Springtime on the Bighorn and the midges are thick, blanketing the water, your dory, and your legs if you let them. They look like ‘skeeters but aren’t, and despite their huge numbers on the surface, many trout will still hold tight to the river bottom, living large on midge larva trying to worm-wiggle their way to pupa status.
Midges are tiny, frustrating, difficult to fish, impossible to see, and require a size of leader usually reserved for dental sutures. So why bother? Why not just watch hoops or ski all winter and wait for the blue-wings to arrive?
Here’s why: Because more often than not, if it weren’t for the dependable Diptera, there would be no winter flyfishing-especially deep into a Montana January, when the next closest hatch is three months away. Midge fishing may mean frozen fingers trying to guide 6X through a minuscule eye in fading light, but it also means solitude, sipping trout, and what the legendary Dave Whitlock once called the highest plateau of matching the hatch.
To witness the delicate beauty of a thick trout rising to a size 24 midge often means you’re alone. But alas, it also means that you’re ass deep in 37-degree water, with no feeling in your feet, fingers, or genitalia.The few willing to face a winter day outdoors in Northern Montana are typically found in the vertical world of the Bitterroots, skiing down the not-yet-melted trout water of the summer.
But when summer finally does arrive, midges still matter more than anything else because they’re almost always around-any time of day, any type of water. Their entire life cycle lasts less than a month but there are more than 1,000 species in North America alone and a Griffith’s Gnat will imitate any of them. (Trout Unlimited founder George Griffith is often given credit for this simple, peacock herl-and-grizzly hackle concoction-by far the most popular midge pattern. But it was actually named after him by the guide who invented it, not by Griffith himself.)
Of course, what midges lack in size, they make up for in numbers, often floating along as a clustered, group Happy Meal. When a midge hatch is prolific there is a buzz in the air similar to that of a cloud of mosquitoes-their not-so-popular cousin.
Throughout a Montana winter, the days are short and the window of fishing in sideways blowing snow often make fishing impossible. Long leaders, tiny flies, spider-web tippet-not exactly a recipe for easy fishing or a relaxing afternoon. But with that first take on a quiet side channel, and the silence of the Bitterroots around you, your troubles are forgotten and the midge becomes your favorite once again.