The Ice Cream Cone
Early in my time with Clackamas Fly Fishers I got invited by a group of members to join them on their annual outing to the Owyhee River. (I’ve got to give a huge shout-out to Ron Bouchard for organizing these trips. The fishing was at times amazing, but the trips getting there were equally memorable. I imagine Ron is still having flashbacks of the lady pulling alongside on the road and informing him that his trailer was on fire!)
On the second annual trip for me in 2011 we had to change plans because of poor water conditions on the Owyhee and the destination was moved to Diamond Lake. Pulling in to the parking area, near the area where we ended up camping, we saw huge clouds of mosquitoes in every direction and thought that there was no way that we could survive stepping out of Ron’s pickup, or at the very least we would be needing blood transfusions. As we set up camp we discovered that what we thought were mosquitoes were actually midges, relatives to mosquitoes, but not of the blood sucking variety.
Swarms of Adult Midges
Adult midges are often mistaken for mosquitoes, so if you see a bug that you think is a mosquito, but it is not biting you, it is probably a midge.
Adult Midge– It’s easy to see how they are mistaken for mosquitoes.
It was on this trip that I got my introduction to Ice Cream Cone chironomid patterns. They were by far the most effective fly for me on the trip. If I had known more about chironomids and how to fish them I would undoubtedly have done even better. The midge hatches were of monumental proportions. On the second day I was forced to head to shore with my pontoon boat to answer a call of nature. As I approached the shoreline I saw a layer of scum on the water that started about eight feet from the beach. Upon close examination I could see that the scum was made up of insect shucks, the vast majority of which were chironomids. We were on the windward shore of the lake and the prevailing winds had piled the insect shucks onto the beach to a depth of about four inches. I had experienced some prodigious insect hatches before but nothing like this.
A mass of chironomid shucks found lining the shoreline of Diamond Lake.
(As an aside… the midge hatch that we experienced at Diamond Lake, although memorable, was apparently minor compared to what happens annually in some areas of the country. In June of 2018, Cleveland had epic midge swarms that were so thick and vast that they were showing up on doppler radar and were described daily on the local TV weather reports!)
Chironomid Background Info
Midges are small insects with two pair of wings in the order Diptera, along with house flies, mosquitoes, crane flies, and others. The midges are generally non biters, although a small group of them are called biting midges, another name for the extremely annoying no-see-ums. Midges go through a complete metamorphosis during their life cycle, that is, from egg to larva to pupa to adult. Fish will also feed on the larva (blood worms) and adults, but for this article we are going to focus on the pupa stage of midges, commonly referred to as chironomids.
In stillwaters the chironomid pupae are one of the few insects that attract a trout’s attention by moving, not horizontally, but vertically through the water. However, the movement is not a swimming motion. The pupae slowly rise to the surface as gases form underneath their body segment covering.
Chironomid naturals showing size and color variations.
As it reaches the surface, each pupa will break out of its shuck and work its way through the surface film of the water, emerging as an adult midge. Getting through the surface tension of stillwater is no small feat for an emerging insect. At times the surface of the water acts like a stretched elastic membrane that provides a real challenge to an emerging insect. Cooler temperatures and windless days seems to enhance the surface tension of water, therefore making it even more difficult for emerging insects, and thus making them more vulnerable to foraging trout. Many anglers report that midge hatches seem to occur during the warmer parts of the day during the winter months, and conversely during the warmer months they occur most often during the cooler parts of the day.
Chironomids are generally curved in shape, so using scud-style hooks, sizes 8 -18, is a good way to imitate them. The bigger sizes would be effective in some alkaline lakes where the midges are famously large, but for most stillwaters you seldom would need anything larger than a size 14. In streams the chironomids tend to be smaller so some anglers tie their pupa down to size 22 or even smaller, which is tough for those of us that are visually challenged.
Using a stomach pump is a good way to figure out what size and color of chironomids to use.
Chironomids come in a wide range of colors, including black, olive, red, maroon, brown, silver, and others. Nearly all color variations can have some red in them due to some residual hemoglobin that shows through the skin. The body is segmented, with some tyers insisting on having seven segments in the chironomid patterns they tie. But are the fish really counting? At the head end of the pupa there will be some protruding gill filaments, that can be simulated in artificial fly patterns using any number of white materials like ostrich herl, antron. or poly yarn.
A chironomid showing very evident wing pads developing and highly visible gill filaments.
The question often comes up about why bother fishing chironomid patterns at all. Well, midges are available year round. They are arguably the most available food for feeding trout. What they lack in size is made up for by the sheer numbers that are available. It is estimated that they make up at least 50 percent of the trout’s diet in stillwater habitats.
Brian Chan, noted stillwater fishing guru, has written extensively on chironomid strategies. Check out this link for some great advice about fishing chironomids in lakes and ponds:
10 Tips For Success With Stillwater Chironomids by Brian Chan 6/09/2015 on Rio Website
When fishing your chironomids at depths greater than the length of your rod, landing your fish will be made a lot easier by using a “slip strike indicator”. Here is a helpful short video from In The Riffle:
The Ice Cream Cone
If you do some searching on the internet you will find all kinds of chironomid pupa patterns. And, surely, they all will work. But, as always, simple is a good place to start for a fly tyer. I have found the Ice Cream Cone, also known as the Snow Cone or Sno-Cone, to be both effective and easy to tie. The history of fly patterns is often up for debate, but credit for coming up with the Ice Cream Cone seems to go to Kamloops, B.C. guide Kelly Davidson back in 1992. There are lots of variations, but the one common identifying feature of an Ice Cream Cone is a white beadhead. Using a white bead, either metal or glass, seems to be acceptable to trout in representing the white gill filaments.
The body of the flies are often wrapped with thread or super floss, sometimes incorporating other flashy materials like flashabou, frostbite, or krystal flash for some added pop. The amount shine in the pupa body corresponds to gas that builds up in the pupa as it slowly rises through the water column. At times the chironomids will appear to have an almost chrome-like segmented appearance due to the accumulation of gases. One of Phil Rowley’s well known chironomid patterns is in fact called the Chromie.
Coating the whole fly with super glue or UV resin, though not essential, will greatly increase its durability and extend the life of the fly. You can fish Ice Cream Cones under an indicator or let them sink near the bottom and then patiently simulate the pupa slowly rising to the surface by using a slower than slow hand-twist retrieve. When fish appear to be feeding just sub-surface, club member Lane Hoffman likes to grease all of his leader except the last six inches or so, thus leaving the chironomid pupa pattern suspended just under the surface. And don’t forget to try midge pupa patterns in streams, too. Dead drifting them tied off the bend of a larger nymph can be deadly. When the trout are feeding near the surface of streams, fishing them in a dry-dropper combination can be lots of fun.
Join us at our next CFF Fly Tying Night on Wednesday, May, 29th to tie up some Ice Cream Cones. They will become an effective addition to your stillwater fishing patterns. We will be meeting at the Royal Treatment fly Fishing shop in West Linn. As always, we get underway at 6:00 pm. Hope to see you there!