For the first few years that I fly fished, I never really spent time on lakes or ponds. I grew up in a family where fly fishing was done with a single dry fly on small creeks and streams. Using nymphs and streamers wasn’t just frowned upon – it was discouraged. Since then, I’ve thankfully expanded my fly fishing skillset, including fishing on the high-country lakes and ponds here in the Rocky Mountains.
One of the most effective methods I’ve learned for fishing stillwater – especially waterbodies that are new to me – is how to effectively use chironomids. These bugs are arguably as effective – or more so – than the ol’ reliable worm, with the upside that trout generally don’t swallow them so deep you either have to cut your hook or keep the fish.
How you fish these bugs – and understanding what they are – is critical to your success.
What’s a chironomid? Chironomid is the catch-all term for a breadth of small flies that make their home in still or slow-moving water. These bugs look like mosquitoes, but they don’t bite. And, if you’ve ever stayed on a lake in North America until after sunset during the summer, you’ve seen a few thousand chironomids already. They’re the darker, small bugs that hover over a lake’s surface late in the evening.
Now, I’m not discussing dry flies here. What we’re concerned with when fishing chironomids is their pupal stage. At this point in their life cycle, chironomids look like oversized zebra midges (chironomids are, in fact, midges, but that’s getting a bit too much into the weeds here). The pupal chironomid hatches from an egg on the bottom of a lake or pond, then shoots up pretty quickly towards the surface. Once there, they emerge as a full dun.
If you’ve ever been on a lake and watched fish violently jump clean out of the water when there’s no discernable hatch occurring, you’ve likely watched trout chasing pupal chironomids.
These bugs are in virtually every trout lake in North America, and they tend to hatch most prolifically in the early spring and late fall. However, you’ll regularly catch trout on chironomids from ice-off to ice-on, simply because they’re such a readily available food source.
Go-to patterns The Ice Cream Cone is perhaps the most famous chironomid pattern. The Wino is another renowned one, made particularly famous by the guides out at Pyramid Lake in Nevada. I lean towards the Ice Cream Cone and Wino style patterns myself, though I end up tying a lot of these bugs in various colors.
If you don’t tie your own flies, Ice Cream Cones in black, red, orange, and olive in sizes 10-14 are a must-have. Winos in red, purple, and brown in sizes 10-14 are nearly as important.
Fishing a chironomid You have plenty of options when it comes to fishing these bugs. The most common method is to fish them under an indicator of some sort. I prefer the slip-strike (or “corkies,” as some folks call them) ones, but stationary indicators work fine, as well. If you decide to fish them beneath an indicator, you’ll want to use all-fluorocarbon leader and tippet. I do 4x down to the first fly, which is tied on with a Rapala knot (or non-slip mono loop – the same knot by a different name). I’ll tie another piece of tippet, about three to four feet long, on the bend of the shank of the first hook. Another Rapala knot is all you need to round out the rig. You’ll want to play with depth and distance between the flies based on the water you’re fishing.
The indicator method is best when you’re fishing at a defined depth – like on a drop-off or in a break between vegetation – or when you have a slight chop on the water. A bit of wind helps the flies bounce and gives them a more lifelike appearance. Remember that the whole point of fishing these bugs is to imitate the bugs as they rush to the surface to hatch, so any sort of natural movement that points towards that behavior will increase your success. If indicator fishing isn’t your thing, you can always fish the chironomids beneath a big dry fly.
Another technique to keep in mind is the hand-twist retrieve. This involves casting your flies without any kind of indicator, at the end of a long leader. After the flies sink to your desired depth, you slowly retrieve the flies with a jerky, yet consistent, motion. This retrieval does a great job of mimicking actual chironomids as they zoom towards the water’s surface.
The hand-twist retrieve can be a bit tricky to master right off the bat. I’d highly suggest giving this video a watch, regardless of your sillwater fishing skill level.
The right spot When I started fishing lakes and ponds, the most frustrating aspect was the lack of apparent structure and easily-identifiable hidey-holes for fish. Aside from the occasional rise, I’d look at stillwater and have no clue where to start fishing.
While I’m far from a master at fishing lakes and ponds, there are a few key areas you can focus on when fishing chironomids:
Drop-offs near the bank are almost always a good bet. Fish like to cruise the transition between shallow and deep water, because it offers a lot of great ambush opportunities.
Anywhere the shore narrows and becomes a point is must-fish water, because any and all fish cruising around the lake will have to pass that point.
Submerged boulders, trees, or other structure are always good places to look for trout. Again, trout love structure and cover that give them the opportunity to ambush their prey.
Large breaks between moss are where I’ve caught some of my biggest fish while using chironomids. I like jigging through these breaks, as I’ve found it helps entice bigger fish from the cover of the moss.
Don’t forget, either, to look for places where you see trout rising, or chironomids emerging. If there aren’t any other bugs on the water, but fish are still rocketing up from the depths to eat something, focus your efforts in those areas. I’ve always hesitated to cast to fish I can see, especially when I’m in a boat. That mindset is a direct result of spending so much time fishing big waters from a drift boat. By the time you cast to a fish you can see, you’ve likely drifted past it. On stillwater, though, you want to cast towards the visible trout.
Chironomids have a place in my fly box year-round. I use them whenever I’m on any kind of lake, and I’ll even use the bigger ones on some rivers. Once I learned how to fish chironomids, I started enjoying my time on small ponds and lakes – especially in the high country. So, while the rivers are raging with the rest of runoff, do yourself a favor and go fish some chironomids.
Words by Spencer Durrant
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular contributor for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.
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