Davy Wotton explains how, what and where to present your tiny fly for best results
The best fly fishers l know are very observant individuals. They study the situation before making a dash to the water. They are in no hurry to get casting: they take time to assess what the fish is doing, attempting to identify the food source and the fish’s feeding pattern. In the case of a midge-feeding fish it is important to do this, as you may only have one or two chances to catch it, as fish feeding high in the water are very wary, much more so than when they are feeding at depth.
So, what are you looking for? First, try to establish what ‘midge’ the fish is feeding on. This may be water-borne or terrestrial. In the case of terrestrials – ants, aphids, etc – you should be able to see them on the water surface. It’s hghly possible they will not be visible in the air above the zone you are fishing, it’s likely that these bugs ended up on the water way upstream of your position. This is highly typical of a fall of ants, which can happen over a small, localised area.
If, for example, you see some evidence of Chironomid adults ask yourself: are they adults which have just emerged, or are they females returning to lay eggs? The same applies to hatches of small upwings and micro-caddis species. If you look for a period of time you should be able to figure this out. If you suspect the flies are egg-laying adults, then your general approach would be to fish a fly that represents the adult of the species. However, if there is evidence of a hatch taking place then three options will be open to you:
1) the fish are taking the ascending, pupa or nymph;
2) the fish are taking at the stage of emergence;
3) the fish are taking the winged adult.
In the case of midge-feeding fish all of these will take place very close to, just below, in or on the surface of the water. There are some trains of thought that this aspect of the fly’s presentation in the surface meniscus is critical to whether or not the fish will take it or not. I will agree with that to a point; however, having caught a great many fish with Midges my feelings are these: if you have the right fly that is in some way a good representation of what the fish are feeding on, and you present it to the fish’s eye, you have a very high chance the fish will take it. If it does not, then there may be other reasons as to why, as we shall investigate in the ‘Presentation’ part of this article.
It is a ridiculous to suggest that there is a exact period of the insect’s emergence that the fish are keyed on to – for example, a stage when the insect has four legs visible, part emergence of the wing, and is half-way out of the pupal or nymphal case. The critical aspect is simple: at what level – below, in or on the surface - is the fish’s zone of vision concentrated, and that factor applies almost always to any species during a emergence.
Other factors will also influence how the fish sees the naturals and your artificial, much of that is related to the water surface: is it like smooth glass, or is it agitated by either structure or wind movement? As a rule, when the water surface is disturbed by wind and wave action this will lessen the high-layer surface activity of feeding fish, simply because they are not able to see the food source to start with, especially in the cases of midges.
The fish’s vision
When fish are seen to be feeding in or off the surface they will have a very limited zone of vision in terms of the fish focussing on the food source at the surface, but they also have a far greater peripheral zone of vision outside of that taking zone, much more than you realise. If they did not have this perception many fish would fall prey to other species. I give the following encounter as an example. I was some 30ft or more above a number of fish that were feeding on trico, a very small upwing. The fish were in a slow, slack, back-eddy and there were a number of them feeding, good ‘bows of between two and three pounds which I had spotted from well downstream. As l walked towards those fish, I reached a position where I was more or less directly below them. It took but a second or so for those fish to spook and take off. I could not believe that they had seen me. Alan Bramley was with me at that time and he couldn’t believe it either. I went back downstream of those fish, and waited for them to resume feeding, which they did after a short while. Again, as soon as I got anywhere near those fish they spooked. The fish - although focussed on a tiny window at the surface of the water – had the visual capacity to know I was there.
Once in position, undetected, for a cast, it is the narrow taking-zone that now matters so far as catching those fish is concerned. The key elements that you now need to assess is the feeding pattern of that fish. Is he remaining high in the surface and picking off the naturals as each one comes into his zone of vision, or is he feeding for a spell then sinking down for a short time before resuming his high water feeding? All of this amounts to one thing. Your fly must be within the fish’s zone of vison at the time he is likely to take it. It’s no use casting to a fish that is not likely to see the fly to start with. You are fishing a very small fly and a fish rarely will chase it down, although l have had them and seen them do this at times - an exception to the rule. The bottom line is this. The fish’s zone of vision will be concentrated within a very small area which you have to recognise and then place your fly so it drifts over it.
It matters not if it be an upwing, ant or chironomid, but it must have a close resemblance to the food source by way of size, overall colour tone and shape definition. And it also depends on how the fish see the natural. For example, if they are taking small upwing duns then the fly should exhibit that form, if they are taking midge pupa in the transitional stage from pupa to winged adult then you need a fly that looks something like that. It is not an exact science, but it is very close. If you tie your own flies then you must pay attention to this aspect, for a size 20 or 22 Midge Pupa that looks like a blob of thread may well be refused for that very reason. I am not suggesting that you should try to close copy a natural in minute detail, for you cannot do that - naturals do not have the a metal hook or a tippet attached to them and, more to the point, you cannot physically build into that artificial the natural elements of colour tone, movement and other aspects that the natural contains and exhibits within its watery world.
All we are doing is creating a fly that deceives the fish into believing it is the real thing, and the more suggestive elements it contains then the more likely it is to do that.
Often the term ‘selective feeding’ is used when fish are very much preoccupied with a specific food source and how they see and take it. I will accept that there are times fish can become very difficult to catch, but you should not base your lack of success on that way of thought, (‘They were too selective, that is why I could not catch them’), because for 90% of the time you can catch them. If you pay attention to the food source, the way the fish sees it and takes it, you have the right fly, and make a good presentation, then the odds are well in your favour, believe me. (Although the fish always has the last word, there is no such word as ‘never’ in fishing!)
I have my own proven fly patterns which have caught a great many fish for both myself and other fly fishers, but it will pay you not to become stereotyped in your approach, which many fly fishers do. Here’s an example. A hatch of very small chironomid is taking place, the average size of the natural being about the size of a size 20 hook. Fish are taking the pupa right in the film, both emerging and winged, and the overall colour of the natural is grey. OK, you may choose to fish a fly that is tied to represent the emerging pupa, that would be a good choice. But you may well nail those fish with a very small dry Adams or a dry Grey Duster, both of these flies will very often work, as they imitate a small midge very well. Very small soft-hackle Spiders can also be deadly at such times fished, of course, dead-drift.
I hope you can understand what l am saying; there is more than one way to skin a cat. It is a match the hatch scenario, but with many other options.
This is the whole deal right here: the vast majority of refusals are the result of drag. Drag is your worst enemy. You may have assessed all that is needed, you know what the fish are feeding on, you have observed the feeding pattern and you have chosen the right fly. Out goes the cast, the fly is drifting on to its target, just as it nears the critical point of the fish’s zone of vison and one that is almost at the point of interception by the fish, it sees drag on your fly, a unnatural movement that is completely different to how the fish is seeing the real thing.
Two factors have now taken place, the first is the fish has refused your fly, and the second is you have wised him up. It is a mistake to continue to cast at that fish. It’s better to leave him. Give him a rest and try again. I have watched a great many fly fishers attempt to catch fish when they are midge feeding, and the main reason they are not getting takes is because of drag. You may think that you are able to see the drag of the fly, well if it is severe you will see it, but if it is minimal then you will not, (even though you think you can!) But the fish will, that’s for sure. You must eliminate drag.
There is only one way that you can achieve this and, in simple terms, it amounts to this. You must make a presentation in a manner that will allow for you to set that fly on its downstream drift towards the fish’s eye in a way that it is moved only by the natural movements of the water surface. You cannot do this if you have some restriction to that movement whether this is caused by your lack of line control, or you have not read correctly how the water will influence the movement of your fly. I know of no man that can get it right every time, but those that have achieve a high rate of success do so because they can not only read how the water will influence the drift, they also know how to make the right presentation with the cast, and from the best degree of angle in relation to the fish’s zone of vision.
You have, of course, many degrees of angle to work with, from upstream, across, to a direct downstream drift. As a rule you can get close to the fish if you keep a low profile, do not wade and splash around, and avoid doing anything to make the fish aware of your presence.
If you make a direct upstream presentation you need to make certain that your leader/ tippet is not seen by the fish before your fly. The same applies when you make an across-stream presentation – be careful not to ‘line’ the fish with leader or tippet. The same applies to a downstream presentation.
How accurate a caster do you think you are? Are you able to consistently place a fly within a four-inch diameter circle at close ranges? Have you ever tried? Try it, you may get a shock at how inaccurate your casting is. This is the kind of limitation that you need to overcome in order for the fish to see your fly. Again, I will tell you that the closer you can get to the fish the easier it is for you to do this.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to all angles of presentation. If you make a direct upstream presentation it is almost impossible to effect a change of direction of the fly once it has landed; your fly is at the mercy of the stream’s downstream drift, and you are likely spook the fish if you try to alter it.
An across-stream angle allows you some degree of adjustment of the original placement of the fly. If, for example, you make the initial delivery way above the fish then you can, of course, draw the line and fly back towards you until it is directly in the sight line of the fish. For a more direct downstream presentation, you can deliver the fly way above the fish, and build slack into the downstream drift so the fly will naturally drift over the fish’s window, and before it gets there you an make mends and correct the line of drift of the fly. All well and good, but you need to pay very close attention as to how you recover the fly off the water without spooking the fish.
The perfect downstream delivery is one that has both the fly line and leader to the side of the fish, as this will allow you to let the line drift out and away from the fish before you lift off for the next cast.
All methods of presentation demand that you build into it a means of providing slack line so as the fly is not impeded for any part of its drift through the trout’s line of sight. If you think it is wrong, do not lift off when you are close to the fish, let it all drift downstream of the fish’s position before you do so.
Selecting the fishing zone
Here many fishers make a crucial mistake and the result is that all the fish in that zone will either cease feeding and go down, or you will have ‘wised them up’ and you may as well cast till Doomsday, as you are not likely to catch one of them.
A single feeding fish is one thing as that presents you with but one choice. If, however, you have a pod of fish then that is a different scenario. First and foremost, you need to be able to work that pod of fish without spooking any of them. Secondly, you should work to the fish that are the closest to you and not ‘fish the water’ hoping that one of those fish will take your fly, it may well do but the odds are you will spook many others. You must avoid ‘lining’ fish if at all possible. Every time that line lands and moves over fish they will be come suspicious. And that applies with any high surface fishing with a few exceptions.
Extending the overall length of your leader is one way to deal with this, changing your position to allow for a different angle of approach is another. Do not remain in the same position, with what I call the heron stance, for that is what a heron does, but he does not move a muscle!
Make an evaluation before you start to fish, it will pay dividends in the long run, I can assure you.
Reading the take
When fish are midge feeding they are very slow and deliberate in the way they take the natural. They do not have to chase them and they certainly do not take in the same way as they would a caddis fly. Often as not, the movement the fish will transmit to the tippet is virtually zero, or close to it. That, in simple terms, means that you have to concentrate in the zone in which you expect your fly to be.
You will have two options. The first is you can see the fish and spot the movement that indicates it has taken the fly. Bingo, you should be able to set the hook. On the other hand, you have no choice but to watch intently the zone in which you know your fly to be. In this case you must focus your attention on any disturbance on the surface, no matter how small it may be. The fish may take the fly in a number of ways; in some cases a minuscule sip or a break in the natural drift of the water may be your only indication that the fish has taken the fly. Remember we are fishing with a very small fly.
A flat, glass-like surface affords you the best visibility for these signals, but one that has some sort of disturbance presents a different challenge. The more that you fish with midge techniques the more you will hone your ability to actually see what is going on and read many things that you are not capable of seeing when you first start.
In some cases you may choose to use a ultra-small indicator which will be set some way back from the fly, you may choose to watch this as your means of indication. I know that many of my clients do not have the best eye-sight, and have not fished this way for long enough to be able to read the most subtle of takes. However, even with this mode of take detection, not all takes will be registered with the indicator moving, unless you are fishing in water that has a good current speed. In which case the interception of the fly by the fish will cause a momentary stop to the drift of the fly which is indicated by a stop or immersion of the indicator, the amount of movement related to the speed of the water.
Angles of presentation – assessing the situation
Before you go blindly crashing into the water take time out and survey the situation. We have fish visibly seen feeding on and in the surface. It matters not the food source- Mayfly, midge, terrestrial – choice of fly is another matter.
What are our options and the best means of approach? There are four things you must avoid at all cost. Remember - these fish are high in the surface and have a very wide field of vision. You spook them by alerting them to your presence, either by your movement or lining them either by the act of false casting, letting the leader and fly line track over the fish and by the means you recover the line for the next cast.
We have two main feeding zones from the centre line. But they are a good distance apart.
• Points 1, 2, 3 and 4 show the concentration of the fish.
• Fishing at fig 5 we have no choice but to fish in a downstream direction.
• At fig 6 we can fish a little up stream, across and down.
• At figs 7 and 8 we can fish up-across-down.
• At fig 8 we can fish up and across. At fig 9 we can fish a little up at a across angle.
• At fig 10 we can only fish up-stream.
• All of the above require a different approach and presentation value.
So what is the best option, bearing in mind we need to avoid spooking the fish? We can stay on the shoreline between 5 and 10. We can walk up-stream, cross over at D and walk way down to C and wade down to E and fish as we would between 5 and 10.
Go downstream to E, wade across and be downstream of the fish in mid stream. There is no perfect answer as you never know when you may spook fish but there are certainly ways to avoid it.
There is one other factor to take into the equation: the relative angle of the sun; that will either make life very difficult for you to see your fly or indicator system, or it will cast a shadow of you, your fly line and spook the fish, There is also the aspect of the fish looking into a bright light source, they may not be able to see your fly.
Out of choice, I prefer for a more upstream and across presentation. It generally affords a better hook-up percentage. It also keeps me downstream from the trout’s eye, and is less likely to cause the fish to spook as I am not creating shock waves in the water that will track downstream, and that also applies for how the fly line lands on the water. Even then fish do have the capacity to feel upstream changes in pressure, that is a fact. If at any time I think the fish are nervy then I will stop fishing and let them settle down. It is foolish to continue to fish as you will normally catch nothing once they have tuned into you!
OK. I would first opt to fish at 9 in an upstream direction and only to those fish that are the closer to me. You could also make a start at any of the other positions between 9 and 6.
If I was sure that the fish had seen my fly and refused, and I am confident I had the right fly then I may well go to 5 and fish downstream to those fish. This can often make the difference.
This would apply either side left or right of 1 to 4.
Somewhere within these margins I will have figured out how to get those fish to take the fly. What I am doing is to co-ordinate my approach around the perimeter of those fish. The same would apply for a single fish or a pod of a few.
But never, never!, fish the water blindly casting from one to the other and lining fish. Work at individual fish one at a time. About the only other factor to take into consideration is the influence of water surface movement and how it will or otherwise enable you to make good drag free drifts. That is a complex matter and only one you can deal with at the time as no two places are the same.
My advice to you is this: across-stream presentations are generally the more difficult to deal with when you have a wide margin of difference between slow and fast water seams. In this case you may be better to go for a close direct up stream or a more direct downstream presentation as both will take out much of that influence. Increasing the total length of leader/tippet will also help to deal with this if you are able to place the fly close to the target. Long leader/tippet allows for a fly to animate a little better with the natural movement of the water, provided you do not restrict that movement and cause drag, your worst enemy.
Angles of presentation – avoiding ‘lining’, spooking and drag
Further to the decision you will make for your approach in Part 1, take into consideration the effects of drift control and the best way to avoid spooking fish. You can see from the diagrams the best option for that from all three major angles of down, across and up. You may have no choice given how you can approach: bank side vegetation; deep, unwadeable water; and in some cases of adverse winds, surface movement of water. Angle of light may also determine your best position for visibility.
Regardless of the above many of the angles I have used as examples will be available to you. In every case rod and line control is the key to avoid drag or lining the fish. The more perfect a float you achieve the more likely you are to catch the fish. That can only be achieved with practice, and a great deal of it.
• Mastering the Midge, I – Davy Wotton fine-tunes his tackle for tiny fly presentation and argues that leader make-up is crucial
The use of Mucilin
I would never be without Mucilin. If l have one complaint it is the container. The lid is not secure and there’s nothing worse on a hot day when the contents melt and permanently stain your vest, or, worse still, there is none left to use. Please, Thames Fishing Tackle, give us a new container!
There are a number of ways that you can determine the depth that your fly will fish by using Mucilin. Applied sparingly to the tippet close to the fly will enable the fly to remain on or just in the meniscus. The farther away from the fly then the more readily it will sink, provided you have a cleansed tippet. In this case you may also need to apply a sinking agent. Fuller’s earth is the best I know, next to mud you find on any riverside bank.
In the case of Midge flies, they are small and lifght so they will not sink at a great rate. You may find it necessary to add a very small pinch-on shot. Or choose a fly with some material that aids it to sink, such as a copper wire body.
Further to the use of Mucilin, we now have fluorocarbon leader material. This can be used as a addition to a regular monofilament tippet when you need the fly to get down (fluorocarbon sinks much faster than mono). The combinations that you are able to use by combining both mono and fluorocarbon are endless.
The other main reason I use Mucilin is to see the take of a fish. Under normal circumstances you should be able to see the greased tippet on the surface of the water - that is your strike indicator. I also use it if I am using an indicator and it needs some additional floating agent.