Autumn Lake Tactics – Midge & Smelt

Image of Fly fisherman fishing for lake trout in Autumn

According to the calendar, Autumn commences in March, but the river fishing generally keeps me busy until April. This is when the dry fly action slows and the trout begin their spawning and so I turn my attention to still water fishing.

In spite of the cool sometimes cold days, around the central highlands, Autumn is one of the prime times for lake fishing. It offers great sight fishing for trout feeding on midge and smelt.

Midge fishing

Midges (or Chironomidae to use their taxonomic name)  hatch all year round, however in Autumn when the air is still and warm, they are plentiful and a main source of food for the hungry trout.

The midge larvae (blood worms) live in the muddy bottom, and when mature, and the conditions are favourable, they transform into the pupal stage to begin the metamorphosis into the flying adult.  The pupae twitch there way to the surface, where they make the final transformation as they hang in the meniscus.  The trout feed on the midge in all their stages of transformation, but they are most vulnerable during this hatch.

Before a hatch, the trout feed on the blood worms close to the lake bottom, where I they are beginning to move prior to the hatch. As the hatch comes into full swing, the trout feed vigorously on the pupae chasing them as they ascend. Trout feeding on the ascending pupae, will rush to the surface, pushing up plate size ‘boils’. The boil is a plate sized rise form that appears as bulge of water on the calm surface not dissimilar to the way a gas bubble in boiling water does. 

Later in the hatch when the pupae are hanging in the surface film, attempting their final metamorphosis, the sipping take of the trout produce more subtle  rise forms, which will appear as large rings on a mirror like surface, or a circular flattening in a light riffle.

Midges can hatch in short spates, and will stop when the wind strengthens or switches to the south. Then they often start again when the sun comes or the wind drops. Early morning and late afternoon into the evening seem to be the best times, however you can have success all through the day.

Three effective midge fishing tactics

My three most effective midge fishing tactics are:

  1. Dead drift
  2. Slow retrieve
  3. Medium speed retrieve

Dead drift.

If I find a number of fish working consistently, I’ll start with midges dead drift trough the area, as it minimises casting and hence reduces the risk of lining the fish. It does however require a deal of faith and patience. You need to trust that the trout will find your tiny fly (they will eventually I promise).  Generally I will fish one or two midge patterns under an indicator.  Two patterns allows you to fish at two different depths.  Cast to a rise and let the fly sit, slowly gather any slack that might develop as the indicator slowly drifts, so you can set the hook with a brisk lift of the rod, should the indicator sink, twitch or move in any ‘unnatural’ manner.

Close up of midge files in a fly box.
A selection of my midge patterns.

I like to fish one midge just six inches below the surface and another at least 18 inches  under that, deeper if I want to use a bloodworm on the point. Generally you need the midges at or above the level the trout are cruising.  If the trout are cruising close to the surface, it can be very frustrating as it may seem they are ignoring your fly.  Don’t be tempted to recast, or even change flies, you just need to give them time to find your fly.  When they are close to the surface, the area visible to them is very small,  and they can swim within inches of your fly and just not see it.

Slow retrieve

The slow retrieve is tactic I use if there aren’t many rising fish.  If the water and weather conditions are favourable , and location is right,  I’ll use it to start searching. Especially if there is the occasional rise.

The bead head blood worm with marabou tail is my most effective pattern.

Again I like to fish two flies:  I’ll generally start with a bloodworm on point and a pupae about two feet above that.  Sometimes I’ll use a stick caddis  instead of the pupae, especially in early April when there a few naturals about. The aim is to let the flies sink close to the bottom and and fish them super slow, and I mean super slow, maybe an inch or two a second.  At this speed, detecting the subtle takes can be tricky, and at first you will miss a lot of fish, but the odd fish will wake you up with a solid pull.  To detect the takes I  watch ‘the bridge’.  Watching the bridge is  a technique I picked up from from an article written by Phil Weigall in FlyLife magazine

The bridge is the small curve of line between rod tip and the water. When you retrieve slowly and steadily this has a consistent curve. A trout will often pick up the fly or take it gently and you may not feel it, but you will see the bridge raise or straighten out. When you see it, lift the rod immediately and set the hook. Sometimes this may just be the fly sticking to the bottom or picking up a leaf… but often enough it is a trout. When you can detect a leaf in this way, you will never miss the take of a trout. Here is a little video showing the bridge.

Medium to faster retrieve,

If the fish are surface feeding but you are having no luck on the dead drift you can also try a medium to fast retrieve.  Again I prefer to use two different coloured or sized pupae. Sometimes I’ll even use a small #10 woolly bugger and a midge on point.  After sunset, in the last of the light, this can be  game changer and get you into a few more before darkness shuts down the midge feeders.  Generally I prefer to keep the retrieve rate up to keep the flies closer to the surface, as the trout are looking up.

Detecting takes is easy: you will feel the change in tension and often a pull or solid tug.  Be sure to lift  the rod sharply to ensure a solid hook set. The flies should be 18 inches or more apart, i.e. you want them further apart than the average fish length.  This will reduce the chance of the point fly foul hooking a fish, should it take the fly on the  dropper.  If the trailing fly foul hooks the fish, it will usually end with a pulled hook and a disappointed angler.

Smelt Fishing

In the Autumn months the Smelt school up close to shore attempting to spawn,  making them easy prey for the hungry trout. Smelt is another word for a small bait fish, and we have a few species of them in in our lakes. They are usually olive and/or silver, and they range in length from a couple of centimetres (pin fry) to as long as five to six centimetres.

An Autumn caught jack rainbow
An Autumn caught jack rainbow

When they are being harassed by trout, the smelt school is pushed close to the surface, and they create what my friend calls nervous water.  You see a patch of water that has tiny little wavelets, that shimmers and shifts in the light. The trout push bow waves and leave surface boils as they hunt down the smelt. Sometimes thy crash through the school  open mouthed, scattering showers of smelt in every direction. It then all goes quiet until the trout returns to mop up any smelt stunned or injured by the mad rush. It is exciting sight fishing.

Smelt Tactics

Generally the schools of smelt don’t like bright sunshine, and are best targeted at first light, and will soon retreat to the depths when the sun hits the water. For this reason still overcast days are best as the smelting action can continue to mid morning. 

My favourite flies for targeting smelters include: Christmas Tree, Tom Jones, Wet’s Zonker, olive zonker, or an olive woolly bugger.  There are plenty more options, however, your pattern generally just needs to be the right size, and presented well. I carry flies tied on hook sizes 12 to  6 , but would generally fish a 10 or an 8.

I will have my rod already rigged with a floating line and a suitable smelt pattern on the way to the lake. I don’t want to waste valuable fishing time rigging up, so I can make the most of the ow morning light.  I walk the lake shore with the some line out of the rod rings and the fly in hand ready to cast at a moments notice. When a trout gives itself away, chasing smelt, time is of the essence. The sooner you present the fly, the more chance you have of catching it.  

I scan with my eyes, looking for the telltales of smelt or smelting trout: nervous water, leaping panicked smelt, bow waves, boils, or swirls. I’ll modify my approach, accordingly.

Signs of Smelt

If I see smelt, but no obvious trout feeding, I’ll try searching in the vicinity by casting my pattern in and around the school and begin a slow retrieve. Trying to move the fly in short jerky movements to mimic a smelt’s movements in case there is a trout are cruising nearby it looking to pick off any stragglers.

Crashing surface action

If the trout are crashing through a school of smelt,  it is important to get your fly out as soon as you can.  The trout are moving around quickly, so you don’t have long.  The aim is to drop the fly in the spreading ripples of the boil or swirl. I prefer to let the fly sink a second or two, before giving it a couple of weak twitches, imitating an injured/stunned smelt.  This is how I caught my first active smelter, and I have never forgotten the solid smash-and-grab take.

Your best chance is on the first cast, however if unsuccessful it is worth a few casts  in the general vicinity, using a slow retrieve: figure eight or strip pause.  Often the trout is cruising nearby trying to catch some of the stragglers. Otherwise, you can wait until the trout moves again.

Bow Wave/Swirls

it is important to present your fly immediately to any movement.  For bow waves and swirls, I’ll try a twitchy retrieve.  I try to match my retrieve to the speed of the imagined smelt. Sometimes I’ll try a slower retrieve, to keep my fly in the vicinity, sometimes I’ll give the fly a bit more speed to imitate a panicked fleeing smelt.

Some days you may only see one or two signs of a smelter, but it is worth persisting and searching the area with varying retrieves, as the trout often are still within the vicinity, and giving it a good ten or so minutes can pay dividends.


April and May offer stable weather,  with cool relatively windless days, ideal for comfortable and enjoyable lake fishing. With little or no wind, any trout movements are obvious in the flat calm water. I prefer to arrive  at first light,  overcast days are best for smelt, but sunny days can be good for midge.  If the forecast is for warm, still sunny day I will head to the lake mid morning and fish till sunset, as the warmer weather can deliver a strong evening midge hatch.

Note: you need to dress warmly and be prepared for a sudden change of temperature.  In the central highlands , where the average elevation is around five or six hundred metres, cold wintry weather can arrive suddenly, so it pays to be prepared.  You can never take too many clothes with you. I have been fishing to rising fish under falling snow in May.


Author: twigandstream

Fly fishing Guide and Casting Coach.

3 thoughts on “Autumn Lake Tactics – Midge & Smelt”

  1. Great article. Wondering what sizes you recommend for Bloodworms in the snowy lakes. I haven’t been able to crack it yet. Also what sizes do you find work well for the pupas. Thanks


    1. Hi there thanks for the question. I usually use a size #12 by default. However I tie them in #10 and #14. I find the trout are more fussy on size of pupae. I have some tied on #18s.. if there any shucks about it will give you an idea of size.


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