Chironomid Patterns

After many seasons of fly fishing stillwaters in Alberta and British Columbia, I realized that you cannot carry every pattern required to imitate the prolific chironomid (buzzer/midge) hatches that you will encounter. So I have chosen to limit my patterns according to how they are fished and covering the major color and size combinations to get close enough. Catch a fish, then based on the throat samples, a more representative pattern can tied up at the portable fly tying bench.

My neighbour has a small fishless pond with prolific chironomid hatches. I've spent some time watching the pupa as they prepare to ascend. The mature pupa will hang vertically in the water about 6" off bottom without motion. Every minute or so, they will wiggle and then rest. This is the type of fly presentation I try to achieve. 

On a side note, chironomids patterns are very successful in catching large trout. My theory is that the trout are having to eat so many of these small insects that they become somewhat careless in their inspection and refusal of the artificials. Choronomid hatches occur deep in the lake and the fish feel safer, feeding preferentially near the bottom. Once you are sucessful at still fishing a chironomid pattern, the boredom factor goes away, particularily when the fish are hitting every two minutes.

Some 500 flies ready for the lake

So you need to have four to five different patterns for chironomid fishing, in several sizes and colors. The first pattern is for fishing deep during an active hatch. The fish will be taking the pupa away from the bottom but >10 feet deep. The pupa will be gassing up for the ascent to the surface and are shiny but there is still some coloration since the bubble is not complete. Here I use a anti static body colored with Sharpie (felt pen) markers. After coloring the anti static bag wrapping, the body is protected with clear nail polish or head cement before the rib is wound on.  Otherwise the color will wear off after an hour or from fish rubbing it.If you want a gunmetal color with only a shading of the pupa abdomen color, use the sharpie marker on the inside of the static bag wrapping.When you get the right tint on the inside of the static bag strip, the subtle coloration is amazingly realistic. For 90% of my chironomid fishing I will use some sort of Anti Static Bag pattern.

Basic Recipe

Hook Daiichi 1170 2XL, 1X heavy curved nymph, size 14 to 8
  Daiichi 1120 size 12 and smaller Smaller flies are tied on heavy scud hooks
Thread 8/0 color to match  
Body Anti Static Bag Cut into strips ~1/8" and wrapped
Rib Fine Wire - color to contrast Counter wrap rib for durability
Rib 2 Stretch Floss Adds color and is translucent when coated
Bead Black/gold/silver/copper/white Usually black is good
Thorax Dyed peacock herl Natural, red, green or black, optional
Wing Cases Pheasant tail fibers or raffia optional
Gill White poly yarn, white marabou Stillwater midge yarn is already sized

I tie this pattern in black, brown, olive, light green, maroon and silver (no coloration). Sometimes I double rib with contrasting wire colors for added attraction.

What makes a chironomid fly pattern look right?

  1. Proportion - the hook size is right for the pattern. The fly should be tied onto the bend of the hook but not around the bend. The bead size should be about 3X the diameter of the butt end
  2. Taper - all pupa are tapered, the body should taper evenly, or slighlty more taper on the head end. The tail end should be skinny.
  3. Rib - all chironomids have 6 or seven segments between the tail and thorax. Not that fish count the segments, but the proportion of the segments will be right with 6 and the correct tapered body.
  4. Collar - the collar should be smaller than the exposed part of the bead, it should taper evenly onto the curve of the bead.
  5. Gill - the gill diameter and length is about the diameter of the head.

I see too many patterns tied with fat butts, hook too big, no taper, oversize gill and no transition to the bead. They may work but getting the overall layout correct will never hurt catching fish. Look at photos of real chironomids and the shape/proportion is consistent, they don't look like maggots. The flies below are not special editions I tied for this web page, all of my fly box has consistent quality of flies.We are not building replicas, but the impression must be as representative as possible.

  

The patterns below are tied with Stretch Floss over ASB material, then coated with clear nail polish. 

In blizzard hatches, a double fly pattern can separate your imitation from the naturals

Flashabou comes in a wide range of colors and makes a nice chromie as well.

If the wind comes up, an indicator will move too much in the waves and the trout will not like the fly bobbing up and down unnaturally. Using a floating line with no indicator results in a better presentation, but a beaded pattern will pull the line and leader down. Tying any chironomid pattern without a bead, similar to a English Buzzer pattern holds the fly at a more consistent depth when fishing naked.

 

Deep Fly Pattern

The second pattern is for days when there is no hatch ongoing at surface and the pupa are staging just off the bottom waiting for the right conditions. Staging can be days before the pupae begin to rise and are in a layer 6" off bottom. They are not gassing up so there is minimal shine to their bodies. 

Surface Pupa Pattern

The third pupa pattern is for fish near the surface that are rolling but not taking the adults or emergers. You use a floating line, greased leader and a light pattern that sinks slowly and stays an few inchs to 2 feet under the surface when slowly retrieved. Apparently the pupa will travel horizontally along the water interface attempting to break through and emerge into their adult form. The fish will swim a foot down eating these insects but not taking the adults. Nothing beats pheasant tail fibers for a natural looking pupa. Look at the pheasant tail fibers after wrapping and they are a fine fuzzy texture like the body is velveteen. I tie this pattern in natural brown, olive, and black. You can use the Sharpies to adjust the tint of the body. Counter wind the rib for durability.

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Pheasant tail with holo tinsel rib.

Chromie with black stretch floss rib. This fly is effective fished naked in up to 15 feet of water.

 

Floating (Neutral Buoyancy) Pattern

When fish are taking emergers just below the surface, they will roll but not break the surface. Emerger patterns can be used but a neutral buoyancy pupa pattern is very effective. The neutral buoyancy pattern is fished a couple of inches below the surface. I tie the flies using craft store foam or pheasant tail for the body with no bead, the fly does not sink and is held at the surface by a greased leader. Use white foam or marabou for the gill.

Bomber Patterns

For the deep bomber patterns, a variation required a white bead when the water is thick with algae which will collect in the gill tuft and discolor the poly/antron gills. For bomber pattern (over size 10) you can paint eyes onto the white bead for added realism. There are large chironomid pupa which are predatory and have good eyesight. Bomber patterns are sometimes tied with more detail, mainly because you can get the parts onto a size 8 hook without the fly looking sloppy. This first fly has the tail tuft and a wing case made of Raffia. Bombers can work well as attractor patterns even when there is no hatch on. The fish are so used to seeing chironomids through the season that they will not pass up an easy meal.

Organization 

To tie bunches of chironomids in batches, it helps to organize the materials for the patterns. I also keep a list of patterns to be tied up over the winter so that I tie up the right number of each pattern for the season. The hooks and beads are arranged on a Plano box for easy reference when grabbing #12 hook and 7/64" black bead for example. The round clear lid cases are from Princess Auto (watchmaker cases also available at Lee Valley for 3X the price), they fit in an aluminum box 20 at a time.

Search the web for AK Best's fly tying tips, his production techniques are useful to improve your efficiency. We may not all be speed tyers, but getting the most flies tied in a session is still important.

Fishing the Chironomid

Here are the basics of fishing a chironomid. You want to have the fly at the feeding level of the fish and suspended. Tie the fly to the tippet using a loop knot so the fly can wiggle and hang vertically. Having a good sonar unit is essential unless the fish are right on surface or right on bottom. If the fish are right on bottom, use a pair of forceps and a sinking line straight down over the side of the boat to set the line length so the fly is 1 to 2' off bottom. Since chironomids live in mud bottom, be safe with the fly out of the mud. At depths greater than 30' the fish do not seem to be concerned about the boat. Also at >30 feet, visibility can become an issue, I have favoured large patterns with white beads to increase visibility over matching the hatch when fishing really deep.

A good sonar is useful to show the depth of the feeding fish. I use seven line/leader configurations to get the right depth.

The reason you use a sink tip from 20 to 40' deep is it is difficult to cast a very long leader. Some folks will fish a long leader without indicator and use a countdown to get the fly on depth. You then have to strip line to keep the fly at that depth, and your depth control is suspect. It can take minutes for a fly and leader to sink 30', a sink tip will get the fly on depth much quicker, and then the indicator holds at depth. If the waves move the indicator too much, a sink tip will get on depth faster than a mono leader, hand crawl to maintain that depth. The motion of the hand crawl adds to the presentation.

If the conditions are windy, excessive motion of the indicator results in a less realistic fly motion. Take the indicator off and adjust the weight of the swivel to control depth. Even in calm conditions a naked line with an unweighted fly will result in the best presentation, motion is damped by the leader hang angle. Make sure your leader is very straight and hook points are sharp since the hook set will be delayed..

Here is an 11 pound fish caught on a chironomid:

 

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