Chironomids – A top fish forage
Upon the second crappie hitting the ice, one of my buddies noticed his fish spitting out small maggot like “grubs.” Over the years, I have noticed but disregarded these same little critters, in fact the more I recalled the more I remembered this scenario happening.
Curious about this forage, and being a pilgrim on the eternal quest to understand why fish do what they do, a search started for the information needed to identify and educate about these “grubs”.
I landed at The U of M Chironomidae Research Group website midge.cfans.umn.edu headed by Dr. Len Ferrington Jr., Ph.D., Professor, Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota. This site for the layman and the academic was most helpful, especially the Volunteer Stream Monitoring Interactive Verification Program used to identify aquatic insects was of particular interest.
Using the site I was able to identify the “grubs” as larvae of Chironomids, commonly called “midges,” they are a family of small flies whose larval and pupal stages are mainly aquatic. They are so diverse and widespread that they can live in most climates and a wide range of water qualities.
I contacted Dr. Ferrington late last winter. He says, “Most sport fish in Minnesota eat chironomid larvae at some point in their lives. Even fish that are carnivorous (and consume other smaller species of fish) benefit indirectly from Chironomids because many of the non-sport fishes such as minnows, chubs, darters and even young carp tend to eat large numbers of Chironomid larvae.”
He goes on to say this important key for ice anglers: “The Chironomids are not physically the largest aquatic insects available to fish in winter, but they are certainly the most abundant group. Sometimes they can be 5-50 times more abundant than the second-most abundant group of aquatic insects during winter. “
5 – 50 times more abundant! This would likely make midges the key forage in winter. The wintering larvae – as eggs would have been laid in late summer or early fall.
My mind next shifted to the age-old adage of “find the forage and you find the fish.” I wanted to narrow them down more and see what type of bottom they prefer, I did read that high organic matter was important but I questioned did they prefer high organic matter on a sandy, silty, or mud bottom? To this question Dr. Ferrington replied: “The larvae live in all three types of substrate, but tend to be more in dense silty areas with higher organic content.”
Narrowing down specific lake bottom habitat even more the Ph.D. Entomologist said: The larvae tend to be more abundant in silty areas near the deeper-water edges of beds of floating and submerged aquatic plants. However, in some lakes the increase in abundance is not very striking.
Going back to the day my buddies were putting crappies on the ice, The fish being caught were just off of the bottom in 28 fow. The fish had clearly just consumed the Chironomids and so my educated guess is they came from this depth. Then needing to know about depth distribution (location) of the larvae I asked Dr. Ferrington how midges are located across the deep water, he said: “Midges are usually not evenly distributed versus depth. In very shallow depth (1-1.5 meter) ice drag and or wave action in summer affects their abundances. At deeper depths organic matter may be more abundant but dissolved Oxygen can be reduced to the point where their abundances drop-off or they shift to species that can persist a lower dissolved Oxygen.”
I needed to know how far theses immature midges moved, Dr. Ferrington said
“ In some of our lakes there are more than 70 different types (or species). Some species stay relatively sessile and either crawl or undulate over the bottom. Other species, however, are known to periodically swim in the water column for short distances. In addition, when larvae metamorphose to pupae, the pupae then swim to the surface of the water so the adult can emerge. So, the pupal stage does actually swim through the water column in all species.”
From the website: Midges try to avoid predation by limiting their activity during daylight, and larvae and pupae take refuge in tunnels that they build in sediment.
This explains much fish activity in the lowlight periods at the end of the day. I can just imagine those “grubs” undulating over the bottom undoubtedly the fish would find them pretty quick.
Another interesting fact about midges: we now know that more than 183 species occur in the Saint Croix River from headwaters in WI to confluence w/ the Mississippi River! Several of the species have only been detected in the Saint Croix River, and some of them may be undescribed species.
In conclusion, given the abundance of Chironomids as a forage under the ice for panfish, anglers clearly need to hone in on this plentiful forage and fine tune angling location near these essentially site specific larvae. This scenario is far different than finding pelagic minnows as forage as fish are highly mobile; the Chironomid larvae on the other hand are not. Dr. Ferrington said distribution is not condensed in all lakes, he did indicate in certain lakes the larvae are more condensed or certainly more abundant on certain specific lake bottoms. Fishing in areas with high abundance of Chironomids certainly can only help angler catch rates.
Open water winter river fishing
Many anglers know about the fantastic coldwater bite that happens on the Mississippi River from St. Paul on south to the Iowa border. Most though have never taken part in this walleye and sauger scene. With the 2015 El Nino weather pattern in place providing above average temperatures this winter is an excellent for this open water fishery.
For many anglers a river is intimidating, it need not be. Here I will note basic where to and how to fish, plus safety and equipment considerations.
The United States Corps of Engineers built locks and dams on the Mississippi River to create a navigational channel for barge commerce. As the locks allow commerce to flow the dams restrict the natural migration of walleye and sauger creating a winter holding ground.
There are numerous productive techniques on the Mississippi River for catching walleye in shallow water on cast hair jigs, blade baits, and plastics. However for newfound river anglers learning about coldwater walleye – vertical jigging – by drifting with the current is the place to start.
The drift must be controlled and naturally go with the river flow. To make this happen, face forward into the flow with a bowmount electric, and allow the boat to glide with the current in this controlled manner. This is easy now that electric trolling motors are so advanced. Note – an upstream wind can slow the boat and make the lures drift downstream ahead of the boat (you are not vertical now), then you need to turn the bow into the wind.
Once boat control is achieved start to fish. As suggested before the best starting technique and most popular is vertical jigging with minnows (walleye style soft plastics are interchangeable here with minnows). A 3/8-ounce jig will do the job in the slower winter river current.
Drop the jig into the water and watch the line drop, know the depth from the depth finder, keep the lure 2” off the bottom. Any slack in the line indicates one of two things, a fish hit the lure on the fall or the jig is on the bottom. Keep the jig off the bottom through feel, and sight (slack line). Bright colored lines help enormously in seeing if the line is slack or tight.
With low flow winter conditions start the drift up near the dam in a 25 to 35-foot area and slide down stream until shallower water is reached. Note depths where fish are holding and work those areas thoroughly. Repeat productive drift passes. Because of the first class fishery on the Mississippi, it is surprising how many fish can be caught even on an angler’s first river winter outing.
Experiment with color - chartreuse, green, orange, are common jig colors. Soft plastics such as ringworms, flukes, twister tails, paddletails are productive and need not be tipped with a minnow. If they won’t touch plastics and all minnow bites continuously result in missed fish you can use a stinger hook.
There are times to be off the water for safeties sake, namely in the rising spring flood waters. Follow a few simple steps for safe open water winter fishing:
- Always wearing a proper fitting lifejacket; also fish with a partner.
- When heading upstream (into the flow) keep the red nun buoy on the right hand (starboard) side of the boat, and keep the green can buoy on the left hand (port) side of the boat. These buoys mark the main channel.
- Because of dangerous deceptive currents it is against the law to approach a dam closer than 150’ from the downstream side, and it is illegal to be within 600’ from any dam on the upstream side.
- Do not anchor in an ice flow. It is possible for flowing ice sheets, to become hung up on a boats anchor rope and sink a boat.
Do not put water in the livewell as complications with equipment can occur, simply place kept fish in the well without water, they will not spoil!
When fishing is over, you must allow water to drain out of the outboard motor by keeping it in a vertical position for a few minutes, then raise to travel. Some anglers also turn over the engine for a brief moment to expel water from the motor.
Fishermen turn heads towing water-dripping boats in the height of winter. Fishing the river some days is like shooting them in a barrel, it can be that good. Catches of several dozen walleye and sauger a day occur for many a river angler creating a warm and fuzzy feeling about this cold water winter fishery.
Fall Fishing is the best! 10 -05 -15
Just a quick note to say Fall fishing is the best. The reason I say this is the amount of techniques that can and do catch fish is at its height.
Right now and very soon as the water cools you can catch walleyes this way:
Vertical jigging. I often get asked by first time customers, about vertical jigging, they are normally expecting to fish this way. But during spring and fall I do not. In the Fall I do. Here you can use minnows and plastics.
Trolling crankbaits a year round tactic, that for some reason was poor this spring. But the last two months have put fish in the boat. Original Raps will come into play as the water cools.
Rigging will catch fish in the fall.
Jigging Rap. These very fun baits work, there is now a SnapRap style that glides more…
Blade baits. Yep.
Plastics as mentioned above, are the most fun as so many kinds of plastics work. Also the colors, I am normally not a huge color guy, but for plastics color does matter a lot. This is an area I at times need to remember. Look at my color “tip” on my tip page for details.
Also in the fall the walleye and sauger seem to be not far away from the bait pods. I talk about that a lot so that should be no news to you. Try something new and give it a shot. You are fishing for fun, so what do you have to loose?
All the best!
Each year on the St. Croix I see less and less sauger, or for that matter white bass too. Also now I am seeing sunfish and perch become much more abundant. I have guided for 17 seasons and the white bass used to be so thick that at times they were really a nuisance (fun problem to have!). Saugers were also much bigger and more abundant.
Sunfish were never in the places they are now and perch was a rare catch.
I feel you can catch sunfish and perch in any lake, I wish the true river species, the hallmark of the river – saugers and white bass would some how start to heavily populate the St. Croix again.
Low water levels
What a difference a year makes. Last year the flow and water level was very high – this year the opposite. I do like that aspect of river fishing, it keeps you guessing. Then after a while you can develop a bit of fish sense and get a feel for where the fish might be based on water levels and flow. This river sense is rewarding when you get it right. Then on other days you can only scratch your head and wonder where they are?
The low water very well might cause the walleye to leave the spawning grounds much faster – as I believe heavy flow keeps them near the spawning grounds longer. So with the low flow they could be gone soon after opener. My theory will be tested, by up coming fishing trips, and I will report back and let you know.
Talking about jigging here, a good jig bite is about as much fun as you can have. I find the bite the most fun when they will rob you but yet you can still catch fish! Guys in the boat hoot and howl about missing fish or getting robbed! It is fun when minutes later they set the the hook and say “got one.”
Early Spring thoughts.
When the light snow rolls over your bow in January and the water is in the mid 30′s it is amazing when you get a violent strike on your jig. The cold air and water makes the bite all the more surprising. No matter that I have been floating my boat on this fishery for a long time, it is still surprising that the fish hit in the frigid water. .. But then the water warms and the weather is nice, fishing now is easy to get your head around.
As the calendar of March comes to an end the bite changes with the warming water and high flow that the river receives from snow melt. Most years the water rises that is, because as you are aware the snow cover of last winter was very slight and in fact the river is lower than any other time I can remember for mid April.
Because the water is low this spring season the “flow reading” for current seams and fishing these current seams has been absent. Since the flow never increased many of the best catches have been in the spots fished in late winter, places I fish in the March 1 and earlier time frame.
Late April marks the time frame that trolling is highly productive as the water reaches the low 50s. This is another yearly surprise to me that the fish will hit trolled lures when the water is cool. Maybe it is a surprise (even though I know they will hit the lures) since I learned to troll in the heat of the summer, and trolling crankbaits is a summer technique to me. I do troll from opener on on the St. Croix of course but trolling in April is non conventional.
The fun part is that jig fishing will still work. So at the same time anglers are trolling they are also jigging and both catching fish. This is a good reminder that fish even during the cooler water temps do not necessarily prefer one technique over the other.
Charlie “Turk” Gierke
My guide service uses these highly specialized river rigs for walleye on the Mississippi:
Vertical jig with bait
Vertical jig with plastics (
such as ringworms, paddle tails, fork tail, etc.
Dubuque rig vertical jigged
This rig is a walleye slayer with both a jig and a long leader to a plain hook, here we use a combo of plastics and bait or both bait or both plastics.
Drag the above three presentations upstream or downstream
Dragging is absolutely deadly and it is one of my best presentations I employ in my guide boat to put customers on fish
Troll floating Rapalas on a 3-way rig
This set up is normally later in late winter early spring such as March. This trolling is best when the current starts to flow fast again and water tmps rise. The fish fight like whales against the flow here and it is a blast to get them the net.
Pitch (cast) Jigs with plastics
Lunker sized fish tactic. 8, 9, and 10+ pound fish are caught this way
Pitch blade baits
Lunker sized fish tactic. 8, 9, and 10+ pound fish are caught this way