A Matter of Midge

Philip says the depths of winter don’t spell the end of sight fishing with small flies.

It’s not that midge aren’t important at other times of year, but come winter, they certainly jump in prominence. With most other trout insects either hibernating or staying well below the water’s surface, midge offer one of the few chances of a winter rise.

To be technically correct, the midge in question are actually chironomid, and the ‘rises’ are often trout taking just under the surface, not on it. But never mind these small details – trout feeding on midge are one of my favourite winter events.

Seagulls at Eucumbene

Seagulls and swallows are both pretty handy indicators of midge activity. Outside of winter, they can point towards a range of insects and food, but come the coldest months of the year, the field has narrowed right down. Last August, as Steve and I drove down one of the many muddy tracks towards Yens Bay, it was the seagulls – bright white against the dreary browns and greys of winter – that caught my eye. Something had them gathered on a particular shore of the bay: one which was shallow and muddy, with a neat parallel breeze. Several months earlier it might have been grasshoppers, caddis or even crickets. But on a cold and cloudy winter’s afternoon, midge had to be the prime suspect.

Leaving the car parked safely above bog level, we strode the last few hundred metres down the hill to the lake, and as we got closer, small dark shapes could be seen flitting above the water. Swallows! Like their larger cousins, surely they were there for the midge? And finally, we were near enough to see the actual rises. Not just one or two, but dozens of backs and fins, knifing the steely ripple.

I should have known better than to cast the black & gold Woolly Bugger at the first few fish. In my defence, it was already on my line from our previous session, where it had accounted for many nice browns and rainbows at Anglers Reach. Anyway, I might as well have covered the trout with a fly-less tippet for all the response I got. These fish were feeding heavily on midge, and as so often happens in these situations, they had the blinkers on for anything else.

Those gulls aren’t there for the scenery!

With cold fingertips, I carefully changed to a Claret Carrot with a buzzer about 50cm behind, trying not to be distracted by the background activity. In contrast to my home waters, Eucumbene midge are fairly small, so the buzzer was a red & black one in size 16 – arguably still a size too big, but we’d soon find out.

There was no need to wade far out – in knee-deep water, the trout were coming right up to me. In fact, I stooped to lower my profile so as not to spook a fish which quietly creased the water three times just off to my left. Leading it upwind, I figure-eighted the flies across it’s bow, and was rewarded by a boil behind the Carrot, right where buzzer would have been. Without waiting for confirmation, I lifted into a silver Eucumbene rocket.

I could hook these maiden Eucumbene rainbows a hundred times, and still be surprised by their sheer speed and power. Despite fishing 4X 7lb to the buzzer and 3X 8.5lb to the Carrot, I must have come perilously close to a bust-off from a trout that, a few minutes later, weighed barely two pounds in the net.

Judging by the splashes and chuckles further back in the bay, Steve was also hooking fish. But no time to look… here comes another midger, straight up the wind.

So passed a couple of hours of prime daytime fishing. Some of the trout caught were merely fat pounders, although the best were an honest 3 pounds. Oh, and one of the better fish took the Carrot, making it more than just a tracking and lifting fly for the buzzer. If I had been fishing a full dun hatch on a balmy spring day, I couldn’t have had more fun.      

Last light at Hepburn

Sometimes evening midge feeders can really test your nerve. Geez it’s getting late… but not a scratch on that spreading mirror. Maybe you shouldn’t have made the change to a pair of Milly Midges (a size 12 and a 14) a metre apart on a greased up leader. If you had only stuck with a nice big Magoo, you could be blind searching right now with a bit of confidence. Maybe this isn’t even the best shore tonight?

And just as you’re about to walk away… a rise. You see it out of the corner of your eye. No dabchicks in that part of the lake, must be a fish. And again, to the right this time, definitely a different one.

There’s one at last! Testing resolve at Hepburn.

Before long, there are at least three fish rising; maybe four. Not flat out, but enough to offer targets. From feeling lost a few minutes ago, now you’re a hunter with single-minded focus. There’s a rhythm here: quick cast, hopefully leading the targeted trout, figure-eight for what you hope is an intercepting metre or two… but if nothing happens, cover the next target in exactly the same way.

This is not the time to worry about fly choice or setup. There will be a lot of real midge out there competing with yours, so you have to make the trout an offer they can’t refuse. And no, changing to a big wet won’t work, except maybe at the very end when the first stars appear. Many years of trying taught you that, although your very human mind still feels the temptation. The trout should want a nice big meal, right? Well… no.

This is hard fishing (hence Woolly Bugger midge thoughts creeping in). Then, on maybe the fifth cast, there’s a boil near the point fly, and although you lift straight away, there’s only the briefest contact. Bugger! No time to complain, the next fish moves at ten metres, a silhouetted tail and dorsal showing it is travelling right to left. The cast feels good… you’re gathering line with almost intuitive expectation. And as if you willed the trout onto the fly, there he is – a four pound rainbow shaking spray against the orange sky. It’s a very good fight, but you bully the trout to the net, hoping to buy time for a shot at another one.

Just the place for a Milly Midge.

You actually get two more casts before either the light or the midge run out. The first presentation looks good… nothing. The same fish moves again, the rise barely visible, almost an optical illusion. Further left this time. Another cast that seems on track, and in this case, you don’t even manage a single hand twist before you feel (rather than see) the pull. It’s a 2 pound brown, a good finish.               

Early morning at Wartook

When I say ‘early morning’ here, I should confess it isn’t dawn. While I’ve heard good things about Wartook midge fishing at daybreak, the reality is, I’m not likely to be there until an hour or two after that. Arguably then, when I walked out onto the sandstone wall in the middle of winter, I guessed the midging fish in the slick weaving out towards Bear Island had been going for a while. Oh well, better late than never.  

There were good numbers of fish in the slick, with rises stretching out as far as my eyes could resolve them, perhaps a few hundred metres. While Wartook is a very good fishery from the bank, every so often I find myself pining for a boat, and this was one of those occasions. Still, I was confined to the sandstone blocks paving the dam wall, which, while providing comfortable footing and a perfect resting place for slack line, meant I could only reach a fraction of the trout.

With fleeting chances, I wanted to keep my fly – a size 14 black epoxy buzzer which had worked before – in the zone for as long as possible. So, I chose to fish the fly about 2ft under a black Kiwi indicator; surprisingly visible against the silvery sheen of the water. The plan was to have my buzzer sitting out in the general area of the closest (if irregular) rises. This would give me two chances:

  1. I might attract a fish ‘blind’ as it saw the fly while moving through the area or,
  2. It meant I had a decent line out, ready to pick up and cover a trout quickly if one moved within range.

The infrequent rises – at least within casting distance – had advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side of the ledger, they meant I would have limited chances to accurately present a fly close to a fish. On the other hand, the fact the trout weren’t feeding flat out, meant they were also likely to a be scanning a wider area in search of that nutritious midge morsel – something that doesn’t happen when your fly is but a snowflake in the blizzard.

Tactic 1 didn’t bring a response, but with the fly sitting 15 metres out, it only took a few seconds to reposition it at 20 metres when a trout eventually rose twice just within range, and coming towards me. Even at that distance, the black indicator stood out well, and I slowly retrieved it; just enough to move the buzzer without sinking the indicator. Then, the indicator vanished. No splash or drama, just a black dot there one moment, gone the next.

Final stage of the fight, with Bear Island in the background.

I learnt long ago that how committed your indicator fishing strike should be, has nothing to do with how much or how little your indicator moves, so my rod came up instantly and decisively. A big dark-coloured brown immediately thrashed on the surface, and then dived for the depths, where it stayed until just before I netted it.      

Think small

My most recent a midge session was an evening just up the road at Moorabool Reservoir. With the wind dying out, conditions looked too good to pass up, so Mark and I made the impromptu decision to stop work and head out. On arrival about half an hour before sunset, the odd fish was already quietly disturbing the surface. By the time the sun had dipped below the tall trees on the north-west shore, that had changed to a trout moving somewhere every few seconds, although the coveted regular risers seemed to be everywhere I wasn’t!

Mark scanning hard for that first rise at Moorabool.

I was using a size 16 Milly behind a Claret Carrot. When I wound in 45 minutes later and it was too dark to keep midge fishing effectively, I had missed one trout on the strike, and dropped a really good fish. Around then, I heard Mark’s footsteps squelching down the shore towards me. He revealed he’d caught three rainbows around 2 pounds each, and dropped a big brown: all on Millys – a size 16 and 14 fished a metre apart on a long greased leader. Hmmm. Maybe I should have gone for double Millys myself, or maybe I just wasn’t sharp enough that evening to perfectly cover enough fish.

Interestingly, although Mark had started the evening with a big wet (a Green Machine) tied on in case of smelters, once the midge feeders started to appear, one thing neither of us considered was using a large fly. We assumed little was what the trout wanted, and so it turned out.  


  • Keep faith in little flies. Trout are amazingly good at finding tiny food if that’s what they’re hunting for.
  • A bit of movement can help your fly get noticed, but don’t overdo it.
  • Midge rises can sometimes be extremely subtle – look and listen hard, and don’t always expect to see rises from a distance.
  • If nothing is rising, move around. Swallows, gulls and sometimes even unusual concentrations of moorhens, can be giveaways.
  • If fishing evening, don’t leave too early!

    Hang in there!

  • Cloud cover and a light breeze are both good for midging, though neither are always essential.
  • Use midge shucks on the water as a guide to fly size, but get some sort of midge out there anyway while you wait for confirmation.
  • If in doubt, lift.
  • Although midge pupae are often the main game, don’t discount a midge dry, especially balling midge (well copied by a Griffiths Gnat). If you can regularly hear a distinct clip coming from the fish, it may be time to consider a suitable emerger or Griffiths Gnat.