Maybe Try a Muddler - Fishing Spring Creeks & Rivers of Montana
We were on on the bank of Depuy’s Spring Creek, listening to a local guide talk about the nuances of fishing a spring creek. “If you don’t have ultra fine tippet, if you don’t use the tiniest of flies, and if you don’t make near perfect casts, you basically don’t stand a chance catching these fish” the guide said. I knew that the guide was pretty much right, and was looking forward to matching wits with the highly educated, and much larger than average trout that populated the creek.
Standing next to me was my dear friend Brock Apfel. I could tell by the look on his face that he found the guide entertaining, but perhaps wasn’t in complete agreement. Brock was an outstanding angler, but he had a big streak of not liking to be told what he had to do, and a healthy dose of irreverence for anything considered sacred. Depuy’s Spring Creek was (and still is) one of those hallowed places where the tradition of fishing light tippets and tiny flies runs deep. Earlier in the day I had seen Brock casting a hopper imitation down a path leading to another part of the property. Near where his fly landed was one of the many ring necked pheasants we saw running around the place. “I was just curious to see what it would do” exclaimed Brock with an almost guilty shrug. The bird, unimpressed, continued across the field.
It wasn’t long after, Brock managed to sneak off by himself and was fishing a section of water that was not one of the areas pointed out to us as the best places to try. Sure enough, in no time I noticed that he was playing a fish. I could tell by the deep bend in his rod that A) this was a very large fish, and B) he was not using light tippet. As he landed the fish he noticed that I was watching, so he lifted the net out of the water just long enough so I could see what he had. Easily a five pound brown. When it was lunch time I sat next to him, and asked the question I knew he was dying to answer. “What did you get it on?” “a muddler” he said quietly out of the side of his mouth. Just loud enough that I could hear him, but not so loud that anyone else would notice. “Classic Brock” I thought to myself.
According to Wikipedia, the muddler minnow was invented in Minnesota in 1936 by Don Gapen. It is designed to imitate a sculpin, which is a bottom dwelling baitfish found in many trout streams. In the 1950’s the fly was popularized by Dan Bailey who had a fly shop in Livingston, just a few miles down the road from where we were fishing. While it worked well enough in the Yellowstone, I don’t think it was ever really intended for fishing spring creeks. The fly has undergone countless changes and “improvements” over time, and while there are many varieties of flies out there today that can trace their lineage to the muddler, today the fly in its original form is considered to be somewhat archaic and not easy to find in a lot of fly shops. Its never the first fly I think of in pretty much any fishing situation, but perhaps in memory of my now departed friend, I always keep a few in my fly box.
The evolution of flies is a constant process. There are thousands of talented fly tyers in this country, and they are always working on different ways they can modify fly patterns to make them even more effective. The process is a good one in that with regularity, people come up with new patterns or variants of older patterns that clearly outfish the more traditional or “older” flies. Each region has their local “special” patterns, and the angler who wants to catch fish will generally do well to pay attention and pick up a few. This is one of the reasons I almost always stop in at local fly shops when I am fishing new water, and rarely walk out without at least a few “new” flies. I would wager that close to half of the flies in any modern fly shop didn’t even exist 15 or 20 years ago.
At times, often in the back of a fly shop, my friends and fellow guides would start discussing the merits of various fly patterns, and how different modifications might help to improve how they fish. A question that periodically comes up is just how many flies a given fish actually sees over a season, and if they just get used to certain popular patterns, and learn to avoid them. Perhaps instead of any meaningful improvements, fish take new flies simply because they look like a bug, and they don’t remember it as one of those odd bugs that stings them when they eat it. Every now and then I pull out some older patterns and give them a try just to test that theory, and in general they seem to work, but is always hard to tell just how much “better” a different fly might be. And then there are the flies that don’t really look like anything the fish would normally eat, but just by being “buggy” or having a flashy color, they seem to catch fish. They are called attractor patterns. No science can explain it, but something about them will at times trigger a fish to strike.
My thoughts wander back to a perfectly still evening a few years back. I was solo floating the Bighorn river, and as I drifted into a calm slough, trico spinners started to fall from the sky. I had the perfect fly. It was the exact imitation of the bug that was landing on the water in ever increasing numbers. I caught two, maybe three fish on that pattern, then the takes stopped. I was surrounded by hundreds of feeding fish, noses repeatedly coming up out of the water filling the air with a blurping music that spoke of near constant action, yet not a fish took my fly. There were so many bugs on the water that they had stopped feeding on individual bugs, and were now gulping down clusters of five or even ten bugs at a time. There is a fly for that, but it wasn’t in my vest.
Frustration set in. I was toast. Surrounded by feeding fish, but not a one interested in the perfect fly I had to offer. Staring blankly at my open fly box, I was looking for inspiration. I found it in the far corner. A size 6 muddler. I cut my leader back, tied on the fly, and with more anger than I should really admit, slapped the fly out on the water. If anything I was going to disrupt their peaceful dinner as penance for their rudeness. Almost wanting to spook them out, I stripped hard as soon as the fly landed, not even giving it time to sink. Given what I was doing, I can’t think of a single natural food form that I could have been imitating, but on the the third strip there was an explosion of water at the end of my line. As I released a nice brown a smile came across my face. Just maybe, I thought, it could happen again?
I made another cast. Another explosion! At the speed I was stripping, the fish really had to move to catch up to it, and the takes were spectacular. The rest of the evening was a complete slugfest. Maybe not a strike every cast, but it sure was close to that. That final hour of light filled with some of the fastest fishing I have ever had. Slam the fly into a pod of gulping fish, start stripping, then watch for the explosion. By the time I got to the takeout, it was hard dark and I was still giggling as I stumbled to the car.
There will be times when the fly that is supposed to work doesn’t. When you start cycling through the usual flies that might be logical second and third options, yet those don’t work either. When you have run through all of the naturals you know to be in the area and have come to your wits end, don’t be afraid to try patterns that don’t fit the situation you are fishing in. Get creative. Do things you don’t read about in the books. Maybe try a muddler.
By Scot Bealer
Scot first started guiding in the 1980’s, and has fished extensively through the rocky mountain west and many other parts of the world. When not on the water, he is typically out working with his wife, Lea Frye, doing wildlife photography. See their work at https://www.leaf-images.com, or follow them on Instagram @lea.f_images
This article reminded me of days as a kid fishing spring creeks for brookies using a muddler in the riffles right near dark. Biggest fish of the stream were possible then.
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