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Mastering the Midge, I

By Davy Wotton

Davy Wotton fine-tunes his tackle for tiny fly presentation and argues that leader make-up is crucial

A brown trout feeding at the surface on midges will often have plenty of choice of food, so fly presentation has to be spot on.
A brown trout feeding at the surface on midges will often have plenty of choice of food, so fly presentation has to be spot on.

The term ‘midge’ in this context is used somewhat generically by fly-fisherman as it does not, of course, always relate to a specific species, such as chironomids. Many other food sources, both aquatic or terrestrial, can also be grouped under the ‘midge’ umbrella; the governing factor being that the food items are small and, in some cases, diminutive – aphids being a good example of that. If you want to come to terms with midge-fishing techniques, regardless of the actual food the fish are feeding on at the time, then there are many requirements to be made of the angler in order for him to succeed. However, in all cases the two key elements of successful Midge fishing are presentation and concentration.

Here in the USA, the term ‘technical fishing’ is related to midge fishing. Technical or not, depending on how you wish to define it, it amounts to one thing in a nutshell: your ability to first assess what the fish are doing and thereafter being able to make the right presentations to the fish’s eye. Period. And it does take a degree of skill, unlike, for example, stripping a streamer in a small put-and-take fishery. But it is not as easy as that, as we shall see. It is a common mistake to assume that surface fishing requires more attention to detail than sub-surface fishing. That is far from the truth – the only major difference is that you can see what is going on, most of the time.

Before we deal with the elements of how to approach midge fishing in detail, there are a number of aspects that we need to consider:

There is no reason why you cannot fish with fine leaders and small flies with a 8-weight outfit, but you will of course handicap yourself by doing that. My way of thought is simple. I will use a rod-and-line weight that allows me a delicacy of presentation, and one that given the water l am fishing will allow me to deal with a hooked fish in a short period of time. I do not wish to, after 15 minutes, still be trying to land a 12-inch fish. I well remember many years ago when my friend Brian Harris, his son, and myself fished 3-weight outfits at Bewl. It was so much fun fishing that way, and l did it a great deal at Grafham and other waters too. The only down side to this style of approach is it may well take a long time to subdue a large fish, and that is definitely the case on fast-moving water. It may not be fair to the fish if you intend to release it; often fish will die from the stress of a long ordeal like that.

The ideal rod is one that has a soft mid-section action - it will lessen the shock at the time of hook-up and consequent loss of fish and fly. More to the point, you will be fishing at generally close ranges, from 10-40ft, and possibly a little more at times. Length of rod will be at times determined by the location you are fishing - short rods for small streams and overgrown zones, longer rods for more open water. My preference is 9ft 6in or 10ft for open water. Long rods allow me a greater degree of line control and drift, and easy pick-up with less surface disturbance. Line weights from 3 to 5 are generally fine.

The fly line
Line profile: with double-taper you will get a far better turnover and presentation with this line. Line colour: I choose shades of white, olive, grey. If you choose to use a WF profile then aim for one that has a good length of front taper. I currently opt for a Snowbee Prestige, which is available in both DT and WF.

One major factor that you should always be aware of is that a floating line should float on the surface and not in or below it. If it sinks it may well need a clean and an application of dressing to make it float. If it still does not float then find another brand, as a line that does this is useless as far as l am concerned: you cannot make good, clean mends and, worse, the drag created with a line that is sunk is greater than if it were on the surface. Also, a line that is on the surface will facilitate better and cleaner hook sets, as you do not have to drag the line through the water and be impeded by the additional forces that take place. This aspect is related to all techniques when a floating line is used.

Leaders and tippets
The bottom line here is that you must have a configuration that will allow you to make at times pin-point presentations. So far as opting for monofilament or fluorocarbon is concerned, there are two major factors to consider: fluorocarbon will sink around four times faster than monofilament, so if you wish to fish just below, in, or on the surface it is not the thing to use, as it will cause the fly to drag down. On the other hand, if you are going to present, say, a Midge Pupa at a lower depth then fluorocarbon may well be the best choice.

Given the fact that you are generally going to use small flies – say from size 18, and in extreme cases 26 to 28 – the diameter of the tippet should be of major consideration. I take no notice of what it says on the spool. This brand of 6X is rated at, say 3lb – the probability of that is remote, as too many other influential factors will apply, such as the knot you use, how you set the hook, the rod action that you use, and so on. They are all relevant in some way as far as how well (or badly!) that particular brand of tippet will hold up and, more to the point, if you consequently believe what the manufacturer tells you!

In simple terms, if you find a tippet that suits you and your style of fishing, then stick with it. Again, l only emphasise that it is the diameter that is of major consideration to me and that the tippet I use does not exhibit a great deal of flash, as this can spook fish – there’s no doubt about that.

There is no such thing as an invisible filament to the fish’s eye. Certainly, in given conditions, the visiblility factor will be lesser or greater, depending on the colour of the filament you use.

I can give you a scenario that will prove this. I was fishing for a rainbow that was feeding well on both emerging and adult chironomids. The fly I was using had caught a bunch of fish during the day. Every time the fly came into its zone of vision, this particular fish would make an approach but then very quickly move away. Believe me, I tried all angles of approach and changed flies a number of times, and gave this fish a period of rest from my efforts to catch him. It occurred to me that it was not so much the fly that Iused that was causing the refusal - it was the fact that he was able to see the tippet. I removed the fly and cast only the tippet to this fish. I got the same reaction - as soon as he saw it he moved away; even when I went down to 8X tippet he did the same thing. Do not assume from this that I did not make presentations in a way that the fly would have been the first thing he saw, because I did. I did not catch that fish, but it taught me a lesson. Do we really know how many fish that move to the fly and refuse it do so because they see the leader or tippet? Many more than you think, believe me.

It does not matter how perfect you set up your leader and tippet configuration for good turnover if you then do not make a good cast, but if you make up your leader for good presentation of the fly then you will catch fish. You have no weight when fishing a small fly like this. The energy transmitted in the cast should terminate with all casting energy exhausted at the time the leader and fly have reached their maximum length, and that the fly consequently settles like thistledown onto the water surface.

Fly reel
Again, it doesn’t matter which brand you use other than the fact that it possesses a clutch or gear mechanism that will allow you to have it set to a minimum, more or less to a point that the reel spool will not ‘free spool’, I like to play fish off the reel because you will get a much smoother release of line as the fish takes line from you. I have seen many trophy fish lost because of hand-lining, and it is easier to control fish directly from the reel when some degree of additional pressure is needed by using your hand as a brake on the spool. I am fortunate to own some of the reels that Lawrence Waldron produces, they work like a Swiss watch, but there are many more good ones out there.

Other essentials
I would not be without some means to sink my tippet, such as Fuller’s earth, and some means to float the tippet; my choice is Mucilin. As far as application to the fly is concerned I do not use any silicone-based product - they all have the effect of destroying the filaments of fibre by the fact that they allow a residue to remain, and in some cases a very bad oily residue that can clearly be seen when the fly lands on the water. If I can avoid it I will. I would rather air-dry my fly before I make my presentation.

Midge fishing does not demand long, drag-free drifts as a rule, but the fly should float unhindered by the leader for the productive period of drift at the position you wish it to be, unless you wish to cause it to drag and submerge. Remember - we are using very small flies. Correct application to the tippet will enable you to have complete control of depth for a fly fishing either in, or just below, the surface.

If you have eyesight that makes life difficult to tie small flies to the tippet then make sure you have some means to do so - low-cost glasses are obtainable today, you don’t need prescription lenses. But you will need some polarised lenses for certain. There are also threader style fly boxes on the market which enable you to feed your fly onto the tippet by poking the tip of it through a wire loop which has been previously ‘loaded’ with flies - much easier than try to poke narrow nylon through a small hook-eye.

In some cases you may find the addition of a very small indicator will help you know the position of your fly on the water and also if a fish has taken it. I can see a tiny fly at range no better than you, but I do know where my fly is, and I concentrate my vision in that zone. I may be able to sight the fish when it takes or refuses the fly, depending on the prevailing light and the relative angle l am fishing to it. Only two types of indicator are needed; either way they must be very, very small. Do not consider any type of fluorescent types such as those made from foam - they will spook fish when they land and create a sound, and there will be the visual aspect that will at times draw the fish’s attention away from your fly. The best to use are those either from yarn of a very neutral shade - white, grey, olive, etc, or you may use a very small amount of double-sided tape – simply tear off a small section and twist it on the leader/tippet.

Rigging up for the Midge
One presentation factor that is often overlooked is the means that the leader is attached to the fly line. The most perfect is a no-knot connection, one that my friend Dave Whitlock showed me many years ago. It is not difficult to do and eliminates the problem of the connection hanging up in the tip-ring, which at times will cost you the loss of fish. Secondly, the fly line will lie more perfectly on the surface and not be dragged down as occurs some other leader junctions. The worst of which is a long, braided-loop connection. This creates weight and thus causes the fly line tip to sink. You cannot stop it from doing this unless you apply floatant, and lots of it. If you are not careful, it will also contribute to the tip of the fly line slapping the water surface when you make the cast – either way, none of the above are good from a Midge-fishing point of view.

The short Moser ‘mini-cons’ are great if you prefer to use this method. Some fly line manufacturers provide a braided loop already attached to the end of the fly line: l would advise cutting it off. Nail and needle knots are fine but, here again, you will not have the smooth flow of fly line to leader at the rod tip as the ‘no-knot’ method affords.

Regardless of any method used, the fly line tip will start to sink and you must take action to avoid this by the application of floatant.

The simplest way to rig up is to use a standard tapered leader of between 7ft and 9ft in length, with a termination of around 4X to 6X. As a bonus in assisting presentation I make this suggestion: aim to use the same brand of leader and tippet. As a rule I will go one size smaller for the tippet, or the same. So if the termination of the leader is, say 5X, add a 5X or 6X tippet length. For a 6X leader termination, add either a 6X or 7X length.

The choice of overall leader/tippet length is somewhat determined by the fishing situation. If, for example, I am in a confined zone then I may not need a long system. I will reduce my leader to a short section of maybe six feet at times. On the other hand I may well use a system of 12ft or longer. That, again, is determined by the presentation I need at that time. Shorter leader/tippet sections enable easier pinpoint accuracy. However, I may be presented with a situation such as complex flows of water moving between myself and the target fish, or l may need to allow for a drift of the fly downstream into the fish’s window. In these cases a long leader/tippet configuration will allow me a far better degree of free drift with the fly, and that is because the monofilament is not affected in the same way as the fly line is by the surface movement. It moves that much more at the mercy of the water surface, and lessens drag – your worst enemy – if you control it correctly. One other aspect is no matter how careful you are at setting down the fly line it will cause some sort of surface disturbance either audible or by creating shock-waves that may well make the fish aware of your presence. Fish have the finely tuned senses to detect such small changes. In which cases, long leader/tippet configurations may be required.

As a standard set-up you will not go far wrong with a regular 9ft tapered leader which you may attach direct to the fly or to the added addition of tippet. It is not always necessary to add tippet. Often, if using a leader tapering to 5X or 6X, l will tie the fly directly to that. If you add fine tippet then do not do so with long lengths – something around two feet (maximum). The small diameter of such filament increases the chances of twist and tangle. Most of the time l will use a tippet addition of around 6 to 12 inches.

Indicator masterclass
An indicator is there to serve three purposes:
• to tell you that you have a drag-free drift
• to give you a general location of your fly
• to tell you a fish has taken your fly
In the case of midge fishing you are fishing generally close to and in the surface film. You do not want to use an indicator of a type that will spook fish, which they most certainly will do if your choice of indicator is not suitable.

Using yarn
Yarn is a great choice. It is available in neutral shades which will stand out in any given light conditions. I like to use white or grey; there are times that I will also use olive and brown. The criteria is that you can see it.

You can use a number of products for this. Poly Yarn is very good, and available in a great many shades. Some of this is available as post-wing material. Niche Products sells a siliconised wing yarn that works really well, and which is water-resistant.

1. Hold leader in your left finger and thumb. Form a loop and hold that at the crossover point in the finger and thumb of your left hand.
2. To the right of the held loop form another with the right hand. Do this in the same manner as the first. Turn the nylon from right to left to form the loop.
3. You will have now two loops, one in each hand.
4. Take the right hand loop behind the left and push it through. Grip the right side of the first loop and start to draw it down so as the loop entraps the right-hand loop. As it tightens down you will only see the upper of the right-hand loop.
5. Place the yarn mid-way in this loop and draw the loops together; you should have the yarn trapped, if not try again.
Tip: I do this by holding the yarn once I have the loops controlled, pulling the left hand loop will cause it to bed down. You do not have to pull this really tight as it is not a ‘knot’, so to speak.

Good and bad
Wool is OK if it does not contain a great deal of nylon, which does not have a water-resistant quality to start with, but you can of course treat it - which I prefer not to have to do!

Some of the products sold for indicator yarn are pretty useless. They will sink and they do not sit well by the means you need to attach them. In many cases also you are not able to fine them down by reducing the volume of the material from the mass.

Using foam
The next best option is to use a foam. This can be obtained from the foam type of double-sided tape which you buy in hardware stores. There are some products out there such as roll-on tape and the Palsa strike indicators. These are a foam discs attached to a colour background, but I remove the coloured paper and just use the underlying foam, and trim the size of it for my needs.

Which is best?
Yarn will, of course, land like thistledown on the water’s surface, and will not plop down as many other types of indicator will. You are fishing at very close range to the fish’s known zone at times. Both audible noise and shock-waves caused on the water surface can spook fish, which then are wary of your presence. In both cases of yarn and foam you can, after you have attached it, further trim the indicator down to minimise its size. It only needs to be big enough for you to see it, and the smaller the object is the better, for two reasons: you will lessen the chances of spooking fish; and you will see the slightest of indications that the fish has taken the fly! You will not always detect that if you have a puff-ball-size indicator, believe me!

I have also used alternatives such as CdC feather; nothing can be more natural than that floating on the surface.

Attaching yarn
The way to attach yarn is this. Select the position of your indicator on the leader. The advantages of this are that you are not forming a true knot, just a means to constrict the yarn. To remove the yarn gently tease it out, and draw the leader/tippet again straight.

There are some other ways that yarn indicators may be attached; this method is overall the easy way to do it:

Master the Midge, II – Davy Wotton explains how, what and where to present your tiny fly for best results



No-knot connection
The most perfect of line-to-leader connections for floating line fly fishing techniques.
You will need:
• a needle, size 9 to 11.
• 1in square of line sandpaper.
• tube of Zap-a-Gap.
• leader.
• tool to hold the needle. A pin vice is best; other than that use a good pair of pliers or some other tool that will allow you to hold the needle firmly.

When you start to insert the eye of the needle into the fly line do so with care. Make sure you keep a straight alignment with the line and needle direction. You may find that a gradual rotation of the needle will help to get it started. Hold the needle with a short section exposed from the jaws of the tool you are using to hold and push it with with. It may well bend if you do otherwise.

You only need half an inch of insertion and then bring the needle out from the fly-line coating. You cannot, of course, use this method with mono type intermediate lines, which have no central core.

This connection will be stronger than any knot you will tie. I have used it for some very big ocean fish in my time with 100% success. If the nylon pulls out then you did not set it in well enough to start with. The insertion after application of the Zap-a-Gap must be immediate, so the glue will set inside the fly line, and not outside.

You will have only two further additional knots – leader-to-tippet connection and leader/tippet to fly. This connection can be completed in a few minutes. And you can carry with you the means to re-apply a new one if you mess up the leader, or some other factor necessitates you to change it.

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