By Ralph Scherder
I can match almost any hatch, from blue quills in April to slate drakes in June, but the “no see-ums” are the toughest of all. To me, the term no see-ums describes any insects that are too small to see on the water without squinting until your eyes hurt.
They may be midges, tiny terrestrials (such as ants), or any number of insects that range in size from 20 on down, and on many streams they make up the bulk of a trout’s diet from mid-May on through the summer and fall months.
Even on streams not known for diverse mayfly hatches, various species of midges can thrive. Turn over a few rocks from the stream bed and you’ll likely find their undersides covered with fleck-sized insects. They come in myriad colors.
I generally carry patterns in black, brown, olive, or cream to imitate them, and many of the patterns I use are just scaled-down versions of popular flies, such as the Adams, Light Cahill, and Blue-Winged Olive.
These patterns don’t have to be anything fancy – just a few hackle fibers for a tail, thin body, and sparse hackle. When matching insects that small, a general pattern of the right color and size is more important than a bunch of fancy trimmings.
The smallest patterns I carry in my box are usually size 22. Although I still caught a couple of nice browns, I could’ve done a lot better with a pattern two or three sizes smaller. Or maybe not. After all, it’s one thing to get a take on a tiny fly; it’s a whole other matter actually landing the bugger.
Hooking trout on flies smaller than a size 20 can be frustrating. It’s common to miss a lot of fish or have them shake off halfway in. The gap on a size 22 hook is minuscule, and sometimes that tiny barb just doesn’t hold.
One of my favorite fishing buddies is in his 70s, 30 years older than I am, and he loves fishing small stuff. He still loses the occasional fish, but he lands more than I do.
When I asked him his secret, he said, “Set the hook like you’re my age instead of your age. Us older guys don’t have the quick reflexes that we used to, which is what you want when fishing flies this small.”
In other words, when a fish takes the fly, pause before lifting the rod tip. This allows the imitation to get deeper into the trout’s mouth, where it has a better chance of a quality hookset.
Tackle also plays a big role in small fly success. I typically use a medium-action fly rod, which is a lot more forgiving for both casting and setting the hook than a stiffer, fast-action rod.
The more whip-like medium-action acts as a buffer between you and the fly and makes it easier to apply pressure to play out the fish without worrying about ripping the fly out of its mouth or snapping the tippet. This is true whether you’re fishing dry fly patterns or bottom-bouncing nymphs.
Also, medium-action rods are better at handling the light tippets that fishing tiny flies requires. I’ll often drop down to 7x or 8x tippets because their thinner diameter creates less surface drag and a more natural presentation.
Often, trout feeding on midges are picking insects from the surface film, not necessarily those actually on top of the water. One way to know when this is the case is if you see just the trout’s back or dorsal fin break water as it feeds. That’s why, when I’m fishing dry flies size 20 or smaller, I’m not concerned about my fly riding high on the surface.
Of course, small flies can be fished subsurface, too. As water levels begin to drop in late spring and early summer, bottom-bouncing smaller nymphs can really shine. I never leave the house without a good assortment of tiny nymphs, including my two favorites, the Zebra Midge and Rainbow Killer, in sizes 18 to 22.
Some people absolutely love fishing midges. I’m not one of them, but I have found that the more I do it, the more I enjoy the challenge of catching trout on tiny flies.
It’s finesse fly fishing at its finest, and it’s a tactic that works practically year-round.