Muddler Minnows and Their Offspring.

Lewis Chessman

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I thought it interesting that the Muddler cropped up in the current 'Greatest Fly' thread (p.4).
Some love it, others have never seen a fish look at it twice - Why? How do the aficionados fish it effectively? Are the latter fishing it inappropriately or simply in the wrong waters?

It's a fly which looks harder to tie than it actually is. Spinning, compacting and trimming the deer hair may take a few tries but isn't that tricky really, it just takes a bit of practice and it's quite a forgiving material. It is messy though! ;)

Originally designed and developed in the mid-'30s by Don Gapen of Minnesota to lure large brook trout in N.W. Ontario it has proved supremely adaptable and is now fished in various guises throughout the world. What unites all these variations is the spun deer hair head, now often cropped short into a bullet-shape.
Deer hair is hollow and buoyant, allowing the fly to be fished on the surface or, by adding weight to the body, it can also be fished deep. A third alternative is to fish a buoyant Muddler on a short leader and sinking line. The fly (which naturally rises in the column) can then be fished deep over weeds and lessen the likelihood of snagging.

So, what, if anything, does the Muddler Minnow imitate? Well, the answer appears to be in the name - 'minnows'. However, in the UK a 'minnow' usually refers (amongst fishermen) specifically to the Common or Eurasian Minnow, a diminutive member of the carp family oft predated upon by carnivorous fish.
Given that Gapen was attempting to mimic the Sculpin (or 'Bullhead' in Britain) I presume he was using 'Minnow' in the more general sense of 'little fish' which encompasses sculpin, sticklebacks and, generally, any baitfish present. But perhaps in N.A. sculpin are often referred to as 'minnows' by anglers?
The sculpin has a large head in proportion to its body and a compacted mass of deer hair can be trimmed to produce the approximate shape with very little weight. The deer hair head is buoyant, hence the need to add weight either to the fly or to the leader in order to get it down.

The issue becomes more complex when the fly is no longer fished deep, the natural abode of the bottom-dwelling sculpin. Jumping to the extreme opposite, what does the fly imitate when fished on the surface? Indeed, need it imitate anything specifically?

Size, of course, is relevant here. The natural diameter of deer hair makes tying tiny Muddlers impractical (I'd be pushed to tie smaller than a 12 Longshank - but I'm not a good tier, I know). Smaller Muddlers fished in/on the surface are, I believe, more suggestive than imitative, encompassing the general shape of numerous insects, water-born or wind-blown. Large muddlers can be suggestive of injured fish, mice and voles and prove effective for large trout.

My own opinion regarding surface-fished Muddlers is that they are lures rather than imitations, triggering an instinctive attack response from the fish.
It is interesting that the large Muddlers are often most effective in a wave or at dusk. In both cases the fish's visibility will be reduced and they respond, I think, mainly to the commotion a stripped Muddler makes in the surface film. It is also true to say that larger trout tend to forage for food at dusk and rodents are more likely to be active at this time too, adding to the potential efficacy of the lure in the evenings.

All that is fine and dandy when considering trout which are feeding. However, the Muddler is widely employed in Scotland, particularly on the N.W. Coast and Islands as a salmon fly, fished on the bob (top dropper) in a team of two, perhaps three flies - and once in fresh water Atlantic salmon cease feeding ..... So, in their case the motive to seize the Muddler has little to do with food, let alone imitation - it is most likely due to the fly's action in the water where the bullet head creates bubbles and disturbance, a wake, as it is retrieved through the top of the water column.
Whether the fish has a latent memory of freshwater surface feeding as a parr, whether it is simply bored and curious, whether is it simply being a big bully I know not, only that salmon will often take the Muddler, sometimes savagely, sometimes with all the subtlety of a connoisseur sampling a fine Champagne - sometimes including the spitting out - sadly! ;)

There are, of course, a multiplicity of options regarding the body of the fly behind the deer hair. One can add paired wings, a hackle, tinsel and a tail, muted and natural in colour or vibrant, day-glo, mobile marabou and body dubbing depending on quarry and mood. The deer hair itself can be dyed to produce yet more variations on the theme.

My personal favourites include both an orange marabou wing and tail and the sky-blue 'Donegal Blue Muddler' for salmon and sea trout here in north Scotland. For me, the great joy of the Muddler on the bob (and any wake fly) is that one sees the fish roll over the fly in a classic head-and-tail take, often only a few yards from you as they follow the fly in close to boat or bank before the attack.
Watching the 'V-ing' wake of a chasing fish is undoubtedly one of the most exciting sights in our sport, I think. If you stop the retrieve he'll turn away. If you speed up he might take - or you might run out of line to strip before he does! It's then that we tend to 'dibble the dropper', lifting the rod tip to 'bounce' the fly on the water in front of you - and the fish. Sometimes they take, sometimes they turn away ..... and take the tail fly as they do! :)

So, there's my thoughts on the Muddler. It's not a fly I automatically turn to when trouting but it's always very high on the list when I'm after silver.
Over to you guys. What does the Muddler mean to you, what variants do you prefer and how do you fish it effectively?
 
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Rip Tide

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There was a time when I couldn't buy a fish with a muddler but I've since become a big fan.

There are trout ponds that I fish that are loaded with leaches. Little black ones. The kind that like to attach themselves between swimmer's toes if they're not careful :(
A "mini-muddler" can be a secret weapon in such ponds.

And in the salt, a variation called the Tabory Snake Fly is just the thing for 'waking" in surface current.
This works especially well at night when the game fish can see that wake against the night sky at a distance.
Easy to tie too. Herl or hackle tail, stacked marabou wing, spun collar/head.

Muddlers and their variations are also excellent to portray emerging Hex nymphs in surface film, when they're "motorboating" around at dusk.

This is a purple and pink muddler that I like for brook trout. As you Pink Squirrel nymph fans know, brook trout love pink.
 

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LOC

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I tie a Tabory style to fish the salt either on the swing or stripped back.
One of my favorite haunts has schools of juvenile Mullet. The shape of these flies with the fat head combined with a great swimming motion make them a ideal pattern to mimic these fish. One of the first fish I caught swinging it on the surface was a Corvina which is similar to a Sea Trout. I also use them sub surface on a Skagit head and sink tip for Halibut.
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It is a fun tie stacking and spinning. I like the history of the fly. There’s a cool factor having such a old pattern in the fly box. I’m sure the originator never would have thought his fly would end up in the mouth of a fish on the beach of Southern CA.
 

bigjim5589

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I seldom tie a Muddler now. When I do tie them it's a variant and in larger sizes. I think like most popular and productive style flies, it's a style that can be expanded on and often is. I use them for targeting bass.
 

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dillon

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The Muddler Minnow holds a special place in my Steelhead fishing history. I began fishing for Summer Steelhead in 1970 on the Columbia River tributaries of Washington State. In my youth I hiked and fished these small streams with a spinning rod and a burlap gunny sack filled with a couple dozen live crawfish. They were usually replaced by a skamania strain hatchery steelhead. That evening I would drink a few beers with friends and scorch them some
fresh fillets on a hibachi grill. Good times!

By 1980 I had made the transition to the fly rod inspired by the writing of Bill McMillan in Frank Amato’s Salmon Trout and Steelheader magazine. It contained articles on both gear and fly fishing. I purchased a half day trip with Mark Noble at a fly fishing club auction for Fifteen dollars. We met early one morning at his shop, The Greased Line Fly Shoppe, where he demonstrated how to tie a Muddler Minnow. Then we drove a short distance to the East Fork of the Lewis River. He showed me how to fish the fly on a floating line, but we did not raise one that day.

I went home and started tying Muddlers. A young woman living a few blocks away sold flies. On a warm summer day she could be seen tying them, while working on her tan, in her front yard. I stopped one day and commissioned her to tie me a dozen Muddlers, as mine weren’t that good yet.

Early one summer day, I ventured out before dawn, sans the gunny sack, but armed with Diane’s flies, to the Wind River in the Columbia Gorge. The Wind is a beautiful canyon stream with a stocky strain of robust native fish. I now remember, as if it were yesterday, the first steelhead that rose to my fly. Forever etched in my brain is the broadside of a magnificent silver fish, as it rose, grabbed, boiled, and turned with the once waking fly. Excitedly, I lifted the rod and set. The steelhead and I immediately parted ways.

However, a lesson was learned and the Muddler Minnow had earned its place as my confidence fly...
 

trev

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I'm sure the "minnow" part of the name is in the general sense of small baitfish.

If the flies pictured here are muddlers, then anything with a deer hair head is a muddler?
fwiw, I'd fish any of these with a lot more confidence than I would a muddler as I know it; probably not for trout though.
 

RunNGun

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I'm sure the "minnow" part of the name is in the general sense of small baitfish.

If the flies pictured here are muddlers, then anything with a deer hair head is a muddler?
fwiw, I'd fish any of these with a lot more confidence than I would a muddler as I know it; probably not for trout though.
I have tied and caught a lot of brook trout on the "standard" mudder pattern too. This is my girlfriend's first attempt at tying one. I think she did great being an extremely novice tyer with a very mediocre teacher. This fly has caught her a few fish too 🙂20200505_212406.jpg
 

dillon

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I have tied and caught a lot of brook trout on the "standard" mudder pattern too. This is my girlfriend's first attempt at tying one. I think she did great being an extremely novice tyer with a very mediocre teacher. This fly has caught her a few fish too 🙂View attachment 31394
This Muddler looks like the ones I originally tied for Steelhead. Except, for the tail. Mine might have had some short red hackle fibers, or nothing at all. Btw, that’s a very handsome tie. I’d fish it....
 

Meuniere

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I agree, her "skinny" tie would work well in a lot of western rivers, and plenty of other places, I'm sure.

I got introduced to Muddlers via my mom, who was convinced these were the bee's knees. Then she discovered weighted Muddlers and all hell broke loose: she mixed them into her regular selection of about eight or ten flies (when going for trout), and through sheer force of will (if nothing else) made them produce on a regular basis. So for the past 45 years I've always had them around, and generally would neglect them in favor of everything else I could tie on, but far too frequently, when I'd be mid-stream, perplexed and baffled and generally at wit's end, I would remember. "OH," and I'd tie one on- usually weighted, I admit, and damn if it didn't work out.

I do agree it depends enormously on how one fishes them, and that has to vary for water type and fish type and lots of other contingencies, but I don't leave home without them.

Thanks, mom!
 

moucheur2003

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I have tied and caught a lot of brook trout on the "standard" mudder pattern too. This is my girlfriend's first attempt at tying one. I think she did great being an extremely novice tyer with a very mediocre teacher. This fly has caught her a few fish too 🙂View attachment 31394
That's actually very close to the way Don Gapen originally tied them!
 

trev

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I have tied and caught a lot of brook trout on the "standard" mudder pattern too. This is my girlfriend's first attempt at tying one. I think she did great being an extremely novice tyer with a very mediocre teacher. This fly has caught her a few fish too 🙂View attachment 31394
That looks like a Muddler, very little deer hair and fairly loose, and what looks like turkey too. This was posted as one tied by Gapen himself for comparison of proportions. She did pretty well, imo.
 

Lewis Chessman

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Thanks for the original Gapen fly photos, Moucheur2003 and Trev, terrific to see and compare.
Mine tend to be tighter packed and more closely cropped than the first, more similar in profile to the second, but perhaps more dense still, which I hope adds more buoyancy.
Relating back to chat about keeping the thing floating (Best Fly thread), I apply Gink on tying, more as needed when fishing and that certainly helps.

Dillon, I loved your description of the take. A sublime moment, I'm sure. I find that visual experience enormously exciting whether the fish actually takes or not. And even if it doesn't you know there's a fish in front of you which might be persuaded by another cast or different fly. How many times are we inspected and rejected subsurface and know nothing about it so move on, oblivious? Another plus for the surface Muddler (or any wake fly).

As Meuniere rightly points out, how one fishes them and where must matter. My preferred retrieve is a fast figure of eight in order that the fly never slows or stops but just motors across the wave creating a visible 'V' as it travels. I do strip sometimes but, as a rule, figure of eight. In extreme circumstances, after, say, numerous fruitless follows I might tuck the rod under my arm and use a roly-poly retrieve in order to rip the fly back at a ludicrous speed. That can be the last straw for a miffed fish and the takes can be explosive! With Atlantic salmon I try to stop pulling at the moment the fish hits for fear of taking it from him or pricking him in the bony front of the jaw. Better if I can let him turn and the hook slips back to the scissors - but that's not always what happens when stripping back like a maniac!
 

bumble54

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I first came across the Muddler in the early 70's, we used to fish them on a sinking line back then, creeping them along the bottom. I later started tying them on gold coloured hooks to fish near the surface as a general fry pattern, just wing and head. They proved very effective indeed, both versions have been in my fly boxes ever since and are used regularly, especially good in a big wave in summer. As I recall most of the fish I've caught on a muddler over 4lb took it when it was motionless, just sitting under the surface or "on the drop". It was my late fathers favourite fly and he had some very big catches on it. I've tried bumble muddlers but never had a fish on them, in the places I have fished.
 

bigjim5589

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I'm sure the "minnow" part of the name is in the general sense of small baitfish.

If the flies pictured here are muddlers, then anything with a deer hair head is a muddler?
fwiw, I'd fish any of these with a lot more confidence than I would a muddler as I know it; probably not for trout though.
Trev, I didn't claim those that I posted to be Muddlers, but the idea is based on the Muddler and the Kiwi Muddler style.

I would say no to your question, just because a fly has a deer hair head, or any type of deer, elk, etc. style head, doesn't make it a Muddler, but it's highly probable in the history of tying, that it was the first, or one of the first tied with a deer hair head. We know that Gapen didn't tie it as it's often tied now, so even that has been expanded on.

I recall a streamer fly called the Spuddler, which was a combination of features from the Muddler & a Spruce Fly. IMO, it is neither fly, but is an evolution of both. IMO, it's important to reference the past, and give credit, but sometimes we get too carried away with names.

Unfortunately, people do too often equate such things. Just because a fly has barbell eyes doesn't make it a Clouser Minnnow, yet that is too often equated to that fly.
 

dillon

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Thanks for the original Gapen fly photos, Moucheur2003 and Trev, terrific to see and compare.
Mine tend to be tighter packed and more closely cropped than the first, more similar in profile to the second, but perhaps more dense still, which I hope adds more buoyancy.
Relating back to chat about keeping the thing floating (Best Fly thread), I apply Gink on tying, more as needed when fishing and that certainly helps.

Dillon, I loved your description of the take. A sublime moment, I'm sure. I find that visual experience enormously exciting whether the fish actually takes or not. And even if it doesn't you know there's a fish in front of you which might be persuaded by another cast or different fly. How many times are we inspected and rejected subsurface and know nothing about it so move on, oblivious? Another plus for the surface Muddler (or any wake fly).

As Meuniere rightly points out, how one fishes them and where must matter. My preferred retrieve is a fast figure of eight in order that the fly never slows or stops but just motors across the wave creating a visible 'V' as it travels. I do strip sometimes but, as a rule, figure of eight. In extreme circumstances, after, say, numerous fruitless follows I might tuck the rod under my arm and use a roly-poly retrieve in order to rip the fly back at a ludicrous speed. That can be the last straw for a miffed fish and the takes can be explosive! With Atlantic salmon I try to stop pulling at the moment the fish hits for fear of taking it from him or pricking him in the bony front of the jaw. Better if I can let him turn and the hook slips back to the scissors - but that's not always what happens when stripping back like a maniac!
Lewis,
After spending several years fishing west slope Cascade Mountain Range streams, I ventured over the hill to explore the Deschutes River, in Oregon’s high desert. I was told Muddlers didn’t work well on the east side, so I started fishing hairwings like the skunk and it’s numerous variations. All had to have a little black and a white bear wing, of course. It took awhile, but eventually, I started fishing skaters. But, never had much luck with a muddler. Probably because I didn’t fish them hard enough. My favorite deer hair pattern, by chance, became Buck’s Bug, black of course. This old Atlantic Salmon pattern isn’t real a dry fly, but it will skate if you make it. It it has accounted for some great stories.

It’s common for Deschutes guides to stand high above the river on the railroad grade as they watch their clients work a run. Dec Hogan, in his book, A Passion For Steelhead, writes about and illustrates many of his observations while guiding. I wouldn’t have the patience to watch people fish...

As you mentioned, they often see steelhead rise and refuse a fly, or witness solid grabs. Fish often give themselves away as their tail create a boil when they turn away. However, sometimes they angler sees or feels nothing when a fish refuses. Other times a pull ensues shortly after the boil. So, anglers must wait for the pull of line off the reel, signaling the fish has turned with the fly, before lifting the rod. Otherwise, one may pull the fly away from the fish. I tend to wait a long time before lifting. Sometimes, I feel a fish, then wait and wait. It never turns and runs, but starts moving upstream. But, that’s okay, because the line bellies down stream and pulls the fly into the corner of its mouth. Or the scissors as you put it, Lewis. Thanks for that term. I’ve never heard of it but will start using it. Maybe it will catch on over here.

A few years ago, early one morning I landed a couple fish in a popular Maupin town run. After landing the second, I resumed fishing, made a bad cast over the wrong shoulder, in the wind. The errant bug lodged in my ear. So, I cut the leader and kept fishing. After a few minutes I thought better of it and drove to a guide friends house and he wrapped a piece of line around the bend of the hook and deftly yanked it out. Didn’t hurt a bit. He resumed steeping his (legal) marijuana harvest and I went back and used the same bug to hook another fish. The next day I intercepted them up upriver and had more fun. Funny thing is, I pretty much had the river to myself as the run had been so poor. I bought the guide a six pack of beer and gave him some hatchery steelhead fillets to thank him for his services and he shared a bud with me...

Every year a me and a buddy hire a guide to get access to the river on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. The first year we went, we hit a perfect overcast day in October. It drizzled off and on all day and the fish were in a grabby mood. The young guide instructed us to fish intruder patterns on a sink tip. I showed him my floating line set up with the little black bug. He said to give it a try, but was very skeptical of any success.

By the end of the day, he became a dry fly believer, after witnessing no less than 15 surface grabs between my buddy and I. After about 5 years that day still holds the record as his best day. It’s been tough on that trip the last couple of years. However, I’ve managed to hook one fish each of the last two years. One came off near the guides net, the other broke the leader when I attempted a solo water landing. The guide counted them as landed, but I don’t. In my mental record book, I must remove the hook myself to count them as caught...

Well, thanks to any of you that took the time to read my caffeine induced rambling. Maybe I will go tie a purple Muddler. I hear they now work on the Deschutes. It’s pretty much the only place I fish for Steelhead anymore and I’d like to hook another fish on one, before I have to retire...

I also hope to fish for Atlantic Salmon someday. Have you ever fished for Pacific Steelhead?3BA4F25F-77E7-4F72-912A-45DFDE3AA087.jpeg
 

trev

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Trev, I didn't claim those that I posted to be Muddlers, but the idea is based on the Muddler and the Kiwi Muddler style.

I would say no to your question, just because a fly has a deer hair head, or any type of deer, elk, etc. style head, doesn't make it a Muddler, but it's highly probable in the history of tying, that it was the first, or one of the first tied with a deer hair head. We know that Gapen didn't tie it as it's often tied now, so even that has been expanded on.

I recall a streamer fly called the Spuddler, which was a combination of features from the Muddler & a Spruce Fly. IMO, it is neither fly, but is an evolution of both. IMO, it's important to reference the past, and give credit, but sometimes we get too carried away with names.

Unfortunately, people do too often equate such things. Just because a fly has barbell eyes doesn't make it a Clouser Minnnow, yet that is too often equated to that fly.
My question probably should have been "is any fly with a deer hair head a Muddler "offspring""
I always associate the Muddler with the turkey over squirrel, over a turkey tail and for what ever reason, probably first exposure, I always think of Tap's bug when seeing spun deer hair, and the densely packed bullet head always puts me in mind of Dahlberg's Diver; but truthfully I have no idea who first used those ideas.
I do tend to think a Name should be a Recipe, and that if that recipe is modified the name should be changed, and apparently I am wrong in that belief.
 

WWKimba

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Trev, I didn't claim those that I posted to be Muddlers, but the idea is based on the Muddler and the Kiwi Muddler style.

I would say no to your question, just because a fly has a deer hair head, or any type of deer, elk, etc. style head, doesn't make it a Muddler, but it's highly probable in the history of tying, that it was the first, or one of the first tied with a deer hair head. We know that Gapen didn't tie it as it's often tied now, so even that has been expanded on.

I recall a streamer fly called the Spuddler, which was a combination of features from the Muddler & a Spruce Fly. IMO, it is neither fly, but is an evolution of both. IMO, it's important to reference the past, and give credit, but sometimes we get too carried away with names.

Unfortunately, people do too often equate such things. Just because a fly has barbell eyes doesn't make it a Clouser Minnnow, yet that is too often equated to that fly.
That's why they invented the word "variant"!

Kim
 

Lewis Chessman

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Dillon, thanks for a good read! While I knew of the brown Muddler Minnow as a trout fly for years it wasn't until I moved to the Hebrides that I saw how effective they could be for salmon and sea trout. I know I like them too much and often fish them 'for the hell of it' and on the off-chance I get an offer even when other tactics might be wiser.

I didn't find the opportunity to fish for steelhead when I was in the USA, though I did spend a day on the Deschutes during the salmon fly season and caught a rainbow second cast - then blanked! The Salmon Fly Fly we used was an imitation of the natural, long bodied with a bundle of elk hair strapped in as a wing, plus a full brown cock hackle. It's a beast of a thing size-wise yet floats excellently. Not a Muddler, though. :)
I've tried it here for Atlantics several times when it's been blowing a hoolie but as yet not joy. I don't think it's that it is too large, I think I just need a bigger wind.
;)
I have a few of the same ilk still. I was heading towards Teton N.P. when I saw a sale sign in the window of a wood-built country outfitter's store which was closing down. This place was straight out of the 50s, with everything from army surplus clothes to saddles piled on tables and stacking shelves. And at the very back, a draw of BIG bushy flies, most made with elk hair. I keep all but one of those I have left as mementoes of the trip.

I did try the Muddler many times when I worked on the Spey, a large (by UK standards) river on the Scottish east coast. It only worked on one evening and, man were they game for the chase that night! In two hours I had three to 15 lbs and a nice sea trout at last light, too. Why the fish found the wake fly so attractive that one night I have no idea.
Now I'm working on the Thurso, a river in N.E. Scotland, smaller than the Spey, larger than the Hebridean spate rivers, with whom it has more in common. Strangely, I think, the Muddler is seldom fished there by the regulars who, if they want a skating fly will usually opt for a riffle-hitched tube. However, I've had some success with it myself there, in fact my first Thurso salmon took an Orange Muddler on Beat 8!
So, perhaps not a fly for every water all the time here, but in the right place and time it can excel.

Good luck with your Purple Muddler. A local keeper had great success with one for the grilse here in Lewis a few years back - The Garynahine Muddler but I've yet to knock one up myself.

A lovely fish in your photo. I'm hoping I have the opportunity to do another USA tour within the next 5 years, before I get too creaky. I'll make sure my timing is better next trip and give steelheading a crack for sure.


Whilst we're on deer hair flies, some members may not be familiar with the Hedgehog and Sedgehog range of floating flies from the Orkney Isles. Orkney's usually pretty breezy so these are designed to sit in the surface film even while being retrieved in a decent wave (loch fishing). The deer hair does a pretty decent job of it. A good suggestive trout pattern, static or pulled.
 
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