Swedish version


A Muddler Taught Me How To Read
By Eric D. Lehman

  As I stepped into the rushing Mill River with my new hip waders, I entered a different world. Until that moment I had been a bait fisherman, sitting on the bank and dangling worms into the streams. Now, I was a fly fisherman, and as I wobbled on the smooth river stones, my father demonstrated the classic forecast. He was already firmly planted in the center of the meandering stream, casting across to the deep pools on the far bank. I had struggled with the blood knot, and as my muddler minnow floated on the surface downstream, I realized that I had forgotten to add a splitshot. It was an inauspicious start, but one that was quickly remedied as I explored the stream, step by step, hunting for trout. A muskrat splashed into the reeds, and a huge turtle glided past my feet. I tried to remember the many tactics and components that made this kind of fishing so much more complicated, and thus so much more rewarding, than my previous experiences. It wasn’t easy. In those first few months, I caught only three trout, all with one brown fly, which I never removed from the end of my leader.

  As a transition from bait fishing to dry flies, my father could not have chosen better than the muddler. Now, years later, I have caught bass, trout, and salmon with this reliable fly, as well as a variety of less desirable fish and it is this versatility that draws so many of us. There is no need to figure out the current hatch for a particular stream at a particular time of year. But, some might say, that’s the fun of fly-fishing! Of course, but when luring someone into the ranks of the initiated, cutting this complicated step out of the process is a needed simplification.

  When I first began to learn how to cast while standing knee-deep in a rushing stream, I didn’t have to worry about what the trout were biting on that day. And my father, watching my progress and making his own casts, didn’t have to help me to switch my fly after taking a half-hour of quality sunrise laboring with me to tie a knot. Now that I am more experienced I tend to forget how difficult the transition was, how many strategic elements come together to create a successful fly-fisherman. But as I begin to teach my wife, I am discovering that simplicity in some areas helps to push the boundaries of others. On a day when I will teach her to make a stealthy approach to the stream and not to cast a shadow on the water, I don’t want to also be calculating the hatch and sorting through our fly boxes. One thing at a time works well when teaching angling, and the muddler makes things that much easier.

  Showing someone how to cover the water with casting becomes child’s play with a simple fly like the muddler. My father didn’t need to teach me specializations like the “wiggle cast” or the “soft-hackle swing,” which could turn a newbie off to the rigors of fly-fishing. Plus, for small, cramped streams with hanging branches and tangled bushes, dry flies are sometimes impractical for all but the best casters. I often tossed the fly underneath branches into the current with a pathetic flip that would now shame me. But once it was in the current, the muddler really made its usefulness as a teaching tool apparent.

  With a multi-purpose fly like the muddler, the newcomer learns the entire structure of the river. If I had been taught with a dry-fly, I might have completely missed the third dimension of the water. We all learn how complex the underwater world can be while walking the streams, but to a beginner this complexity is not so apparent. The bottom, the mid-depths, the subsurface – these terms are useful, but using a muddler to explore the water the way the fish themselves do made that depth real.

  We can break down fishing strategy into a variety of different parts, but essentially we either use the currents or mimic the motion of living things, and more often a combination of the two. The muddler is great for both. In this way, I was also able to change my fishing environment from small creeks, to rivers, to lakes, without having to adapt everything about my approach. Now those challenges are part of what makes fishing fun and interesting, but if my father had presented me with the full spectrum of possibilities at once, I may have taken up ping-pong instead.

  Sure, but couldn’t a variety of flies do the same work? Perhaps, but the muddler gives the beginner even more. Unweighted, it looks like a moth or mouse on the surface, teaching us the physics of currents and the geometry of runs and riffles. I tried to use it almost like a dry fly, landing it near fish that I knew were biting. Most often, I splashed it into the river like a bomb, scaring my prey onto the bottom. I just wasn’t adept enough yet at this delicate operation. It is the rare beginner who can hang a fly in the air above a stream in a way that entices fish. So, more often I let the muddler float downstream, giving it the occasional dying wiggle, and I landed trout often enough to encourage me to continue fly-fishing, and not go back to bait-fishing. Later, I could work on aerial maneuvers. For now, I was concentrating on the water.

  Weighted, the muddler can look like a leech or small fish, giving us the chance to practice with our line. It could be wiggled like the bait on my old rod and reel, something that made those early days comforting and straightforward. More importantly, mimicking the minnows in a swimming motion, with sudden jerks of the line to simulate a darting fish not only taught me how to use a fly rod, but helped me learn how fish moved. My father demonstrated with small motions of the line the ways that the fly could scurry from rock to rock. The muddler on the end of the leader seemed to have a life of its own as it sought out the places trout lived and then teased them into his net. In this way, without even knowing it, I learned to read the water, and many experts say that this ability is what separates the great fly-fisherman, not their casts or choice of flies.5

  And, as we all know, the muddler works. On a hot August evening on the Housatonic River, after I had better learned the art of fly-fishing, my father and I caught ten trout and bass with muddlers. Meanwhile a crowd of other fishermen switched flies frantically, catching nothing, peering at our lines to see what choice we had made. What better way to be introduced to our sport? The muddler minnow is both a valuable bait and a model of fish behavior. I plan to take my wife out this spring with a pair of muddlers and teach her how to read the streams. Later, I can teach her how to land a dry fly or hide nymphs in pocket water. But for now, two muddler minnows will be firmly tied to our lines, and both teacher and learner can benefit from them.

By Eric D. Lehman, 2007 ©




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