How to fish buzzers for trout

Learning how to fish buzzers for trout will mean you can catch fish any time, any place, anywhere, as these ubiquitous insects and their larvae are the staple diet of trout.

How to fish buzzers for trout
© Curtis Fry, Creative Commons
How to fish buzzers for trout
Picture copyright © Curtis Fry, Creative Commons
How to fish buzzers for trout
Fly fishing tips Estimated reading time 11 - 18 minutes

What are buzzers?

Buzzers are tiny insects also known as chironomids. This family of non-biting midges are found across the world and closely resemble mosquitoes in their buzzing flying patterns. They also make a quiet buzzing sound when hovering within earshot - hence their common name. Elsewhere in the world these tiny insects are just known as chironomids and it's mainly in the UK that they're called buzzers.

Are buzzers aquatic insects or terrestrials?

They're aquatic insects. Like mosquitoes, chironomids have aquatic larvae so they're very common around freshwaters, especially still waters. They're also extremely abundant and they form a major component of the diet of many fish, especially trout, at most stages of their life cycle.

If you use a marrow spoon to examine the contents of a dead trout buzzers are usually the first thing you'll find in the gut contents.

What is the lifecycle of a buzzer?

The buzzer or chironomid midge has four main stages to its life cycle: larvae, pupae, emerger and adult. The life stages occur throughout the year, and fly fishers have tied patterns to imitate each one, so it's always worth having a selection in your fly box. The trick to becoming successful when fishing buzzers for trout is to work out which stage of the buzzer life cycle the trout are feeding upon at a particular time of the day or year.

Adult buzzer: The adult midge lays about 3000 eggs (depending on the species) which sink to the bottom and hatch after a week or so. As the adults land on the surface to lay their eggs they become food for fish, such as trout. They're tiny insects - typically 5mm or less in size - and are therefore most effectively imitated by tiny midge flies in size 18-24. Black, white and grey are the most effective colours to use. Like many other aquatic insects, chironomid midges only live for a few days - the majority of their life is spent underwater.

Buzzer larvae: The eggs hatch into larvae which burrow into the mud and construct tubes in which they live. They feed on suspended organic material in the water and often take on a pinkish or reddish colour, especially in the bloodworm variety. They range in size from 0.5-20 mm in length and come in various colours from olive brown, to red and black. They don't move much apart from the odd wiggle and are typically associated with the substrate. While trout don't have a reputation for grubbing around in the bottom debris to find food, stomach content analyses have shown that they do feed on buzzers at this stage of their life cycle.

Buzzer pupae: After anywhere from two to seven weeks, depending on the water temperature and the species, the larval chironomid starts to pupate. Pupation takes place while still within the tube the larvae constructed. The pupae have various extra appendages and breathing apparatus and after a few days start to migrate to the surface, swimming actively and enticingly as they go. It's this stage that the trout find most appealing and it is this pupal phase that most buzzer patterns imitate.

Buzzer emerger: The emerger is a pupae that has reached the water surface without being snaffled by a trout. When they reach the surface they wriggle about as they attempt to break out of their skin and punch through the surface film to hatch into an adult flying midge. It can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours for a pupal buzzer to go from the bottom to the air. When these migrations and hatches occur you'll often see trout rising to take the emergers, or tailing or breaking the surface with their fins as they take emergers trying to make it to the top. Emergers are imitated by various flies including Suspender Buzzers, Shuttlecock Buzzers and Shipman's Buzzers.

How can I tell the depth at which the trout are feeding?

The easiest way to tell is by looking at their rise forms - the patterns they make on the water surface when they take their prey. Splashy rises that let you see the mouth of the trout indicate that they are feeding on emergers that are breaking the surface tension to hatch as adults, or adults that are laying their eggs on the water surface.

If you spot dorsal fins and tails breaking the surface, that's generally a sign that the trout are feeding a foot or so beneath the surface. Fish don't have brakes so when they take prey beneath the surface they'll sometimes break the surface with their dorsal fin or tail fin as they make their way back down.

Softer, swirly rises with little splashing suggest the trout are taking buzzers further down, or perhaps taking buzzers on their way to the top. If there are no rise patterns at all, they'll probably be taking larvae or pupae in deeper water - but you won't be able to see any rise patterns at such depths.

Buzzers are one of the most simple fly patterns to tie and are characterised by their sparseness. Picture copyright © Mak Flies.

Why are buzzers tied so sparsely?

Sparseness is a key trait of most buzzer patterns. Some of them barely look much more than a hook with a colourful shank. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, they closely imitate the actual insect larvae, which looks pretty close to most buzzer patterns. Secondly, they're tied sparsely on heavy hooks and coated with epoxy resins so they sink quickly - as buzzers are commonly found over deep water, as well as in the shallows. Bulkier patterns would take longer to drop to the right depth, so a layer of epoxy and a heavy hook helps get them to the right depth far faster.

How big do buzzers grow?

It depends on the species. There are thought to be over 20,000 species of midge in the Chironomidae family and obviously not all have been named or identified yet, and probably never will be. Chironomid midges range in size from 1-20 mm in length and have narrow bodies and long legs when adult. Their larvae range in size from about 5-15 mm, with the species found in the UK being rather larger than those of the US. As a result, the hooks used on UK buzzers for trout tend to be mainly size 10 or 12, while in the US they're more typically 12, 14 or 16.

At what time of the year are buzzers most abundant?

Buzzers can be found at any time of the year and you can even get hatches in very cold winter weather. You could quite easily fish buzzers for trout all year round and catch fish. Therefore, if you learn to fish buzzers for trout you'll always stand a chance of catching - no matter what the season.

Why are some buzzer patterns so shiny?

As buzzer larvae make their way up to the surface, gas bubbles form on the body which gives the larvae a shiny coating the closer to the top it gets. Epoxy buzzers, those with bits of silver and reflective parts on them can therefore work really well because they simulate this reflecting gas which trout can really key into. It also makes them sink quicker and builds up resistance to sharp trout teeth.

How to fish buzzers for trout

How many buzzers should I use?

In the UK it's most common to use a team of three when using buzzers for trout: one fly is positioned at the point (at the very tip of the leader), while two others are positioned on droppers several feet apart from each other. However, you can fish a couple of buzzers for trout if you want, or even a single one if you're fishing a suspender buzzer or CDC buzzer, or if you're new to fishing with droppers and want to keep tangles to a minimum. Some waters only let you fish with one fly at a time, so check first if you're planning to fish a team.

What rigs should I use when fishing buzzers?

There are many different ways to fish buzzers for trout. Here are a few of the popular rigs and how they work:

Washing line: The washing line system uses a floating line and a long leader (at least 10') with a buoyant fly such as a suspender buzzer or boobie on the point and two heavier buzzers on the droppers. The suspender buzzer appeals to those fish after emerging buzzers, while the two buzzers on droppers will fish a foot or two below the surface. If the suspender buzzer can't support the dropper flies, you can either use more sparsely tied buzzers or a more buoyant point fly.

With a strike indicator: Probably the most common way to fish buzzers for trout is beneath a bung or strike indicator. Here you can either suspend a single, pair or team of three buzzers vertically beneath a floating strike indicator. This lets you precisely control the depth at which they fish so you can locate the cruising and hopefully feeding trout. With this method you generally just cast the flies out and maintain contact by taking up the slack while letting the wind move the flies around naturally.

Without a strike indicator: You can also achieve the same kind of results without a strike indicator. Here you'd use three buzzers, a heavy one on the point, a middleweight one on the first dropper and a lighter one on the top dropper. Then you'd cast them out and retrieve them incredibly slowly. The heavy point buzzer keeps the others down so you'll end up fishing at three different depths.

How do I fish suspender buzzers for trout?

Suspender buzzers and CDC buzzers such as the Shipman's Buzzer or Shuttlecock buzzer are designed to sit with the floating part just above the surface, trapped within the meniscus or surface tension, but the buzzer itself just below. The suspender part can be made from various materials, from a polystyrene ball in the typically suspender buzzer, to white Antron fibres or fine and buoyant Cul De Canard (CDC) feathers.

Generally when fishing buzzers for trout you can just cast them out and fish them static, maintaining a direct line without slack so you can strike into a fish if it takes your buzzer. The odd twitch can arouse the interest of fish, but you don't need to move them. Fishing these emerging buzzers for trout is great fun - you can see most of the takes and you'll probably miss half of them.

What retrieve should I use for buzzers?

When fishing a team of buzzers for trout it's generally best to just fish them static and let them drift in the wind. Alternatively you can use a really, really slow figure eight retrieve with lots of pauses to help them move up and down within the water column.

Midge pupae don't move much apart from the odd twitch, but they do migrate towards the surface when they're getting ready to emerge into their adult form and they do drift about in the natural currents within the water column. As a result, the odd longer pull can let them rise up in the water column which can sometimes induce a take from any nearby trout. The weird thing about fishing buzzers is that while it might seem slow, quiet and a bit boring, the takes you get can be explosive, so hold on to your rod!

Fishing buzzers under an indicator can be a deadly method for trout of any kind.

Should I use a strike indicator when fishing buzzers?

Using a strike indicator (or "bung") can be a good way to fish buzzers as it allows you to suspend a team of three at various depths controlled by the placement of the bung. This approach can be a bit frowned upon by purists who liken it to float fishing and say that it takes the skill out of the art of fly fishing. Most people don't care though, and fishing buzzers for trout beneath a strike indicator is probably one of the most prevalent and popular methods to fish these flies in UK still water trout fishing.

What colour and size buzzer should I use?

This is likely to depend on the venue at which you're fishing and the time of the year. Between January and March most larval buzzers tend to be smaller and darker in colour, so you should match that by using darker patterns on smaller hooks.

The larger buzzers tend to appear when the water gets warmer around April, and many of these are often a paler beige or green colour - these are closely matched by a size 12-14 hook. By summer, the buzzers tend to be bigger at a couple of centimetres in length and often a browny-orange colour. As autumn approaches, they start to get gradually smaller until eventually going dark browny black.

Should I degrease my leader when fishing buzzers for trout?

Yes, it is always a good idea to degrease your leader when fishing buzzers for trout and it certainly seems to improve my catch rate. If you're fishing deeper it helps your line cut through the water so they get to depth quicker. If you're fishing emerger patterns, such as CDC Shipman's Buzzers or Shuttlecock Buzzers, then degreasing the line helps it sink below the surface tension so the trout are less likely to see it floating on the water surface. I use Orvis Mud, but actual mud, Fuller's earth and even washing up liquid also help. If you're Ginking flies with silicone compound to help them stay afloat, avoid getting your Ginky fingers on the leader, otherwise it will float even better...

How do I know when to fish buzzers?

Buzzers would probably catch still water trout any time anywhere. However, there are some tell tale signs to look out for that can indicate whether they're going to work particularly well on a given day.

The most obvious sign is the presence of flying midges and rising fish. However, also have a look in the margins to see if you can spot any larval shucks from hatching buzzers.

These look like dead larvae, but are effectively the old skins of the larvae that were shed when they emerged at the surface. You could also throat pump or marrow spoon a (dead) fish to check the gut contents for signs of buzzers.

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