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Fly-fishing midges for hatchery rainbows is growing in popularity in SoCal waters


Fly-fishermen are increasingly a fixture on urban trout waters across Southern California, and many are using a deadly tactic that involves fishing tiny size 18 to 22 flies in six to 20 feet of water beneath a strike indicator. The flies accurately imitate one of the most prolific aquatic insects and a favorite trout food in these lakes -- midge larvae and pupae. The planted trout that are not caught in the first few days after they are planted quickly learn to feed on the natural food in the lake. These trout also become increasingly leery of standard offerings fished by bait and lure fishermen. While trout have little brains, they figure out dough baits and dancing micro jigs spell trout after feeling the sting of a hook a time or two and stick to the tiny, natural insects that pack our local lakes. Enter the fly anglers. Most of these fishermen have been schooled on how to fish Crowley Lake in the Eastern Sierra Nevada using a still-water fly-fishing tactic first adapted to Crowley Lake in the early 1990s by local Sierra guides Harry Blackburn and Mike Peters. For a big part of the late spring and early summer, Crowley Lake was a tough place to catch fish on standard fly-fishing, bait, or spinning techniques. It was almost as though the trout disappeared. The two guides found a bay stacked up with trout actively feeding, and started experimenting with midge patterns (Crowley has massive midge hatches nearly every day). The first time they started using an indicator and a midge pattern in the deeper water where they could see the white of the trout’s mouths while they fed, they were getting a strike within 10 seconds of the cast. Of course, they thought it might have been a fluke the first time. But it wasn’t. The bite lasted the whole season. “It was just stupid, ridiculous. We were asking ourselves, ‘Is this illegal?’ How many fish can you catch in a day?” said Blackburn. They started on the bank, graduated to tubes and canoes, and then to john boats with motors. The stable craft allowed them to stand up above the water and see deep into the channels where they could watch the hundreds of fish below. Both anglers ended up with boats and started taking a few select clients out on Crowley, and a pair of anglers could hook and land from 30 to 100 fish per day. “It was a good 1 1/2 to two years before the locals caught on to what we were doing, and then it just exploded,” said Blackburn. Today, there are fleets of boat, pontoon, and tube anglers fishing indicators with midges on Crowley and across the state on other waters with similar conditions. The tactic has become a standard for fly anglers in shallow still waters, not just at Crowley. While using an indicator is not really a new tactic, it is used far less in still water and requires some specialized rigging and flies. Blackburn says “it’s such a simple method -- but it’s also ultra-complex.” The leader is the heart of indicator midge fishing. It starts with a short and quickly-tapered butt section three to four feet long and then a 4X leader from two to 18 feet or more attached to the butt section, depending on the depth of the water. In water deeper than the length of your rod, you need to use a break-away strike indicator that will allow you to work the fish close enough to land without the indicator getting jammed up in the tip-top guide. This rig doesn’t cast worth a hoot, but you are usually fishing fairly close to your float tube or boat so distance casting isn’t important. Lobbing the rig out untangled is the critical factor. For midge larva fishing, most of the activity is very close to the bottom. While most guides have boats with depth finders allowing them to determine the bottom depth precisely, Jim Reid at Ken’s Sporting Goods in Bridgeport, who uses this same technique on Bridgeport Reservoir, said he finds the bottom depth another way. He simply clips his hemostats on the end fly on his leader and then lets them settle in the water until they are lying on the bottom while he is in his tube. He then sets his strike indicator so the bottom fly in his rig rides six to eight inches off the bottom. Two- and three-fly rigs are common for this type of midging, and there is no agreement among anglers on the best way to rig this multi-fly set-up. Most everyone starts the rig the same way by tying a fly on the end of the leader. Then they add pieces of mono or fluorocarbon line tied to either the bend or the eye of this first fly. They tied the second fly to that piece of leader, and then repeat the process if adding a third fly. Second and third flies are usually 12 to 24 inches away from other patterns, allowing for fishing at different depths and with different patterns. Since midge larva frequently hang vertically in the water, some anglers and guides believe the leader should be tied to the bend of the hook so both patterns hang vertically. But other anglers prefer that the fly sits cocked slightly off vertical because the larva are often flexing through the water, and they tie eye-to-eye with the leader. While dead-stick presentations (no movement to the flies) frequently will work, especially if there’s a slight breeze chop on the water, most anglers are constantly popping the indicator or throwing curves in the leader so the flies are moving up or down or through in the water column like the naturals. There is also no agreement about types of hooks or weight that should be used on the midge patterns. Many anglers believe in tungsten or bead-head midge patterns to make sure they sink quickly, while other anglers prefer heavy-wire hooks to facilitate the sinking and allow the fly to “swim” more naturally. There has been a massive hatch of new midge fly patterns in the last decade and they are getting more imitative and designed for specific applications. Most Crowley anglers start with an Optima Midge, but there is a wide variety of swimming, vinyl, and broke-back patterns gaining in popularity both in the Sierra and across Southern California’s urban waters. Most anglers carry a variety of colors, with black, grays, and dark reds the most common, and those that have a little sparkle or flash in the rib or head/gills are preferred. Most midges are tiny, so the smallest hooks made are used for these flies, with No. 18s, 20s, and 22s common. A No. 16 is a big midge pattern and 24s and 28s aren’t unusual. In Southern California, the tactic has become so popular at Laguna Niguel Lake in Orange County that the lake staff includes information on the fly-fishing in its fishing reports. But the technique works equally well at many, if not most, of the waters planted with trout in the region this time of year. Lakes that are shallow, or at least have shallow bays that are less than 25 feet deep, are ideal for indicator midge fishing. Only lakes with deep water and steep shorelines don’t lend themselves to this type of fishing. Waters like Irvine Lake, Corona Lake, all of the Los Angeles urban park lakes like Puddingstone (which allows float tubes), the San Bernardino County Park lakes, most of the Bakersfield urban waters, and waters located in the San Diego County, like Cuyamaca, are all good bets. Heavily planted waters and bigger lakes have more holdover trout and therefore more fish adapt over to the native feed and become very vulnerable to midge patterns. So places like Silverwood Lake and Big Bear Lake have very good midge fly-fishing, and both have water cool enough to support trout year-around. Relative shallow flats on any urban lake have the two ingredients that make them ideal for growing midges: Muddy bottoms with a lot of nutrients and enough sun penetration to promote insect growth. Are you thinking or a spot in your favorite lake where you can see the trout in clear water cruising along the bottom, obviously feeding, but not interested in your offerings? That is where fly-rod indicator midge fishing will shine. It is also a tactic a new fly-fisherman can easily learn at one of Southern California’s many fly-fishing clubs (Google “Southern California fly-fishing clubs” for a complete list.) One final tip: Learn this technique for trout and it will also serve you well on these same waters for panfish like bluegill or redear and -- if you are so inclined -- carp. END

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