Chironomids 101: 20 Tips to Tying a Better Chironomid Pupa Imitation

Updated: Mar 6

Fly tying is a skilled art and is an ongoing learning experience that can take many years to become exceedingly good at. Like anything there is almost always room for improvement and we can all usually learn a thing or two from others who have put their time and efforts into perfecting a certain skill set. So I thought with it being mid winter and so many people out there busy re-stocking their fly boxes for spring ice off to make our second installment of our Chironomids 101 series not so much about fishing them but preparing and tying them to a higher standard which also coincidentally fit's in perfectly with our first and previous installment "Choosing the Right Chironomid".

It is without any doubt, Chironomids (non-biting midges) in their pupal state are the primary food source sought out by our local trout here in the Interior region of British Columbia. In the nutrient rich still waters where Chironomids thrive in mass abundance, it is no surprise that the incredibly vulnerable Pupae alone can total nearly half of a trout and char's annual diet. While our local waters boast an exceptional aquatic invertebrate biodiversity, the overall effectiveness of fly fishing chironomid pupae imitations will often far outweigh the rest, with a success rate on average, second to none, especially during their peak season. Learning to fly fish chironomids, study them and tie productive patterns can no doubt yield exceptional results whether it be on our own local stillwaters, streams or your own local waters, wherever you may live, if they are present.

With the BC interior regarded as a top notch world class lake fly fishing destination, much in part due to the exceptional chironomid fishing and Kamloops alone being the very epicenter of it all, we've put it altogether on the front lines for many years now spending the vast majority of our free time on the water diligently studying the ins and outs of the Stillwater fly fishing world. If there's one thing we know and know very well, it's fly fishing chironomids for trout on our BC interior waters and with that being said we'd like to assist others in shortening the learning curve to tying some highly effective patterns to simply get you into more fish!

Fly tying is a skilled art and is an ongoing learning experience that can take many years to become exceedingly good at and perhaps never fully master. Like anything there is almost always room for improvement and we can all usually learn a thing or two from others who have put their time and efforts into perfecting a certain skill set. I may lack in many areas but preparing and tying Chironomid fly patterns to a higher standard is one thing I have dedicated much time to and am eager and excited to share my aquired knowledge and findings here with the great community of readers of Fly Tyer magazine! So let's get to it!

Chironomids can be super easy to tie and some of the most satisfying, rewarding and simplest flys out there to twist on a vice and are also the perfect introduction to fly tying for beginners. I have had many days of catching many fish on patterns that encorpoate simply tying a bead one color thread and one wire onto a hook. But it doesn't stop there. With literally thousands of differnt varieties of Chrionomids the options are limitless. There are a multitude of styles, some very basic and those more complex. I believe that with just a little direction anyone can shorten their learning curve immensely and be tying these like a pro in no time by just strictly following a very basic set of general guidelines. If you don’t tie chironomids this may also help you learn what to look for in chironomids when purchasing them for yourself from any fly shops or custom fly tyers. So I compiled together a very basic list of simple things one can do to improve the aesthetic quality of their Chironomid imitations.

First of all...To each their is in the eye of the beholder, what I might consider a perfect tie or flawless chironomid to another person may not be or vice versa. I don’t profess to be the guru of Chironomid tying, however over the years I found myself going from taking notes to becoming more of a critic to even many of those I once learned from. Don’t get me wrong I appreciate every individual style and efforts, ideas and creativity put forward by all fly tyers and love to share both encouragement and positive feedback to all and to be fair have always been my very own worst critic. For me, my flys have never been good enough, they must always meet a high set of standards or expectations that even I myself can’t always seem to make work on a hook and that for me has always been the most frustrating part of learning but also the key to improving my skill set to the next level, I am always striving for perfection and I believe if you do the same you too will soon find yourself tying better flys.

Do those tied with more effort produce more fish? Some would say they don’t however I would disagree with them, it is a topic that is up for debate, I have not done any real scientific studies to confirm my beliefs but it is my own personal opinion based on my own personal experiences that they do indeed catch more fish. While not nearly as important as color, size, depth and location I feel far more confident fishing chironomids tied by me now than those tied in my first few years of fly tying and I have seen a significant increase of productivity on the water using the latter. One thing is for certain, they are more aesthetically pleasing to my own eyes and look more professional and that for me is enough to strive for as it is a huge part of the appeal of tying your own flys.

Here‘s 20 Basic Tips to improving your Chironomid Pupa Fly’s ...

1) Seven “Ribs“ (8 “Segments“)

Easily the most important tip of the twenty...A chironomid with 5 or 9 ribs just looks unnatural! All Natural Chironomids have Seven “ribs” (=8 segmentations). ALWAYS. To replicate the naturals 7 ribs is the magic number to strive for. Being one off is not a huge deal either be it 6 or 8. Any more is less is not ideal. While the fish can’t count, it is really not a difficult task and therefor why have it any other way? You can always go back and undo the wraps if the proportions are wrong. I have been counting ribs/ segments for years now and for me personally any more or less just doesn't cut it.

2) Smooth Taper...Taper, Taper!

All Natural chironomids are tapered to varying degrees, but always being skinniest at the rear butt section and widening out towards the head. This should be a smooth transition free of lumps or bumps. I never tie in additional materials at the back or middle of the fly as it only adds more bulk to a given area and makes a smooth bodied fly more difficult, tie everything in at the front behind your bead and work back without skipping. If you "skip" areas when building your fly body and are all over the place with your thread it makes it very difficult to maintain that smooth body taper.

3) Slender Profile

While Natural Chironomids vary slighlty in size from skinny to fat. Try to keep the body a slimmer more slender profile. This can be acchieved by using the suitable size materials to the appropriate hook size ( As an example using a medium diameter wire on a size 16 is just far too large). For whatever reason slim profile chironomids tend to fish better than fatter ones, at least in my own experience. Using threads like UTC 70 is an excellent choice for building the body shape as it tends to lay flat opposed to other threads and is of thinner density helping reduce bulk. note: it is still good to have an assortment of fat chironomids on hand!

4) Lose the Big Head

Chironomids don’t have giant massive heads, so why do so many people tie them that way? I tend to disagree with what seems to have become the industry standard. They will catch, there’s no doubt about it but for a better look try tying in a more realistic approach to bead size to hook. If you are worried about getting the fly into "the zone" quickly try using lead tape for the underbody or tungsten beads, though brass will do just fine. The bigger the bead the fatter your chironomid becomes trying to maintain that taper that blends nicely toward the bead, OR you end up with a bead that sits out proud of it's body. Think of putting a scoop of ice cream into a waffle cone, the bead should sit inside the cone not overhang far off it's edges. I have had some question and criticize the sizes of beads I have used on some my chironomids, like using a 5/64th bead on a size 12 scud hook for example, and you'll most certainly never see me tie a chironomid using a 1/8 bead, they are just too big for any size hook I tie on for my liking. In fact I rarely will use 7/64th's unless I'm tying what we call "Bomber-Size" patterns. There is no real right or wrong, In general, if it fits on the hook shank and looks good...then it's all good! Period.

5) Tie more realistic color patterns

While we all love those holographic tinsels and thinking outside the box experimenting with new patterns, If it is an un-natural color scheme it is unlikely to be a solid consistent producer. I am not saying you won’t have a good day fishing a pink, purple or blue chironomid or come out on top when the going gets tough but when the fish are keyed into a hatch, these patterns next to the ascending Chrome gassed-up patterns and natural browns, greys, greens etc etc will undoubtedly pale in comparison on most of occasions. Save the weird and eccentric for the days that nothing else seems to work. The more natural looking the pattern the better odds of hooking the bigger wiser fish.

6) Overlap your Materials

Burn it into your brain now and you'll always do it right.It will become second nature to you when tying. By doing a very slight overlap with each wrap of material onto the previous we can eliminate any possible gaps between wraps showing or revealing the underlying materials or thread. This not only creates solid consitency but also helps develop proper taper and further materials from getting caught in between. Seeing underlying thread where it isn't wanted stands out like a sore thumb and doesn't create pleasing aesthetics.

7) Counterwrap your wire

By counter-wrapping your tinsel or whatever material in the opposite direction of the previous material it not only makes for a fly that is longer lasting and can prevent unfurling of the material beneath after catching multiple fish but also prevents wires, threads, floss etc from digging in between the tying material used which can also in turn slide that material forward or backward from where you had it sitting. If there is any possible gaps for the wire to slip and dig in, it will, instead of sitting on top and pushing the materials down nice and snug.

8) Give 'em a Haircut!

NEVER do Natural chironomids have excessively long gills. When tying in white gill materials try keeping them to about the length of the bead maybe slightly more or slightly less. Two or three times again just looks very unnatural and could give fish a reason to snub your offering. I always use the hook eye as my guide and always cut my gills off flush or just slightly beyond of the outside edge of the eyelet. If your are using Uni-Stretch which is my preferred gill material dont pull on it as you cut, it will shrink back on you!

9) Peek-a-Boo

Often when people tie in their gill material they end up creating too much bulk securing it down and the bead won’t slip all the way forward to the hook eye or pushes thread forward and bunches it all up leaving thread exposed in front of the bead. You can see it poking it’s ugly head out. Try using less but tight wraps and using materials like Uni-stretch is an Excellent choice as it is an expansive material meaning you can tie it in small and it will expand or fluff out much bigger in front of where it is tied and creates a very realistic look with minimal bulk. You can also seperate the uni-stretch to smaller strands to accomodate smaller flys and again UTC 70 is great in conjuction to this to miminize that bulk.

10) Less is More...

Appropriate size materials...

Back to what I was saying about "losing the big head", the biggest error I see in many new tyers is choice of materials they put on the inappropriately sized hooks. They may go to the local fly shop and buy a variety of hooks, beads, wires and start tying not knowing the bead or wire is too big for the hook. When tying chironomids as a general rule NEVER use wire any bigger than XS or Small unless your are tying Huge Bomber size chironomids (like a size 10 2x Hook for example). Smaller flys = smaller hooks, beads, wires, tinsels etc etc. As the Fly get's bigger and you jump a couple hook sizes than you can begin to upsize the materials. Just use your better judgment based on the real naturals.

11) Easy on the Glue

Something I used to be guilty of quite often is ruining a great looking chironomid at the last step. We all like a strong durable chironomid that will hold together and last a hundred fish. But big visible globs all over the fly doesn’t exactly make for a sharp looking chironomid. The thicker the conistency the easier it is to do. Old bottles can also thicken overtime and leave your fly looking pretty rough. Using a coating of thinner consistency can also help reduce or eliminate this considerably. You can always apply multiple coats if neccesary but don't get carried away. There is a fine line between both as you certainly don’t want a fly that comes apart after a single fish or two. I am a big fan of using thin UV resins for my chironomids and would recoommned the same. The wrong choice of glue can also leave undesirable effects such as crazy glue which can turn white after it dries or is handled.

12) Keep 'em Consistent

Don‘t tie too short or too far back and try to tie to the same stopping points on all your flys. The fish don’t seem notice how far back or short you tie but utilize the hook length appropriately. There’s no point buying a multitude of different hook sizes if you can’t keep the lengths consistent. The whole point is to be able to switch from one size to another on the water as needed. As a general rule on scud hooks I like to tie back until my thread is at about a 45 degree angle away from my hook point and use this as my stopping point. On curved nymph hooks I don’t go quite as far back as the hook gap is smaller and shorter and I like to keep my materials away from the part of the hook that will doing the puncturing when out fishing. But also, it is worth noting that size 20-18 hooks for chironomids can be of fairly weak wire for any trophy fish you may hook into, you can always short tie on a 16 stopping further ahead for better strength and durability.

13) Operation

Not always an easy task but when cutting off your thread or material at the body of the fly try getting in as close as possible. A good pair of scissors, good eye and a steady hand is crucial. Nothing makes a well tied fly look amateur faster than a big lumpy tag exposed through the collar behind the bead where you cut your material or thread out. Any UV resins or glue only make this tag look even more pronounced. Also, breaking wire out behind the bead by means of twisting in a circular motion while pulling eliminates the need to trim wire with clippers which will leave a bump that difficult to hide behind your bead. Razor blades can aid in those diffuclt situation but be warned they are also very easy to cut more than you bargained for.

14) Spacing And Sizing your Segmentations

Another one of the most crucial tips I can give is proper sizing and spacing of your segments and ribbing and also one of the most difficult things to achieve when tying chironomids that don’t utilize wire ribbing (for example spacing window tinting or tinsel to imitate the segments). One of the most undesirable features of any fly is unevenly spaced segments or those irregularly disproportioned. Everything should look uniform. Also, when creating the indented “ribbed” segments without the use or wire, floss, tubing etc between the ”armor-plates” (as i call them) use the appropriate width of material so that when you wrap forward to create the ribs they should be smaller than the plates. Ribs and Plates should not be the same size. The ribbing should be approximately half the size or less. This problem can be fixed by just changing the width of the wrap you are using. Keep in mind the last segment or two at the rear tend to be a bit smaller as they are situated at the thinnest and smallest area of the fly and tend to get wider towards the front of the fly, this is why when hand cutting materials such as tinting or anti-static bag I will generally cut my strips unevenly in a tapered "V".

15) Blend those threads

Working with acetate floss was a pain, Blending threads is taking over. It is no new thing but becoming increasingly popular among the online stillwater community. While any red butt chironomid that mimics the still present hemoglobin from it's prior larval state is surely a bonafide trout slayer, one where the transition between two different colours are carefully blended into each other is just that much better as it better replicates the majority of Natural specimens you will encounter. Not all, but in most cases there shouldn't be a clearly distinct stopping point in threads between where each color meets and ends. A well blended chironomid looks to be ten times more realistic than that which are not. Keep in mind certain threads that lay flat like UTC and are much easier to achieve the desired look VS round threads like UNI-thread. Also as a general tip, you can spin your thread counterclockwise to open it up more making it thin out when laying it down which makes blending that much easier.

14) Keep the Thorax or “Collar“ short

During the last step of tying your fly, when tying in the thorax or ”collar” as I like to call it, in behind the bead-head, the part that holds all your materials in good and firm don’t get carried away making it too long, keep it short without using too many wraps or whip finishes. It is easy to get carried away wanting everything to be secure, 2 whip finishes is plenty with the proper glue/coating. In most instances I generally try to keep the length no more than half the length of the bead. This makes for a neater fly.

15) Wing case

Increasingly growing in popularity is the addition of a strong and realistic imitation of a wing case added into the pattern. This is one of the most difficult features to achive properly on a chironomid and though I've never had a problem catching fish on patterns where a well defined wing case wasn't present at all and find it unnessary. They look great! Using a wide variety of materials such as goose biot, saddle hackle, an orange candy wrapper, holographic tinsel’s, buzzer wrap etc to imitate a strong wing case only adds to the look of a exceptionally great chironomid imitation and like a hotspot, I'm sure can add to the enticement for a fish. Always try to keep them less than half of the way down the body as any further and it does not replicate the naturals accuately.

16) White beads are Gills

White beads are a great substitute for tying in gill materials. It saves time especially when tying in bulk and they certainly do catch fish. I personally prefer and have more confidence in hand tying in gills using materials such as uni-stretch however I know plenty of guys that fish them succesfully all the time. One thing that I see often is people will tie in white gill materials and then slip a white bead behind it. No harm done, I‘m sure they will fish, but it is just not necessary as the white bead is already the representation of the white gills on the chironomid and to me just looks wrong. I recommend using one or the other. Also, white beads are great for algae blooms where algae can absorb into fabric gills or standing out in those tea stained or murky waters.

17) Peacock Herl - The Trout Magnet

This is a bit old school and not the most durable of materials, but for the sake of tying a chironomid imitation that produces fish exceedingly great above many others it must be said that the addition of a peacock herl thorax can make an already good pattern absolutely great. The magnetic power of a little peacock herl is deeply underestimated and overlooked by many. I don't know what it is about this stuff, but the Iridescence of the feathers seems to drive trout crazy! Don't believe me?...try and see for yourself! *Also, as an added bonus tip* try stripping the herl of it's fibers and using the main stem as a body material (another bonafide killer!) which gives a look similar to a synthetic quill material and a very realistic looking chironomid.

18) Tie Wire inline

Many don’t realize this but if you do not keep your wire in line along the hook shank every discrepancy will show through or multiply when adding materials overtop. You may think it is being covered but it's shape will often show through as you build upon it. It doesn't really matter much whether it's on top, below, left or right as long as it's following the shank without wandering. I always tie my wire down in place along the side of the hook starting behind the bead and watch diligently that it doesn't wander. Also, in many cases it is a general good practice to stop short of the butt of the fly and wrap behind the wire with your body segment material as the 1st rib never starts at the tip/ or butt section of the fly rather after the 1st segment.

19) UV Glue before wrapping wire with a tinsel on tinsel body.

You may have found when wrapping any tinsel type material over another such as window tint or holorgaphic tinsel, it tends to be slippery and want to slide around and getting proper or desired placements can be difficult especially when approaching the front of the hook where the body taper tends to widen. It almost always wants to slip backward on any bit of taper. The difficulty increases greatly when also incorporating wire in conjunction with both. Double Ribs were notorious for getting the best of me until I found a way to remedy this by using a little UV resin to glue the tinsel’s in place prior to moving forward with the wire. . Without doing so the wire can start to slide your segments around and be very frustrating. Or another method is wrapping the wire first then to use the wire as the tinsels guide so that when it trys to slip back it has to stop against each wire rib and cant go any further maintaing the appropriate spacing

20) Parting your gills

For the tyers looking to go the extra mile, If you ever look closely at chironomid naturals you may have noticed it's gills are split to both sides of its head. By parting your gills and securing in criss cross fashion you can achieve a more realistic look as well as keep the hook eye free of any material that can otherwise make tying your fly on slightly more difficult. I do this sometimes on larger sized chironomids. If the bead hole is too small this will not work as it will push each side back together when you slide the bead forward. The gills will need adequate room inside the bead to sit freely as you intended. Also, as added feature you can try tying in the same material in a very subtle fashion to the butt of the fly as you will find this also on many of the naturals you encounter on the water.

In conclusion, We hope this article has been informative and helpful in reducing the learning curve many tyers face. If you follow even half of these tips your well on your way to mastering the art of tying Chironomids!

***This article has been slightly modified and "22 Tips for tying Better Chironomids"

is now a major feature in the Spring 2021 Issue of FLY TYER MAGAZINE... the Worlds Largest Publication dedicated to the art of Fly Tying and 4th largest Fly Fishing Magazine in North America. *** PLEASE SUPPORT THEM BY SUBSCRIBING TO THEIR MAGAZINE AND FOLLOWING THEM ON SOCIAL MEDIA SUCH AS INSTAGRAM AND FACEBOOK!

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