Micro Flies with Terry Lawton
At the time it seemed to be a good idea to fish some tiny flies, tied on size 28 or 30 hooks. Yes that small. But when I first saw the flies, my initial reaction was that I would be lucky to be able to tie one on the end of a tippet. In reality, that is actually relatively easy, given good light and suitable size of tippet. What is more difficult is extracting a fly from your fly box and holding it without dropping it or hooking yourself. The very small size of fly also makes unhooking a fish relatively difficult. With a more conventional size of hook, you can take hold of the head of the fly with the tip of your index finger and thumb, or a pair of forceps, and either remove the hook or hang-on firmly and let the fish kick itself free.
This is, by necessity, a partial view on fishing for trout with tiny flies as I have yet to fish such flies on, for example, some of the Western spring creeks in the USA where their use can be the only way to catch these often super-selective fish, and I have still to catch of fish of any significant size. But I hope that anyone who is going to fish for selective trout on similar waters will find my experiences of some help.
I first saw these miniscule hooks on stand at the 2007 spring fly fishing fair at Newark. Varivas 2300 Ultra Midge 4x Fine Micro-barb are super fine hooks that are available in even-number sizes from 20 to 30 (see end of article for where to get these). It was some little time before Mark Hamnett was able to supply some flies tied on the hooks. I didn't fancy trying to tie flies that small! Eventually a box arrived in the post one day containing a selection of dries and nymphs - including some lovely little bead head patterns - which had been tied by Pat Stevens of FlyTek. If you are going to fish barbless, then closing the barbs is best done at home, with plenty of light and a good magnifying glass!
As well as making these microscopic hooks, Varivas manufactures midge tippet material down to 12X with a breaking strain of just 1.06lb and a diameter of 0.067mm. The company also makes fluorocarbon tippet material down to 10x with a breaking strain of 1.2lbs for a diameter of 0.077mm. Midge Super Tippet is designed specifically for use with very light tackle and is available in 8x (2.05 lb) down to 12x for the best presentation of the smallest flies. But it is not necessary to use such a fine tippet as I found that I could thread 8x (0.096mm diameter) tippet through the eye of the smallest of the hooks. You need a fly that has been tied well, leaving the eye of the hook as clear as possible. You will need a very fine needle to clear the eye of one of these hooks. As even 8x tippet material is quite difficult to see in bright sunlight, it is easier to thread the material through the eye of the hook and then knot it with your back to the sun, or by keeping the tippet out of the direct sun. With a breaking strain of 2lbs, you have a sensible strength of tippet available.
Some readers may be wondering why anyone would want to fish such tiny flies in the first place. It is a good question. A decent size fish wanting to make a meal of tiny naturals is going to have to eat an awful lot. And eat an awful lot they will do when they are available. It is relatively recently that many river trout fishermen have come to understand the importance of midges and other tiny flies to a trout's diet. It is also accepted that on gin-clear chalk streams and meadow and spring creeks where the fish have been caught and released a number of times, they become very fussy and will often only look at tiny patterns fished on the thinnest of tippets.
A lack of confidence in my ability to fish these tiny flies meant that they stayed in my waistcoat longer than they should have. My first venture onto the water was on a tiny stream where I knew the little wild trout have always seemed to appreciate small, not to say tiny, dry flies and were unlikely to test a fine tippet to anywhere near breaking point. Delicate little rises close to the banks. Maybe to little beetles and tiny terrestrials dropping on to the surface from over-hanging weeds and grasses. Delicate, challenging but rewarding fishing when everything comes together and you can release a perfect 10 inch wild trout. Not so much hatch matching as good presentation in the right place. I wanted to start fishing size 26 and 28 flies where I was fairly confident of what to expect and as I would not be making long casts, there was a reasonable chance that I would be able to see my fly on the water. Unfortunately this first outing was brought to a very abrupt end by a torrential high summer downpour. But I learnt quite a lot and now had the confidence that these flies were fishable and so I could try them on something bigger next time out.
The first time I fished with one of these flies, a size 28 'F' fly, I used my regular leader but with an 8x tippet. It became obvious very quickly that the leader was far too heavy and stiff and something much more subtle was required. This could be either a furled leader or a Varivas Specialist Dry Fly leader. These leaders are available in nine and 12 foot lengths and 4x to 7x weights. They have a configuration of 50 per cent butt, 20per cent taper and 30 per cent point to provide a supple butt with a long point which helps make the suitably delicate presentations needed when fishing with such tiny flies. Fishing these minute flies certainly makes you very aware of the need for fishing with a properly balanced outfit.
A longer than normal tippet will provide more stretch which will absorb some of the shock of the hook-up and the initial rush for freedom of a hooked fish. Don Holbrook who has taken tying and fishing midge patterns to a whole new level (almost beyond fanaticism!) uses a five foot tippet of soft, flexible mono and a short leader of just five and a half feet, when fishing in or below the surface. Interestingly when he is fishing dry flies and can see a fish take, he believes that he has more control over just how hard he can strike and so he shortens his tippet. The downside of using a long, supple tippet can be a loss of accuracy when casting - particularly on a breezy day - and a consequent difficulty in seeing your fly. A very fine leader and tippet will be blown by a breeze and float down like a strand of spider's web, even when fishing with a bead-head nymph. An over-thick or stiff tippet will take control of your fly as these flies are not heavy enough to influence any curls in the tippet.
Casting and presentation
Precise, accurate casting and presentation is even more important than normal when fishing tiny flies. An accurate cast will place your dry fly where you are looking and therefore expecting to see your fly on the water. If it lands where you are expecting, it will be that much easier to see it on the surface of the river or stream. If it lands off target and there are naturals on the water and tiny bits of flotsam and so on, it will be that much more difficult to find your fly. Just in case you do lose sight of your fly, it makes sense to set your hook if there is a rise anywhere in the area where you hope your fly is. A well-greased floating leader will also help you to see your fly on the water as you can look along the leader and all being well spot your fly. Obviously there will be times when you cannot see your fly and instinct will tell you to set the hook.
Short casts will keep your fly within a reasonable spotting range. Therefore it follows that it is sensible to fish as close to a fish as you can without frightening it and move closer to a fish before making a longer cast. The longer the cast the less chance that you have of seeing and following your fly's float downstream. As well as keeping casts short, make sure that you cast from a position that gives you the best chance of seeing your fly and from where you can use the available light to best effect.
As well as making it easier and quicker to set your hook, taking the slack out of your line and leader will help show you where your fly is.
In a funny way nymphing with tiny artificials is not that different from using larger flies. Dry fly fishing is often thought to be easier because you can (usually) see your fly floating along on the surface and it is very obvious when a fish rises and takes it. But as we know, it is not always possible to see your fly on the water. A lot of the time when you are fishing nymphs, you cannot or would not necessarily expect to see your fly in the water but you would hope and expect to see a flash as the fished turned to take your nymph or maybe the white of the inside of its mouth telling you that it is time to set the hook.
Once a fish rises and takes your fly, the next challenge begins: setting the hook and playing the fish. Because tiny hooks are made from very fine wire and have only a very short point, relative to a larger size of hook, they do not need much pressure to drive them home. An aggressive, over-zealous hook set will risk straightening the hook or snapping the tippet at the knot. If you know that a fish has taken your fly, wait until it turns-down before raising your rod tip gently or making a gentle strip strike. It is interesting to note the number of times that a fish will hook itself when fishing regular size patterns. Obviously if you think that you have got a take but are uncertain, then you will have to make a more positive hook set, but make sure that it is still on the gentle side.
During the course of writing this article I was able to discuss some aspects of fishing tiny flies with a friend who had to use them out of necessity when fishing for fish feeding on microscopic midges and midge larvae in Montana. He said that he found that he could set his hook more easily and securely by making a sideways hook set, the idea being that the hook is more likely to be driven into a fleshy part of the fish's mouth compared to a traditional hook set with a raised rod. He thought also that a sideways hook set put less pressure, and therefore strain, on very fine tippets.
Play fish carefully but firmly and try to stay in control. Keep the fish upstream from where you are standing so that it is fighting the current as well as your line. If you let the fish get below you, you risk losing control and have the added problem of getting the fish back close enough to net or release against the current. A good size fish plus the strength of the current can easily overload a fine tippet. Good line control is essential as you do not want to risk a knot or tangle in your line just as a fish tries to make a dash for freedom, or you find that you are standing on a spare coil of line.
Playing a fish near the top of the water column means that you have less leader/line in the water causing drag compared to a fish that bores deep, heading for the bottom. This will also help keep a fish out of weeds. But do not play a fish so high in the water that it is half-out of the water because without the resistance of the water for it to fight against, its struggles will be more violent and destructive and so more likely to break a very fine tippet. Like so many aspects of fly fishing, it is important to strike the right balance between having as little line in or on the water - to reduce friction and drag - and playing the fish too close to the surface.
As well as being specially careful when setting the hook and playing fish using a delicate tippet, it is even more important not to yank on you fly line when you hook the bottom (with a nymph) or your dry lands on bank-side vegetation. If you do give your line a good yank or tug instead of a gentle tweak, you will most likely break the tippet and loose your fly, rather than have it drop onto the water in the same way as a little terrestrial might fall out of the grass over-hanging the river. Another easy way to loose flies is careless casting and cracking a fly off with a clumsy back cast.
As I wrote at the start of this article, unhooking fish caught on tiny flies is a challenge. With bigger (normal size) flies, there is enough hook to hold firmly with your thumb and first finger or forceps. The choice with micro flies is either to do your best to take hold of the fly or use an unhooking device such as a Ketchum Release which is available in a so-called midge size. The problem with forceps is that you will have to take hold of the whole fly and this will probably ruin the dressing.
We all know that if a fish is to be released it is better that this is done without handling the fish, whenever possible, or removing it from the water. But this does mean that a fish cannot be held to allow it to recover from a hard or over-prolonged fight. And the lighter the tackle that you use, the more difficult it is to bring a fish to hand quickly for release. Netting a fish does mean that you can unhook it and then hold it in the water while it gets its breath back.
Now that I have fished with such tiny flies, the next challenge is to tie some myself.
To find supplies of the Varivas micro hooks and tippet mentioned in the article please visit any of these suppliers online;-
Or instore at:-
Later in the year they will also be available at Tom Savilles, Sportfish and Farlows.
Fishing Small Flies by Ed Engle, published by Stackpole Books, is essential reading for any anglers wanting to learn more about fishing tiny flies. Engle has also written a companion book Tying Small Flies.
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