurately casting to a trout’s feeding window (roughly a target the size of a coffee cup) with slack in the leader to maintain a good drift, seeing the tiny fly amongst a thousand naturals when the fish hits, not setting with more force than the thin tippet can withstand, and tying on the next micro-phony with frozen fingers. And those are the few that come immediately to mind. 

Photo: Pearson.

I have found that fishing a single wet fly on a tight line not only simplifies or eliminates the challenges, it is also deadly effective in the right conditions. As a bonus I get to spey cast and if the mood strikes, stare into the sky to watch an eagle without fear of missing a strike.

Most tailwaters, spring creeks and some freestone rivers in trout country have hatches of midges with winter and early spring providing the thickest emergence. Trout spey fishers that want to swing a soft hackle will want to focus on just a small, specific part of the midge’s life cycle, the emergence. Midge pupa are not great swimmers so their emergence is more of a wiggle as they ascend toward the surface.  Once at the surface they struggle to break the invisible barrier and emerge into winged adults. It’s this struggle at the surface that our imitation is meant to simulate. During the hatch you will see trout, small groups to large schools, actively rising, taking the emergers, adults and those stuck in transition. This is perfect for the small wet fly.  However,  there is a trap to watch out for when winter midge fishing with the swung fly. There are times when seemingly every trout in the river is rising but they are not feeding on hatching bugs. They are feeding on mating pairs or clusters of midges. Imitating the emergence won’t produce the same results during this type of surface feeding. Don’t lose faith though as often the midge mating dance preludes the emergence.  Watch closely for the actual hatch to start, then you are in business.

Even if the trout are large it is best to use a light trout Spey like a two or three weight. You will hook more fish with the finesse of the lighter rods. A larger line on the surface of the water creates enough resistance that fewer trout will hook themselves with their slow, gentle take. A Scandi line with a smooth front taper and a nylon 9’ leader tapered to 4X will perform best. 

A couple feet of 4X tippet tied to a size 16 Syl’s midge will usually do the trick, but I always have some 5X and a few size 18’s just in case. Sylvester Nemes is the man behind the Syl’s Midge. A very simple fly with a peacock herl body and a turn of gray partridge for a hackle tied on a standard wetfly hook. The trick is finding partridge hackle small enough to match the hook size.

Alternatively, use the hackle reducing method by wrapping the hackle first just forward of the hook point, pull all fibers forward, wrap the peacock body over the base created and then push the partridge fibers rearward and build a small head of thread to force the fibers to a slight sweep rearward. I have experimented with a lot of variations of this fly like tying with red silk and leaving a red butt exposed behind the peacock herl body but the original is usually all that is required. Even though these are small wets, I always prefer to fish with a single, barbless fly. It might seem appropriate to add dropper flies to the legal limit and put the buffet table out in a broad, flat run but I feel better connected to a single fly and believe I fish better with this set-up.

Photo: Pearson

When swinging a soft hackle fly, water selection is key. There may be trout feeding in all parts of the river but that doesn’t mean we can effectively present the fly everywhere they are feeding. Whether it is a really fast swung caddis on a summer night or a slow swing winter midging, swinging soft hackles is all about the speed of the fly. Choosing the right water is the easiest way to control the speed.  

Luckily, trout feeding in winter are usually in water that is conducive to the swung midge.  With the cold water temps the fish congregate in the slower pools, seams and tailouts. The basics of the presentation are to make a cast square across or downstream at an angle depending on current pace. With trout feeding in quiet water I want to keep my disturbance to a minimum. Gentle splash-and-go casts like the single spey and snake rolls are all that is needed and to keep mending to a minimum I angle my cast in accordance with the water speed. The presentation is a slow and steady swing. Pay attention to what the speed of the fly is when you get your takes. Are they hitting it just as it starts to swing, or in the fast part of the swing with more belly in the line, or the slow last quarter or are they taking in the hang down as the fly stalls?  Use those clues to manipulate your presentation to cover rising fish at the desired speed.  Sometimes taking a step or two forward or back will be all that is needed to positively affect the presentation.  In other words, placing yourself in a different lane/speed of current can change the speed and presentation favorably.  

When the trout takes the slowly swung, unweighted wet fly you will often see the rise a second or so before you feel the pull. The take can feel like weight slowly building up on the line or a sharp yank and the fish is hooked and jumping before you know it. 

The trick is letting them hook themselves.

  Seems easy enough but it definitely takes a little practice.  When I taught this technique while guiding I told folks that they might miss the first several but eventually we will be hooking more than we are missing.  If I had a new angler that hadn’t built up the muscle memory of lifting the rod quickly to set the hook they usually would pick it up quickly.  With anglers that have a season (or a lifetime) of lifting sharply to set the hook it took a little more practice. 

Photo: Pearson

The general idea is to remove as much slack as possible to be as connected to the fly as we can be.  In a wet fly swing the biggest culprit of slack is what is dangling between the rod tip and the surface of the water. Even if the rod tip is held only 10” above the surface during the swing, the V shape created with rod and line represents considerable slack. I can’t emphasize enough how easy it is to overlook this slack. When guiding this technique to people that had no experience with it, I usually had to remind them “rod tip down” on every swing and remind them that it meant the difference between hooking or not hooking the fish which is important to most people fishing (admittedly less so to me these days).  Much in the same way a spey caster needs a heads up display that reads “slow down,” a swinger of wet flies needs one that says, “no slack.”  There are of course exceptions to this and every rule. One being that large fish have enough weight to remove a fair amount of slack and if a large fish “freight trains” the fly you might want some slack.  As always, judge what the fish are doing and adjust accordingly.

As mentioned above the set really isn’t a set. You are better off doing nothing for a second or two when you feel the pull and then just gently raise the rod in an arc. This process will lead to a lot of hookups, but there will still be a few that get away. You will never bat a thousand swinging a wet fly midge to sipping trout but there is a simple technique that will help increase the average. Same as before, the rod tip nearly at the water surface (“no slack”) and pointed directly down the line, when you feel the tug slowly pull your hand holding the rod backward to gently increase the resistance. This is not a rod hand strip strike, that would be too much and most likely break your tippet. Just a gentle stretch back (around 6”) to get tight to the fish and then ease the rod up into the arc. It was common when guiding winter midge fishing to have an angler miss five out of the first six takes but once they have the feel of the gentle stretch and easing the rod into an arc they will reverse the percentage. 

Another reason to use a single barbless wetfly in the winter is the ease in releasing fish. I like to use the midge-size Ketchem release tool to release fish without touching them.  No need for a photo opp. Keep the fish wet and your hands dry.  

Keep em’ wet. They’re totally worth keeping your hands dry. Photo: Pearson

I think of winter days on the river as a bonus. If you are addicted to your camera it’s a good time to take a break from “content” and hero shots, leave the camera at home and truly enjoy the day. Some anglers that have never tried a camera free day might find it liberating. Focus on the warm sun on your face, the bugs hatching, the fish rising, the eagle overhead, the light filtering through the canyon. Experiment with the speed of the swing and pay attention to the slightest variations in your presentation and the trout’s behavior. The devil is in the details and minor changes often make all the difference when swinging soft hackle flies in the winter. 

As the sun drifts behind the mountain, the river is left in shade and the temperature starts to plummet, I can’t help but be filled with gratitude. Gratitude for a beautiful winter’s day, an uncrowded river, willing wild trout, public access and a thermos of warm coffee in the truck.