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Colorado: Fly Fishing’s Winter Wonderland

In the early afternoon, I spotted the first nose break through the surface of the water. I almost didn’t believe what I saw; after all, even with the bright sun, the air temperature was below 15 degrees. But then another nose showed itself, and as I looked harder at the water, I could see tiny black specks skating across the surface. I pawed through my fly boxes with frozen fingers, but it seemed pointless because even the size 22 imitations I carried were far bigger than the natural insects. My frenzy escalated as I could see out of the corner of my eye—despite trying to ignore them—the increasingly frequent rises.

I finally settled on a size 20 Griffith’s Gnat, which I had read that fish would sometimes mistake as a cluster of midges. I hardly believed it when a healthy 15-inch-long rainbow ate the fly on one of my first casts. I quickly followed that fish with a couple more before I seemed to lose my touch; trout continued eating my fly, but mysteriously, I had lost the ability to hook them. I eventually cleared my head and thought about the problem. In the euphoria of experiencing a good summerlike hatch on this bitter-cold day, I had spent an hour frantically casting to rising trout with a fly having a broken hook! I quickly tied on a new fly and was able to hook a couple more fish, but the sun was nearing the horizon, and the air and water were cooling quickly, bringing an end to our fine outing.

Smoke Jumper

Hook: Curved scud hook, sizes 22 to 18.
Thread: Black Benecchi 12/0.
Abdomen: Stripped peacock quill.
Wing case: Cul de canard.
Thorax: Black Super Fine Dubbing.

 

Midge Cripple

Hook: Curved scud hook, sizes 22 to 18.
Thread: Black Benecchi 12/0.
Trailing shuck: White Fluoro Fibre.
Abdomen: Black Krystal Flash.
Thorax: Black Super Fine Dubbing.
Wing: Cul de canard. Hackle: Grizzly.


Griffith’s Gnat Emerger

Hook: Curved scud hook, sizes 22 to 18.
Thread: Black Benecchi 12/0.
Trailing shuck: Amber Antron.
Abdomen: Tying thread.
Thorax: Peacock herl.
Hackle: Grizzly.

Roy’s Special Emerger

Hook: Standard dry fly hook, sizes 22 to 18.
Thread: Black Benecchi 12/0.
Trailing shuck: Amber Antron.
Wing: White Fluoro Fibre.
Body: Black Super Fine Dubbing.
Hackle: Grizzly.


Midges Rule!

That day was just the beginning. My ice fishing gear soon developed rust while I researched winter hatches and the matching imitations, which turned out to be primarily midges. Fortunately, Colorado is a hotbed for winter fishing, and we have our share of talented fly designers. And whether it’s winter or summer, insect life cycles remain the same. Midges begin as larvae, evolve into pupae that rise to the surface to escape the water as they mature, and the adults finally emerge from their pupal shucks to become airborne, mate, and, in the case of the females, return to lay eggs. Just as in other seasons, it’s important to be prepared to match each stage of the midge life cycle.

Larvae are quick and simple to tie; imagine very small worms or grubs. Construct the bodies using thread, floss, wire, or wrapped feather fibers ribbed with a contrasting color of thread, floss, or wire. Tie these flies in black, gray, white, blue, olive, brown, and red on hook sizes 22 to 18 or smaller.

Pupa patterns generally incorporate darker thoraxes that imitate legs, wing buds, and the antennae that develop under the exoskeletons of the real insects as they mature. Incorporating dark beads helps with this effect, or white or clear glass beads can mimic the gas bubbles that form to assist the real midges in reaching the surface of the water.

Peacock Soft Hackle

Hook: Curved scud hook, sizes 22 to 18.
Thread: Black Benecchi 12/0.
Body: Peacock herl.
Hackle: Olive Brahma hen.

Miracle Nymph

Hook: Curved scud hook, sizes 22 to 18.
Thread: Black Benecchi 12/0.
Body: White floss.
Rib: Fine copper wire.


Sprout

Hook: Curved scud hook, sizes 22 to 18.
Thread: Black Benecchi 12/0.
Shuck: Amber Antron.
Body: Black Super Fine Dubbing.
Post: Round closed-cell foam.
Hackle: Grizzly

Twisted Midge

Hook: Curved scud hook, sizes 22 to 18.
Bead: Clear silver-lined bead.
Thread: Black Benecchi 12/0.
Abdomen: Red floss, twisted and furled.
Thorax: Peacock herl.
Wing: White Fluoro Fibre.


Emergers are very important because cold weather and damp conditions may leave the insects slightly sluggish and increase the time it takes for their wings to dry and stiffen. At these times, fishing soft-hackle patterns in the surface film or patterns with floating wings and bodies that sit low or under the surface works well.

Matching adult midges using dry flies is my favorite stage of the hatch. Many midge patterns call for tails and upright wings, but real midges do not have tails and they have flat wings; I feel this distinction is important to tying good imitations. Another key difference between adults and emergers is that the mature inserts rest on their feet with their bodies above the water; having patterns that ride high on stiff hackle fibers imitates that posture and will make it easier to skate your flies across the surface to imitate real midges. I carry more distinct colors of larvae and pupae, but because flies on the surface are backlit to the fish, I generally carry drys and emergers in only dark and light colors.

Midges are prolific, so I always have quite a few imitations in my fly boxes, especially during the winter when they are a major component of a less diverse food base. Fortunately, many patterns are quite simple and easy to tie. So, the next time you find yourself needing a break from your tying bench during the winter, pull on your long johns and thaw out by catching a few fish!


Al Ritt lives in Colorado. Al is a guide, and he is a regular contributor to this magazine. Al also works for Peak Engineering, the manufacturer of the Peak fly tying vise. If you’re looking for a good benchside fly tying reference book, you’ll find none better than Al’s 25 Best Most Versatile Flies: Their Histories, Stories & Step-by-Step Tying Photos.

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