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Project Muddler Minnow: Playing with Materials

The head is, in my opinion, the heart of the Muddler Minnow. To spin or to stack is up to you and the fly you are trying to produce. Stacking will generally produce a denser head and it allows you to produce a counter-shaded head with a light bottom and darker top - like real fishes. Spinning is simpler and I do not think that a dense, buoyant head is always the best choice for a fly meant to represent a benthic fish that lacks a swim bladder. On similar note, trimming the head is always a bit of a touchy subject - as you can see, I am not a perfectionist when it comes to this aspect. A roughly trimmed head is perfectly fine for fishing flies. I will take a bit more time once in a great while but most of the time, I think people fret too much over head shaping.

Badger Muddler
Top view of the Badger Muddler Minnow - a variation on Gapen's Muddler Minnow - as all Muddlers are. Hans Weilenmann photo.

The beauty of the Muddler is that it has become a highly adaptable palate which you can shape to your wants and needs. The fly has four basic parts - a tail which is usually very short, a body which is typically something flashy and meant to represent the underside of a "minnow" (sculpin are not minnows...), a wing that represents the "minnow's" body, and a collar and head of deer hair which is really the defining characteristic of a Muddler, in my opinion. While the head earns most people's attention, the tail, body, and "wings" are really where you can really alter the general appearance of the fly. Altering the head will affect its buoyancy, how much water it pushes, or if it tracks true or wobbles. Being generally the first quarter or maybe third of the fly, the "back end" generally has more affect on the overall look of the fly.

While originally designed to imitate a sculpin, the platform allows you to represent any baitfish, depending upon your choices of components. What you decide to do with those component is up to you, your imagination, and what you are trying to imitate. Choices of materials have effects how how your fly moves, flashes, pushes water, wobbles, and ultimately attracts fish.


Tail


Muddler tails are short and generally rather inconsequential, I think. The tail on the original is matched turkey quills and generally a bit more substantial than the tails I see on most other versions. Tails on streamers tend to have a few roles. First, they are there to help track the fly - the turkey quill tail probably does more of this than do tails on other versions. Second, it is to provide a bit of movement to the fly which the turkey quill does not provide much. However, marabou or flashabou tails add a significant bit of movement. Lastly, it can serve as a bit of attraction. Many muddler variations include a small red tail. Another attractive option is a tail of a flash material. Or combine the two together - a red flashabou or crystal flash tail.

Red tail on a marabou muddler
The standard red tail on a marabou muddler. I kept it short so the fish attracting red wasn't too far rearward of the hook point.

It is the part of the muddler I am generally least interested in. The tail seems to be a pretty minor part of a muddler and are the most likely component to be completely eliminated. Muddler tails are often quite reduced - like the small wood duck tail on the Woodchuck Muddler. Though, there are some variations like Gunnar Brammer's Soft Hackle Muddler (video) which has a large and important tail that really becomes a significant part of the body.


Body


By body, I am referring to is how the hook shank is dressed. The body of a muddler represents the bottom of the belly - most of the time. I have seen some exceptions where an "underwing" below the hook shank represents the belly and then the body is the middle of the body and/or the fish's lateral line.

Underside of a Badger Muddler
Underside of the Badger Muddler - it uses red silk floss and small silver tinsel for the body. (Hans Weilenmann photo)

As such, the body of the fly tends to be a lighter color and flashy. The original pattern used a metal tinsel - it is what was available at the time. You can substitute more modern Mylar tinsels for the metal, of course. A rib may or may not be included and you may choose to cover the tinsel with a UV resin for durability - and a bit of shine.

Zuddler in olive
A wetted Zuddler with an olive rabbit zonker and a body of sparse sparkle chenille over red thread with a red wire holding down the zonker strip.

Other common body options for muddlers are:

  • Chenille - Dan Bailey's Marabou Muddler version uses tinsel chenille or estaz. A standard chenille can help sink the fly by absorbing water but it lacks the flash that is typical of muddler bodies.

  • Dubbing - Ice Dub or other flashy dubbings are good options for the belly. They have the advantage of being able to add a bit of bulk to the belly. The standard tinsel body is pretty small - unless you add weight under the body. The Zuddler is a variation that typically has a dubbed body.

  • Floss - Floss will certainly turn the flash down a bit on the belly. I have used it as a way to add a bit of red into the fly - a color I really like in streamers. This may work well if you are using bit of material for the belly in which case the body represents the lateral line.

  • Diamond Braid or similar materials are another option for the body. These come in many colors but a silver, gold, or pearl color works best. If using pearl, the thread color will come through a bit - which you can use to your advantage.

I am sure that I missed other options. Maybe one of the more significant considerations is how much belly you want on your fly? This will have a large impact on what body material you use. Dubbing and chenille certainly add bulk, floss and tinsel provide a slimmer body, Diamond Braid falls between those options. Hook shank length is another variable in the "how much belly" question - more on that below.


"Wings"


Wing is an odd term for a component of a fly that represents a fish but it is the traditional name we have given the parts the represent the majority of the body of the minnow. The original Gapen Muddler Minnow uses a gray squirrel tail underwing and matched turkey quills as an overwing.

Ed Haaga's Woodchuck Muddler
An Ed Haaga tied Woodchuck Muddler with a simple wing of only woodchuck.

More than any other component, the wing(s) are what are most often altered in mudder variations. The original muddler's wings are rather stiff and do not really add movement to the fly. In particular, the turkey quill overwings are rather immobile, though they do a good job of representing the mottled body of sculpins, the fishes that Don Gapen was attempting to imitate. Simple substitutions like calf (kip) tail or fox squirrel for the gray squirrel of the original make small but significant differences in the final product. Any number of other hairs can be substituted for the gray squirrel. The turkey quill overwing is pretty commonly removed in muddler variations.

Zoo Cougar Conehead Muddler
A conehead muddler that has a bit of a Zoo Cougar built into it.

Many of the variations add more movement to the wing - such as the Marabou Muddler (video) and the Zuddler (video) which uses a zonker strip. Both of these variations give the tyer a great number of fiber length, color, and pattern options. Marabou comes in a great diversity of colors and can be bought tip-dyed or barred which can both be interesting variations. Arctic Fox, Finnish Racoon and other similar soft hairs as well as craft fur are options that have some properties similar to marabou. A mink zonker may be used on a small fly and a coyote zonker to will provide a lot of movement to a larger muddler. And, of course, the standard rabbit zonkers come in a great diversity of natural and dyed colors and their fiber length lends itself well to the normal size range of muddlers or should I say, Zuddlers.

Bucktail wing
Bucktail and a bit of flash for the wing - a top-down view is below.

And, of course, there is bucktail, my favorite material for tying streamers. Bucktail comes in so many colors and textures - though understanding bucktail at that level takes a lot of time at the vise tying with it. I write a good bit about bucktail in a Project Clouser post on materials. Want to really learn and understand bucktail? Watch a few Gunnar Brammer videos, he really knows the material and is able to communicate those properties effectively.

Flowing Bucktail "wing"
She's got that bucktail flow...one of the reasons I love bucktail in streamers.

Another option to imitate the body of a fish are a huge variety of feathers. A Feather-wing Muddler is essentially the marriage of the Rangeley Lake (Maine) feather-wing streamers and a muddler head. Dave Whitlock's Matuka Sculpin is, more or less, a muddler with a Matuka-style wing. I have seen a number of variations with hackle tips. Many muddler variations incorporate duck flank fibers - most notably the rolled muddler version. Flank fibers provide a great barred pattern common in fishes like darters which are quite common, particularly in larger trout streams. And marabou can be tied in like you would in a marabou spey fly to create a collar of highly mobile marabou around the back end of the fly.

Flash Dancer with a stacked deer hair head
A version of the Flash Dancer - this one has an ice dubbed body, a flashabou-like wing, a red deer hair collar, and a stacked deer hair head.

Lastly, flash can be added subtly to wings - a few strands to provide a highlight - or go all out like the Flash Dancer which has a wing of nothing but flashabou or similar flashy synthetic. It is one of my favorite smallmouth bass flies.


Collar and Head


The head of the muddler is the defining characteristic of the fly. Don Gapen's original Muddler Minnow's head was untrimmed and rather unruly whereas today's muddler heads tend to be much more dense and organized. The muddler dates back to 1936 and is predated by the deer hair bass bug which Ian Whitelaw's book, "The History of Fly-Fishing in Fifty Flies" credits to Ernest Peckinpaugh in 1915. William G. Tapply credits the Seminole Tribe of Florida with the precursor to the bass bug - a "bob fly" in a really excellent MidCurrent article, "From Bobs to Bugs, A Little History". He writes that it is the earliest form of catching fish on hook and line in America. I give this history to show that Gapen likely knew about how deer hair could be used to create a denser, trimmed head - maybe it was a conscious choice not to do so?

Gapen's Original Muddler Minnow
Gapen's Original Muddler Minnow is quite sparse and the head is untrimmed and not very substantial. We have greatly changed this.

Today, the head is really the focal point of the muddler. There are not a ton of material options here - a coarse deer hair is (nearly) necessary. However, how that head is built and shaped leads to a ton of variation. Large, water pushing heads grab fish's attention. Heads trimmed to a more flattened shape - sort of a small Zoo Cougar head - produce a wobble - particularly when fished on a weighted leader. And smaller heads reduce the fly's buoyancy and allow it to be fished deeply more easily, an issue with flies with large, buoyant heads.

George Close tied Mangrove Muddler
A George Close tied Mangrove Muddler - which is a Florida saltwater pattern by Aaron Adams.

While the head is typically made of a spun or stacked hollow deer hair, there are other options. Quite some time ago, I wrote about Aaron Adams' Mangrove Muddler which uses the backside of a bucktail for the head. Another option is wool which absorbs more water, helping the fly get down deeper. The Woolhead Sculpin is really just a Zuddler with a woolhead. And just to throw it all against the wall, replacing the deer hair with soft hackle feathers is another option for a more sinkable muddler. Or maybe now we have deviated too far from the muddler platform?

Soft hackles Muddler?
A reasonably far deviation from the muddler - it lacks a tail and a body, instead those components are built into the wings which are flashabou and craft fur. And the head is six hen soft hackles.

But typically, a modern muddler has a spun or stacked deer hair head that is trimmed to shape. Historically, it seems, that muddlers' heads and collars were created from a single stack of deer hair. The larger, denser heads of many modern muddlers require a second or even third stack of deer hair. Today, many great tyers are tying flies with cork-like deer hair heads.


To spin or to stack is up to you and the fly you are trying to produce. First, I will say it is easier than it is often made out to be - Brian Wise (Fly Fishing the Ozarks) - does a great job of showing this. Stacking will generally produce a denser head and it allows you to produce a counter-shaded head with a light bottom and darker top - like real fishes. Spinning is simpler and I do not think that a dense, buoyant head is always the best choice for a fly meant to represent a benthic fish that lacks a swim bladder. This is particularly true if you are fishing it on a floating line with a standard (non-sinking) leader. Most of the time, I spin, not stack, the heads of muddlers.

Foam head muddler
A foam head muddler - still a muddler, I think...a tail of flashbou, a mylar tinsel body, the wing is white and red arctic fox with black snow runner over the top and then a red deer hair collar before the Fettuccine foam head.

While quite a deviation, I suppose, a foam head is certainly not out of place on a muddler. After all, most muddlers are built with highly buoyant deer hair heads. There are pre-shaped heads for divers that would make a fine muddler-like fly when fished either on the surface or with a sink tip or heavy sinking leader. "Fettuccine foam" is another option to make a foam head for a muddler-like fly. This material is probably best known from Brian Wise's Knucklehead, a cool predator pattern best fished on a sink tip line. One last "crazy" idea, I have used round discs on topwater and flies meant to be fished on sinking lines and they could *sort of* replace deer hair on a muddler.


Hook Variation


While not a material, per se, it is one of the places where the fly tyer has a great ability to alter the fly. Typically a 3xl or 4 xl hook is used but you can go to an even longer shank hook to create a longer imitation with a longer underbody. Using a shorter shank hook produces a more compact fly with the hook bend closer to the head - the part of the fly we would expect the fish to strike at. A shorter shank hook does reduce the amount of belly flash in the fly - it would be a good place to put a bit of red into the fly.

Short shanked Woodchuck Muddler
This Woodchuck Muddler was tied on a shorter shanked hook with a large gape to help hooking ability. I tied this fly to fish on a weighted leader.

On the bit crazier end of the spectrum, why not tie them with a bit of weight on an inverted hook like a 60 or 90 degree jig hook. I have a strong preference for flies meant to be fished on or near the bottom to have an up-facing hook like a jig. There are a ton of fly patterns that are owe much of their design to the Muddler that are tied on jig hooks.


Wrapping it Up


I have not talked about weighting the flies which is another way to pretty significantly change the fly. I think this - and the pros and cons of weighting muddlers - deserves its own post.

Yellow / Olive deer body hair
I, apparently, have quite a thing for yellow / olive deer hair. Deer hair is a highly versatile tying material.

The muddler provides a platform that allows you to imitate most every baitfish from the top to the bottom of the water column depending upon your choices of materials, hook, and how you shape the head. It is a wonderfully adaptable pattern that likely only behind the Clouser Deep Minnow in terms of how many species have been caught on variations of it.


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