Fly Pattern #2: Zebra Midge

Chris Parsons Magnificent 7 Tags: , , ,
zebra midge fly pattern

This post is the second installment of seven where I share with you my list of the top seven trout flies. A list I call the Magnificent Seven! Including variations of each of the seven construct a well rounded selection of flies that will catch trout on any western stream or lake. This post is about the Zebra Midge.

Fly Fishing Fly Selection Refined

Fly Pattern #2: Zebra Midge

Fly fishing is described as the craft of fishing using a rod and an artificial fly as bait. The “fly” or “fly pattern” is created by hand assembling thread, real bird feathers, real animal fur, wire, metallic beads, and all varieties of synthetic materials, tying the materials systematically to a hook. A dab of glue usually keeps the assemblage from unraveling. The fly pattern is supposed to imitate a food source that tempts the fish to eat the fly. Sometimes it works. Sometimes the fly never fails. All too often, the fly is ignored by our longed-for object of intention. I’m talking about fish! The huge variety of fly tying materials including thread colors, feathers, fur and synthetic material is far too vast to

Big Fall River Rainbow Trout - Zebra Midge
This rainbow ate a #16 black zebra midge. August 2011

list in this post. Additionally, there are thousands of good fly patterns available to the wide eyed angler perusing catalogues and the bins at the local fly shop. For now, we don’t need any stinking fly tying materials other than thread and wire. A bead can be used if you must. The fly described in this post is so silly even an empty headed fly tire like me can tie many in just 15 minutes.  Painless! In this post, a fly so simple, a bit brazen, even ridiculous will be described. The Zebra Midge. Of the seven flies included in the Magnificent Seven, the Zebra Midge is a must have when fishing lakes and reservoirs, better known in angling terms as “still waters”. But, the Zebra Midge is not just a still water fly. It’s a river fly too. It’s the fly you need!

I think fly tying is complex and time consuming. I envy those who enjoy producing creative patterns that provide us anglers with memories of spectacular rainbow trout. I would rather sit down and poke hot needles in my eyes than tie flies. Maybe I have tied too many flies. I wish I liked tying. But, I just don’t. Anyway, when I am forced to sit down at my vice, I look to minimize the time spent wrapping a hook with fur and feathers. If I’m on a trout fishing trip, I will select a river or lake were the Zebra Midge works exceptionally well. The Zebra Midge is the fastest, simplest fly in the universe of fly tying to create. This pattern is proven daily on spring creeks like Fall River, Hat Creek. It works just fine on the Upper Sacramento river. It produced one of the most memorable days ever on the Pit River. I continue to have success with it on the Lower Sacramento river. I have fished it on almost every eastern Sierra stream and lake with gratifying results to say the least. In August, the dark tan #20 Zebra Midge produces more hook ups on the McCloud than any fly. Mercer’s Micro Mayfly in brown comes into mind as a very good fly on the McCloud in August. If I had one fly to fish on the McCloud in August, it would be the Zebra Midge tied individually in black, tan, red or olive. I know other flies will work, but this post is about the Zebra Midge and the fantastic fishy mojo it has! The Zebra Midge kicks ass on the Missouri river, the Big Horn. Just about every single still water with rainbow trout swimming in it, has anglers floating in tubes and pontoon boats, all suspending or retrieving midges. Each angler smiling in shear delight.

Zebra Midge
Black Zebra Midge Fly Pattern

So, what is a Zebra Midge? The Zebra Midge imitates an aquatic insect called a “Midge” that lives in the mud and silt along the submerged edges of rivers and lakes. Ranging in size from #12 down to #22 and smaller, there are 700 species in North America! That’s way too many! The one midge we are interested in is this: Chironomidae.  Chironomids are a family of midge that is likely to be found inhabiting the edges of your favorite lakes and streams. Trout in western lakes and spring creeks eat midges by the millions. Compared to other aquatic insects, the midge is most like the mayfly in that it hatches from an egg, lives on the bottom of the river or lake, pupates in an exoskeleton, then emerges from the bottom of it’s watery world swimming and floating to the surface, dangling in the surface film as the adult midge escapes it’s pupal shuck. The adult flies about, mates and lays it’s eggs in the water from which it came. Some midge experts, and they are few, compare the midge to the mosquito. They are similar in every way except the midge doesn’t suck blood and the Chironomidae family don’t bite. Nice folks, the Chironomidae’s. But the point I’m trying to make without deviating into long diatribe on midge minutia is the Zebra Midge fly pattern is a must have. End of story. Well. Almost.

Midges hatch all year making it an ultra dependable source of food for the fish! Midge nymph patterns can be fished any day, anytime. When midges are obviously hatching, fishing the Zebra Midge just under the surface can produce hook up after hook up. In December, on the Lower Sacramento, the midge hatches can be so thick, the sides of my drift boat are coated with adult, mosquito like, midge adults. Just the other day, I could see thousands of empty midge shucks floating along the edge of the river indicating the immensity of the midge hatches that occur in the early AM hours on the Lower Sacramento through the early months of summer. Rainbow trout, brown trout, all kinds of trout eat midges in the morning, in the afternoon and evening. Midges are most always a readily available source of nourishment for fish living in freshwater environments 365 days a year. Get it? Got it? Good.

Ever been on some river or lake, fish eating off the surface, and you can’t see what the fish are eating? If you are a die hard fly angler and this experience has eluded you then, then…just wait. It will happen to you soon enough. Fish story: I remember an evening on the Firehole river in dare I say, Montana (always Montana), the fish were all over the surface gulping something down, but no matter what I presented to the fish, they would not eat my offering. At last, I tried a #20 black Zebra Midge, tied on a straight shank hook, suspended just under the surface by tying in a corky, painted black, about six inches above the Zebra Midge. Caught a few before darkness set in. Yeah! The trout were eating emerging midges! Recognizing a midge hatch can be a curse since the fly that imitates them will be practically impossible to see and tie onto the leader. Small tippets of 6x and 7x can be the norm when fishing near the surface, but I can usually tie a #20 to 5x when fishing deep. I have had some success swinging and suspending the Zebra Midge just under the surface, like on the Firehole, on the end of a tapered leader. No sinking lines needed. To detect the strike, I look for the fly line to slightly, suddenly stretch, I then lift my fly rod in order to pull snug to the fish. It is easy to break fish off if line isn’t slipped through the rod guides when lifting the rod. Most anglers suspend the midge pattern deeply under an indicator along with a second or even third fly above the midge. Works fine! The other two flies can be caddis patterns, mayfly patterns or stonefly. How about a yellow egg?!

Here’s the recipe for the basic black Zebra Midge. Of all the colors, this one seems to work best, however, midge larva is tan or cream in color sometimes with a hint of red. Some still waters have bright red midges occurring, called blood worms. Ever heard of the pattern called a San Juan Worm? No, that’s not one of the seven, but a good large midge imitation none the less!! Don’t limit your imagination! Tie your midges in red, orange, yellow. Use some black dubbing near the bead. Tie in a little crystal flash behind the head. Below is the recipe for the Black Zebra Midge. Enjoy!

(The first fly in the list of the Magnificent Seven is the Birds Nest)

Beaded Zebra Midge:


Daiichi 1130, sizes 16-20


8/0, Black.


Wire, fine silver.


8/0, black thread.


Silver beads are popular, but so are red and copper. Tie some beadless.

P.S. Here’s a great article on midges. Thought I’d share: Ozark fly flinger – Midge Fly Patterns for the White River Tailwaters

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