The Muddler Minnow
Back in October the guest speaker at our club’s meeting was Kevin Erickson who gave us a fine presentation that centered on his new book, “Feather Craft: The Amazing Birds and Feathers Used In Classic Salmon Flies”. It was readily apparent to most of us that we have neither the skills nor the patience to produce the quality of flies that Kevin is crafting. Amazing stuff! (I clearly remember him saying that the completion of a Jock Scott fly required 32 different materials. Whew!) At the conclusion of his talk Kevin graciously offered to come to one of our Fly Tying Nights to lend us a hand in improving our fly tying skills. After explaining to Kevin that our tyers are not quite ready for classic salmon flies, we decided to focus on the Muddler Minnow as a fly that would teach us some new skills that haven’t yet been emphasized in our monthly fly tying sessions.
Although perhaps not as in favor as it once was, the Muddler Minnow, or Muddler as it is commonly called, is still the“go to” fly of some flyfishers and the Muddler should occupy a spot in your fly box. I have come across a few testimonials to the effectiveness of the Muddler. At a fly shop I met a gentleman that has had terrific success fishing only Muddlers, in various colors, for steelhead on the Deschutes. And famed flyfisher and author Gary Lafontaine is said to have only fished Muddlers in a variety of forms and sizes for one year and reported that he had landed as many fish as if he had fished his usual array of patterns. And the historical importance of the fly to the tradition of fly fishing in this country was emphasized in 1991 when the US Postal Service included the Muddler Minnow as one of only five flies in its fly fishing stamp series.
The Muddler Minnow has played an important part in my fly tying history as it was the first fly that I ever watched being tied. My dad, brother Steve, and I were fishing at Diamond Lake when I was probably 10 and my brother was 8 years of age. A hot tip told us that a couple of fly patterns were very productive late in the day. We wandered over to the resort and found an elderly gentleman outside tying flies and selling them as fast as he could tie them. We were both fascinated watching the man fashion Muddler Minnows and another pattern from miscellaneous materials sitting on his fly tying bench. We purchased a few and had great success fishing the flies on a very slow troll far behind the boat on unweighted monofilament line using spinning rods, with the fishing getting better and better the darker it got late in the evening. (Fishing flies in this manner was a welcome relief after trolling Ford Fender flashers around all day.) I guess there is reason to think that the same success could be had at Diamond and other lakes, using a flyrod and a Muddler Minnow some 60 years later. At least it ought to be worth a try.
The Muddler Minnow was first tied by Don Gapen of Anoka, Minnesota back in 1937 for use in pursuing brook trout on the Nipigon River in Ontario. Gapen’s family ran a couple of fishing resorts and Don later started the Gapen tackle company that is still a family owned business today. Their online catalog shows that they still carry the Muddler Minnow but they also have some lure offerings with intriguing names such as the Ugly-Bug, the Bait-Walker, and the Walk-N-Lizard. It looks like a lot of their products are aimed at the pike and muskie fishers in their area.
When you look at the original Muddler Minnows you will notice that they are kind of scraggly, almost messy looking, compared to what we commonly see in fly boxes today. The heads of Don Gapen’s Muddlers were largely left untrimmed as is seen in the photos below.
Tied by Don Gapen himself
A Don Gapen style Muddler
It is interesting to note that the Gapen family today still sells Muddler flies that resemble the original version and have testimonials that state that they fish just fine. One reviewer says, “Just like movies, the original is usually the best. I tie and fish both original and modern muddlers and found the original out performed the modern on many occasions.” A lot of us that tie flies today like them to look nice and neat in our fly boxes. Maybe we are trying to tie for ourselves and not for the fish.
Credit for the appearance of today’s Muddlers generally goes to famed Montana tyer and flyfisher Dan Bailey. The dense and neat heads that he developed back in the 1950’s require a process of spinning and packing the deer hair, followed by a trimming done with scissors or a razor blade. Muddlers today typically employ mottled turkey quill segments for the tail and wings and gold or silver mylar for the body. Often there is an underwing of squirrel hair and a collar of deer hair. The variations and colors of Muddlers today is limited only by the tyer’s imagination, but the one thing that all Muddlers will have in common is a head of spun deer hair. A densely packed head provides plenty of flotation but the flies can be tied weighted or unweighted according to the targeted species and water conditions.
Some Variations of Muddler Minnows
From its name the Muddler Minnow will mimic a variety of small “minnow” fish like shiners, chubs, and dace. Weighted and fished along the bottom the muddler is a great sculpin or tadpole imitation. But the Muddler is a versatile fly that is said to mimic a variety of other life forms like grasshopper and crickets. Tied in a variety of sizes, Dan Bailey often used the Muddler as a late summer grasshopper imitation on his favorite Montana rivers.
A Muddler Minnow Variation Called A “Spuddler”
Nothing can be ruled out when deciding what is the proper way to fish a Muddler. Quick and irregular strips may be effective at times, but on some days and for some fish a simple down and across swing may be just the ticket. Gary Lafontaine reported that while a retrieve using rapid wild strips was effective for bass, a smooth strip with less action was much more effective for trout. Unweighted Muddlers can be very effective as a waking fly for steelhead while a weighted pattern fished at or near the bottom using rests between short strips can be a fine sculpin imitation. So it sounds like anything goes when fishing a Muddler. Good advice is probably “If what you are doing is not working, try something different.”
Take advantage of having Kevin Erickson on hand for our next Fly Tying Night. Join us at the Royal Treatment Fly Shop in West Linn on Wednesday, Feb. 28th for an evening of hair spinning, packing and trimming. As always we will be getting started at 6:00 pm sharp.
Hope to see you there!