Fine & Fussy
by Dave Engerbretson
For as far as the eye can see, the glassy surface of the water is broken by dozens of dimples and rings that mean only one thing to a fly fisherman...rising trout! Your eyes scan the air above the water, but see nothing. Not until you approach the water very closely do you observe the hundreds of tiny, mosquito-like flies dancing above its surface.
You smile to yourself as you tie on a 6X tippet, and produce a No. 20 dry fly from your fly box. This is going to be like shooting ducks in a barrel.
Twenty, fifty, a hundred casts and half a dozen fly changes later and you're still waiting for your first "sitting duck." What can possibly be wrong? The fish still are rising. They haven't spooked, but they won't rise to your dry fly. What should you try next?
Look a little more closely, friend! Are the trout really taking dry flies from the surface, or could they be feeding on something else?
It takes a sharp eye to differentiate between a rise to a minute fly on the surface or to an insect just under the surface film. If all of the trout fishermen who have been fooled by this situation were laid end to end they'd probably line both banks of every lake and stream in the country!
This is what the British refer to as a "smutting rise," and it commonly occurs when the trout are feeding on the pupal stage of the "midge." The "midge" belongs to an order of two-winged flies called Diptera, and those of interest to the fisherman usually are within the family Chironomidae. The Chironomidae have complete life cycles going from the egg, to the larva, to the pupa, and finally to the adult fly. Of the four stages, the middle two are probably most important to fly fishermen.
The larval stage of the Chironomid may be as small as one-eighth of an inch long and looks like a very slender worm or tube. These "worms" may float freely in the water and are taken readily by trout.
In the pupal stage, the insect develops an enlarged thorax, rudimentary wings which hang close to the underside of the abdomen and hairy gills which encircle the pupa behind the head. The pupae hang vertically with their gills in the surface film and drift about until the adult "midge" hatches and flies away, leaving the empty pupal case behind.
It is the rise to the midge pupa which often proves to be our undoing. The trout actually takes the pupa in the surface film, leaving a small ring to mark the rise. Or the fish may take the pupa just under the film, but his momentum carries him slightly through the film, creating what appears to be the rise to a floating fly.
Adult midges may be seen flying in clouds over the water, but because they spend very little time on the water they are not as readily available to the fish as the earlier stage of the insect's life cycle.
Fishing the artificial midge pupa can be quite deadly and the fly will produce during the entire season. It is often stated in the literature that the Chironomidae hatch from May to October. The writer, however, has observed trout eagerly feeding on the pupae in March and even earlier in the year during a snowstorm!
The midge pupa is very easy to tie, and no serious fly fisherman should be without a few in his fly box. The colors of the natural pupae range all the way from red to white. The most effective colors that I've found have been light gray and black, but it would be a good idea to match samples from your own stream. In the Eastern United States, hook sizes run from 16 to 28, while in the West, some are tied on hooks as large as #12-2X long.
The pupa is tied as follows: Begin with the tying silk placed on the hook at the bend and tie in a short piece of black tying silk to be used as a rib. Make a very thin body from the desired color of fur dubbing, ending about a quarter of the shank length behind the eye of the hook. Some tiers prefer to start the dubbing just around the bend in the hook to give the pupa a slightly curved appearance. The body should be only a little larger in diameter than the hook itself.
Next wind the rib in a counter-clockwise direction, which will prevent it from disappearing into the dubbing (which should be wound clockwise). Ahead of the body tie in a piece of natural brown, gray or whit ostrich herl; wrap two or three turns of herl around the hook, tie it off, and the fly is finished. Another effective imitation can be made using a quill body and several turns of hackle for a collar, or with an enlarged thorax of fur dubbing.
In a stream, the pupa should be fished upstream, dead drift, like a dry fly. I generally use at least a 6X leader tippet and often go to 7X if the fish are very particular. Since the natural pupa drifts in or just below the surface film, I usually grease the tippet down to within an inch of the fly, which will allow it to drift at the proper depth. On several occasions however, I even have had to grease the ostrich herl collar of the fly (but not the body) so that it would float vertically in the surface film like the natural!
When fishing in stillwater, allow your pupa to drift in or just under the surface film as described above. Very, very slowly retrieve the fly with frequent long pauses. You probably will not be able to actually see the fly, so you must keep your eyes glued to the spot where you think it is. Gently lift the rod to set the hook at the sign of any rise in the area here you think the fly is.
In lakes, you may also fish the pupa fairly deep. In this case, after letting the fly sink, retrieve it very, very slowly as before with the same frequent pauses. The idea is to slowly draw the fly to the surface in the same manner in which the natural rises to emerge.
Fishing the Chironomid pupa is "fine and fussy fishin'," but it just might be the solution to a very frustrating problem..."rising" trout that won't take a dry fly!