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Home->Articles->Phils Articles->Archives->Hitchhikers Guide to Chironomids Part II   
Phils Articles
Hitchhikers Guide to Chironomids Part II


Manitoba's Parkland tiger trout love chironomids.
The mere mention of chironomids leaves many questioning the rationale of such an offering.  After all, the thought of tossing a tiny stick of a pattern into the vast expanse of a lake borders on the insane.  The belief that trout would be able to track down such an offering poses the ultimate paradox.  Thankfully reality is far different than perception when it comes to chironomids, pupa and larva in particular.  Trout are more than capable of tracking down this calorie rich food source, often in alarming numbers.


Once on the lake and anchored into position the angler must choose their presentation technique based upon the conditions at hand while answering the challenge of what pattern to choose.  Once these questions are addressed the rest is gravy, well almost.


Pattern Selection


The million-dollar question in any fly-fishing scenario, “What pattern should I use?” reaches a pinnacle for chironomid fly fishers.  There are no absolutes but there are some aids to pattern selection.  When fishing clear marl Chara waters smaller species of chironomids tend to predominate.  Using the popular scud style hooks as a guide typical sizes range from 12 down through 16 or smaller.  On pressured water that has seen an epidemic of fly fishers and patterns smaller sized chironomids also come into play.  In these situations using patterns that are realistic in nature works too.  With the influx of bead head designs something subtle that differs from the crowd is often the ticket.  Algae stained waters are often characterized by rich mud bottoms, prime chironomid habit especially for the big ones.  On these waters larger larva and pupa patterns are key and sizes 12 and greater are common.  Larger patterns stand out in a crowd when the hatch is strong and trout are focused upon color rather than size.  When observing emerging adults keep in mind that the adults are usually smaller than the ascending pupa that are in turn smaller than their larval state.  Again, when faced with congested pressured situations this knowledge is a game breaker.


Color is another key component.  Anglers face a myriad of color choices and the well-stocked chironomid box should include black, brown, maroon, olive and various shades of green pupal patterns.  Chironomid larva should be red, maroon, green and candy cane blends of red and green.  Black and red is a greater opener especially during the early season.  Black and silver and black and copper are other personal favorites as well.  Friend and guide Gordon Honey is a strong proponent of maroon chironomids believing these patterns span a wide spectrum.  Depending upon conditions trout take maroon chironomids for a bloodworm, brown or black pupa and obviously for its base color.  Versatility such as this makes for a great lead off hitter.  In clear lakes bright green patterns are key.  Emerald and copper is another successful clear water combination.  In stained water white bead head patterns such as Kelly Davison’s ingenious Ice Cream Cone standout from a distance and are lethal.  Many pupae retain residual hemoglobin from the larval stage.  Patterns incorporating distinct red butts or ribbing do a sound job mimicking this key trigger.


No matter what the base color of the emerging pupa fly fishers must remember the critical effect that the trapped air and gases the pupa use to aid their ascent has on their overall color scheme.  Early in the hatch the pupa hover near the bottom gathering these air and gases.  As a result the pupa’s overall degree of shine is small but as they complete the emergence trek their luster goes off the scale.  Bright almost garish patterns work their magic when the hatch is on.  My Chromie for instance features a bright silver Flashabou body and has proven to be a consistent player too many times to be coincidental.  Early in the hatch however swapping the silver for gun metal Flashabou or electro static bag material tends to be more consistent.


Keep in mind when all else fails there is nothing wrong with playing a hunch or two.  It is amazing how a pattern stowed in the far reaches of the fly box from an experiment long past turns in a stellar performance when called upon.  When fishing is slow and chironomids are hatching keep changing often and varying sizes, as this detective work is one of the charms of fly-fishing.


Floating Line Techniques


The floating line is the backbone presentation tool for the chironomid fly fisher and are ideal for depths twenty feet or less.  The challenge facing anglers with this method are the longer than average leaders necessary for success.  Leaders fifteen feet or longer are common with this approach.  Trout tend to feed near the bottom so water depth is the barometer for determining the appropriate leader length.  Leaders should be twenty five percent longer than the water is deep.  For example, in fifteen feet of water a nineteen-foot long leader would be necessary.  Fly fishers used to construct leaders from varying diameters of monofilament.  The same goal is possible by using a standard nine-foot tapered leader utilizing a heavy butt section tapered down to 2X or 3X is a good starting point.  Extend the leader to the desired length by adding tippet of equal or finer diameter.  Although pricey, fluorocarbon material makes ideal leaders while providing a faster sink rate than monofilament especially when used in larger diameters.  Conversely when using standard monofilament leaders thinner diameter material slices through water faster.  Casting long leaders requires angler adjustment to the casting stroke.  Allow the wrist to move slightly to open the casting loop greatly reducing angler frustration from leader foul ups.


There are four variables the fly fisher must control for the long leader or “naked” method to work.  The first variable is leader length.  Short leaders do not permit a pattern to sink were trout are foraging.  Finding the feeding depth is perhaps the most critical aspect with any chironomid presentation.  Once the cast is made patience becomes the next virtue, many anglers are too impatient to wait for the fly to sink to the appropriate depth.  The best tool for managing the bank teller line up times necessary is a watch.  In fifteen feet of water wait times of three minutes or longer are common. 


Pattern weight is another consideration and depending upon water depth this can work for or against the fly fisher.  Tungsten bead patterns are ideal for deep water but overpower shallow presentations.  A variety of weighted and un-weighted patterns cover all contingencies.  For those who do not tie flies split shot or moldable lead substitute putty sways the weight component in the anglers favor.  On windy days weight becomes an important factor.  Wind creates circulation currents that can be strong enough to pull the fly out of the strike zone much in the same manner river currents sweep non-weighted flies above the trout. 


The final variable is the manner and speed of the retrieve.  For the chironomid fly fisher the hand twist retrieve is critical.  The hand twist is a busy retrieve that keeps an angler’s hands moving while maintaining a painstaking paint drying pace.  From beginning of cast to end of retrieve presentation can run in excess of ten minutes.  Disciplined fly fishers use a one-inch pinch strip retrieve but beginners face the risk of stripping too fast throwing the four variables out of sync. 


Wind drifting is a great method to cover water with a static or near static presentation.
The naked presentation is ideal for wind drifting, a technique that uses the ambient wind to the angler’s favor to cover water while waiting for a fly to sink to the desired depth.  From an anchored boat quarter a cast to the right or left hand side.  Allow the current to sweep the floating line around the boat forming a broad bow in the line.  Maintain contact with the fly as it sinks.  Be prepared for a grab any time during the drift.  This is a rewarding method were trout often hook themselves.  If there are no takers by the time the fly has sunk to the correct depth simply begin a methodical slow hand twist retrieve back to the boat before recasting. 


For some fly fishers the mere mention of strike indicators draws a terse response denouncing their inclusion with fly-fishing.  Others might argue that when it comes to chironomid fishing the strike indicator has shaved years of the learning curve allowing even the neophyte angler to experience success, children in particular.  Emotions aside there are times when trout are too shallow, taking sensitively or so focused upon a specific depth that strike indicators are the only viable option.  If using one rod dedicated to indicators tapered leaders are not necessary.  A level leader constructed of four to eight pound mono is ample as the weight of the indicator and fly flops the leader over.  The slim diameter of the mono speeds up sink rate as it slices through the water. 


There are many types of indicators to choose from.  Biostrike putty is a biodegradable material that is massaged around a tippet or leader knot to any size.  The only drawback is that the casting stroke can throw the Biostrike adrift.  Pinch on foam indicators also suffer from this failing and their flat profile on the surface makes them difficult to see at a distance even in light ripple.


Pleasurable to cast, yarn indicators have made a successful migration from rivers to lakes.  Since yarn indicators don’t slide easily up and down the leader they are ideal when trout are feeding in water twelve feet or less.  Any deeper than this and the indicator gets in the way of landing a fish.  Due to their low profile float tubers and kick boaters are limited further.  Another detraction is the quasi-permanent kink placed in the leader.  To attach a yarn indicator form a loop in the leader and pass this loop through the O ring of the indicator then pull the yarn tuft through the leader loop and pull the monofilament tight to lock into place. 


The most popular indicator has to be the Corkie.  Corkie style indicators are available in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors.  Try smaller Corkies as they keep casts honest as the closer the indicator the higher the ratio of hooked fish as reactions tend to be quicker.  Windy conditions however roughen the surface and larger sizes come into play.  Bi-colored Corkies minimize tangles.  Knowing what color should be facing by the manner in which the Corkie was rigged keeps anglers aware of potential snarls when the alternate color shows its face.  When casting Corkies maintain line speed and timing in order to eliminate monofilament nightmares and frustration.  Toothpicks or a section of rubber band drawn via a monofilament loop through the Corkie regulates fly depth, typically one to two feet above the bottom.  Some days the initial indicator setting is fine others days are full of constant change and adjustment. 


Sinking Line Considerations


No matter the line choice, chironomid retrieves are always slow.
By mid May turnover is complete and trout disperse throughout the lake until the mid summer stratification or doldrums set in.  As chironomids are capable of emerging through depths in excess of thirty feet full sinking lines come to the forefront.  Observant anglers seeing little in the way of activity in the shallows or swallows and nighthawks strafing the surface over deeper regions of the lake are quick to transfer from floating to sinking line presentations.  Sinking lines are perfect when faced with brazen windy conditions.


Sinking lines allow fly fishers to cover the entire water column in a systematic diagonal approach as trout could strike anywhere.  Intermediate and full sinking lines all work into this equation depending upon water depth.  The principles are the same as floating lines.  Juggle the four variables to be successful.  Shorter leaders, typically less than nine feet, and aggressive takes are other positive by products of this method.


Anglers can also cover the entire water column in a vertical manner using a type III or IV density compensated full sink line.  Using either a sounder or marked anchor rope to determine depth cast an amount of line and leader equal to the water’s depth.  Once the line is hanging vertically initiate a slow hand twist or 1-inch strip retrieve.  Trout often grab the fly either at the start of the retrieve or less than ten feet below the surface.  Takes are firm and violent, heavy-handed anglers should be wary of break offs.  Soft to moderate action rods work best and some incorporate “bungee” butt sections in their leaders to compensate for the smash takes.  If the majority of takes are near the surface resist the urge to string up the floating line.  With this method trout follow the fly up through the water column deciding to strike as the boat or angler’s fins become visible.

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