Fly Tying Fundamentals: The Zebra Midge Fly Tying Tutorial

Upon first glance, especially to a new fly angler or tyer the Zebra Midge may appear to be an insignificant fly. Indeed, its simplistic appearance can be quite deceiving, until you consider the role chironomidae play in every habitable freshwater environment world-wide. Although small in size, the chironomid larva which the Zebra Midge imitates, play a major role in the diet of trout throughout the year. At times they occur with such abundance that not having them in your fly box may mean the difference between a fruitful outing or just getting your line wet.

Click to jump down to the step by step fly tying instructions.

The Zebra Midge, and its myriad derivative incarnations have become staples for countless fly anglers across the country. I personally tie hundreds of them annually. I enjoy tying these tiny, and not so tiny, morsels because they’re quick, I know they will catch trout around the country and they help me to refresh my thread handling skills. Getting the body taper on a size 24 can be tricky if it’s been a while since my last attempt. For this reason, I find the Zebra Midge to be a great pattern to start new tyers and anglers with. As a tying pattern it helps new tyers understand some of the complexities of thread handling. As an angler the Zebra Midge is one of the easiest patterns to fish, but that’s a line of thought for another time. For now, let’s focus on tying.

The Zebra Midge was originated by Ted Wellings, a guide on the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry Arizona in 1996, or so the story goes. It’s where I was introduced to the original black and silver version, and became an immediate fan. Over the years the original idea has been adapted in every conceivable color and size to match the larvae of various chironomid species across the country.

The most popular colors across the country are black, red and olive but each tailwater, freestone river and stillwater has a particular color that produces best ranging from black-the workhorse of midges-to wild colors like purple and chartreuse. Traditionally tied with a tungsten bead they can also be tied with brass or glass beads depending on how fast it’s intended to sink and how much flash is desired.

ZebraMidge_Group
A group of Zebra Midges in the three most commonly used colors in sizes 12, 16 and 20.

As for size the majority of waters can be covered by tying Zebra Midges in the size 20 to 14 range. But that’s just a guideline. Chironomid larvae range in size from 1mm to 3/4″ in length depending on location and species. In general, tailwaters and freestone rivers are home to the smallest species of chironomidae while stillwaters are home to the largest.

The tying photos provided here depict a fly very close to the original though like any creative tyer I have settled into my own personal groove with the Zebra Midge. The recipe is provided in three colors schemes with the black version being depicted in the tying photos. Because chironomid larvae occur in such a wide range of sizes I’ve also provided a chart which lists matched hook, bead, thread and wire sizes.

These three pairs of beads show the larger hole (left) drilled into the backside of the beads during the manufacturing process. Always place the bead on the hook by running the hook point through the small hole in the bead.
These three pairs of beads show the larger hole (left) drilled into the backside of the beads during the manufacturing process. Always place the bead on the hook by running the hook point through the small hole in the bead.

Of the five thread brands I regularly use for varying applications UTC is my preferred thread for tying midges.

The three properties that make it preferred are:

  1. How easy it is to control the twist
  2. It is very lightly waxed
  3. Individual thread filaments are extremely fine

Combined, these properties make it easy to create the desired smooth, tapered body. I also find the colors to be quite vibrant making the finished fly more colorful once the finish coat has been applied.

These colors, Rusty Brown, Dark Brown, Blue Dun, Red, Purple and Black are just a few of the colors Zebra Midges can be tied in to catch trout across North America.
These colors, Rusty Brown, Dark Brown, Blue Dun, Red, Purple and Black are just a few of the colors Zebra Midges can be tied in to catch trout across North America.

The Zebra Midge Recipe

Hook: Tiemco 2488, size 10-24
Bead: Spirit River Brite Beads
Body: UTC Ultra Thread, sized to chart
Rib: UTC Ultra Wire, Sized to chart

Color Variations

Fly Color Bead Thread Wire
Black Black Nickle Black Silver
Red Gold Red Gold
Olive Copper Olive Copper
Hook Size    Bead Size Wire Size Thread Size
10-12 2.8 mm-7/64” Small 210 Denier
14-16 2.3 mm- 3/32” Small 140 Denier
18-20 2.0 mm- 5/64” X-small 70 Denier
22-24 1.5mm- 1/16” X-small 70 Denier
Even big trout like this one which was plucked from the Guadalupe River in Texas eat Zebra Midges. Because of their abundance, trout will take up feeding positions beside current seams and pick off the tiny morsels as they drift by.
Even big trout like this one which was plucked from the Guadalupe River in Texas eat Zebra Midges. Because of their abundance, trout will take up feeding positions beside current seams and pick off the tiny morsels as they drift by.

Written by John E Wood

John E Wood is a lifelong angler, avid fly tyer/designer, freelance writer and photographer whose articles regularly appear in Southwest Fly Fishing magazine. Visit my website here.


Zebra Midge Fly Tying Instructions Step By Step:

ZebraMidge_ Step 1

Step 1: Slide the bead onto the hook. Put the point of the hook through the side of the bead with the small hole. Using hemostats or tweezers will help you to handle small hook more easily.

ZebraMidge_ Step 2

Step 2: Place the hook in the vise so the center of the curved hook shank is level with your tying bench.

ZebraMidge_ Step 3

Step 3: Start the thread by holding the loose end of the tying thread in your left hand (for right-handed tyers) below the hook shank and on the tyer side of the hook. With the bobbin in your right hand wind the thread around the hook shank immediately behind the bead making two (2) full wraps forward.

ZebraMidge_ Step 4

Step 4: Maintaining tension on the loose end of the tying thread make successive wraps backward over the first two thread wraps. Cover a section of the hook shank equal to the width of the bead. Trim the loose end of the tying thread as close to the thread wraps as possible.

ZebraMidge_ Step 5

Step 5: Wind the tying thread forward to immediately behind the bead. Place the end of the ribbing wire inside the back of the bead but not so far it comes out the front of the bead. This keeps the wire from fraying the tying thread while wrapping the body near the head or during the whip-finish.

ZebraMidge_ Step 6
Step 6: Secure the wire to the top of the hook shank then allow it to slide to the back side of the hook shank as you continue to wrap backward to form the base layer of thread for the body. At this point, think of the tying thread as a twisted ribbon of filaments.

**NOTE: When thread is manufactured the individual thread filaments are twisted together as the full diameter thread is wound onto the spool. The thread is thus formed into a rounded, or oval, group of filaments.

ZebraMidge_ Step 7

Step 7: At this point let the thread bobbin hang and spin it counter-clockwise (looking down on the bobbin) to remove the manufacturing twist in the thread. This will allow the thread filaments to separate into a flat ribbon of filaments. By doing this you are then able to lay a smooth layer of thread onto the hook shank. Notice the thread filaments have separated slightly. We will do this again later.

ZebraMidge_ Step 8

Step 8: With the manufacturing twist removed from the thread continue wrapping the thread onto the hook shank, in slightly overlapping turns, back to the point shown in the photo. By maintaining slight pressure on the ribbing wire keep it positioned on the far side of the hook shank. Notice the thread has reformed a solid ribbon with a few twists. This is because, as you wind the thread onto the hook it restores the thread twist. This is something to keep in mind when working with fine threads as a fine diameter thread with too much twist can break under the tension of the twist.

ZebraMidge_ Step 9
Step 9: Now wind the thread back up the hook shank to immediately behind the bead. Notice that by the time the thread is wound back to the front of the fly the twist has returned. If you find the fly looks “lumpy” as you wind the thread forward simply stop and spin the bobbin counter-clockwise again to remove the twist. At this point the body of the fly is fairly even from head to tail.

**NOTE: Observe carefully and you will notice, when you reach the bead with the tying thread a few thread wraps will slip under the bead filling the gap created by the hole drilled into the bead. Allow this to happen but do not overfill the gap.

ZebraMidge_ Step 10
Step 10: Time to build the taper. Spin the bobbin counter-clockwise again to remove the twist from the thread. Then wind the thread back about halfway down the body. Make sure the thread filaments are separated enough to avoid building bulk at this point. If the thread is still twisted spin the bobbin a few more turns counter-clockwise. This will keep successive thread wraps from creating a lump in the body of the fly at the point where the thread is wound forward again.

**NOTE: If the bobbin is spun too many times in the counter-clockwise direction the thread will begin to re-twist in the opposite direction. If you feel this has happened let the bobbin hang, steady it and see which direction it wants to rotate on its own. If the bobbin rotates in clockwise the bobbin has been overspun.

ZebraMidge_Step 11

Step 11: As you begin to wind the thread forward the thread will again twist and add inherent bulk to the wraps. Continue making slightly overlapping wraps until a smooth taper is built all the way forward except for a very small space immediately behind the bead. This space will accommodate the rib wire in the next step. Let the thread bobbin hang there.

ZebraMidge_ Step 12

Step 12: Wrap the rib wire forward forming seven (7) full wraps ending the last wrap on the back side of the fly, immediately behind the bead. Ideally the wraps will be slightly wider as you progress from back to front on the body of the fly. Make one additional half-wrap of wire rib immediately behind the bead stopping at the top of the fly.

ZebraMidge_ Step 13

Step 13: Make two tight thread wraps behind the rib wire pulling the thread snugly toward the bead with each wrap. This will force the wire under the edge of the bead and help to hold it securely in place in the next step.

ZebraMidge_ Step 14

Step 14: Now make 3-4 very tight thread wraps between the bead and the rib wire. This effectively locks the rib wire into place so that it can be easily broken.

ZebraMidge_ Step 15

Step 15: Grab the wire and move it back and forth from front to back along the axis of the hook shank while pulling downward on the thread bobbin. This will cause the wire to break at the point where it emerges from under the tying thread. This allows you to avoid cutting the wire with scissors which wears them out prematurely.

ZebraMidge_ Step 16

Step 16: After breaking the tag end of the rib wire cover the exposed wire end and build a tapered transition between the body of the fly and the bead. Don’t get carried away, a small taper will do.

ZebraMidge_ Step 17

Step 17: Whip-finish the fly with a 3-4 wrap whip-finish immediately behind the bead.

ZebraMidge_ Step 18
Step 18: Apply a very light coat of a finish like Loon Hard Head Clear or Loon UV clear Fly Finish Flow.

**NOTE: Coating the fly will reduce the chance of damage to the fly when it scrapes across the teeth of a trout. The most frequent damage occurs when a tooth hangs on the wire rib and breaks or causes the wire rib to slide out-of-place on the fly.

Midge Larvae.JPG
Midge larvae are abundant in nearly every inhabitable body of freshwater in the world. On close examination this larvae covered piece of moss shows how important midges are as food for trout.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s