Column: Holding out for early summer, planning patterns

Great Outdoors by James Murray

The weather has turned ever so slightly warmer in these past few days – not that I am fooled in any way.

I know winter is far from over and fishing season is still a good three or four months off for me.

I have never been one of those anglers who simply can’t wait to put their lines in the moment the ice is off the water. I am will to wait until the weather has warmed up a little more – say around the beginning of summer. I just find it too cold to sit out in an open 12-foot aluminum boat, fingers freezing, casting tiny little chironomid patterns that I can barely even see to tie on.

Chironomids, ah yes, those tiny little members of the two-winged order Diptera, are one of the few food sources readily available in any quantity to hungry fish looking for something to eat in the spring. I read somewhere that there are about 2,500 species of chironomids in North America, and at least 200 different species in B.C.’s Interior. That’s quite a few possible fly patterns.

Chironomids, which begin hatching immediately after ice-off, have a complete metamorphosis. Their lifecycle begins when eggs are deposited on the surface of a lake and settle into the mire and mud on the bottom. The eggs develop into larvae, thin worm like creatures, a quarter to one inch in length, with a rather pronounced segmentation along their body. They are usually bright red due to a hemoglobin substance in their bodies which allows them to live in relatively oxygen-poor waters throughout the winter.

The majority of chironomid hatches take place in waters that are no more than 10 to 20 feet deep, and although individual chironomids are often tiny in size, one only has to look at the tremendous number of empty chironomid pupae cases floating on the water to realize just how large many chironomid pupae are hatching at any given time. The pupae stage can be anywhere from less than a quarter of an inch to as large as three quarters of an inch. In shades of pale green to brown, wine and black, chironomid pupae are easily identified by their pronounced segmentation along the abdomen and the presence of white feather-like gills on the head and sometimes on the tip of the abdomen.

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Pupae emerge from protective tubes in the lake bottom to begin their ascent to the surface by trapping gases under the skin of their abdomen and thorax. As the pupae make their way through the water column towards the surface, they often take on a silvery mirror-like appearance due to the trapped gases. Immediately upon reaching the surface and breaking through the meniscus, a split forms along the back of the thorax, the winged adult emerges and the mature insect flies off to mate and begin the cycle all over again.

It is during their ascent to the surface that chironomid pupae are the most vulnerable and become easy prey for opportunistic trout which will often feed almost exclusively on the emerging pupae. Trout will stay suspended somewhere in the thermocline where the water temperature is just right. Here they will hold and wait for the food to come to them.

Most anglers fish chironomid patterns with a floating line and a long sinking leader. An integral part of fishing with chironomid patterns is having enough patience to wait for such a tiny fly to sink to the required depth. Strikes are often subtle and hard to recognize. It can take three to five minutes for a fly to sink 20 feet in the water. A slow retrieve is also essential – a couple of inches, pause, a couple more inches, then a longer pause. Too fast a retrieve and your presentation looks too unnatural.

When chironomid fishing, size matters. You want your imitation to blend in with all the other little chironomids trying to emerge, so you need to select a pattern that is very close in both size and colour to the naturals that are emerging at the time.

For those anglers who may be finding it hard to wait for spring, maybe now is the time work on replenishing your fly boxes with some new chironomid patterns while the rest of us are content to wait for summer.

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