“Tiny Terrors,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply

Bill Tapply fishes one of his beloved Montana spring creeks.
Photo via williamgtapply.com

Or: How I Learned to Stop Trolling and Love the Midge.

Back when we were just starting out as trout fishermen and couldn’t get enough of it, Art Currier and I would pick the first likely weekend in late March or early April to break our winter famine. We’d lash my canoe onto the roof of Art’s station wagon and head for Cape Cod, where the ice melted off the ponds several weeks earlier than on our local waters. We’d paddle around the shoreline of Scargo or Flax or Peters, trolling Mickey Finn and Dark Tiger bucktails, and we generally caught enough trout to make us happy.

If we had one of those particularly delicious gray, misty days—“soft weather,” we called it—sometimes the wind would lie down entirely and the pond’s surface would go as flat as a black mirror. Then, almost always, the trout would start rising. Hundreds of trout. Thousands, maybe. Every fish in the pond, it seemed. It looked like hailstones were falling all over the surface. These were not the splashy, energetic riseforms we were accustomed to seeing on our New England streams. They were dainty sips, trout just kissing the surface, mere pockmarks on the flat water, and the first time we saw them, we assumed they were made by chubs.

We took this phenomenon as certain evidence that our pond was full of hungry fish, and the fact that we seemed to catch way fewer of them when they were rising like this didn’t discourage us. Once in a while one of them would latch onto a bucktail, but typically we had our worst luck when the fish were most actively and visibly feeding.

When the breeze kicked up again, our luck usually improved, so that was our strategy: Wait for some wind.

Stubborn Ignorance
In those days, Art and I were both just starting at the bottom of our fly-fishing learning curves. We figured a pondful of feeding trout should hit any fly they saw, and when they didn’t, we shrugged, called it bad luck, and kept on trolling.

We had no first-hand experience with selectivity. It made no sense that hatchery-reared, pellet-fed brook trout would discriminate among all the edible stuff they might find in a pond. All we knew was that they ate trolled bucktails almost anytime, just like the fish in our freestone streams seemed happy to gobble any bushy dry fly that drifted over them.

Looking back, it seems stupid that we didn’t purse our lips, exchange meaningful glances, mutter the word midges, add two feet of 7X tippet to our leaders, and tie on some fly the size of a comma. We’d read about midges, and we knew that they were ubiquitous on our New England trout waters. If those writers were to be believed, midges were important trout food.

So why, when the pond went flat and the trout began rising, didn’t we try to figure out what they were eating? Why didn’t we lean over the gunwales of my canoe and study the water? Surely we would have seen that its surface was scummy with buggy specks, and if we’d only picked one up on a fingertip and studied it, we’d have seen that it had a simple black body and a pair of laid-back transparent wings, and we’d have concluded that this must be what all those trout had come to the top to eat, and based on our poor success in catching them, that they had targeted midges to the exclusion of everything else, including trolled bucktails.

I suppose we were arrogant in our ignorance. Maybe we were just incurious. We were certainly inexperienced, and we were suspicious of all the high-falutin’ theories we read in books and magazines. We scorned those writers who spouted Latin and verbally dissected insects and debated arcane details of fly color and design. We thought they gave the trout way too much credit. They seemed to want to make it all more serious and complicated than we knew it really was. Trout fishing was straightforward and simple.

We didn’t believe in midges.

So we just kept trolling.

          Matt’s Midge
          Hook: Straight-eye dry-fly hook (here a Dai-Riki #310), size 22.
          Thread/Body: Black, 6/0.
          Wing: White Zelon or Antron.
          Hackle: Grizzly rooster saddle.
          Tools: Plunger-style hackle fibers, needle-nose pliers.

Grudging Acceptance
Art and I learned from our fathers, whose own fly-fishing learning curves spanned the 1920s and ’30s when the tiny insects that we now know trout thrive on were neither understood nor appreciated. Vincent C. Marinaro (one of those fishing writers whom Art and I, regrettably, sneered at), in his important 1950 book A Modern Dry Fly Code, wrote:

In those early days [before World War II] I could not take advantage of the marvelous small-fly fishing that prevailed on the limestone waters, simply because I did not have the tools for the job. I was frequently galled to the core when I found good trout feeding incessantly on minuscule insects for hours on end and I could not make a fair try for them because I did not have flies small enough or gut fine enough to handle them properly. The very small hooks in sizes 22, 24, and 28 and very fine gut in 6X, 7X and 8X were not available.

Marinaro was way more observant and persistent than most anglers, and he lived on a lush limestone meadow stream (the Letort in central Pennsylvania) that gave him an ideal trout laboratory. The guy virtually discovered minuscule trout food (he misspelled it “minutae”)—midges, jassids, ants, beetles, and Baetis and Trico mayflies.

Most fishermen—I include my father and most others of his generation—didn’t even notice these microscopic insects, and they would have rejected their importance if they had, simply because without fine tippets and tiny hooks, the information had no utility. It was, in that respect, arcane and worthless.

Most anglers—including, belatedly, me—discovered the importance of minutiae only after we had the tools to imitate it.

My laboratory was the Swift River, a tailwater that empties the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. The waters of the Swift run frigid year round, and its bottom is mostly sand and silt and mud, making it inhospitable to mayflies. But when I started fishing there, I was entranced by the fact that I always found large rainbows feeding off the surface. Those fish had no interest whatsoever in my usual assortment of dry flies. I just couldn’t catch them, and I was forced to look closer—closer than I’d ever bothered to look before.

I saw drifting on the Swift what Vince Marinaro had seen on his Letort: ants, small beetles, and especially midges. What else, thought I, could those trout be eating?

It fascinated and obsessed me, these big fish eating such tiny bugs, and I haunted the Swift. For the first year or so, I refused to give in to them entirely. The idea of using a floating fly that I couldn’t see offended me, and I doubted that it would work. So I compromised, fishing with beetles and ants in sizes 16 and 18 on 5X tippets, smaller and finer than I liked to go, and I began to catch some trout.

I was converted entirely one soft March afternoon when I found every fish in the Y Pool sipping off the surface, and I couldn’t interest a single one of them. I bent close to the water and saw midges—really tiny black midges, barely half as long as one of my size 18 ant imitations.

On the way home, I stopped at a shop and bought packets of size 24 and 26 dry-fly hooks, and that night I squinted through the magnifier on my vise and fabricated my own version of those Swift River midges: four or five fibers of black deer hair lashed down fore and aft, with the tail cut off and the tips flared like legs. It was a simple—simplistic, really—fly, more suggestive than imitative. But the size and the color were about right, and to my eye it more or less resembled what I’d seen on the water. The next day, when I went back, the trout agreed. I caught half a dozen of those hefty sixteen- to eighteen-inch rainbows on flies that were utterly invisible to me.

What I’d always loved about dry-fly fishing was the visual: watching a high-floating fly drift down to where I’d seen the swirl of a rising fish, anticipating the intersection of fly and trout, then seeing the fish poke up its nose, open its mouth, and suck in the fly.

This midge business was different, and in its way, even more thrilling. Marinaro said it best:

To see a trout rising to something invisible, to fasten a diminutive No. 22 dry fly to the gossamer point and cast that fly to the trout, judging the accuracy of the cast by following the line, to see the gentle swell of the rise again when the obscure No. 22 should have floated over the desired spot, then to tighten and discover the connection with a lunging trout is the most exotic experience that can befall a fly fisherman. Let it happen a thousand times or ten thousand times, the novelty of the event never palls, never loses that quality of breathless expectancy.”

* * *

Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. 

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone and the reissue of her Tally Whyte series.

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