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From a dry fly perspective, it is hard to beat April, May and June on the White River and Norfork Tailwater. If the water is low, anglers can expect big bugs, miles of open water and countless rises. Trout of all sizes will greedily slurp a dry fly if there is a hatch coming off, and emerger and nymph fishing can result in non-stop action during the hours before a large insect emergence. That said, unfortunately each year has twelve months, and many dry fly enthusiasts figure that the fun is over once the big water of midsummer hits, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Even though midges are diminutive in size, they can provide all day top-water action, even in the dead of winter when nymph fishing is slow.

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The first trick to successfully fishing midges is to pick the right kind of water to focus on. Although most fly fishermen prefer to fish riffles because the speedy and turbulent flow of such water hides mistakes and the fish don't have a lot of time to inspect a pattern, those characteristics are a hindrance when using midges. Trout have amazing eyesight, but they still have trouble seeing such small offerings in heavy and fast water. What anglers should look for in riffle areas are the seams where fast water meets slow water and fish there. Sometimes, the fly may not move at all, but if it is allowed to sit for a long enough time, often a cruising fish will pick it up. Another good type of water for fishing midge dry flies are the glides or runs where a riffle turns flat and slows down because it is much easier for the fish to spot a tiny fly in these types of areas, and there is still enough current to employ dead drifting techniques, so anglers are not forced to wait for an actively-feeding cruiser to swim by. The best overall water for fishing midges are shallow and flat runs where there are quite a few fish stacked up. In these areas, the trout do not have to swim but a few inches to reach the surface, and they can be teased into rising through a specialized presentation (more on that below) if dead drifting isn't cutting it.   

 

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(Jeff H. from TN was intent on throwing streamers although we had zero generation and bright sunny skies. Clear fly lines and the right fly selection made all the difference on this April day. Read more about low water streamer fishing in the fishing report below.)

Fly selection is also quite important when fishing midges on the surface. When using patterns in sizes #18 to #24, there isn't too much that can be done (like tying a white wing on the fly) that will make the midge more visible. These insects are somewhat plain, at least compared to certain mayflies and other bugs, so there is no reason to go overboard trying to tie a fancy pattern. Usually, black, red, gray, white or olive thread on a hook with a tail in the rear and three to four wraps of hackle behind the eye of the hook will suffice. A wing is optional, but the biggest key is to use enough hackle to allow the fly to float high on the water. This will make it somewhat easier to see, and it will look more realistic to a trout than a pattern that is halfway submerged and lying on its side.

It takes years of practice to fish blind with small dry flies; this is when a fly fisherman will watch the water where they think their fly should be and set the hook if a fish rises in that area. "Going Blind" may be the only option when fishing with patterns smaller than size #24, but you may be surprised at just how visible 'bigger' midges can be if you position yourself properly. If possible, it is a real help to find a spot where the sun is behind you - even if you lose sight of your fly, slightly lifting your rod can help because it will cause the pattern to skate towards you and reveal itself. Then, lower your rod to proceed with your drift. The angle of the sun is a moot point if it's cloudy out, and overcast conditions are very tough when fishing miniscule midges. Fishing blind in these situations may be the only option. Another way to make it much easier to see your fly is to fish cluster patterns like a Griffith's Gnat's. Such flies imitate bunches of midges that are stuck together, and they work great if the trout are aggressively feeding, but unfortunately, cluster patterns can be a hard sell when going after selective trout that are slurping midges one at a time.

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(Caddis hatch with water running. Hatch will take off from 50-24,000cfs... you just have to know where to look.)

At dusk, when the water is low, it's often possible to see thousands of midges swarming in random patterns on the surface of the water, especially in slow pools. For the most part, midges act this way much of the time, so it's possible to use this trait to increase your odds of success. If fishing in shallow runs and the glides below riffles, it never hurts to wiggle your rod once in a while. When done correctly, this will cause the fly to skate across the water just like the real thing, and this presentation can entice lethargic fish to rise on even the toughest of days. It's best to try dead drifting first, but if that technique isn't working, it's time to skate your midge.

There are countless ways to rig your leader for fishing midges and dry flies of any sort. If you think conditions are going to be windy and that you may have trouble turning over a small fly, try using a 7.5-foot leader down to 5x with about two or three feet of tippet attached. This is also a good setup if you think you may be switching back and forth between dries and nymphs, or if you suspect that the fish are not going to be overly spooky. Unfortunately, trout feeding on midges and other small dries are usually extremely wary, so a good overall dry fly leader system is to go with a 9-foot leader that tapers down to 5x or 6x and then add about three feet of tippet. It will take a little while to learn how to straighten out a long leader, especially if a breeze kicks up, but this is often the only way that you will realize consistent success. When fishing with little dries, it is imperative that the tippet you use is small in diameter, as well. For flies in sizes #18 to #22, 6x tippet will work from a presentation standpoint, but there are times when finicky fish will only takes patterns fished on 7x tippet. One of the main reasons that fly fishing is enjoyable is because of the challenges, and once you get used to fishing with light tippet, it becomes second nature. With any fly smaller than size #24, 7x tippet is required in order for the fly to present properly. Finally, it's a good idea to use a silicone-based floatant on the first six feet of your fly line, on your entire leader and on your tippet. Also, be sure to constantly apply floatant to your fly (and then make several false-casts to dry it out), especially if you are going to be using a skating technique. Once your pattern starts to ride low, it's time to either change it or dress it up.

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Hopefully, this article will increase your enjoyment of fishing small dry flies, and if you follow the tricks outlined, you can catch trout on dries 365-days a year on the Norfork and White. Using tiny surface offerings is not for everyone, but the challenge and reward aspect of this type of fishing can make any frustration you may have experienced during the learning process turn into elation with just one take. There is nothing quite like the feeling of hooking, landing and releasing a 20-inch trout on a size #22 dry fly, so fishing small midges is definitely worth the effort during the fall and winter if you are the type that aspires to be a complete angler who is ready for any situation.

(Walter from TN fished with BR resident guide Larry Babin in early April to hear that Hardy reel sing.)

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